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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

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    Last Updated on April 8, 2019

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    Unless you’re infinitely rich or prepared to rack up major debt, you need to budget your income. Setting limits on how much you are willing to spend helps control expenses. But what about your time? Do you budget your time or spend it carelessly?

    Deadlines are the chronological equivalent of a budget. By setting aside a portion of time to complete a task, goal or project in advance you avoid over-spending. Deadlines can be helpful but they can also be a source of frustration if set improperly. Here are some tips for making deadlines work:

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    1. Use Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time given to them. By setting a strict deadline in advance you can cut off this expansion and focus on what is most important.
    2. Timebox – Set small deadlines of 60-90 minutes to work on a specific task. After the time is up you finish. This cuts procrastinating and forces you to use your time wisely.
    3. 80/20 – The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of the value is contained in 20% of the input. Apply this rule to projects to focus on that critical 20% first and fill out the other 80% if you still have time.
    4. Project VS Deadline – The more flexible your project, the stricter your deadline. If a task has relatively little flexibility in completion a softer deadline will keep you sane. If the task can grow easily, keep a tight deadline to prevent waste.
    5. Break it Down – Any deadline over one day should be broken down into smaller units. Long deadlines fail to motivate if they aren’t applied to manageable units.
    6. Hofstadter’s Law – Basically this law states that it always takes longer than you think. A rule I’ve heard in software development is to double the time you think you need. Then add six months. Be patient and give yourself ample time for complex projects.
    7. Backwards Planning – Set the deadline first and then decide how you will achieve it. This approach is great when choices are abundant and projects could go on indefinitely.
    8. Prototype – If you are attempting something new, test out smaller versions of a project to help you decide on a final deadline. Write a 10 page e-book before your 300 page novel or try to increase your income by 10% before aiming to double it.
    9. Find the Weak Link – Figure out what could ruin your plans and accomplish it first. Knowing the unknown can help you format your deadlines.
    10. No Robot Deadlines – Robots can work without sleep, relaxation or distractions. You aren’t a robot. Don’t schedule your deadline with the expectation you can work sixteen hour days to complete it. Deathmarches aren’t healthy.
    11. Get Feedback – Get a realistic picture from people working with you. Giving impossible deadlines to contractors or employees will only build resentment.
    12. Continuous Planning – If you use a backwards planning model, you need to constantly be updating plans to fit your deadline. This means making cuts, additions or refinements so the project will fit into the expected timeframe.
    13. Mark Excess Baggage – Identify areas of a task or project that will be ignored if time grows short. What e-mails will you have to delete if it takes too long to empty your inbox? What features will your product lack if you need a rapid finish?
    14. Review – For deadlines over a month long take a weekly review to track your progress. This will help you identify methods you can use to speed up work and help you plan more efficiently for the future.
    15. Find Shortcuts – Almost any task or project has shortcuts you can use to save time. Is there a premade library you can use instead of building your own functions? An autoresponder to answer similar e-mails? An expert you can call to help solve a problem?
    16. Churn then Polish – Set a strict deadline for basic completion and then set a more comfortable deadline to enhance and polish afterwards. Often churning out the basics of a task quickly will require no more polishing afterwards than doing it slowly.
    17. Reminders – Post reminders of your deadlines everywhere. Creating a sense of urgency with your deadlines is necessary to keep them from getting pushed aside by distractions.
    18. Forward Planning – Not mutually exclusive with backwards planning, this involves planning the details of a project out before setting a deadline. Great for achieving clarity about what you are trying to accomplish before making arbitrary time limits.
    19. Set a Timer – Get one that beeps. Somehow the countdown of a timer appears more realistic for a ninety minute timebox than just glancing at your clock.
    20. Write them Down – Any deadline over a few hours needs to be written down. Otherwise it is an inclination not a goal. Having written deadlines makes them more tangible than internal decisions alone.
    21. Cheap/Fast/Good – Ben Casnocha in My Start Up Life mentions that you can have only have two of the three. Pick two of the cheap/fast/good dimensions before starting a project to help you prioritize.
    22. Be Patient – Using a deadline may seem to be the complete opposite of patience. But being patient with inflexible tasks is necessary to focus on their completion. The paradox is that the more patient you are, the more you can focus. The more you can focus the quicker the results will come!

    Featured photo credit: Estée Janssens via unsplash.com

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