In a world where the rate at which we receive new requests for information or action far exceeds our ability to respond to them, we need to have some sort of approach to sifting the wheat from the chaff. If not, we just get quickly over-loaded and stress levels build.
And so, it’s probably no surprise that, at some point in time, most of us have tried the well known approach of ranking our tasks in terms of two criteria:
- How ‘important’ are they?
- How ‘urgent’ are they?
This usually takes the form of a 2×2 matrix and we look at each job that awaits us and try to make our minds up on the relative ‘importance’ or ‘urgency’ of each task.
- Naturally, anything that is judged to be of ‘low importance’ and ‘low urgency’ gets crossed off our lists pretty quickly. And we obviously hope to find more than a few of these each day so we can get the feeling of being decisive.
- Whereas anything in the opposite corner, i.e. it’s deemed to be of ‘high importance’ and ‘high urgency’, gets highlighted for quick attention.
So, have you ever tried this approach?
- If so, how did it work for you?
- How long did you manage to keep it going?
- And, more importantly, did it leave you in a position of finally feeling that you were in control of your world?
I know in my case, that I would answer these three questions as “not really”, “not long” and “no”.
But it did seem to at least appear to me that I was trying to do something about my to-do items and it certainly seemed better than just winging it every day without having considered such attributes.
And then, along came GTD. And yes, it took me a while to get on top of the process but, what do you know, one of these two axes pretty much disappeared for me! The “urgency’ one … it just started to decline as a factor in my life … and, to cut a long story short, over a period of a couple months, I found myself dealing with things mostly in terms of their importance. Every day now, I have a list of to-do items to get on with and I generally go through them by first tackling the ones I perceive to be the most important, later on, tackling those that feel of lesser importance. Many days I reach the end of the day without having done some of the low importance tasks and I simply click them across to tomorrow or the day after. And in so doing, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I spent my time today working on what was most important. How priceless is that?
And isn’t that really what the 2×2 matrix idea is trying to get us to do? It wants us to work on the most important items. But it just has this ‘other dimension’ to it, one of “urgency”, that seems to trump, time and again, our gut instinct about what’s important to be working on. As they say, ‘when everything is urgent, nothing is important’!
So how does GTD reduce that urgency axis?
Quite simply, by making sure that whenever you receive a new input in your life, that you make a point of determining what meaning it has to you and hence, what you should do about it … not in an hour from now, or tomorrow, or next week once it’s gotten seriously behind deadline, but now, as you open the email or ponder the new input. Sometimes a phrase carries a lot more depth to it than what it might at first appear to carry and that is exactly the case with David Allen’s phrase I mentioned in my previous blog post that we should “deal with things when they show up, not when they blow up“.
And that’s not to say that we need to actually “do” the task we have just determined as soon as we have closed the email. No. When you open the email, be prepared to make a decision about what needs doing. And then park that in your trusted system to be actioned at a date you so choose.
So if something appears important enough to get on with still today, you add it to today’s list of actions. But if you know it can wait a few days, you are at liberty to select a date suitably far forward. And so, the GTD process ensures that as soon as you first encounter this new input in your life, you handle the urgency issue there and then. Things that feel like they should be handled quickly may get added to today’s to-do list whereas reading that email attachment on something peripheral to my life can be safely scheduled a few days from now when I know my diary is a bit more open.
In working this way you will find that you have already handled the urgency axis upfront and hence, each day’s list of actions on your to-do list simply need addressing sometime that day. And if you do them, you will have handled what needed handling today because tomorrow would be perhaps a little bit too late.
The alternative is to have one endless list of tasks which, every time you look down them, requires you to make an assessment of how urgent or how important they are. And this, in itself, creates huge stress in our minds. With GTD, you handle this aspect right upfront as soon as you read that new email. And if you have the discipline to tackle each day’s to-do list to the best of your abilities you will find that the urgency axis does indeed shrink … and the feeling of control starts to grow. They kind of swop out!
And then the only urgent tasks in your life are pretty much those that other people bring into your life or actual, genuine emergencies. And you will realise that many of the emergencies that you previously had to deal with were of your own making … oops, sorry about that … but until you have experienced taking the kind of control that GTD can give you, you will probably never fully appreciate the degree to which we are our own worst enemies.
I know for myself that I started to explain to people I worked with how I had had to “completely redefine what it means to procrastinate” … I thought of myself as a minimal procrastinator … and then I did GTD … and oops, I had a lot to answer for!
So, don’t accept the paradigm that there are always these two axes of ‘urgent & important’ … make a conscious effort to decide on that new email’s ‘outcome’ & ‘next action’ immediately after reading it and get it off your mind, into your system, allowing it to be handled when it’s ready to be handled. And lose that feeling of always being behind on things. Because you don’t have to be!
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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.