Work has been overwhelming of late. I suspect there’s actually too much for me to handle, but I haven’t been able to confirm this. I spend too much time reacting to problems and working down lists of starred emails. There’s been no way for me to get a handle on everything I need to do. So I came up with a plan, which was so very nearly successful, until I made a big mistake.
In early autumn I happened to be reading a book about the psychology of willpower. It has the look of self-help dross, but is actually a proper pop-sci tour of the current psychogical literature on willpower and self-control. Really interesting, and it had a chapter on the effectiveness (or not) of to-do lists, and the various approaches that exist – mostly in business circles – for helping people keep control of their jobs and lives in general. And it ended up recommending a particular system, which I’ll get to. But as interesting was what doesn’t work, which really gelled with my experience.
First of all, it turns out daily to-do lists are a nightmare, and very few people can actually use them. The inevitable inclination is to fill them with tasks you’d like to get done. But this is always doomed. As soon as you don’t get a task done, it gets bumped to the next day. Which makes that day even harder to complete. Even if you catch up, once you start completing the list the obvious thing to do is add more stuff. For most people, the to-do list becomes a depressing reminder of stuff you haven’t done yet, and every day becomes a failure. Most people find that so demoralising that they stop using them. I’ve certainly done that.
Furthermore, they don’t actually reduce stress all that much. Putting ‘add monkeys section to the website’ seems on the surface like something you have to do, but it’s just a description. What information is needed for this monkeys section? Who has it? What kind of structure should it have? Do I need to run it by anyone else in the office first? Do I even have access to the relevant area of the website? Our brains know full well that all this is lurking in the background, so these tasks jump into our conscious thoughts when we’re trying to concentrate on other things. You’re trying to program a tricky bit of SQL, and you find yourself thinking ‘actually, I need to email Eggbert about the scones, or the cakes will never be ready in time’. So you either find yourself jumping from task to task, never able to fully commit, or you are continually scribbling notes to yourself and can never focus – plus there’s always the worry that something’s been missed. And so the to-do list becomes even more demoralising. This is very familiar too.
So what does work? According to this book, our subconscious relaxes when it knows there’s a plan in place. It’s not enough to know what needs doing, we need to know how. And this is where it starts to recommend a particular system: David Allen’s Getting Things Done.
I read the GTD book a few years ago, but never put it into practice. The system revolves around three things: your calendar, your project lists and your action lists. Your calendar contains the tasks that absolutely 100% need to be done that day. It does not contain any tasks you’d like to do – that’s what the other lists are for. Project lists are like old-school to-do lists in that they describe everything you need to do, so you can keep track. But the action lists contain the next real-world step you need to take. So the project list says ‘get presents for Mum’s birthday’, but the action list says ‘search emails for the suggested present list Dad sent me’. So the action list contains only actions that you can immediately go and do.
You start your day by working through the vital stuff on your calendar, which is always very satisfying when it’s done. Then you move to the action lists. A crucial part of the action list is the neutral hierarchy. Everything just sits on the same list. GTD strongly recommends against prioritising or categorising your lists, because:
a) prioritising takes a long time, and is out of date almost immediately – in most offices tasks change from hour to hour, and updating the list each time would be a waste of time.
b) you know full well what’s important when you look at the list.
c) categories rarely work, as lots of projects cross boundaries, and trying to classify projects / reverse-engineer your own classifications is often frustrating. And removing frustration is a major aim of GTD.
d) who really cares about categories? Usually, work just needs doing.
You then go through the lists once a week to clear out the old stuff and add new things (you can do this as you’re going along, obviously, but the weekly review is always required to make sure).
The idea of GTD is to get you organised and get out of your way. It strips out all the pointless stuff. It removes the failure of long daily to-do lists by giving you Actions to plough through, which is cool as it means you end the day having achieved stuff rather than seeing the things you haven’t. And it provides much more peace of mind by providing a plan for each task that the subconscious is happy with. And this seems to be a psychologically valid approach.
All of which sounded ideal. There’s plenty of slightly off-putting fanboy-esque GTD stuff online, but the psychological studies seemed to give it some actual validity. I figured that if nothing else it would help me get a handle on the workload. So I’ve spent the last two months trying to get everything into the system. That’s the tough bit – you literally have to go through every note, email and thought to get everything onto the project/action lists. But a month ago I finally got there. And then I made my big mistake: I mentioned it to management at work.
I showed them my project list to a) give a very quick guide to what I was working on, and b) show I was getting myself organised. At which point they immediately wanted to know why it wasn’t prioritised and categorised. Why isn’t there a red/amber/green traffic light system so I know what’s important? Although meant kindly, I could sense the slightly patronising tone as they described my apparently amateur attempt at organisation. I tried to explain that avoiding all that stuff is half the point, but despite a sympathetic ear I didn’t have much luck. They now see it as a reporting tool, I guess, where it was only intended to help me organise myself. And GTD is, admittedly, not built for reporting.
So now I have to add a crapload of overhead. I’ll try, obviously, but it’s certainly not the smooth system I had in mind, and it’s already seeming like the system itself is going to be annoying work. Which is very much not the point. So if you’re reading this and GTD seems interesting, I highly recommend you keep it quiet.