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GTD Refresh: Getting My Head Together

GTD Refresh: Getting My Head Together

 

Getting My Head Together

    The last year was a hard one for me, in virtually every area of my life. Even my successes — and there have been several — have come at the cost of greater stress and a more and more difficult to balance schedule. 

    While I have managed to adapt and develop ways of keeping everything on track and moving forward, each new pressure — whether on my time, my finances, or my emotional stability — has strained my ability to keep everything together just a little bit more. By the beginning of this year, I realized, my system was ancient history, replaced by a patchwork of shreds and tatters I’d thrown together on the fly as needed.

    To make matters worse, it really wasn’t working — obligations kept piling up and the remnants of my system kept falling down. It was time, I realized, to get serious again, and to rescue my productivity system and get it back in tip-top shape.

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    With that in mind, I decided I should go back to a strict GTD system — and this time, pay attention to the ways I was modifying it or even violating its principles. In the interest of accountability, I thought I would share with you my experiences over the next several months, both to provide a model of what a GTD Refresh might look like in case you, too, have fallen off the wagon somewhat, and to keep myself accountable by sharing my experiences with the Lifehack audience.

    My plan is to share, every week or so, where I’m at — essentially writing up my weekly review. My hope is that by sharing what’s working and how, and what’s not working and why it isn’t, others in the same boat might learn something that will help them refresh their own productivity systems. My focus is especially on the  idea of an “in-place” refresh — which will be somewhat slower than a “traditional” GTD start-up. Allen recommends newcomers to GTD set aside a couple of days to collect everything and process it into one’s first lists. But I simply can’t do that — so instead, I’ll be following another Allen dictate — take all the stuff you can’t deal with right now and put it in a box marked “Stuff to deal with later” and come back to it when I’m better able. 

    Getting my head together

    I’ve decided to start my return to “orthodox” GTD not from the “runway” level — the level of everyday actions, and the level where we tend to get most swamped by disorganized inputs — but from the “20,000-foot” level, the level of “Areas of Focus”, and work my way up. I’m pretty good about keeping track of my next actions (though I don’t contextualize — which I’ll be starting now) and projects in a simple Moleskine with a couple of tabs for “Next Actions”, “Projects”, and “Notes” (a catch-all that acts as my inbox-on-the-go).

    Where I’m falling apart is in juggling all the different roles I play and all the directions I’ve allowed myself to be pulled in. So before I start the big job of evaluating and organizing all my projects and next actions, I decided to spend an afternoon thinking about who I am and how my life is defined — and how I’d like to define it. 

    To shake things up even further, I decided to mind-map each of Horizons of Focus from 20,000 to 50,000 feet. I am typically a fairly linear, analytic thinker, and I’ve always had some reservations about mind-mapping, but what I’ve been doing, what comes naturally to me, isn’t really working — so I need to do something different, and mind-mapping is certainly way out of my normal range of thinking behaviors. It’s visual where I tend to be verbal, it’s spatial where I tend to be linear, and it’s an unfamiliar tool that, I hoped, would let me do untypical kinds of things.

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    And it did. Over several hours, I made mind-maps of my Areas of Focus, my ideal Vision of myself, and my Purpose. I skipped Goals because I want to “marinate” on my Areas of Focus and my Vision for a while before thinking about my goals over the next year or so.

    So, for instance, here’s what I listed as my Areas of Focus:

    1. Teaching:  I teach two classes (often several sections of each), each at a different school.  Teaching is my primary occupation, so it’s obviously a big part of “what’s on my mind” at any given time — both in keeping up with the schedule I’ve set, and discovering new materials to use, techniques to incorporate, or ideas to share with my students.

    • Women’s Studies
    • Introduction to Cultural Anthropology

    2. Career Development / Marketing: This is my catch-all category for all the things I do to advance myself professionally, both as an educator (professional development, keeping up with recent research, etc.) and as a writer (applying for writing gigs, contacting editors, querying publications, etc.).

    3. Writing: Writing is an increasing part of my career, and my long-term goal is to taper off my teaching in favor of writing. (I hope to always teach a class or two, but on my own terms, not as my primary income.)  Because I write for mainstream publication, both online and off, as well as for academic outlets on one hand and business clients on the other, there are a lot of sub-categories under this heading — a lot of outlets I have to be thinking about at least somewhat often.

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    • Academic: Writing I do (or have done) as an anthropologist, including my book on the Cold War, articles appearing in books or journals, conference presentations, and instructional material.
    • Commercial: Client work, including ghostwriting, marketing materials, press releases, etc.
    • Books: Both work I have already written that needs continued attention to market and sell (in the case of my self-published book) and books I’m planning to write.
    • Blogs / Websites: Lifehack, of course, as well as my own websites and other sites where I write as an occasional contributor.
    • Freelance Writing: Articles and queries written for mainstream and trade publications.

    4. Finances / Money: Paying my bills, building up my savings, dealing with long-term financial obligations like student loans, planning a retirement fund, keeping track of income, expenses, and taxes.

    5. Leisure: Activities I do for fun, either by myself or with friends and family. Planning a vacation. 

    6. Relationships: Networking, friendships, colleagues — all the interpersonal relationships that need maintaining.

    7. Dating: Although technically another kind of relationship, I felt this deserved its own category. Single since the end of last summer, I’ve recently re-entered the dating pool, and that takes a lot more energy and a different kind of maintenance than the relationships listed in #6.

    8. Family: My parents, brother and sister-in-law, nephew and niece, and other family members. Birthdays and holidays, going out, family activities.

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    9. Health: General health consciousness, including doctor’s appointments, ordering contact lenses, paying attention to my physical fitness and diet, and similar concerns. Also, I was in a car accident several years back which left me with an ongoing lawsuit and pretty severe headaches much of the time, so that takes a lot of attention.

    10. Household: Everything to do with maintaining and living in my home, from grocery shopping to housecleaning to decor and so on. 

    11. Transportation: Auto maintenance, car washes, etc.

     As you can see, I’ve got a lot going  on. Next week, I’ll start a new mind-map listing my projects, and my “Areas of Focus” mind-map will help me to generate new projects, as well as set some goals. And then, I’ll start importing my action list into a GTD-based personal organizer — I figure, if I’m going to go “pure” GTD, I should use tools that are designed with that structure in mind, rather than the “flat” to do lists I’ve been using. 

     Have you “reset” your GTD system before? That is, started over again, basically from scratch? How did it go? What did you do differently the second time around? What was most helpful? Share your thoughts in the comments — maybe we can help some folks who’ve given up get their systems back in order, or even help some newcomers avoid the mistakes we made our first times around. 

     Next time: Goals and Projects. And setting up a GTD organizer. 

    More by this author

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) Building Relationships: 11 Rules for Self-Promotion

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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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