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Upgrade Your GTD Calendar and Keep Up with the Times

Upgrade Your GTD Calendar and Keep Up with the Times

    While I love Getting Things Done (GTD) as one of the best time management systems around, many of its user struggle to implement its recommendations.

    The reason? GTD was developed in the 1990’s at a time when email volumes were low, mobile email access was limited, there was no such thing as tweeting and 2 people weren’t forced to do the job of 8. It was invented for a simpler time, and taught users to create lists of tasks tagged by “contexts,” which were mostly determined by a combination of one’s physical location and proximity to required tools.

    Things have certainly changed, and today, some of those who are inspired by GTD’s rules are taking a new approach in order to keep up with life in 2011.

    In the first place, they are, according to Sven Fechner, abandoning the old notion that work is defined by location. Tags such as @Blackberry or @iPad obviously have little meaning due to the mobility of these devices, @Computer seems like a quaint reminder of the days when email was only received at your desk, and with the advent of cloud computing and mobile technology, @Home has become the functional equivalent of @Work.

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    Today, users of GTD have different problems: they are struggling (like everyone else) to keep up with the increasing amount of stuff they want to do in the limited time available. Luckily, there is a solution inherent in GTD’s principles, but it can only be understood by looking at the way strict GTD’ers manages their tasks.

    At the start of any activity, a user of GTD contextual tagging follows this process:
    1. Determine my current context e.g. @Computer
    2. Scan the list of items that are tagged with that particular context
    3. Decide which task to act on first
    4. At the end of the task, go back to step 1

    Frequently, a GTD user must also conduct a “Weekly Review” of all their tasks to make sure that they are appropriately tagged.

    It’s a sequence that’s easy to understand and implement, and the key to making it work is to have every single task tagged with the right context. This approach has worked fine for many, but there are a growing number who are complaining about their inability and unwillingness to conduct an effective Weekly Review.

    What’s happened is simple to explain. As the number of tasks, messages, communication channels and mobile devices has increased, the process of scanning every item on each list has become overwhelming. It is taking too long, they complain: a tedious chore that is not worth the effort.

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    Mental vs. Explicit Schedules

    Something else has also added to the feeling of being burdened.

    All effective knowledge workers engage in some form of active time-planning at certain critical moments in the week: before starting work each morning, on Sunday nights before the week starts, just before they agree to accept a new assignment, and when a breakdown of some kind occurs. At these moments. they quickly scan their mental calendars, and start moving items around in their heads to ensure that they can complete the most important tasks before they are due.

    This juggling act is especially essential for complex activities, such as paying one’s taxes by the April 15th deadline. Most people don’t think only about the big day itself, but also focus on carving out time to complete the preparatory work some weeks and even months ahead of the due date in order to prevent a last minute panic.

    As you might imagine, the most organized professionals don’t do these tasks on their own. They use planning tools such as paper calendars, tablets, laptops, smartphones and web services to help them manipulate due dates, durations and deliverables in an explicit schedule, unknowingly adopting some of the established best practices in project management.

    Curiously however, GTD famously discourages its users from transferring these mental schedules out of their minds. Its most rigorous users only use these planning tools to track appointments that cannot be moved, such as the non-negotiable April 15th due date. Any and all activities that can take place on flexible dates before then, do not belong in a calendar. They wouldn’t, for example, set time aside in their schedules to find bills, purchase software, consult past records and consult tax tables.

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    I’m not sure if this is what the author of GTD intended, but the effect on GTD users on a whole is that they walk around with almost-empty calendars, but very complex mental schedules. Once again, this wasn’t a problem when GTD was developed in the 1990’s. However, in today’s workplace, trying to keep complex and ever-changing calendars in one’s mind has lead to feelings of overwhelm and burden as users are forced to build, remember and recall mental schedules that stretch over several months.

    About 5 years ago, I also thought that my electronic calendar was the problem and tried following the GTD approach to task planning. When more of my commitments starting falling through the cracks, I didn’t understand why, but now I do — it’s too hard to keep a mental calendar in today’s world of ever-increasing tasks.

    The answer, thankfully is not to abandon GTD, but instead to tweak it.

    The Tweak

    The purpose behind tagging tasks with a context is to provide a filter that gives the user a small, manageable range of tasks to choose from. Now that we have more demands on our time, we need different filters than the ones described in the book.

    Today, the key resource constraint is time, and there are already some users who are using temporal tags to help them do this filtering. For example, imagine that you’re in the middle of a tense meeting at 9:30am and you receive a message from your Nanny: “Pick up the milk on the way home from work.”

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    What used to be “@GroceryStore — Pick Up Milk” now becomes “@Mon evening — Pick Up Milk” or even “@6pm — Pick up Milk.”

    In this example, the biggest challenge for working professionals is not remembering what to do once they are at the grocery store. Instead, it lies in remembering to make the detour to the store at 6pm after a day of tough meetings Those who are most likely to “remember” don’t in fact use memory. They use tools like smartphone calendars to make sure they don’t have any conflicts, before placing the item in the 6pm time-slot along with a notifier such as a buzzer, beep or vibration.

    While this solution seems simple enough, the fact is that electronic calendars weren’t built for this purpose, and need to be customized to meet each user’s needs. If you decide to do make this upgrade, it’s a good idea to keep experimenting to see if life does improve by asking the following:
    Question 1 – Am I better off managing my activities in a tool rather than in my memory?
    Question 2 – Am I using the tool in a way that is increasing the odds of picking up the milk?
    Question 3 – Am I able to reduce the Weekly Review by scanning tasks scheduled for the near future?

    These shouldn’t be abstract questions — they should be answered as you experiment with your upgrade to see whether or not further changes are needed, or even a rollback.

    The fact is, there is no longer any one-size fits all, permanent solution to managing our commitments, and we need to keep tinkering to find new ways to get better. Upgrading our systems and the way we use GTD’s recommendations can be fun as we discover new ways to be productive, but we must be willing to change with the times.

     

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    Francis Wade

    Author, Management Consultant

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    5 Steps To Move Out Of Stagnancy In Life

    5 Steps To Move Out Of Stagnancy In Life

    In the journey of growth, there are times when we grow and excel. We are endlessly driven and hyped up, motivated to get our goals.

    Then there are times when we stagnate. We feel uninspired and unmotivated. We keep procrastinating on our plans. More often than not, we get out of a rut only to get back into another one.

    How do you know if you are stagnating? Here are some tell-tale signs:

    • If you have been experiencing chronic procrastination on your goals
    • If you don’t ever feel like doing anything
    • If you keep turning to sleep, eating, games, mindless activities and entertainment for comfort
    • If you know you should be doing something, but yet you keep avoiding it
    • If you have not achieved anything new or significant now relative to 1 month, 2 months or 3 months ago
    • If you have a deep sense of feeling that you are living under your potential

    When we face stagnation in life, it’s a sign of deeper issues. Stagnancy in life, just like procrastination, is a symptom of a problem. It’s easy to beat ourselves over it, but this approach is not going to help.

    Here, I will share 5 steps to help you move out of this stagnation. They won’t magically transform your life in 1 night (such changes are never permanent because the foundations are not built), but they will help you get the momentum going and help you get back on track.

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    1. Realize You’re Not Alone

    Everyone stagnates at some point or another. You are not alone in this and more importantly, it’s normal. In fact, it’s amazing how many of my clients actually face the same predicament, even though all of them come from different walks of life, are of different ages, and have never crossed paths.

    Realizing you are not alone in this will make it much easier to deal with this period. By trying to “fight it”, you’re only fighting yourself. Accept this situation, acknowledge it, and tell yourself it’s okay. That way, you can then focus on the constructive steps that will really help you.

    2. Find What Inspires You

    Stagnation comes because there isn’t anything that excites you enough to take action. If you don’t have a habit of setting goals, and instead just leave yourself to daily mundanes, it’s not surprising you are experiencing stagnation.

    What do you want to do if there are no limitations? If you can have whatever you want, what will it be? The answers to these questions will provide the fuel that will drive you forward.

    On the other hand, even if you are an experienced goal setter, there are times when the goals you set in the past lose their appeal now. It’s normal and it happens to me too. Sometimes we lose touch with our goals, since we are in a different emotional state compared to when we first set them. Sometimes our priorities change and we no longer want to work on those goals anymore. However, we don’t consciously realize this, and what happens is we procrastinate on our goals until it compounds into a serious problem.

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    If that’s the case for you, it’s time to relook into your goals. There’s no point in pursuing goals that no longer inspire you. Trash away your old goals (or just put them aside) and ask yourself what you really want now. Then go for them.

    3. Give Yourself a Break

    When’s the last time you took a real break for yourself? 3 months? 6 months? 1 year? Never? Perhaps it’s time to take a time-out. Prolonged working can cause someone to become disillusioned as they lose sight of who they are and what they want.

    Go take some extended leave from work. A few days at bare minimum; a few weeks or months will be great. Some of my ex-colleagues have quit their jobs and took months out to do some self-reflection. Of course, some of us might not have that luxury, so we can stick to a few weeks of leave.

    Go on a trip elsewhere and get away from your work and your life. Use this chance to get a renewed perspective of life. Think about your life purpose, what you want and what you want to create for your life in the future.

    These are big questions that require deep thinking over them. It’s not about finding the answers at one go, but about taking the first step to finding the answers.

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    4. Shake up Your Routines

    Being in the same environment, doing the same things over and over again and meeting the same people can make us stagnant. This is especially if the people you spend the most time with are stagnant themselves.

    Change things around. Start with simple things, like taking a different route to work and eating something different for breakfast. Have your lunch with different colleagues, colleagues you never talked much with. Work in a different cubicle if your work has free and easy seating. Do something different than your usual for weekday evenings and weekends. Cultivate different habits, like exercising every day, listening to a new series of podcasts every morning to work, reading a book, etc (here’re 6 Proven Ways To Make New Habits Stick). The different contexts will give you different stimulus, which will trigger off different thoughts and actions in you.

    When I’m in a state of stagnancy, I’ll get a sense of what’s making me stagnate. Sometimes it’s the environment I’m in, sometimes it’s the people I’ve been hanging out with, sometimes it’s my lifestyle. Most of the times it’s a combination of all these. Changing them up helps to stir myself out of the stagnant mode.

    5. Start with a Small Step

    Stagnation also comes from being frozen in fear. Maybe you do want this certain goal, but you aren’t taking action. Are you overwhelmed by the amount of work needed? Are you afraid you will make mistakes? Is the perfectionist in you taking over and paralyzing you?

    Let go of the belief that it has to be perfect. Such a belief is a bane, not a boon. It’s precisely from being open to mistakes and errors that you move forward.

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    Break down what’s before you into very very small steps, then take those small steps, a little step at a time. I had a client who had been stagnating for a long period because he was afraid of failing. He didn’t want to make another move where he would make a mistake. However, not wanting to make a mistake has led him to do absolutely nothing for 2-3 years.

    On the other hand, by doing just something, you would already be making progress, whether it’s a mistake or not. Even if you make a supposed “mistake”,  you get feedback to do things differently in the next step. That’s something you would never have known if you never made a move.

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    Featured photo credit: Anubhav Saxena via unsplash.com

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