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Goodbye GTD and Hello (again)Covey

Many years ago I read a very important book by Steven Covey. Nearly everyone has heard of it, if not bought and read it: “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” It might be the second bestselling book of all time behind the Bible (I don’t know; I heard that somewhere). There is much in that book that is beyond my self-discipline to implement. I would be impressed if anyone but Dr. Covey could, really!! But I based much of my initial practice of time management on Habit Three, way back when. Fast forward about 20 years and enter David Allen’s “Getting Things Done.” I read the book and found many aspects of its methodology compelling. I set about to implement them. After a couple of years of working on this, it’s just not working!!! I’m not an expert GTD’er by any means, but I’ve tried, I’ve succeeded somewhat, but it’s just not for me!

GTD concepts that work for me

Weekly (daily) review. The concept of sitting quietly and reviewing where things are has been a valuable habit of mine since I first read Steven Covey’s 3rd habit.

Clean desk. Keep things filed/put away and not right in front of me.

Trusted system. Keep things in a trusted system that ensures I’ll get the right things in front of me at the right time.

GTD concepts that don’t work for me (most of them), and why

Weekly review. Yes, I said it works and I meant that. The regular setting aside of time to review status is valuable. But GTD stops short since it doesn’t use that time to quietly and calmly put plans in place to commit to focusing on the most important things so that one can “exercise integrity in the moment of choice”. In fact, it’s the absence of the ability to “exercise integrity in the moment of choice” that strikes me as the biggest (and in my case, fatal) weakness of GTD. GTD seems at it simplest level to advocate a “do what you feel like doing” methodology that actually adds considerably to my stress level even as I capture in a trusted system those things I need to get done, but don’t have any *real* context with which to decide what to do next.

Contexts. I don’t find any of the usual contexts helpful since I can almost always do anything anywhere. Welcome to the electronic age. If my computer were only at home or office, then @home or @work or @computer or @email or @online might mean something. If I didn’t have a cell phone, then @calls might mean something. I’m sitting on a bench in a mall right now as I type this. I could do most @computer, @email, @online, @calls, @work and @home things sitting right here. When I’m at home I can do nearly all the contexts.

Projects and Next Actions. Strange thing for a PMI Certified Project Management Professional to say, but I don’t find it helpful to distinguish between projects and next actions. I really don’t!! First of all, by the GTD definition of projects if I really listed all of them there would probably be over 200 of them. Too many, but that reflects the reality of my life! Listing both projects and next actions results in too much detail; too much to look through. The contexts don’t help, and I KNOW what the next action is once I see the project! I need to list what I need to get done, at the level at which I think of it, and have a way to keep track of the *most important* things, not *everything*. It might be a project, or an action. It might be a collection of projects. It might be the most utterly small and seemingly trivial thing that is more important than all the other big things. It’s just not helpful to me to list everything that takes more than one step as a project, and then list one or more NAs against each of those. If I need to do customer billing, I know by heart the dozens of steps needed to get that done. I just need to block 2 hours on my calendar to DO IT!! That’s one important “big rock” that needs to be an area of focus for me. Knowing that the Next Action is to review time billing entries for accuracy and completeness; and then after that the Next Action is to . . . you get the idea, might stretch (and has stretched!) the billing process out over a couple of weeks. If I’m going to put together a graduation party for my daughter, I DO need to detail out the actions, and I don’t find it helpful to then have to put them in contexts: calls, emails, research, etc. I just need to be reminded of the Important and Urgent task/project/initiative/thing of putting together the party, block the time to work on it, and know where the list of tasks is. If I have more to work on when the time is done, I can exercise integrity in the moment of choice, and choose to do more, or schedule another block of time in the future!

Filing. GTD paper filing works very well (but I’m trying to do less of it), but is a TERRIBLE approach for electronic files. A simple hierarchical setup (with search as backup) works much better. With GTD, at the highest level of my filing system I had hundreds of folders – far to many to look through. I have reordered this so that I have about 20 logical high level folders, and then subfolders under them that make sense depending on the topic. I can file that way quickly and easily, knowing that I’m putting things in a logical place, and if for some reason I can’t find something quickly in that hierarchy I can always search, nearly instantly, for anything I’ve filed. I am also trying to get AWAY from paper filing for all but important source documents (wills, car titles, passports, etc.) so GTD filing should get much smaller.

As I think about getting away from GTD methods and think about contexts/categories of todos that actually mean something to me, I quickly come up with the following:

Initiatives that are under way or things that are committed to others.
Items that are very important to me or people I care about.
Time-limited items or items that expire.
Things that I might get to someday

With the exception of the fourth one, the very different items in the first three all end up jumbled together in the GTD context lists, with no *real* context to them to tell me whether I should *force* myself to work on them (Quadrant II), whether I feel like it or not. Even the contexts based on location seem problematical to me. For example, I was thinking about keeping the @home and @errands contexts, but what if something important or urgent (or both) is sitting there to be done such that I should GO HOME to do it, or GO OUT to do it. The contexts mask that, as though I had no choice as to the context in which I currently find myself or to which I might move next. Like: “it doesn’t matter if you’re in the wrong place, have no energy and don’t feel like doing this, you *said* you’d do it so get off your butt and go DO IT!!” It’s not a calendar vs. task list thing. It’s a commitment thing.

GTD seems to steer clear of the ruthless management of commitments that Covey so clearly articulates, and which is so incredibly important in a world grown so interdependent, and which dovetails so nicely with the way I prefer to manage my time (which is my life). Now look closely: those four personal and arbitrary classifications fall so neatly into Covey’s quadrants that I’m less surprised than when I started this little diatribe that GTD contexts don’t work for me. YMMV, of course. Getting Things Done has motivated and enabled many, many people to get organized in a way that is a vast improvement over what they did before. But the *commitment* aspect that is so prevalent in Covey’s works is something I find absent from GTD. So, it’s not for me. I was very effective at implementing Habit 3 on paper in the old days before I even carried around a cell phone, let alone a PDA or a laptop. Since Habit 3 focuses on the “big pieces” it can be done neatly and efficiently on paper. But I’m a computer guy. I carry a BlackBerry and a laptop computer. So, off to find some tools to implement Habit 3 efficiently in Outlook and on the BlackBerry.

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