(Editor’s Note: We’re starting a new series this week featuring new Lifehack contributor Kirsten Simmons called “Rethinking Productivity”. The hope is our readers will ask Kirsten questions about productivity, organization, and time management so that she can provide answers that will make people take a step back and “rethink” productivity. Enjoy.)

Dear Kirsten,

It’s funny that you mention Getting Things Done, because my crash with that system is what initially prompted me to write. I’ve heard so many people rave about it and read so many good reviews, and when I picked up the book it was the most confusing thing I’d ever read! I had to pull out my sketchbook to try to visualize all the steps and even now I’m not sure I got them right.

I started with the collection of outstanding stuff to do, and ended up with an inbox at least a foot high. Then I tried to sort through it all and do the two minute tasks. After three hours my head was pounding and I’d only gotten halfway through! At least a third of my “two minute” tasks ended up taking much more time, and I felt torn between trying to finish them or going back and leaving yet another item hanging in limbo. I took another stab the next day and managed to get all the way through, leaving me with hefty stacks of short and long term projects, subdivided between personal and income-producing.

But now here’s the thing – I really want to dig into some of my long term projects now! The short ones should have the priority, but going through the materials I had collected for the long term projects simply has rekindled my desire and excitement for them.

I pushed past that and started trying to keep GTD going day-to-day. I spent at least an hour each day trying to keep everything straight and moving tasks back and forth as I completed them, went on to something else, then came back with a new idea for a completed task and reopened it again. On days where I taught workshops, my inbox piled high with tasks and I’d have to work twice as long the next day to catch up. I began to second guess myself and lose track of tasks in the system, especially when they’d been moved back and forth a few times. Finally I crashed after a 3 day workshop when my inbox was full of at least 5 hours of sorting, categorizing and networking tasks. The pile was back to the 12+ inches I’d had when I first started, and it had only been a month!

Reading back now, it feels so silly – why couldn’t I just have done the work? Clearly other people use this system to great effect, but the sight of that mile-high inbox was just so demoralizing! I tossed the entire thing into the recycling bin and felt a bit better, but my inherent problem still remains. I’m ditzy and flakey and I don’t mean to stand people up with work and play, but somehow it ends up happening anyway and I hate to disappoint people. Any ideas how I can prevent that?

Signed,

G – (aaaah!)

Dear G,

Your brush with GTD sounds similar to my own, except that I believe my inbox had reached around 3 feet in height before I bailed. I distinctly remember the thing falling over in a landslide of paper, business cards and post-it notes, and my dogs rushing in to investigate and gleefully grabbing pages to rip apart. I should have scolded them, but it was such a relief to see the remains of what I should have been doing!

As I mentioned last time, productivity needs to fit within your own personal ecosystem. That ecosystem includes your goals, your personality, your strengths and weaknesses, your habits and your life commitments. In GTD, productivity is the be all and end all, a blunt instrument which can be effective in the right hands, but which can be overwhelming or even destructive in others. Let’s say you had a tomato and needed to cut it in two. http://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/when-to-use-email-when-not-to.htmlWould you choose a chainsaw, a butcher’s knife, a paring knife or a butterknife?  You need to have the right tool for the job!

You don’t mention much about your goals, habits or strengths/weaknesses in your letter, but you have provided me some hints as to your personality. Given the physical height of your inbox, your need to visualize the steps of GTD and your mention of hating to disappoint people, I’m going to guess you’re Environmental or Fantastical, and I’ll go out on a limb to say that Environmental is your primary and Fantastical your secondary. Everyone has a primary type that comes most naturally to them and picks up secondary types based on the strength of the influences around them growing up.

  • The Environmental Type is an amazing people person. They have the enviable skill of being able to feel and interpret the body language and emotion of the people around them, and they are happiest when those they love and spend time with are happy. This is a double edged sword, however, and I have seen many Environmentals neglecting themselves to the point of ruining their health in favor of supporting those around them instead. Your routinely overflowing inbox is indicative of a classic Environmental conundrum – saving anything that might have value to someone, someday. Let me guess – your email inbox is the same way, isn’t it?
  • The Fantastical Type is a visual thinker, and they bring an impressive problem solving ability to any task they undertake. They have a tendency to get lost in what they do and remain lost for hours on end, regardless of what’s going on around them. This is the author who stays up into the wee hours of the morning writing and the scientist who dives into his lab with an idea and emerges hours later having forgotten to eat, drink or do anything else on his calendar in the intervening time.

There are two additional types, the Analytical and the Structural.

  • The Analytical Type is a brilliant big picture thinker, and is able to internalize and process information quickly. This is the person who can look at a chart or figure, understand what’s going on and how it fits into her goals, and speak intelligently about the meaning of the data and the next steps. They are also very ambitious, sometimes to the detriment of other pieces of their life when they’re in pursuit of a goal.
  • The Structural Type is the naturally gifted systems person – they can see a situation, understand the pieces, and think through the potential possible outcomes to put together a repeatable process. While I don’t know David Allen personally, the simple existence of the Getting Things Done empire tells me he’s a Structural. And systems like GTD can work great – for other Structurals. That’s why you see so many Structural systems in the productivity arena – it’s a natural response when you see others struggling to want to help, and if you have a productivity system that works for you then you’ll naturally tell others about it when you see them struggling with productivity. But when an Environmental or a Fantastical tries to use a Structural system, we see the frustration, stress and eventual abandonment that you describe, G – (aaah!). When an Analytical uses a Structural system, they can manage it but it’s not the best use of their time and abilities.

So what’s the solution for those of us who have differing strengths than our Structural counterparts? Well, that depends on the other elements of the ecosystem – your goals, your habits and your life commitments. Why don’t you write back and tell me about the first and the third, G – (aaah!)? Then we can start to test out ideas that have a greater chance of working for you.

With Love,
Kirsten

Now it’s your turn – given these type descriptions, which one do you think you are?

Have a productivity problem? Tell Kirsten all about it and get a solution!

Featured photo credit: One Green Car Among Many Other Cars via Shutterstock and inline photo by Johannes Kleske via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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