Wednesday, September 1, 2010

GTD - Let the lists fall where they may

Probably the most universal how-to question for GTD neophytes is this: How do I keep track of all the things that you're recommending I keep out of my head? What's the best tool? The answer is pretty simple: however you most effectively can create and review lists.

You will need a good filing system, an inbox and a ubiquitous capture tool, a box for stuff to read, and maybe a tickler file; but for the most part, all you need are lists. But you'll need several. And they need to be complete. And you'll need a place to keep them.

For many newbies, the multiple lists they may see in any of our systems can overwhelm them at first glance. The various classifications we recommend as best practices present a significant increase in complexity over what most pre-GTDers are working with: a calendar and some amorphous kind of "to-do" list, at best. Their responses to our typical sets of lists (calls, office, errands, agendas for boss, agenda for staff meeting, projects, someday maybes, etc.) are "That's so much work to set up and maintain!" and/or "That's so confusing!"

The cause of their push-back is twofold. First, few people on the planet, prior to GTD, have had any commitment at all to capturing and objectifying everything they're committed to. So, indeed, if all you wanted to keep track of is what they are currently keeping track of (outside their heads), you probably wouldn't need more than the one to-do list they have. And secondly, because of the incredible amount of input, distraction, rapid change, and consequent over-commitment gnawing at everyone's gut, there is a huge desire for simplification to relieve the pressure. People often come to GTD for that relief and are negatively surprised to see what looks to them like additional work and complication. "My goodness—look at all those lists!"

As someone gets just a little further into the game, however, and is willing to try out some version of our recommended set of lists, they begin to experience the clarity and focus that's been unavailable using his/her previous system. Here's why:

There's an interesting phenomenon which was explained to me once as a key cybernetic principle: in order to create simplicity amidst complexity, your system must be equally complex. The corollary to that would be that if you're trying to manage something very complex with too simple a system, it will over-complexify it! And that's just what I've seen over these many years as a coach and educator. People's lives are way more sophisticated, intricate, and multifaceted than the systems they are using to manage them. A calendar and to-do list pale as puny weapons against that kind of universe. In some ways their incompleteness and insufficiency just make the situation worse.

On the other hand, the system (and lists therein) can't get too complicated. For many who step into GTD and taste the transformative power of its BFO's (Blinding Flashes of the Obvious), they swing on the pendulum too far in the other direction. They over-classify. This seems particularly to afflict the technophiles, who often try to create too many lists with too many subsets and connectors and relationships. They find themselves getting hung up with only a partial implementation of the method and rationalizing that they found a way that "works better for them." Though that in itself, if true, would actually still be GTD (as GTD is an approach, not really a system), the reality is, from our experience in working with many of these folks after the fact, they just get themselves detoured because of the burden of their complexities.

GTD requires some important thinking on the front end (meaning, outcome and action determinations especially). But if you have to think too much before you can put something on a list ("will this task require a '3' or '6' level of energy on a scale of 10 to accomplish it?") you're likely to run into quicksand in trying to work it. Your system has to be easy enough (and complete enough) that you will be motivated to work it even when you have the flu. The system is only as good as what you're willing to maintain when you don't feel like it. It's fine to let your "inner geek" create a system for yourself on a rainy Saturday, but it had better be tested and continue to work amidst the firehose-gushing realities of Monday mid-mornings as well.

So there's a sensitive center point to find and maintain in terms of how to keep track of your multiple commitments and information—not too simple, not too complicated. You gotta get your porridge just right.

In our experience the "standard" GTD classifications for lists come close for most people—next actions by context, projects, somedays, agendas by person and meeting, etc. Simple, flat lists without a whole lot of structured trappings that may get in the way, once they're in these discrete buckets.

Consequently, the best personal management tools will be whatever manages those kinds of lists most easily for someone. My educated guess is that, for senior professionals, about ten percent are most comfortable with simple pieces of paper or documents inside folders (e.g. a file called "Calls" with post-its, call-back slips, or just papers torn off pads for their at-phone reminders).

Another twenty percent probably prefer some form of loose-leaf planner or notebook, with their lists on separate single pieces of paper within tabbed sections. And the rest like some digital form of list management—usually the tasks within a desktop or PDA application sorted by a category as the list title.

The good news is that once you really get comfortable with what kind of lists you can maintain the easiest and which support the most elegant simplicity for your focus, you could use any of these tools with equal ease. That's why, as we've noticed with many GTDers who have been in this game long enough, they sometimes find themselves shifting comfortably from one to the other, as how they spend their time changes with shifts in life- and work-styles. I've met several hi-tech-oriented people who've gone "retro" and taken up a new version of a paper planner again.

So, if you have any level of angst about what list-organizing tool is best for you—relax. Find a happy medium between what tool is already comfortable for you and what tool is attracting you, and get going. You really won't know what's going to work best until you engage with the GTD model for a few weeks. The important thing is to train yourself to collect and process your stuff in the most efficient and effective way, and to organize the results of that in some way.

(This article originally appeared in a publication for our GTD Connect members. Read more articles like this on GTD Connect in our extensive GTD Document Library.)

David Allen - founder/author of GTD

"Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are."

-Chinese proverb

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