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43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Are you _really_ getting anything done?

Glassofwater_2I wanted to address a couple criticisms that get made about producticity plans in general and Getting Things Done in particular.

Not to mount a big defense, exactly, but I think there are good points to mention and discuss because they contain germs of insight about whether and how you can actually improve yourself.

First off, no, not everyone needs a Unified Field Theory to run their world. If you have the details of your life managed in a way that you find satisfying and productive, then there’s absolutely no need to waste movements on learning new juju. But, in fairness, not all of us are that lucky or gifted.

Talking about an outside project I was managing at the time, I once told my colleague and tremendous pal, Leslie, something along the lines of:

I have often found that when you’re having trouble keeping your water in one place, it’s wise to consider using a glass for a while.

And, for me, that’s what any kind of productivity system or set of personal workflows really is: just a clear, simple glass to transparently contain the stuff I need. The glass is functionally useless without the water, but it does serve a purpose, right?

Not everyone who drinks needs AA and not everyone who eats needs to go on WeightWatchers. But, just because it doesn’t have a place in your life doesn’t necessarily make it completely useless for everyone else. Just sayin’ here.

The more legitimate beef that people have with squirrely programs like GTD is that you can easily get so obsessed with “maintaining your system” that you never actually do anything. Speaking as someone whose head effortlessly disappears into his own ass on a regular basis, I can confirm that this is a known issue and a very clear risk.

But, to me, that’s kind of where the real “black belt” shit comes into play. For me, the point of GTD is definitely not to saddle you with a new layer of life complexity and pet rabbit-like high maintentance; as with Biofeedback and your better organized religions, Getting Things Done is really just a mental shell game that teaches you to become more self-aware.

The lists are just ciphers that teach you not to freak about your open loops. The projects list makes you regularly confront whether your current commitments are aligned with your time and actual goals in life. And the all-important weekly review is the cranial equivalent of a trip to the Salvation Army—all the junk gets purged and you start fresh and unburdened.

So I’m not saying all the little tricks shouldn’t be followed carefully: that’s how a system becomes successful, internalized and automatic (cf. “the Three Week Rule”).

I guess I believe that there are just times in every person’s life when his or her brain needs a pair of training wheels. I, for one, would never want to fault somebody for seeking stability when they really need it.

So, yeah, lessons learned. Systems? Good sometimes. Head up ass? Bad. Finding the mojo that gets your junk done without an infarction? Very good.

But what do you think? Where’s your internal barometer set? And, how can you tell when the glass has started to become more important than your water?

Dan Nordquist's picture

I just got done reading...

I just got done reading (listening to) GTD. I was actually quite surprised at the end of the program to realize that there's relatively little attention paid to when-to-do-stuff. It's not about scheduling or calendaring or anything: just collecting, reacting, organizing, and reviewing. Doing just sort of takes care of itself, I'm thinking? Don't know.

And I'd always heard that it took six weeks to form a habit. Your Google search brings up 213 results, and "six weeks" brings up 138. "Two weeks" actually leads with 241 results. Maybe it's just two!

Only 14 results for 7, though. It definitely doesn't take seven weeks to form a habit.




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