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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. 

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    Last Updated on August 16, 2018

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    The power of habit

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to make a reminder works for you

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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