If you’ve ever felt the need to take control of life and better handle the gazillion inputs that keep coming into your life then an implementation of David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ (GTD) methodology can be a great place to start. (First edition was in 2002 and a revised edition was issued in 2015.)
Before I implemented GTD in my life I found myself on several occasions at a point where I pretty much threw my hands up in the air and wondered whether this madness would ever stop. It seemed that no sooner had I finished or even just started the one deliverable than another three were being asked of me. And so the problem of how to juggle them all, do the right ones, know which to discard etc became a constant battle. Sometimes I had a mild case of it but increasingly I felt that the world was going mad around me and that this would, one day, just spiral out of control.
And so I Googled furiously and spoke to others and tried new To-Do List software and for some reason could never get to a point where I felt things were truly under control. Sure, things could be made to look neater in some sort of system but I was never ‘more in control’.
One thing that fascinated me though was that, as disorganised as I often felt, I never seemed to be any more disorganised than anyone around me. And, when I travelled and met contacts, they often answered the ‘how are you’ question by going off on a loop about how busy they were … it increasingly seemed like a badge of honour that we all wore because we were so busy. And there seemed no way out of it. It’s just the way things were and we needed to accept it.
Yet the promises of new technology were huge, we would save time by being able to do things quicker. I guess we just never spotted that it would lead us into doing more things quickly instead of less things slowly. Indeed, it’s a pity that John Maynard Keynes prediction back in 1930 never came true that the era’s grandchildren… “would work around three hours a day—and probably only by choice“. How I laughed when I read that!
There Comes A Time When Enough Is Enough!
Then came a camping trip I did with my family where I had great hopes for a few days in the African bushveld, waking up to the sounds of birds chirping away. Instead, I woke up to the sound of my own mind reminding me of all the things I had yet to do something about and then, once properly awake and busy during the day, those things suddenly didn’t seem so important. It was like I could drown them out by keeping myself busy with other things. Yet, as soon as my mind quietened over night, I would wake again the next morning to all these urgent thoughts that I felt needed immediate action. This was not the camping trip I had planned and waited for.
And so, after a couple of attempts at reading it, I realised I needed to properly read the whole of David Allen’s book. I was sure that, in there somewhere, I had read about how to get things off your mind and that felt like something I needed to get good at. For me personally, I don’t like spending time reading such books after a day at work and so reading it had become “yet another thing on my to-do list”. Hence it was also not really getting the attention it deserved. I think I started and stopped reading it three times, never actually getting past the bit where I had to do some hard work and implement it!
And so it was, by complete chance, the evening after we returned from the camping trip, that I stumbled upon the audio book version of GTD which, if listened to whilst driving to and from work, could be handled inside of my one week, 5 day commute of some 20 minutes each way to and from work. Even I could do that I reckoned!
And what I learned in that week was truly life changing for me. I finally “got it” … it was like he was telling a joke to which I never really understood the punchline. And then, during that week’s driving, I understood why I was feeling so over loaded and overwhelmed. Could his approach actually overcome the problems he described though? What did I have to lose!
And so, armed with his 5 Step Process, a couple of new shiny in-trays and a lot of determination, I set out about implementing GTD.
My own experience was highly motivated by trying to change for the better. It was motivated out of a belief that I could change my world and the way I felt in it. There had to be a green side on the other side of this GTD fence, surely? Or was I about to commit to yet another technique that tried to patch the problem? I seriously needed something that treated the problem further upstream. Something that helped me make sense of the constant new inputs in my life in a way that didn’t lead me to feeling so overwhelmed. And my sense of wanting to do it for all the right reasons rather than being forced into it by someone else meant I had a better chance of success. And this is something supported by the social scientists out there who point to long-lasting change as being most likely to happen “when it’s self-motivated and rooted in positive thinking“.
And, in a nutshell, that’s what I got. So I now have a system in place that allows me to handle those gazillion inputs a day, make decisions on the front end about what they all mean and then to place them one by one into a trusted system where I know I will come back to time and again each day in order to make decisions about what to engage with next. The deliberate nature of the steps gives me a sense of control that was previously not there. And after achieving those early feelings of control, where life suddenly felt different, it was clear to me that this was something I would stay with for the long run.
But don’t get me wrong though, life is still busy, lots gets asked of me and lots gets done. But I find myself less overwhelmed by it all. And as long as I keep to the 5 Steps and ensure I am true to the Principles of GTD I find I do not find myself buried. Sure, I still exasperate on occasions about how much continues to pour into my life but, with GTD as my modus operandi, I have a way to make better decisions about what I either do or don’t let into my life. So if you continue to exasperate about how quickly your life is moving and how difficult it is to feel on top of things, I can strongly recommend a look into the GTD methodology. What do you really have to lose?
Ultimately GTD Gives You Back Control
It’s not nice to have an expectation of an 8 hour day yet be asked to do 16 hours every day. With calls upon your time coming from multiple levels and multiple locations within the organisation, there is simply no internal mechanism in the modern knowledge worker workplace that controls this for you though. You yourself need to take control so you can get clarity around everything you’ve committed to and then use that to make better decisions on what to allow, or not allow, into your life.
Over time I have managed to reduce the amount of new inputs into my life by learning that my propensity to always saying ‘yes’ to people is a major source of a lot of that frustration. As David Allen points out, when you implement GTD, “the no word comes a lot easier”. And, with a clear idea of everything you’ve committed to, it becomes easier to make those kind of decisions and explain it to others around you.
What’s your alternative? Continue to be overloaded, not sure what to let into your life or not?
Control At One Level Leads To Control At Higher Levels
What I have discussed on the Chameleon Brain site is ultimately about the GTD methodology used to achieve ‘control’ over your tasks at the level that they happen everyday. What I have not discussed, which is ultimately an important part of the approach, is that once you have your day to day life under control, you can start to use this sense of control to make ever more important decisions at different levels of perspective in your life, everything from the type of work you do through to what your purpose on the planet might be.
The clarity that GTD brings in giving you control goes a long way to freeing up your mind to address these loftier issues … so, keep that in mind, your ability to think about the future direction of your life gets opened up in completely new ways once you are freed up from feeling (as David Allen puts it) “tangled up in the weeds of day to day life”. You’ve kind of got to get control at the lower level first though before the other levels open themselves up to you in a meaningful way.
I loved the comment David Allen uses around his sailing interest which is that “if your boat is sinking, first patch the holes, then worry about which direction your boat is pointing”.
And, in a very David Allen way, that neatly summarises his approach of first gaining control of your daily minutiae before being freed up to meaningfully engage with the higher level issues in your life.
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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.