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What You Should Know Before Starting GTD

What You Should Know Before Starting GTD
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As I’m sure is the case with most folks who get into GTD, I was driven to it by promises of organization and less stress, both at work and at home. Frankly, the notion of being able to accomplish everything I needed to (and even some things I wanted to, but never had time for) was music to my ears. I had missed too many deadlines, forgotten too many dentist appointments, neglected too many quarts of milk on my way home from the office. I definitely needed some assistance (and I’m sure many of you can empathize).

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Here I sit, many months later, working hard to fully integrate GTD into my daily life. I’ll admit, it isn’t easy (a notion exemplified by sites like the GTD Mastery 100 and the countless blogs) and can take a good deal of investment. Part of me wishes I had a better idea what I was in for before diving glassy-eyed into the pool of kool-aid. So, with that in mind, I came up with my own list of things I wish I’d known about GTD before I got started (not that I would’ve decided any differently – I’d still be doing it because it’s a fantastic system):

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  • It Takes Work – After reading the book, you haven’t magically unlocked the part of your brain that remembers to call your mother on Mother’s Day. There’s a good deal of work required to keep your system current and complete. At the absolute minimum, you’ll need to maintain several different lists, a filing system and a calendar. Obviously things can get more complicated from there, especially given the myriad of different implementations and tools that exist today. But no matter if you’re strictly paper or using the latest Web 2.0 web app to Get Things Done, know that it’s not a “set it and forget it” operation.
  • It Takes Time – I’ve heard various, rough estimates of how long one can spend doing the necessary weekly review, daily management of project and task lists, etc. – but it will obviously depend on the amount of stuff you’re trying to accomplish. For me, I can quite easily spend between 30 minutes and an hour per day just keeping my various in-baskets and whatnot empty and processed. Again, your specific implementation and project list may dictate longer processing and maintenance time frames – just know that you’ll spend a sizable chunk of time keeping all your ducks in a row.
  • It Takes Discipline – With a well-oiled GTD implementation, you’ll be amazed at how effective you are at knocking out tasks and projects. But there’s a flip-side of that coin: if left alone and/or not maintained properly, the system can quickly become very unwieldy and difficult to manage. I’ve encountered this situation a handful of times since I started, and I can personally attest to the fact that it’s a much bigger task to catch up on a week’s worth of stuff than it is to just spend a little time not falling off of the wagon. I believe the occasional lapse is unavoidable, but plan on setting aside an evening to get your system back on track.
  • The Benefit is Directly Proportional to Your Level of Investment – Some people feel that, for GTD to be really effective, the whole system (as described in the book) must be implemented completely. Others think that you can definitely take bits and pieces of the book and experience significant benefits in your quality of life and work. Personally, I’m a bit on the fence, but I believe there is one universal truth here : the degree to which you do this stuff will dictate the benefits you experience. If all you do is write things down, then you’ll probably forget fewer ideas you have while out hitting golf balls or whatever. In the end, it’s really up to you how extensively you do this GTD thing. But the more you do, the greater your return will be.

This isn’t meant to scare anybody into not doing GTD – I can’t recommend it highly enough. But you need to bear in mind that, for the system to work, you’re going to have to work at it. Is your peace of mind and a general lack of stress worth it? I would say, yes, definitely.

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Brett Kelly is a Computer Programmer from Southern California, where he lives with his wife and son. He enjoys waxing philosophical (as well as giving practical, useful advice) about productivity, GTD and technology over at The Cranking Widgets Blog (RSS feed). For more practical GTD shenanigans, you might enjoy GTD Masters, a series of interviews with well-known GTD/productivity bloggers.

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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.

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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.

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Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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