43 Folders

Back to Work

Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin. We talk about creativity, independence, and making things you love.

Join us via RSS, iTunes, or at 5by5.tv.

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

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.

Ambar's picture

Dave, it sounds like your impression...


it sounds like your impression of GTD is mostly formed from reading the effusions of new fans online, rather than going directly to the source. One of the points David Allen makes fairly regularly in his book is that getting in control of the details of your life frees up mental room for considering that larger vision, and aligning your life with it.

Covey and GTD can blend quite nicely (yes, I've read Covey). The most common blend I've seen is to use GTD to handle execution, and Covey's roles, mission & vision to handle what David Allen calls the 10,000ft - 50,000ft views of life.

GTD's strength is handling the "up to your ass in alligators" part of your life, so you can decide whether to drain the swamp, build a bridge, or set up an ecological study station. :-)




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


Subscribe with Google Reader

Subscribe on Netvibes

Add to Technorati Favorites

Subscribe on Pageflakes

Add RSS feed

The Podcast Feed


Merlin used to crank. He’s not cranking any more.

This is an essay about family, priorities, and Shakey’s Pizza, and it’s probably the best thing he’s written. »

Scared Shitless

Merlin’s scared. You’re scared. Everybody is scared.

This is the video of Merlin’s keynote at Webstock 2011. The one where he cried. You should watch it. »