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Capital Letter Nouns v. lower-case verbs

Over the desperately long drive home from southern CA yesterday, we were listening to a bit of the Getting Things Done audio book, and something really struck me—something that seems paradoxical but ultimately kind of profound. My paraphrasing here:

The more you focus on the details of your life and your work, the more likely you are to actually achieve the “higher altitudes” of your goals.

Looking at other sorts of productivity and organizational systems, there’s often a pronounced focus on the middle- and higher-level aspects of planning, with a premium on things like Values and Mission Statements, and other laudable motivational stakes in the ground. I definitely see the appeal, because it induces you to paint mental pictures that represent significant improvement over where you are now. Nothing wrong with that. We all need it. But I think some of these systems promote Capital Letter Nouns a lot more effectively than the hard-working lower-case verb. And verbs are really what your life is made of, isn’t it?

Not to make a straw man here, but I think a top-down approach to managing your life would be pretty difficult for most people who aren’t in 100% control of their work, finances, and obligations through every moment of the day. It would be virtually impossible for me to frame every decision I make within the context of some Big Idea. I mean, I’m not a monk; I’m a freaking bit twiddler (who probably suffers from an undiagnosed case of ADD, to boot).

For myself, I feel like there’s actually a thousand tiny cuts that get made made to each day—little things that beg my attention. Some are fascinating, creative opportunities, but most are dull and often pointless micro-tasks. That’s what a day is. Almost all of those micro-tasks, for better or worse, must be processed in some way. I can’t just ignore my email for a month because I’ve decided to go off on a Spirit Quest. Instead, I’m better off to develop a healthy, organic process that blends with the actual life I’m leading (as opposed to the happy lakeside of my mental watercolors). I need a practical, real-life system that squares against my personal and professional priorities but is also all about actually doing things that I’ve committed to do. It may seem like a distinction without a difference, but I think it’s pretty powerful stuff: get a system that fits into your real life; manage your details with gusto; review regularly; and constantly refactor against a realistic plan for successive life steps.

This is probably a good point, then, to remind you (and myself) how important your weekly review is. If things get crazy through the week and items start falling through the cracks, you don’t pitch the system and buy a new book with a new white guy on the cover. No. That slipping is a perfectly natural part of the process, and that’s why your full weekly review is the perfect, built-in opportunity to observe, learn, and then get things back on track. It’s a free and instructive feedback loop for learning what you are and are not doing well.

Instead of trying to hammer your life into some kind of hermetic system where data goes in and perfect deliverables are excreted, look at it for what it really is—a bunch of “stuff” that you can choose to process in a way that’s meaningful to you and the people who are important to you. My clients and friends could give a rat’s ass what my “Goals” are. What they care about is how I handle the verbs in my life. Getting Things Done is ultimately a way to make and handle all of your verbs with as little stress as possible.

Personally, I’d snatch that “Mission Statement” out of the frame and start scrawling a TODO list on the back. Dimes to donuts you’d have more done by the end of today than you did all of last week.

dave rogers's picture

For the most part, everything...

For the most part, everything I've ever read here so far has seemed fairly useful or interesting, certainly worth the time to read. This is the first post that really wasn't in any of those categories.

Unless you're interested in learning why some of those other ideas about mission statements, or principles, might be useful, why spend your valuable time criticizing them, when you could be focused on your own productivity?

I guess I'm responding to the negativity of the post, which stands out in contrast to much of the more positive information (or my impression thereof anyway) that's been shared here in the recent past.

As for why mission statements are useful, one of the things that has puzzled me about this fascination with Getting Things Done is how empowered people feel doing more and more things that mean less and less. If you feel the point of life is to simply accomplish more "things" on your to-do list, then by all means, Get Things Done! (You're not immune to capital letters either.) But I'd like to think there's more to life than just "getting things done."

The attraction "getting things done" seems to hold, I think, is that it stimulates the reward centers of our brains, and we enjoy a pleasant sensation from putting little check marks against all our "to-dos." That's not knocking that, I think it's well worth our time to exploit our own physiology and psychology in positive ways. And in today's economy where corporations are demanding more and more productivity from their employees, increasing productivity seems to have become the goal, almost unmoored from any sense of to what end? Well, a bigger paycheck perhaps. But from my perspective, everyone seems to be enjoying the buzz at the moment, and there's little attention paid to anything besides achieving the buzz. There's no immediate reward from sitting down and trying to consider much more difficult questions about what a larger vision of your life might look like. It's hard to put that task into a series of little "to-do" items to tick off on a list. It's not impossible, but it doesn't lend itself to an easy answer, or a quick feeling of accomplishment. And sometimes, it can be pretty uncomfortable.

So, is it your point that you understand all of Covey (which is what seems to be the program that you are criticizing) and you find it useless? Or do you not understand it, and are simply indulging in something we're all wont to do from time to time, and that is criticize what we don't understand?

I'll understand if you don't have time to respond at length. You seem terribly busy.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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