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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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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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

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