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.
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.
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?”
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.
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?