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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

I've read parts of GTD,...

I've read parts of GTD, and you can't swing a dead cat in the "blogosphere" without bumping into someone who's enamored with it. And I don't have any heartburn with Allen's approach, for what it sets out to do. Covey sets out to do a bit more, and there's nothing wrong with either one. I agree the two are mostly complementary, it's by no means an exclusive or relationship.

I do object though when people write things like "I can’t just ignore my email for a month because I’ve decided to go off on a Spirit Quest." Gee, that's not "flame-bait" is it?

"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."

A "top-down approach" is, in my opinion, even more important for virtually all of us who aren't in anywhere near 100% control of our work, finances and obligations. That "big-picture" view is what affords one the perspective and context necessary in helping to process those thousands of cuts a day. And it doesn't require going off on a month-long spiritual retreat. It does require some thoughtful introspection though, which doesn't lend itself to checklist-style measures of progress.

And, let me humbly suggest that, if our friends don't give a rat's ass about our goals, maybe we need some different friends.

Again, I think GTD is very useful in managing day-to-day things. Does anyone recall Alan Laken's Get Control of Your Time and Your Life? "Handle each piece of paper only once." Here's the Amazon listing for his book: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0451167724/qid=1096926101/sr=8-1/ref=sr_8_xs_ap_i1_xgl14/103-9429900-7643817?v=glance&s=books&n=507846

Lakein was taught to me as a student in 1979. Not to say that Lakein is the same as Allen, but this is nothing terribly new, although technology certainly has added to the burden of things we feel we must pay attention to. Covey's was the first book I'd read along these lines that really offered some worthwhile information on how to go about framing all that "productivity" into some kind of context for actually living. Covey introduced me to Viktor Frankl, concentration camp survivor and author of Man's Search for Meaning. Now there was a guy who really wasn't in 100% control of his life! I wonder what he'd have to say about GTD? Again, this is not to say that Covey is the second coming of Jesus Christ, but disparaging the kind of introspective prospecting that yields a set of principles and a vision for one's life, by calling it a "Spirit Quest" that requires dropping everything else for month is ignorant and foolish.

Ultimately, I think, it all goes back to Thales who is credited with the aphorism, "Know thyself." Or Socrates, "the unexamined life isn't worth living." If we can't turn all this "productivity" into something that brings us closer to having some insight into this experience we call "life," then I think we're missing the point.

But hey, don't let me harsh anyone's buzz on the latest blogosphere Meme of the Week! (Damn those capital letters!)




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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