The message behind a personal productivity approach such as the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology of David Allen may at first appear to be seen as one pushing you to become ever more efficient as if that, in itself, is the solution to gaining more control in your life. But that would be a disservice to the approach and the whole philosophy of personal productivity.
In the About page, that I wrote to explain why I put the Chameleon Brain website together, I use an analogy of kayaking down a river. How sometimes it feels like the river is wide and the water is flowing slowly, giving me time to enjoy the journey and look around me. But yet there are other times, where the river narrows, the pace increases, the waters become choppy and it takes every last ounce of my being just to stay afloat.
In this context, I see GTD as helping me to glide smoothly through the rapids. And, if I do get knocked off the kayak, well, I know exactly how to get back on.
But this doesn’t answer the question of whether I am on the correct river in the first place!
So Which River Are You On?
In fact there is very little point in just becoming more efficient for the sake of it if what you do everyday is not what feeds your passions and strengths or, if the areas you choose to focus on in your job for the day are not the real priorities.
On the higher level question, of whether you are engaged in work that feeds your passions, some of you may be familiar with the Strengths methodology of people like Marcus Buckingham in which he does not define a strength in the conventional manner of being something we feel we are good at. Instead, Marcus Buckingham sees a Strength as being something which, when we engage with it, leaves us feeling strong. And there’s a wonderful subtlety about his definition, one which really makes you think about what you choose to spend your time on every day.
I sometimes think of my work and the people I spend time with in terms of his philosophy. I ask myself the question whether or not the activities I spend time on, or the people I spend time with, either suck my energy or feed me energy. And of course I know that it is not the responsibility of other people to spend their time beefing up how I feel about myself but I would contend that I do have some degree of choice in life about the activities I spend time on and the people I spend time with. And whether or not I come up with a positive or negative answer to this tells me something about whether I am on the correct river.
Whether on a real or imagined kayak, I have often found myself faced with more than one way forward. One will have rocks and other obstacles just beneath the surface whereas the other will be free of obstacles. And sometimes I feel it’s time to get out of that comfort zone and try something different and so I head off along the more challenging route in search of adventure, hoping that I have properly assessed the risks. But I do so clear in the knowledge that I need to stretch myself and gain new experiences and perspectives along the way. And, of course, there will always be the other days when I need to take the more straight forward route and not deliberately complicate things.
The point here is that both routes can provide me with great satisfaction. I can be left feeling strong by either one of the routes but only if I am on the correct river … as it’s when I am on the wrong river that I find myself just getting no joy from things and feelings of increased frustration come home to roost. And, it is in this context, that I have found GTD to be an absolute life saver.
If you are on the wrong river in the first place, and the rapids are tossing your kayak from side to side (i.e. what often passes for an average day of overload in the modern workplace) then it can be almost impossible to gain enough control to lift your head up, view the river bank alongside you or view a section just ahead where it’s safe to pull over. And it’s only by doing this that you can pull back from the immediacy of your experience and view the bigger picture of where you find yourself. You can then make decisions to hoof that kayak up the river bank and across to another tributary of life, re-float and start your journey anew. Or, in the average day of our working lives, give us the control we need to be able to start asking higher level perspective questions about the activities that we are engaged in and to look at the people we spend time with.
And if we look at the lower level question above, of what we choose to spend our time on each day in our work, a similar issue arises. It’s very easy to spend our lives being busy but not really focussing on what is most important. And being overwhelmed simply compounds this as we fail to see the wood for the trees.
So How Does GTD Help?
And it is in this manner that I see the GTD methodology. Gaining control over the constant inputs in my life and being able to make good, upfront decisions on how to handle them, is utterly priceless. And once you’ve experienced it, it’s something that you just don’t ever want to lose. And it’s one of the reasons I have often said to people that they need to (at first) implement GTD according to the basic GTD Principles without changing them. We cannot always understand the subtleties of a new approach and so will not be aware of whether we are changing it for better or worse. So implement it faithfully before you change it.
Then, once you’re hurtling down that next set of rapids, a set that quite literally appeared out of nowhere half way through your working day, you will get very quick feedback about whether your GTD system and any tweaks you have done to it are working or not. But if you’ve never achieved the sense of relaxed control it can give, you will simply find it yet another hassle in your life at a time when you can least afford it.
So GTD is not about getting control or getting things done just for the sake of it. It’s about steadying that kayak so that you can lift your eyes to the horizon and begin to make better choices about how you engage with your life, whether at the lower level of day to day tasks or the higher level of job choice and purpose in life.
As I said, priceless.
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P.S. If you are unfamiliar with the GTD approach, please check the menu links above under ‘Personal Productivity’ to learn more!
Note: ‘Getting Things Done’ and ‘GTD’ are trademarks of the David Allen Company.