Toward a New Vision of Productivity

This is the eighth part of a 12-part series I am posting from the end of December and into January 2009, examining the current understanding of productivity and where the concept might be heading in the future. I invite Lifehack’s readers to be an active part of this conversation, both in comments here and on your own sites (if you have one). For more discussion along these lines, be sure to check out Beyond Productivity: Living from the Inside Out, a new series of discussions featuring Charlie Gilkey, Andre Kibbe, Duff McDuffee, Jonathan Mead, Sara Pemberton, and me. Right now, only the Introduction is up, but a podcast of our talks will be avilable shortly. Stay tuned…

What are your goals for life? It occurred to me recently that the way that I’ve talked about goals on this site (here and here) is only half the story. When we talk about goals, we’re usually talking about short-term project goals: to finish a book, to launch a marketing campaign, etc.

But that’s only a limited kind of goal. Most of us don’t have goals like that which encompass our entire lives, where a whole life is spent working towards completion of a single project. Instead, we have a set of vague “ideals” about what we’d like our lives to look like, someday. Maybe.

A lot of productivity leaders deal with this. In Getting Things Done, Allen encourages readers to not only think about the immediate, material outcome of a project, but to think instead about what one’s life will be like once they’ve reached their goal.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, along with the Weekly Review, the concept of writing down objectives for every project is one of the least-remembered and least-practiced concept in Allen’s book. The bar is set pretty high (and for good reason) – Allen wants us to be clear that the projects we’re working on at any given moment will lead us to a place in our lives where we want to be. That is, if your goal is to get a promotion, what’s important to Allen is that you have a clear picture of how your life will be better once you’ve attained that promotion. Ultimately, the goal is to live a happier, more fulfilled life.

Planning towards big goals like “be happier” or “create something of value” or “leave the world a better place” is hard to conceive of – we simply don’t have the tools for the task. Most productivity systems are great for planning towards project goals, but life goals escape us. In GTD, Allen attempts to satisfy this need with his “50,000-foot view”, the Big Picture outlook over your life as a whole, but as I said earlier in this series, it is not at all intuitive how to slip between the Big Picture view and the everyday view.

Instead, most of us rely on our project goals to somehow produce our life goals, as if satisfaction of our life goals would flow naturally from accomplishment of our project goals. Without any direction, there’s no reason to assume that this will happen – and I’d venture that most of the frustration and bitterness many people feel about their careers and their lives stems precisely from the failure of their work to produce a meaningful life.

How can we plan towards life goals?

One reason it’s so hard to plan in the traditional sense towards life goals is that there is a great deal of uncertainty at every possible step. If your life goal is to run a corporation and you’re in the mail room, there are so many factors that are out of your control between where you are and where you want to end up that planning seems ridiculous.

So we fall back instead on planning projects – working your way up the mail room hierarchy, perhaps. Or taking night classes in business administration. Or seducing the CEO’s jetsetting daughter or son.

These alternatives are way out of scale with the final goal, though, so much so that they engender just as much uncertainty as chasing after the life goal directly and without a plan does.

In fact, it is uncertainty that engenders planning in the first place. I can’t be certain that my next step will lead me in the right direction, so I plan out all my steps between where I am and where I hope to reach. But that in itself generates uncertainty, because what happens if I mess up at any point along the way or, worse yet, if my plan turns out to be flawed? (John McCain had a plan to be the next president of the United States – a life goal if there ever was one!)

Planning plays a minimal role in Allen’s GTD, however, for exactly this reason. In fact, he strongly discourages planning in any familiar form. Instead, Allen advocates thinking only as far as the very next action needed to move you towards your goal, after which the ”mind like water” takes over.

“Mind like water” sounds very David-Carradine-in-Kung-Fu, and in a way it is. Although this is not the place to discuss the concept in any depth, in the context of planning it means that when a next action is completed and you have moved one step closer to your goals, you will define a new next action – which you will, as throughout GTD, “do”, “defer”, or “delegate”; if you “do”, then you have yet another next action to define, which you “do” and so on until you reach the point at which you cannot or choose not to go any further and “defer” your next action – which only then goes onto your next action list.

“Mind like water”, then, embraces uncertainty and works to turn it into an asset. But there are relatively few of us who can manage to live sanely at the edge of uncertainty like that. Some people thrive on it, of course, but most don’t.

What, then, do the rest of us do? And how do we make those big goals, what I’ve been calling “life goals”, in the first place? Or do we? Am I barking up the wrong tree here? Is it true that if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there?

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