It’s Not Really About Control

Partially Electronic

It always fascinates me to hear people’s objections to GTD (David Allen’s Getting Things Done
approach to personal productivity). In fact, some folks have really strong, visceral reactions to the suggestions and ideas in Allen’s book.

I’ll admit the notion of committing all one’s tasks, chores, dreams and commitments to paper, then organising those into projects and action lists can seem daunting. It is a huge undertaking and for those who don’t understand the mechanics of creativity, it might seem very limiting.

Honestly, it took me a while to get past this myself. In the end, I only really understood the power of Allen’s approach to inbox management and action lists by getting my hands dirty. This isn’t an objection one can explain away. Rather, it’s a situation where beliefs can only be changed in response to action; you have to try it and see.

However, there are other, more conceptual objections that can be answered conversationally. For example, some people see GTD as a vain attempt to “control” life and “manage” creativity. Sometimes these objections feel misguided or lazy, like attempts to shirk responsibility or obligation. But, there is a very valid point in the suggestion that control can, at times seem vain or illusory.

However, I don’t see GTD as primarily about control, at least not in the “things will turn out the way I want them to, always” kind of way. For me GTD is powerful and indispensable because of something much more everyday and basic than control. GTD is a way to creatively adjust to changing circumstances and return to our work after the inevitable interruptions life throws in our path.

Control Or Adjustment?

“…you can only plan for what you’ll do, not for what life will do to you.” tweet

I recently quoted these words from David duChemin, written for a piece called Planning Is Just Guessing: But With More Pie Charts and Stuff. There’s an essential wisdom in David’s words here; we can have long term goals and big dreams, but life will always shake those up.

But, that doesn’t stop us from taking responsibility for what we can do right now, for choosing from the options available to us and taking the next step somewhere, anywhere. This kind of honest realism needs to be a part of any approach to creativity or personal productivity. As Confucius said,

“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the steps.” tweet

GTD And Truth-i-ness

My journey with GTD has involved a few “moments of truth.” For example, I’ve had to admit to my fickleness, especially the way I’m prone to abandon projects when they near completion.

But, the biggest realisation was the extent to which my life is totally interruption prone. Try as I might to control my environment and the inputs in my life, interruptions have not only been inevitable, they’ve seemed to increase with age. Of course, being a parent and frequent re-locator doesn’t help.

Living in Delhi made me think about interruptions. India is, in so many ways, the country of interruption; you have to learn how to deal with them and some critics even believe you can’t understand Bollywood (Indian Cinema), without some sense of the way constant interruption is a fact of life in the country.

As the at home parent of a young child in a city where power outages and water problems were weekly, if not daily occurrence, I quickly felt the pain of not being able to easily establish routines or find patterns of work as crises around the home seemed to break down every plan and project.

Of course, people not only cope with those circumstances in India, they thrive. It is a breathtakingly creative country. I grew to love the way people would not allow blackouts to interrupt work or socialising and the unimaginable creativity that went into solving technical problems with limited resources (now popularised by the word Jugaad).

Of course, I had not grown up in this culture and while I started to find ways to cope with the interruptions, it was exhausting and more than existing repertoire of diary and project ,management skills could manage. It was at this time I first read Getting Things Done.

What Your Brain Looks Like On Interrupt

There’s a great article on the BBC Future blog entitled The Psychology of the To-Do List. The piece makes a connection between Allen’s GTD approach and cognitive studies into the way unfinished tasks play on our minds (the Zeigarnik Effect). One study aimed to measure the effect of trying to do something while being aware of an incomplete task.

…”people did worse on a brainstorming task when they were prevented from finishing a simple warm-up task – because the warm-up task was stuck in their active memory. What Baumeister and Masicampo did next is the interesting thing; they allowed some people to make plans to finish the warm-up task. They weren’t allowed to finish it, just to make plans on how they’d finish it. Sure enough, those people allowed to make plans were freed from the distracting effect of leaving the warm-up task unfinished.” tweet

This, to me is the most important aspect of GTD – it gives us a way to cope with interruptions, because we are mindful of the next action on our projects, we have a system to “pick up where we left off” and don’t have to carry that around in our heads, filling our minds with distractions.

Workflow Or RepairFlow

Workflow is not a word I like to use. It makes me think of surly autocrats in labcoats, hunched over clipboards trying to figure out better ways to grind workers into the production line.

And, often when I hear people ask about workflow, what is really going on is a quest for tips and shortcuts, the fastest and the most painless way to get something done (in a way that will gain acceptance and validation).

But, workflow can mean something else. When I think of the best professionals I’ve met, in music and photography, their workflow is really a reality-proof approach to getting the work finished. Their approach is not just make things fast and repeatable, but also find a way to deal with problems, failures and interruptions.

It reminds me of one key difference between professional and amateur gear. People often think professional gear is more expensive or better in some abstract sense (sometimes true). But, the main difference is most professional gear, from microphones and headphones to cameras and lenses is made so it can be repaired.

A great example is the old Teletronix LA2A compressor. This unit comes with a hinged front panel, because it is assumed the unit will need to be repeatedly serviced and adjusted over a long life. The principle holds true today. Talk to professional photographers about the cameras they choose and the conversation quickly veers away from features and megapixels and towards after sales service and local repair facilities.

Made To Break, Repair And Work

It’s nice to imagine creative work as being all about the most moments when the clouds part and the muses speak directly into our soul. But, it’s just as much about hard-drive failures, missing letters, sick children in the night, stolen computers, days spent in bed with the flu, lost luggage, trees that fall down in a storm, being called in to speak to the principal, cooking dinner, paying the bills, fixing a broken toy and the thousands of other chores, errands and thousands of other little things that break our concentration, block our flow and shoehorn their way into our days.

That’s why I use the GTD system. I can’t stop or even control those interruptions. But, I can do a little better at coping with them. That, as they say, is life.

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