February 25, 2005

GTD (Getting Things Done)

So, for a while now I've felt frustrated about feeling overwhelmed with ideas. One thing about me and ideas - I have a lot of 'em. The writing I do on this weblog - mostly politics, lately - probably represents about a fourth of my psychic load, which is why I sometimes go a few days without writing. My other things are basically computer programming, music composing, and financial analysis. That's on top of all the personal maintenance stuff we all have.

The combinations get pretty heavy sometimes. I'm always coming up with ideas for political website tools. I've wanted to write some music for political ads that can be freely used. I just rarely have the time to follow up on my ideas. (Luckily, I haven't developed an interest in writing music that is algorithmically composed from the movements of the stock market.)

So, ideas. Over the past year in particular I've been judging against myself pretty heavily for what I've seen as, plain and simply, a lack of bandwidth. Some people just seem to get a lot more done in the same amount of time as I do.

I decided that I just needed to reject out-of-hand the possibility that some people are just naturally able to get more done, and that I'd be forever doomed to have a lot of ideas, with no chance of making serious progress on them.

So the objective became, how do I get more done in the same amount of time?

It brings up some painful thinking. For one thing, I hate discipline and I hate guilt. I've got my own values and ideals, and I'm going to stick by them. I do not want to assert myself under deadlines and schedules all the time, because I thought that if I missed the deadlines then I would just feel crappier and crappier about myself.

Of course, the way I then chose to respond to those values was to only have a very vague relationship to my goals. And that only led to the pressure building up in a different form - psychically; a general feeling of malaise, of life feeling stuck and life's pressures building up against me.

So that wasn't working. Now, discipline. What do I mean about hating discipline?

Well, long-time readers probably have a sense of the thread I'm describing here. I hate anything that involves replacing an emotion with a construct, and then doing away with the emotion.

A law that continues to exist even when the reason for that law no longer exists. A political policy that is in action only to "see it through" even when it serves no public good anymore. And, on a personal level, any ambition that we have when we've forgotten the reason for the ambition.

Basically, I want to avoid the practice of telling myself I want something, when I might underneath not want it anymore. So, I want to avoid an over-reliance of self-coaching, as I judge that it can too easily turn into a sort of consciousless, rote ambition. Better to always be in touch with what your true desires and needs are in the moment.

So you can see where I've been stuck. By not wanting to coach myself in a direction where I would get out of touch with my long-term goals, I ended up focusing too much on short-term "in the moment" types of goals.

And as happens way too often with all of us, I had come up with the answer to the wrong question. I had the right answer to, "How can I live so that I don't coach myself into a rote, consciousless ambition?". But I didn't have the right answer to, "How can I live so that I am continually moving towards my long-term goals while also staying in the moment enough that I can always know if my long-term goals are still right for me?"

Now, don't get me wrong. Feeling my way through by responding to short-term goals has actually worked pretty well for me. Particularly with my career. After I lost my last salaried job just before 9/11, I have basically been improvising since then, and it's turned into a (so far) successful freelance business that I've recently incorporated. I certainly didn't have a three-year goal to incorporate, and I frankly think that if I had had that goal, it wouldn't have worked out as well.

Um, I didn't just write that paragraph to knock it down. It's actually something that gives me pause.

The part I'm trying to reconcile with it, though, is that I don't see a long term horizon with this business. I mean, I'll keep at it, but I don't have a clear set of ambitions on how to grow it in the future. I don't exactly want to hire employees, and my time only scales so much. The only way I can truly scale it is with my hourly rate, but that can really only go so high without going through a complete overhaul.

And then there are just the general background stresses of aging, feeling more responsibility to your future, etc.

So, back to the objective. How do I get more done in the same amount of time, and how do I more efficiently work towards my long-term goals, and how do I stay checked into my internal sense of what it is I really care about and want to do, and how do I dual-use my actions so that they work towards my goals, but still are worthwhile if I decide against those goals later?

I think you start with the master goals. Keep them vague. Like, "Have a musical career." Always write a supporting document detailing exactly WHY you have that vague goal. Check in with that WHY document regularly to make sure your reasons are still valid. If you disagree with any of them, reassess that master goal.

Come up with actions or subprojects that help to enable that master goal. Make sure that you always have something scheduled for yourself that is in alignment with that master goal.

Practice time-blocking. We get overloaded with tasks. But always schedule yourself time for those master goals. I might schedule myself an hour a day for classical score study. Or it might be two hours to just sit down and play with your kids.

Or, you might need to just schedule yourself time for play. Important psychological trick - view this as NEGATIVE SPACE, so it doesn't become an obligation that you have scheduled for yourself. Instead it is just a "free" block of time that is unavailable to anything else.

You start with that. Remember the story of the rocks in the bottle. A professor brings in a bottle, puts a bunch of rocks in it, and asks the class, "Is the bottle full?" They answer, "Yes!" Then he puts a bunch of pebbles in, which skitter down between the gaps in the rocks. "Now is it full?" The class, catching on, "No!" He fills even more gaps with sand. And, still not full, because he's able to pour a large amount of water in it before it truly overflows.

You have to start with the rocks. Do your master goals first. This includes vacations and social plans! Schedule them in. Within reason, of course, you can't schedule yourself a ten-year vacation to Hawaii. Then fill in the rest. Appointments and tasks would be the pebbles and the sand.

So what's really left is the appointments and the tasks. That's a lot of stuff. I've felt overwhelmed by it. I've started reading "Getting Things Done by David Allen, and it's helping a lot.

I won't describe the process here as there are plenty of other sites that can describe it. But here's my general process so far. There are a lot of kinks, but I'm slowly working them out.

If I have a "nag" anywhere at any time, then if I have my cellphone, (a Treo 650 with mVoice installed), I press and hold the phone button, which gets through the keyguard and automatically records to my SD card. I record my reminder, press the phone button again to stop recording, and then my brain is nag-free again.

Every night I go through my reminders and process them. If it's a task, I add it to my iCal task list - either work, music, or personal. If it's multi-step I put it in my project list, which is a page in my VoodooPad wiki.

I review the wiki weekly - there's a page for each project. I determine action items, and add the ones I'm enabled to do to my iCal task list.

I sync my Treo to iCal, and they show up in Agendus Pro. I haven't worked out all my categories yet, but I schedule my tasks by day. If I don't get a task done in a day, I just bump it forward. I don't use priorities. I do enjoy the "Urgency/Importance" grid, and I use that... generally looking at "Importance" as being whether or not it is aligned with a long-term goal, and "Urgency" as whether I'm feeling time pressure from it.

Physically, I basically threw every damn thing in my office into an inbox. My inbox is basically a bunch of trays. I bought a new lateral filing cabinet. It has hanging folders, but I put manila folders into them. I bought a $30 label maker. My inbox is overwhelming right now, so I am adding an extra step, where I give it a once over and grab a chunk of my inbox and throw it into my tickler; my 43 folders. So I know I will look at and properly file the urgent stuff in the next few days.


Well, my task list is getting pretty large, and it is still easy to feel grumpy if I don't get my tasklist completed for the day. I would actually like to get away from scheduled tasks, I think, and only categorize them by project and category. I need to figure out better categories to do this well, though.

The other thing is that as I'm doing this, I am identifying more and more potential "Next Action Items". The list is getting pretty long. It is rather overwhelming to know that at any moment, there are thirty things I could do if I just sat down and took the fifteen minutes to do them. It is easy to feel paralysis from that. I haven't figured that one out yet.


Well, I do feel more organized so far. I look at my history over the past month, and I've completed an average of six or seven tasks a day - just completely random, ambiguous tasks that had no deadlines, but were taking up psychic space from me just knowing that I needed to get them done sometime soon. And, my brain generally feels emptier of obligations, because they are all externalized.

However, that emptiness hasn't yet transformed itself into more presence for my friends or for "living in the now". Instead it's been a bit of an unsettled feeling. I think I am just getting used to it. My brain still is in this mode I call "tracking mode", continually scanning around for what it is supposed to be obsessing about, just because it's so damn used to obsessing over the stuff that isn't there anymore. I'm hoping that will shift soon.

I'm also finding that it is a bit easier to find things. I had no idea how much energy that was taking from me. If you need to find something, you have to spend five minutes to find it, and sometimes that five minutes is too much, so you put off finding it and doing the task that requires it. If it takes fifteen seconds, then you do the task, and much faster than you would have otherwise. I know it sounds simple, but those are the things we can also overlook.

I tend to either be in front of the computer, or out and about with my cellphone, so my "collection" approach is working well. If I'm going to carry something, then it's easier to carry my Treo than a Moleskine. Really all I want on the computer is a Quicksilver Plugin to append to a Voodoopad Page without having to open Voodoopad.

My main challenge now is to expand the GTD habits to the rest of my house. I just have clutter that don't have right places. I probably need to buy a couple of armoirs.

So, that's about the state of my "life organizing" habits. Feel free to weigh in how you do things, or if you have suggestions on how to enhance this approach.

Posted by Curt at February 25, 2005 06:00 PM

As always, your thoughts are very concise, very clearly written. So I'll respond in kind.

Get thee on a vacation. Leave the laptop at home, take the Treo but turn it off. The Bahamas/Key West/Turks & Caiucos are nice this time of year.

After a week away, you'll have a fresh new perspective on your life.

Trust me...been there,done that.

Vacations can be salvations.

Posted by: Kath at February 25, 2005 07:51 PM


I mean, don't get me wrong. I have every intention of taking a vacation. But was there something that jumped out that said that I might need one?

For readers who don't know, Kath is a professional organizer. Has her own business in it and everything. :)

I've put off vacations for a long time in the past. I think that now it's really just a matter of setting a set of conditions and a date. Like right now, I know I need to finish my film scoring class before I can do a vacation longer than a weekend. So what's left is for me to commit to take that vacation at that time. I'm not quite there yet. I just have to take the time to properly consider the vacation.

Posted by: tunesmith at February 25, 2005 08:44 PM