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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 December 30, 2018

    How to Become an Early Riser and Stay Energetic Throughout the Day

    How to Become an Early Riser and Stay Energetic Throughout the Day

    This article is the 2nd in the 6-part series, Lifehack Challenge: Become An Early Riser In 5 Days.

    If you’d like to become an early riser, there are some things you should know before you run off to set your oft-ignored alarm clock.

    So how to become an early riser?

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    Here are five tips I’ve discovered to be most helpful in making the transition from erratic sleeper to early morning wizard:

    1. Choose to get up before you go to sleep

    You’re not very good at making decisions when you’ve just woken up. You were in the middle of a dream in which [insert celebrity crush of choice here] is serving you breakfast in bed only to be rudely awakened by the harsh tones of your alarm clock. You’re frustrated, angry, confused, and surprised. This is not the time to be making decisions about whether or not you should stay in bed! And yet, most of us leave the first decision of our day to be made in a blur of partial wakefulness.

    No more! If you want to be a consistently early riser, try making your decision to rise at a specific time before you go to sleep the night before. This frees you from making the decision in the morning when you’ve just woken up. Instead of making a decision, you have only to follow through on your decision from the night before. Easier said than done? Of course. But only for the first few times. Eventually your need for raw willpower to get out of bed will diminish and you’ll be the proud parent of a new habit!

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    Steve Pavlina suggests you practice getting out of bed during the day[1] to get a few of the “practice sessions” out of the way without the early morning fog in your head.

    2. Have a plan for your extra time

    Let’s say you’ve actually made it out of bed 2 hours before you normally would. Now what? What are you going to do with all this time you’ve discovered in your day? If you don’t have something planned to do with your extra time, you risk falling for the temptation of a “morning nap” that wipes out all the work you put into getting up.

    What to do? Before you go to bed, make a quick note of what you’d like to get done during your extra hours the following day. Do you have a book to write, paper to read, or garage to clean? Make a plan for your early hours and you’ll do more than protect yourself from backsliding into bed. You’ll get things done and those results will fuel your desire to build rising early into a habit!

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    3. Make rising early a social activity

    While there’s obvious value in joining a Lifehack Challenge in order to get you started as an early riser, your internet buddies just don’t have enough pull to make your new habit stick in the long term. The same cannot be said for the people you spend time with as part of your early morning routine.

    Sure, you could choose to read blogs for two hours every morning. But wouldn’t it be great to join an early breakfast club, running group, or play chess in the park at 5am? The more people you get involved in making your new habit a daily part of your life, the easier it’ll be to succeed.

    4. Don’t use an alarm that makes you angry

    If we’re all wired differently, why do we all insist on torturing ourselves with the same sort of alarm each morning? I spent years trying to wake up before my alarm went off so I wouldn’t have to hear it. I got pretty good, too. Then I started using a cellphone as my alarm clock and quickly realized that different ring tones irritated me less but worked just as well to wake me up. I now use the ring tone alarm as a back up for my bedside lamp plugged in to a timer.

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    When the bright light doesn’t work, the cellphone picks up the slack and I wake up on time. The lesson learned? Experiment a bit and see what works best for you. Light, sound, smells, temperature, or even some contraption that dumps water on you might be more pleasant than your old alarm clock. Give something new a try!

    5. Get your blood flowing right after waking

    If you don’t have a neighbor you can pick fights with at 5am you’ll have to settle with a more mundane exercise. It doesn’t take much to get your blood flowing and chase the sleep from your head. Just pick something you don’t mind doing and go through the motions until your heart rate is up. Jumping rope, push-ups, crunches, or a few minutes of yoga are typically enough to do the trick. (Just don’t do anything your doctor hasn’t approved.)

    If you live in a beautiful part of the world like me, you might want to use a bit of your early morning to go for a walk and enjoy the beauty of the world around you. If you have a coffee shop open within walking distance, dragging yourself out of bed for a cup of coffee to savor on your walk home as the world wakes around you is a wonderful experience. Try it!

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    Featured photo credit: Frank Vex via unsplash.com

    Reference

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