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Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 3: The Trouble with GTD

Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 3: The Trouble with GTD

Toward a New Vision of Productivity
    This is the third part of a 12-part series I am posting through the end of December and into January 2009, examining the current understanding of productivity and where the concept might be heading in the future. I invite Lifehack’s readers to be an active part of this conversation, both in comments here and on your own sites (if you have one). I will also soon announce some other venues where I and several others will be discussing some of the issues raised in this series. Stay tuned…

    It’s fair to say that David Allen’s Getting Things Done has been the most influential work on productivity of our generation. People who are struggling to get a grip on their day-to-day duties – let alone make progress with big, life-changing projects – find in the book a relatively straight-forward approach to managing their time and work that they can dive right into, and often find their lives measurably improved when they start to put Allen’s ideas into practice.

    For good reason, too. GTD is, in its purest form is quite simple. You capture thoughts as they occur to you, spend a set time every day deciding what to do with those thoughts, make lists of actions you need to perform, and do those actions. Every so often you set aside an hour or two and review what you’ve thought and done and what you’d like to do in the future.

    What could be wrong with that?

    The short answer is “nothing”. GTD helps. Implemented with any kind of discipline, it provides the clarity and control that too many of us feel is lacking in our daily lives.

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    And yet, as simple as GTD is, as easily grasped as its central precepts would seem to be, people still struggle with it – and struggle mightily. This site and dozens of others have devoted countless thousands of words to helping people “get” GTD. David Allen himself has continued to produce lectures, audiobooks, articles, and other material revisiting and re-explaining the basics of GTD. Clearly there’s something missing, some key point that people find too hard to grasp.

    What’s more, people resist GTD in various ways. There is a powerful urge to create GTD-free zones, usually in the home – we apparently find it distasteful to reduce our non-working lives to a set of next actions and project lists. Or we mix-and-match various parts of the system, for example by creating projects without worrying about the objectives (while according to Allen, the most important part of a project is being able to visualize the objective). We create action lists and then, because Allen’s priority-free system leaves us still unsure about what to do next, we prioritize our list or create separate lists of Most Important Tasks (MITs).

    And we don’t do the weekly review. We do “mini-reviews” sporadically throughout the week, or we do major reviews “once in a while”, but we simply cannot manage to find an hour or two a week to sit down and review our lives. In the GTD > Weekly Review audiobook, all of the coaches involved listed this as their clients’ most significant stumbling block – and they admitted it had been for them as well!

    What’s going on? Why is GTD so simple to grasp and so hard to put into practice? What is it not doing that makes it hard to trust completely?

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    I want to suggest a few issues that each play a role in the failure of GTD for many people. I should note that this is not meant to be a blanket condemnation of the system, but hopefully to open up the ground for thinking fruitfully about what is needed beyond GTD (or similar systems; GTD is what I know, but I would venture that systems like Covey’s and others’ fall short in similar ways).

    1. It’s the System, Stupid.

    GTD’s most powerful strength – it’s guidance in creating a system that one trusts – is also one of its biggest shortcomings. It is no mystery why GTD’s biggest audience has been a) corporate business people, who Allen slanted it to in the first place, and who are used to working within established procedures and under imposed schedules, and b) technical people such as programmers, who are likewise comfortable with rigidly defined procedures, and who are masters of breaking complex processes into simple, discrete tasks.

    For the rest of us, though, GTD feels a little too much like the kind of work we picked the book up to help us manage in the first place. That is, it feels like business, and for people whose business is not business – creative professionals, for example – it feels “external” to our real work (and identity). Which may well be why so many writers, designers, artists, and other creative folk maintain a firewall between their GTD’d lives and their “real” lives – GTD seems appropriate to our non-core tasks, like keeping appointments and handling our bookkeeping (the stuff we’d really rather not be doing), but feels all wrong in our studios, favorite writing haunts, and creative home lives. This is probably also why so many people balk at extending GTD into their family life – it feels wrong to delegate tasks to your spouse or children or to treat decorating your Christmas tree as a “project”.

    2. No Priorities = No Direction

    Perhaps Allen’s biggest innovation in GTD is getting rid of priority-setting in favor of context-awareness. In GTD, you don’t look at your list to see what the most important task is, you look to see what’s most easily performed given where you are and the resources you have at hand.

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    And yet, while this might work well in an office environment where most of your work is pretty clearly prioritized even if you don’t think about it, it is harder to apply to non-work environments, as well as for solo workers and entrepreneurs who are dealing with the fuzzier requirements of a job that may not have such clear priorities.

    For many, then, instead of limiting worrying about what to do at any given moment, GTD often increases stress as people try to figure out which tasks really are the most important ones to work on.

    (Ironically, Allen often says the central question you should be asking yourself is “Is this the most important thing I could be doing right now? Is this task fulfilling my destiny in the world?” I have to believe that the contradiction here is unintentional, some kind of vast oversight on Allen’s part that he intends somehow to resolve.)

    3. Do, do, do!

    At the core of Allen’s GTD is the next action. Put simply, the next action is the very next thing you should do to move a project ahead. GTD eschews planning for most things, preferring instead to limit your lists to only those things that can and should be done at the moment you’re checking your lists. Once an action is completed, it should either naturally flow into the next action, or you should add the next step to take you closer to completing your goal to your next action list.

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    The task-oriented, in-the-moment-ness of GTD is effective for most people, which is why if nothing else, most people come away from reading Getting Things Done with at least a good next action list. It’s also attractive to us because it resonates well with one of the core value of modern Western culture (despite it’s Eastern-y, Zen-like feel): work.

    The Protestant work ethic – which is hardly limited to Protestants! – can be said to dominate Western culture. Work is a value in-and-of itself for us – think of how many variations there are on the concept that “idle hands are the Devil’s playground.” Among Quakers, Shakers, and other Calvinist off-shoots, work itself becomes a form of prayer; through work is achieved communion with God. (It’s no coincidence that F.W. Taylor was a Quaker.)

    GTD is a ground-up system, meaning that the system focuses on getting your day-to-day tasks in order, not on higher-level goal- and priority-setting. That stuff’s there, but it’s not at all intuitive how you get from Allen’s “Runway” view to the “50,000-foot” aerial view. The assumption is that if you focus on action, on doing, the higher meaning will emerge – much like prayer.

    The Big Picture is Cloudy

    None of this is intended to be a dismissal of GTD. The system works for a lot of people, and I’ve nothing against it as such. The problem is that there are gaps, that while GTD should be a way of clearing up space in people’s lives so that they can think about and fulfill their higher-level goals, it fails to do that for many people. Maybe for most people. We balk at the kind of self-reflection that, while built into the system in the weekly review, is the least practiced part. The reality is that, for most people, the organizing of tasks and projects somehow does not lead naturally to the Big Picture view – something is missing. My goal here, then, is to clear the decks, to pull at least some of GTD’s flaws out into the open, so that we can find the likely places that need to be filled. Having done that, the rest of this series will focus on those likely places and suggest ways to move from merely getting things done to making meaning.

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    Last Updated on July 9, 2019

    How to Stay Motivated and Reach Your Big Goals in Life

    How to Stay Motivated and Reach Your Big Goals in Life

    It is hardly a secret that the key to successfully accomplishing one goal after another is staying motivated. There are, of course, tasks which successful people may not like at all, yet they find motivation to complete them because they recognize how each particular task serves a greater goal.

    So how to stay motivated most of the time? Here are 5 simple yet effective ways on how to stay motivated and get what you want:

    1. Find the Good Reasons

    Anything you do, no matter how simple, has a number of good reasons behind it.

    You may not be able to find good reasons to do some tasks at first but, if you take just a few moments to analyze them, you will easily spot something good. We also have many tasks which don’t need any reasoning at all – we’ve been doing them for so long that they feel natural.

    If you’re ever stuck with some tasks you hate and there seems to be no motivation to complete it whatsoever, here’s what you need to do: find your good reasons.

    Even when you set goals, there needs to be reasons behind these goals. They may not be obvious, but stay at it until you see some, as this will bring your motivation back and will help you finish the task.

    Some ideas for what a good reason can be:

    • A material reward – quite often, you will get paid for doing something you normally don’t like doing at all.
    • Personal gain – you will learn something new or will perhaps improve yourself in a certain way.
    • A feeling of accomplishment – at least you’ll be able to walk away feeling great about finding the motivation and courage to complete such a tedious task.
    • A step closer to your bigger goal – even the biggest accomplishments in history have started small and relied on simple and far less pleasant tasks than you might be working on. Every task you complete brings you closer to the ultimate goal, and acknowledging this always feels good.

    2. Make It Fun

    When it comes to motivation, attitude is everything. Different people may have completely opposite feelings towards the same task: some will hate it, others will love it.

    Why do you think this happens? It’s simple: some of us find ways to make any task interesting and fun to do!

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    Take sports for example. Visiting your local gym daily for a half-an-hour workout session sounds rather boring to some. Yet many others love the idea!

    They like exercising not only because they recognize the good reasons behind it, but simply because it’s fun! At certain time of their daily schedule, they find going to gym to be the best thing to do, simply because nothing else will fit their time and lifestyle so perfectly.

    Depending on how you look at it, you can have fun doing just about anything! Just look for ways of having fun, and you’ll find them!

    A simple approach is to start working on any task by asking yourself a few questions:

    • How can I enjoy this task?
    • What can I do to make this task fun for myself and possibly for others?
    • How can I make this work the best part of my day?

    As long as you learn to have the definite expectation of any task being potentially enjoyable, you will start to feel motivated.

    Some of you will probably think of a thing or two which are valid exceptions from this statement, like something you always hate doing no matter how hard you try making it fun. You’re probably right, and that’s why I don’t claim everything to be fun.

    However, most tasks have a great potential of being enjoyable, and so looking for ways to have fun while working is definitely a good habit to acquire.

    3. Take a Different Approach

    When something doesn’t feel right, it’s always a good time to take a moment and look for a different approach for the task.

    You may be doing everything correctly and most efficiently, but such approach isn’t necessarily the most motivating one. Quite often, you can find a number of obvious tweaks to your current approach which will both change your experience and open up new possibilities.

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    That’s why saying “one way or another” is so common — if you really want to accomplish your goal, there is always a way; and most likely, there’s more than one way.

    If a certain approach doesn’t work for you, find another one, and keep trying until you find the one which will both keep you motivated and get you the desired results.

    Some people think that trying a different approach means giving up. They take pride in being really stubborn and refusing to try any other options on their way towards the goal.

    My opinion on this is that the power of focus is great, but you should be focusing on your goal, and not limiting your options by focusing on just one way to accomplish it it.

    4. Recognize Your Progress

    Everything you may be working on can be easily split into smaller parts and stages. For most goals, it is quite natural to split the process of accomplishing them into smaller tasks and milestones. There are a few reasons behind doing this, and one of them is tracking your progress.

    We track our progress automatically with most activities. But to stay motivated, you need to recognize your progress, not merely track it.

    Here’s how tracking and recognizing your progress is different:

    Tracking is merely taking a note of having reached a certain stage in your process. Recognizing is taking time to look at a bigger picture and realize where exactly you are, and how much more you have left to do.

    For example, if you’re going to read a book, always start by going through the contents table. Getting familiar with chapter titles and memorizing their total number will make it easier for you to recognize your progress as you read. Confirming how many pages your book has before starting it is also a good idea.

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    You see, reading any book you will be automatically looking at page numbers and chapter titles, but without knowing the total number of pages, this information will have little meaning.

    Somehow, it is human nature to always want things to happen in short term or even at once. Even though we split complex tasks into simpler actions, we don’t quite feel the satisfaction until all is done and the task is fully complete.

    For many scenarios though, the task is so vast that such approach will drain all the motivation out of you long before you have a chance to reach your goal. That’s why it is important to always take small steps and recognize the positive different and progress made. This is how your motivation can sustain in long term.

    5. Reward Yourself

    This is a trick everyone likes: rewarding yourself is always pleasant. This is also one of the easiest and at the same time most powerful ways to stay motivated!

    Feeling down about doing something? Dread the idea of working on some task? Hate the whole idea of working? You’re not alone.

    Right from the beginning, agree on some deliverables which will justify yourself getting rewarded. As soon as you get one of the agreed results, take time to reward yourself in some way.

    For some tasks, just taking a break and relaxing for a few minutes will do.

    For others, you may want to get a fresh cup of coffee and even treat yourself a dessert.

    For even bigger and more demanding tasks, reward yourself by doing something even more enjoyable, like going to a cinema or taking a trip to some place nice, or even buying yourself something.

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    Your progress may not seem to others like anything worth celebrating but, take time and do it anyway! It is your task and your reward, so any ways to stay motivated are good.

    The more you reward yourself for the honestly made progress, the more motivated you will feel about reaching new milestones, thus finally accomplishing your goal.

    Mix and Match

    Now that you have these five ways of staying motivated, it is a good moment to give you the key to them all: mix and match!

    Pick one of the techniques and apply it to your situation. If it doesn’t work, or if you simply want to get more motivated, try another technique right way. Mix different approaches and match them to your task for the best results.

    Just think about it: Finding good reasons to work on your task is bound to helping you feel better; and identifying ways to make it fun will help you enjoy the task even more.

    Or, if you plan a few points for easier tracking of your progress and on top of that, agree on rewarding yourself as you go; this will make you feel most motivated about anything you have to work through.

    More About Staying Motivated

    Featured photo credit: Lucas Lenzi via unsplash.com

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