Productivity Pitfalls —OR— Why GTD always failed for me

Originally written on 03/19/20

Best Intentions

I think people generally have a real belief that they are “going to make it work this time” when they decide to “buckle down” and stick with a productivity system. I know I do. Maybe it’s finding a new system, maybe it’s finding a new productivity application that catches your fancy or has some new feature/function that you find appealing. Maybe it’s a New Year’s Resolution or you set a goal to become more organized and productive. Perhaps it’s trying to create good habits around being productive.

In all of these cases I believe people have the motivation and conviction. But it seems no matter how much you are committed, it doesn’t last or simply fails. Why is that? I can tell you this much… the problem is not that new app.

What Goes Wrong

It’s not that difficult to start out strong… maybe even last a couple months! But over time we slip back into the same behavior that got us in trouble the last time, and the time before that… and the time before that. <sigh>

So what is the problem if we are using great tools/systems? The problem is us and how we process information. At least it is for me. If you are one of those people that never feels bogged down by a growing list of tasks or never loses any piece of information, then I have to ask… what are you doing here?!? Go read something more pleasurable! For everyone else, you are probably a lot like me.

I will not claim to have it all figured out, but I recently learned an issue that keeps putting me back to hectic and lost. It is a lack of review and planning. EVEN if I start out planning, the lack of review has things getting lost in the shuffle or continually pushed forward in an endless losing battle (it feels like). “I just don’t have time for review and planning,” I say in my head, “I just need to start getting work done.” But busy work without review and planning is most often lackluster in actual productivity at best. At worst, you realize too late that you are working on the completely wrong thing and have to scrap your work and start over or on something different.

Decisions, decisions

But it’s also more than just review and planning. You have to actually make up your mind, you have to make decisions on what action to take! You see, I often find myself in a rut, especially with email, on not knowing what action to take. This indecision results in emails being read by me, but staying in my inbox for my future self to deal with. Then, later that day or even days later, my future self looks at it again… has to re-read it and understand what it is (a waste of time) and then try to make a decision this time… except, maybe I’m still not ready so I do the same thing again. There are times when I will have read an email for the 4th or 5th time before I’m able to decide what to do with it. And, while these emails are itching to linger in my inbox, it is both confusing to look at and wastes even more time because I am unsure what actually needs action out of the mess of emails left in my inbox.

I used to work with a guy who would delete all of his emails once he read/acted on them. It literally blew my mind. I asked him how he referenced things at a later date… his answer? He searched for them in his trash. 😳 I was dumbfounded. But, here’s the thing… his mind was free. Whether you completely agree or disagree with his methods, HIS mind was free. He didn’t have things clogging up his vision. If there was an email in his inbox it needed to be processed. Same with his task list.

But, please don’t take this line of thinking to mean it is an email only problem. It applies to things on your task list or physical mail sitting on your desk. ANYTHING that needs to be processed requires you to make a decision on how to process it. For task lists: am I really going to complete this today, or is it just something I’d like to complete today? — that’s just one example — For physical mail: is this junk mail, a bill, something that needs to be filed or shredded (etc.)? You can come up with lists of things like this for many facets of your life.

In fact, part of what causes your indecision is not wanting to lose track of things… isn’t it? You leave emails in your inbox because you figure if you move it out before taking the right action you will forget about it. You let things build up on your active task list because you don’t feel like you have a place to put them where you won’t forget about them.

So, you have all these things that require your decision on actions to take… yet you are paralyzed most of the time. How do you fix this?

Changing How You Think

I have read countless books on the subject and even purchased and taken training around this. You probably have too… we know the answer, but we can’t seem to do the right actions to combat this same problem.

I already said the solution above — review and planning — but why is it so elusive?

Well, I also already mentioned why we skip this step… we put a higher priority on “taking action” rather than sitting quietly and analyzing what we should actually be working on… what actions will mean the most or make the biggest impact.

By the way, it’s more than simply scheduling the time to review and plan… you literally do have to change how you think when it comes time to make those decisions, but if you are consistent in your review and planning habits, the task of making a decision is much less difficult or scary.

What Clicked For Me?

For whatever reason, whether it was where I am in my life, the delivery of the content, or maybe it was simply hearing similar things for the hundredth time… it is starting to sink in. I can think of two things that have had the biggest impact on me recently regarding all of this. 1) The “All The Things (Pro)” training by Shawn Blanc from The Sweet Setup and The Focus Course, and 2) the book “Atomic Habits” by James Clear where he mentions both the “1% better” rule as well as “habit-stacking”.

Just for clarification, I have zero sponsorship on my site at the time I am writing this article (who knows what the future holds), so anything I am personally recommending has no kick-back to me. I have also personally paid for everything I talk about out of my own pocket. Any and all ads you see on my site are because I have a free WordPress.com site, and that is how WordPress capitalizes on my site… not me.

There are some sayings that have stuck with me and I can’t remember where I originally heard them (even though I am trying to keep a commonplace book with quotes), so I apologize for not providing appropriate credit:

If everything is a priority, then nothing is —AND— If we focus on everything, then we focus on nothing

There is a misperception that “doing things” is the same thing as “being productive”

Less is more when it comes to either goals or task management

These sayings help frame how you have to think differently. You can’t make everything a priority at the same time. We truly can’t focus on more than one thing at a time (multi-tasking is literally bullshit… anyone who appears like they can multi-task is simply very good at task-switching very quickly, but it’s still less efficient than pure focus). Also, simply “doing things” isn’t what I would define as productive unless the result of those things actually produces something useful/wanted, or your desired end-state.

Side-note on multi-tasking for any computer nerds reading this: Computer CPUs don’t actually multi-task either… well, not in their most simplistic form. Almost every CPU these days, even mobile phones, use multi-core CPUs. But, each core is actually a processor. A processor can only handle one compute task at a time, but because CPUs have many cores it can schedule many different compute tasks across them at the same time and, in essence, multi-task. But, you should think of each core like your brain… our brains don’t have multiple brains inside it. 😉

Shawn Blanc covers a lot of the topic of focus in his All The Things (Pro) training by limiting himself to only 3 things per day (outside of his regularly scheduled appointments), but also talks about actually scheduling the time it will take to accomplish those “things” in your day. I mean, it makes complete sense… if you don’t block off the time to complete those tasks, how can you ever expect to actually get them done?!? And I know this has been my downfall for many years. I think to myself, “I’ll find time throughout the day to get to my task list”… yeah right.

I also love how he talks about making sure one of those 3 things is something longer term and more personal. How else will you remember to work on those longer term goals/projects and make enough progress?

Making Those Decisions

Personally, I think you have to have it clear in your head what the possible decisions are and what those actions or filing steps/places are. The reason I say this is because you want to be able to get through the decision process quickly. I don’t necessarily think getting this figured out is easy, but it’s crucial to making sure you know what to do and can do it quickly. Quickness is key because taking too long either slows down the process to the point that it is unwieldy and doesn’t get done, or you never even start due to indecision. I know this is what was happening to me with my email and task management that had it completely clogged up.

I also believe this is a living, breathing matrix that will evolve over time as you and your system matures. So don’t worry so much about getting it right the first time once and for all. Just figure out what makes sense and get started. As you work through things you may realize some of those decisions or filing steps/places needs to be altered… make the change and keep going.

Each person has a unique way of looking at things and requirements, so you really need to figure these out yourself, for yourself. You can look at what other people do as a starting point, but you really need to make it your own. I wrote a post on what I started to do around decisions and getting to inbox zero. You can use this and modify it for your own needs to suit whatever it is you are trying to decide around. The basic framework may still apply. BTW, I have since changed some of the tools I use and how I do some of those things. But that doesn’t matter and that’s my point… it’s a living and evolving system that you should feel free to change as needed.

Having Security in Your System

Getting back to what had paralyzed me, and may be what’s paralyzing/holding-you-back, it is the frightening thought that you might lose something or forget about it after you file it away in that someday/maybe thing.

For me it was the matter of not understanding how I get reminded of those things that I file away somewhere. How will I ever find it again down the road? You could say “search for it”, which was my thought process… until you can’t seem to remember any words related to that thing as it sits in your system. I used to throw stuff in Evernote thinking I would just find it later via search, but a year or more later I would try to find something and it would take many different attempts and methods to try and find things. Sometimes I would just give up because I would keep striking out. This didn’t help my anxiety around this topic at all.

So then, how do you feel secure in your system? Well, I think it is two things:

  1. Be more purposeful in your “filing” of things — By this, I mean you should only file things away that you believe are important enough. Also, you need to be able to provide enough “context” around that thing so that it makes sense to your future self. This “context” might be a project name, an area of your life (work, personal, dad, husband, coach, hobby, etc), tags that you will remember in the future (tags should be clearly defined and minimal in number to be manageable), or notations around it. I have decided to be much more mindful in what I put in different places to make sure it makes sense.
    1. For “quick capture” I use an application called Drafts. This is on my iMac Pro, my iPhone, my iPad and, most importantly and most useful, on my Apple Watch! Whenever I think of something I don’t want to forget I tap on the Drafts complication on my Apple Watch that opens a new note in Drafts and starts listening to provide voice to text. Then I just say what’s on my mind and click done. I do this in the car while driving, in the walk-in closet while getting dressed, in the shower, ANYWHERE! If I am already on one of my other devices I can open Drafts and it opens to a new note for that quick entry. All of these things/notes sit in the Drafts “inbox” to be dealt with later. When “later” comes, I can move those bits of text to their appropriate location, and Drafts even has some great integrations with other apps or you can create your own. It doesn’t matter whether that thought is a task for Things, an appointment on the calendar, an idea or thought for a blog post in Ulysses, etc. The “later” piece is in that review portion I keep mentioning… Drafts’ “inbox” is simply one more inbox to get to zero throughout your day/week.
    2. Help reduce the noise of your system by adding “no sooner than” timing parameters around things that don’t need to be looked at or thought about for a period of time. This could be snooze folders (you could have folders for the month names, or quarters of the year, etc), actually adding some future date like in a task management system, etc. Why continue to spend brain cycles on these things constantly if they don’t need an action or decision at this time? This is like leaving things in your email inbox… every time you see those read emails that still exist you start to think about them again. It’s wasteful and stressing.
  2. Schedule time to review the different areas where you file things — Some things need more frequent review than others. Daily review is for things like your remaining tasks that maybe didn’t get finished (Do they still need to get completed? Should they get filed again or scheduled?), the tasks that should be looked at for tomorrow/today (depending on when you are doing your planning/review), your inboxes (email, task management, quick capture, maybe even physical mail, etc). Things that require less frequent review are those someday/maybe things… things that don’t have a definite due date or that aren’t as pressing. Those are the things that tend to get lost and forgotten, so if you know that you will review them later you will stress less and feel better about filing them away.
    1. When you go through these various areas you can decide if something needs to be brought into the present with a date/time to work on it, if it should be pushed out further, or maybe you can just delete/get-rid-of-it! If something is no longer valid, discard it so you don’t have to think about it any longer. Don’t burden your mind with unnecessary or unhelpful things… you have enough to think about. Prune these areas regularly and mercilessly.

The first part, the filing and context, is incredibly important for your future self and brain (you will thank yourself later), but the second part is why you will ultimately feel secure in your system. The pruning part is also very important to help reduce your potential list… which brings us to the next section.

Caring Less

Boy, that’s a strange subheading… but this was really key for me. We are human beings with limitations and there is no way to get it ALL done or not skip something. The GTD system was great for emptying my brain, but I also felt like I had to track everything that came out of it. Like everything was equally important. But it’s not all equally important. Some things don’t actually need to get done.

In fact, one of the things that I learned in the past year was that letting things sit, on purpose, has a way of telling you just how important or critical it actually is. Some times those things fix themselves or become unnecessary. Sometimes the fire-alarm gets louder and that’s when you realize it does need your prioritized attention. But you would be amazed at how well this tact works. Try and let things stew a bit and see if they still seem important after hitting the pause button. If they aren’t, prune them!

Another way to think about “caring less” is about setting appropriate expectations for yourself on what you can actually accomplish. How I relate this to “caring less” is because I have always had this almost panic that everything needed to get done… it was all P1 and it needed to get done right away. So my daily task list was nearly everything on my overall task list. This is ridiculous and unattainable. Maybe you disagree that this falls under a section titled “caring less”, and that’s fine, but if you are one of the many people in this world who thinks they need to check off 20 tasks in a day, then one of two things is true: either your tasks are remedial bullshit (maybe that’s too harsh, but I mainly mean very small and quick to complete tasks instead of larger and more impactful tasks), or you are trying to bite off WAY more than you can chew. I’m betting it’s the second part, as it was for me. But it actually took a lot for me to get it, and I still fall prey to trying to worry about too many things at once or in a single day.

As mentioned earlier, Shawn Blanc talks about this in the All The Things training, only choosing 3 main things to accomplish that day. They should be the most important things that help you move your priorities and projects forward.

And then I just read an article this past week on Harvard Business Review about this very topic and people getting down on themselves about not finishing up their daily todo lists. The problem? People had too many things on their daily lists!! I like one part in this article in particular on how to prove it to yourself if you still don’t think it’s a problem:

Perform a forensic analysis. Grant recommends trying an experiment. Each morning, write a regular to do list, and at the end of the day, see how many things you managed to complete. Do this for a week or two. “Then ask, on average, how many items am I crossing off?” Your goal is to get a feel for how much work you actually get done in a day, so you can learn to manage your expectations about what’s realistic.

It then goes on to say that, with this data, you need to “right-size” your list to only include what you can actually get done. They say this may wind up only being 2-3 things in any given day.

Getting back to the All The Things training, it’s not just that you only choose your 3 top priority items for the day, but you actually estimate (over-estimate is what Shawn recommends) how much time each thing will take to complete and literally schedule them into your calendar! This last part is SO hugely important that I can’t overstate it. If you don’t understand the importance of this you can also run another test for yourself. Run one week estimating the time of your tasks and actually schedule them into your days. Then, run one week NOT estimating the time they will take nor scheduling them into your day. See which week you are more successful in getting your tasks actually done. You probably see my point.

I know that when I don’t schedule my tasks they rarely get done. But estimating the time they take before scheduling them serves another purpose… it allows you to see if you even have the bandwidth available in the day to get to them! For example, I have 2 days a week that are literally back-to-back-to-back calls from 9am to 5pm… and those are just what are scheduled. I am leading or participating in those calls and need to pay attention, so there is no notion of being able to “multi-task” while I’m on those calls. I know there isn’t much I can do on those days and I have to do things before 9am or after 5pm if I am going to be able to get to them. Other days that have appointments scattered throughout the day are times when I can try to tackle some of the things on my list, but this is also where it is key to make those time estimates and truly schedule them into my day. Free calendar space tends to get booked, so I create appointments for my tasks. If they are important enough to make my short list, they are important enough to schedule time in the day for. When I don’t schedule my tasks, they almost never get done.

Without a plan you become a prisoner of events. Likewise, without review you cannot effectively plan.

Heard the first sentence when listening to the book Measure What Matters, by John Doerr. I added the second sentence myself since it is what occurred to me when I heard it.

Finishing this section off, “caring less” to me means:

  • Hit pause on things to see if they are truly important or worth it — don’t be so reactionary
  • You don’t need to actually do everything that makes its way to you or your list — prune your list mercilessly
  • Stop worrying about losing stuff and trust your system — regularly review

How To Improve (The 1% Rule)

In the book Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about the idea of compounding interest as it pertains to yourself. This can apply to almost any aspect of your life, but in the aspect of a productivity system I see it working like this:

  • Don’t try to bite off too much change at once. It’s too shocking to the system and generally unmanageable. Start off with smaller incremental changes and build on to them over time.
  • Every time you are able to take things 1% further, you are taking them 1% more from the last incremental bump, so each additional 1% delivers exponentially greater results than the last.

1% is just a metaphor, in my mind anyway, for small incremental changes that are more easily digestible and manageable that ultimately lead to much bigger total changes over time.

Let’s look at a real-life example:

  • You want to get better at reviewing and planning, but you struggle with spending the necessary time on it and instead of doing any review and planning you simply skip it.
  • Instead of trying to do it completely “right”, which may actually mean spending 30-45 minutes each day, just set aside 5 minutes each morning or night (choose one).
  • After a week of this much time being successful, bump it up to 10 minutes.
  • The next week bump it up to 15 minutes, and so on.
  • After 6-9 weeks you will be up to 30-45 minutes of reviewing and planning (you can start to add even more time each week as you start seeing the benefits, because it is easier to justify in your brain. Meaning, instead of only bumping it 5 minutes per week, in the 3rd week you may bump it 10 minutes and the 4th week bump it 15 minutes and be up to 35 minutes in just 4 weeks).

The Easy Path To Committing (Habit-Stacking)

When I was reading the book Atomic Habits, the concept of habit-stacking was a major ah-ha moment for me! The idea is this: if you already have a habit that you never miss, simply stack a new habit to the end of it.

We don’t rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems.

James Clear, Atomic Habits

For example, for the past 5 months I have been religiously writing every morning and night in my journal app, DayOne, using a modified 5 minute journal template (I’m going to write a post on this soon). I wanted to start a new consistent habit of reading “The Daily Stoic” by Ryan Holiday and write about how I can apply the message to my life in a shared Apple Note with my very good friend JJ. Since I already had a working habit with my journaling, I simply add The Daily Stoic habit to the end of the first habit (i.e., When I finish writing my 5-min AM journal I will read the day’s message and write my thoughts in the note). This worked perfectly! A couple months later, and very recently in relation to me writing this, I realized my Things 3 “Today” view was overcrowded and not working the way I needed it to. The problem was lack of review and planning, so I stacked that to the end of my Daily Stoic habit (i.e., When I finish writing in the shared Apple Note, I will open Things 3 and decide what I will actually work on today). This has been working out for the last week or so, and I am planning on stacking another habit at the end of that, which is performing my planner review and planning. The point is, I am not trying to change everything at once, but adding things to the end of something you already stick to makes the new habit that much easier to stick to and remember in the first place!

When You Fall Down, Pick Yourself Up

Everyone is human and everyone is going to miss now and again. Maybe something comes up that gets in the way of these daily habits that legitimately blocks you from doing them… maybe you just simply miss on your own without any situational help. The point is, don’t miss again.

James Clear talks about this in his book, but I also had my sister mention this to me when I was talking about diet/eating habits. She told me, “Yes, we will mess up… but that’s just an opportunity to do the right thing next time!” I really liked her wording. James Clear was more forceful when he said, “I don’t let myself miss twice.” The reality is I sometimes do miss again… sometimes I can miss for a whole week on certain things. My sister’s point was, stop beating yourself up about it. Just decide you can get back on track and do it. No fanfare needed… no 50 lashes with a wet noodle needed… just course correct and don’t look back!

Doesn’t that seem like a better way to look at it? It does to me. (Thanks Big-Sis!)

Whether the habit/anti-habit I am trying to maintain has to do with productivity or health related, it seems much easier to get over the hurdle of a miss if it’s no big deal to simply start back up. When I used to think about it in more rigid terms, like James Clear talked about it (I was already hard on myself before reading James Clear), I felt like I had already failed. Like it was too far gone already. How silly is that?? I can laugh at myself now, but I wonder if others think that same way?

So, if you are like I was (and sometimes I can start to revert back to), just take the pressure off of yourself. Just try and do better. Try the 1% if what you were trying was too much in one go. In fact, James Clear also talks about that 1% possibly being only to think about the thing you want to do on the daily. He used an example of fitness. Start with the thought for a week. Then get dressed in fitness clothes (without going to the gym) for a week. Then add driving to the parking lot of the gym without going into the gym. Eventually, he said, you are already dressed in workout clothes and in the parking lot… you may as well go in.

Like I said, I really like so much of the Atomic Habits book and ideas on how to create habits. I will definitely be reading it more than once. As some wise man once said, you never actually read the same book twice (because you grow and change yourself, and therefore find/learn different things each time).

Critical Path for Success — Review/Planning

It’s not like this is a surprise ending… I’ve been sprinkling this in from the very start of this article.

I guess my closing statements are these:

  • Make the time to review and plan and DON’T miss it (pretend it’s an appointment with someone you wouldn’t want to disappoint)
  • Force yourself not to take on new things (reactive) until you review and plan (strategic) what things should actually be on your task list (this means you can’t be a “yes” person)
  • Review means you don’t lose track of things, which means filing things for later review is less scary — I’m not saying I never lose my way or slip backward into indecision… but if I realize I am doing it and find my way back to the review and planning phase, all is not lost.
  • I also continually fall down… but, as long as you pick yourself back up, dust yourself off and get back to the right activities, you are doing much better than most.

When I review and plan my day I feel great and get done what I need to get done. When I don’t review and plan and am only reactive, I feel frazzled.

At least if I review and plan my day when something comes up that is reactive I have my plan in front of me and can decide if I want to skip or move something, but I still feel good about my day in the end.

– VirtuallyGeeky

This article turned out to be way longer than I thought it would, and I know it was a lot to read. If you made it this far, thanks for staying with me. I hope you got something out of it. I was hoping to get it out on March 9th and even to publish something additional on the 16th, but this topic was so important to me and my life right now that I decided to just finish it. I toyed with making it a 2 part series, but where would you split this up?? Also, even if I did that, it didn’t feel right to leave anyone hanging for the ending.

This blog and writing these topics really helps me think through things and have a conversation with myself. If it helps anyone else at the same time, then my time was even more worth it. Please feel free to leave comments and start a conversation with me and anyone else that visits!

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