I recently had the pretty incredible opportunity to participate in a workshop that David Allen is piloting. I was fortunate enough to meet David when I invited him to speak at a conference I organized. Luckily, I happen to be located a mere two hour drive from the David Co. headquarters so I was within range when he invited me to the workshop. Anybody who knows me in real life or has followed my writing knows I'm unabashedly a huge Getting Things Done fan. I think David's contribution to how we think about work in the age of the knowledge economy is incredibly important. As I was sitting in the conference room last week watching David present this information I realized that GTD is about much more than keeping track of lists, label makers, or notebooks. I've always worried that to an outside observer who doesn't "get it", it all looks like obsession over the minutiae of being organized. However, I think GTD is so great because it's really about empowerment.
The Tyranny of the Big Project
GTD empowers you as an individual on two important planes. First, if you "get" GTD and have implemented it into your life in at least a semi-complete fashion then you have the tools to pick apart any project. Literally, any project. I'm talking about world changing, paradigm shifting, my-life's-work kind of projects. Everything from getting your oil changed to ending world hunger has some concrete next action that will take you one step closer to your vision. Every time I find myself getting mired in the sheer vastness of something I'm trying to accomplish I realize I've lost sight of really the only thing that matters -- the next concrete step I can take. Visions and mission statements are great but the lowly next action -- brainstorm for 10 minutes, call John, Google X, talk to Emily about Y -- is what creates change in the world. GTD's bottom up approach, from the tactical day-to-day concerns to the overarching strategic plan, shows an appreciation and respect for action.
Getting Above the Fray
Somewhat paradoxically, the other major empowering contribution of GTD is that it helps you get above the fray and analyze your work and life from a new perspective. Think of the difference between a foot soldier and a general. A foot soldier's overwhelming concern is with staying alive moment to moment. Dodge that axe, duck over there, run over here (evidently my conception of warfare is about two centuries behind). These actions are what keeps the foot soldier alive and they don't have the time or energy to stand back and think about the larger strategy of the battle or war. On the other hand, the commander is above the fray (figuratively and literally). His job is to coordinate the larger strategy of the battle. He needs to monitor what every unit is doing, what the enemy is doing, and make changes as necessary.
Unnecessarily violent metaphor aside, this is similar to how we work. It's very easy to get sucked into the moment by moment actions that keep you alive in a work-sense. Responding to emails, dealing with interruptions, fixing projects that have gone into emergency mode -- these are the actions that keep you afloat but also never let you take a step back. Having a good GTD system in place helps you elevate to the level of a commander from time to time. You can step away from the gritty day to day details and take stock of where your forces are, what's coming on the horizon, and make plans to meet upcoming challenges. Once the plans have been laid and adjustments made you can dive back into the foray content in the knowledge that you're on the right path and you're ready for the unexpected.
Without GTD large projects can seem like immovable boulders. Without GTD you can get locked into the small battles that may never coalesce into work you actually care about. Across these two planes of focus GTD empowers you to have greater impact and actually accomplish what you care about. To the outsider, GTD may look like nothing more than obsession over lists and organization for the sake of organization. It can be easy to fall into that trap if you're not careful (i.e. productivity porn) but the potential reward for understanding and carrying out your own GTD system is too great to ignore.
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Photo courtesy of emdot