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Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 8: Planning for Life

Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 8: Planning for Life

Toward a New Vision of Productivity
    This is the eighth part of a 12-part series I am posting from 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). For more discussion along these lines, be sure to check out Beyond Productivity: Living from the Inside Out, a new series of discussions featuring Charlie Gilkey, Andre Kibbe, Duff McDuffee, Jonathan Mead, Sara Pemberton, and me. Right now, only the Introduction is up, but a podcast of our talks will be avilable shortly. Stay tuned…

    What are your goals for life? It occurred to me recently that the way that I’ve talked about goals on this site (here and here) is only half the story. When we talk about goals, we’re usually talking about short-term project goals: to finish a book, to launch a marketing campaign, etc.

    But that’s only a limited kind of goal. Most of us don’t have goals like that which encompass our entire lives, where a whole life is spent working towards completion of a single project. Instead, we have a set of vague “ideals” about what we’d like our lives to look like, someday. Maybe.

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    A lot of productivity leaders deal with this. In Getting Things Done, Allen encourages readers to not only think about the immediate, material outcome of a project, but to think instead about what one’s life will be like once they’ve reached their goal.

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, along with the Weekly Review, the concept of writing down objectives for every project is one of the least-remembered and least-practiced concept in Allen’s book. The bar is set pretty high (and for good reason) – Allen wants us to be clear that the projects we’re working on at any given moment will lead us to a place in our lives where we want to be. That is, if your goal is to get a promotion, what’s important to Allen is that you have a clear picture of how your life will be better once you’ve attained that promotion. Ultimately, the goal is to live a happier, more fulfilled life.

    Planning towards big goals like “be happier” or “create something of value” or “leave the world a better place” is hard to conceive of – we simply don’t have the tools for the task. Most productivity systems are great for planning towards project goals, but life goals escape us. In GTD, Allen attempts to satisfy this need with his “50,000-foot view”, the Big Picture outlook over your life as a whole, but as I said earlier in this series, it is not at all intuitive how to slip between the Big Picture view and the everyday view.

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    Instead, most of us rely on our project goals to somehow produce our life goals, as if satisfaction of our life goals would flow naturally from accomplishment of our project goals. Without any direction, there’s no reason to assume that this will happen – and I’d venture that most of the frustration and bitterness many people feel about their careers and their lives stems precisely from the failure of their work to produce a meaningful life.

    How can we plan towards life goals?

    One reason it’s so hard to plan in the traditional sense towards life goals is that there is a great deal of uncertainty at every possible step. If your life goal is to run a corporation and you’re in the mail room, there are so many factors that are out of your control between where you are and where you want to end up that planning seems ridiculous.

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    So we fall back instead on planning projects – working your way up the mail room hierarchy, perhaps. Or taking night classes in business administration. Or seducing the CEO’s jetsetting daughter or son.

    These alternatives are way out of scale with the final goal, though, so much so that they engender just as much uncertainty as chasing after the life goal directly and without a plan does.

    In fact, it is uncertainty that engenders planning in the first place. I can’t be certain that my next step will lead me in the right direction, so I plan out all my steps between where I am and where I hope to reach. But that in itself generates uncertainty, because what happens if I mess up at any point along the way or, worse yet, if my plan turns out to be flawed? (John McCain had a plan to be the next president of the United States – a life goal if there ever was one!)

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    Planning plays a minimal role in Allen’s GTD, however, for exactly this reason. In fact, he strongly discourages planning in any familiar form. Instead, Allen advocates thinking only as far as the very next action needed to move you towards your goal, after which the ”mind like water” takes over.

    “Mind like water” sounds very David-Carradine-in-Kung-Fu, and in a way it is. Although this is not the place to discuss the concept in any depth, in the context of planning it means that when a next action is completed and you have moved one step closer to your goals, you will define a new next action – which you will, as throughout GTD, “do”, “defer”, or “delegate”; if you “do”, then you have yet another next action to define, which you “do” and so on until you reach the point at which you cannot or choose not to go any further and “defer” your next action – which only then goes onto your next action list.

    “Mind like water”, then, embraces uncertainty and works to turn it into an asset. But there are relatively few of us who can manage to live sanely at the edge of uncertainty like that. Some people thrive on it, of course, but most don’t.

    What, then, do the rest of us do? And how do we make those big goals, what I’ve been calling “life goals”, in the first place? Or do we? Am I barking up the wrong tree here? Is it true that if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there?

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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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