Advertising
Advertising

GTD’ing the Economy

GTD’ing the Economy

GTD'ing the Economy

    Mark Twain said, “Those of you inclined to worry have the widest selection in history.”

    We live in troubling  times, and it is a sign of Twain’s genius that his statement is as true today as it was a century ago – if not more so. There’s a lot of stuff for the chronic worrier to obsess about: global warming, economic chaos, an ever-widening gap between the very, very rich and everyone else, terrorism, unstable nuclear powers, layoffs across the spectrum of industries, decaying educational standards, and on and on.

    Advertising

    At times, it’s easy to feel like no matter how neatly you draw up and categorize your to-do lists and your  project files, you are at the mercy of massive forces beyond your control – and that the wolves, so to speak, might be howling at your door at any moment.

    What can keeping your @phone and your @errands lists clearly defined do about that?

    Turns out, quite a bit. What I’m discovering as I press at the bounds of GTD and other productivity ideas in my “Toward a New Vision of Productivity” series (which I’m taking a break from this week in order to refocus – the planned end is out of whack with where the beginning ended up going) is that there’s a quieter aspect of GTD that’s somewhat hidden by the emphasis on action and productivity.

    Advertising

    What’s got your attention right now?

    The takeaway from GTD for most people is the driving power of the question “What’s the next action?”. Since most people read Getting Things Done hoping for advice in dealing with an overwhelming workload that needs to get handled on a day-to-day basis, this makes sense. People have things to do, and next actions are where the system meets the doing.

    But David Allen doesn’t call GTD a task management system, or a time management system, or an action management system. He calls it a mind management system or, more frequently, an attention management system.

    The whole process of GTD is rooted not in next actions but in attention. Long before you get down to sorting out next actions, Allen has you asking “What’s got my attention right now? What’s on my mind?”

    Advertising

    I think we just sort of figure that this should mean the projects we’re working on, the tasks that are languishing for lack of time, the dreams we haven’t managed to turn into meaningful action, and so on. What Allen calls “open loops”, all the unfinished stuff that hangs on us like a weight.

    But as we all know, that stuff isn’t always what’s got our attention. In fact, at times, they may be the least likely things to be taking up “cycles” of our “psychic RAM”.

    Fiddling around with day-to-day tasks while worrying about the state of the world isn’t all that productive. For one thing, it’s hard to find satisfaction in compiling sales figures from the Western sales regions for the 2nd quarter of the current fiscal year when the  rumor mill suggests that you and 10,000 of your closest colleagues may be out of a job by the end of the 3rd quarter. At a broader level, retreating into our daily next actions is a recipe for disengagement from the world; a system that only encompasses a part of what really has your attention is a system where you’re only giving productive attention to a small portion of your life – while  the rest languishes.

    Advertising

    Is this item actionable?

    After emptying our minds of everything that’s taking up mental energy, Allen suggests we ask of each, “Is this item actionable?” This step is often glossed over in the rush to defining next actions – after all, we already know we’ve got stuff to do, right? If we didn’t have a bunch of stuff we needed to take action on, we wouldn’t bother with GTD at all.

    But it’s a powerful question, as much for the things that are not actionable as for those that are. For Allen, conscious decision-making about what, if anything, to do about everything that captures our attention at any given moment is the key to GTD – and beyond that, to happy, productive living. When we’re honest with ourselves and admit that high gas prices, collapsing financial institutions, the security of our retirement funds, the threat of terrorist attack, or whatever other things way outside our sphere of control are taking up a lot of mental real estate, it is important to ask ourselves if there is really anything we could be doing about it.

    Consciously determining that the state of the economy or anything else is not an actionable concern can go a long way towards easing some of the stress and anxiety of living in “interesting” times. It means we give ourselves permission not to worry, which unlocks the power of conscious non-action – recognizing that no action is possible releases us from the frustrated pressure to do something .

    Being honest about what really is occupying our attention has another benefit beyond the power of non-action. It may well be that when we face these nervous-making realities head-on, there actually is some action we could be taking, that the economy is, in some way large or small, actionable. It may be what’s really needed to push us to re-engage with a world that we’re used to experiencing more through the fear factory behind the glass screens of our TV sets than face-to-face.

    With that in mind, next time you do a review – or, if you’re getting started, when you sit down to do your initial mind sweep – muster up the courage to face the biggest problems on your mind. While you might not be able to fix the world’s ills with a task list and 43 folders, you might find that admitting that frees you up to be more productive in the things you can change. And who knows? I mean, at some level, don’t you kind of think that President Obama is just a guy with a tickler file and a project list?

    More by this author

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work) How to Admit Your Mistakes How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques How to Learn Something New Every Day and Stay Smart

    Trending in Featured

    1 Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) 2 5 Steps To Move Out Of Stagnancy In Life 3 The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work) 4 How to Master the Art of Prioritization 5 40 Top Productivity Apps for iPhone (2020 Updated)

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising
    Advertising

    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    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.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    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.

    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.

    Advertising

    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.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

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

    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.

    Advertising

    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.

    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.

    Advertising

    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.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    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.

    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.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

    Advertising

    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.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

    Read Next