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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.

dave rogers's picture

"Your hostility is misplaced." You make...

"Your hostility is misplaced."

You make a good point.

My hostility was toward what Mr. Mann wrote. What I wrote in response was directed more toward Mr. Mann, and less to what he wrote. Which, while it scratched a particular itch, has only served to obscure the criticism I was trying to make of his post.

To Mr. Mann, I apologize for making you the object of my criticism, as much as, or more than, what you wrote.

Mr. Wren offers, "In the end, it's all about getting things done," and he does so in the context of accomplishing a "personal dream." In that context, "it," indeed, is "all about getting things done." But that's a very limited context.

As Mr. Mann suggests, not many of us are "in 100% control of their work, finances, and obligations through every moment of the day." I would go so far as to say that none of us are. Mr. Wren is "getting things done" in pursuit of a "personal dream." He is in control of his dream, and more power to him.

But there are lots of other people, like Viktor Frankl, like adult children of parents coping with end of life issues, like parents coping with terminally ill children, like employees suddenly down-sized or out-sourced out of a job, like families whose loved ones have been killed or maimed in accidents, or crimes, or war, and none of these people are in control of any of the events that have made their lives into things they never "dreamed" of. They are not in control of what the "things" are they will now have to "get done." Yes, all those people have to "get things done," but, in the end, that is not what "it" is all about.

Mission statements, values, principles, "spirit quests," religion, self-knowledge... none of those things make any of those challenges any easier. But they do help to give them meaning. They help people to discover meaning. They offer an opportunity for living in, or discovering, faith rather than surrendering to despair. And too many people surrender to despair.

And please don't think I'm suggesting this sort of thinking is only useful for people coping with loss and grief. This sort of thinking opens up your life in many wonderful and important ways. Certainly, GTD can facilitate finding the time to make that kind of effort.

And here's another thought: Where in your master checklist of things to do have you set aside time for thinking about issues like freedom and security? About war and peace? How do you assess the performance of your leaders? What do you believe about how they view the world and how they choose to respond to it?

These are capital letter noun kinds of questions, and the answers won't improve your productivity. I would say most conventional authorities would prefer that you focus on "getting things done." Because your personal productivity contributes to the bottom line. Because by focusing on the minutia of your daily lives, you won't bother them by asking troubling questions about just how many people they're prepared to kill before they decide we're secure enough. I care less about where you stand on that particular issue than I do about whether or not you've even seriously thought about it. Do questions about war and peace deserve the same level of cognitive effort as how many folders it takes to "get things done?" I know what I think. But have you thought about it at all? I'm not suggesting you haven't, but the way you write about the lack of utility of "values" suggests you haven't quite thought things through.

Given a sufficiently advanced technology, all man's material problems go away; and all we're left with are spiritual ones. We're in a pretty damn advanced technology right now, and I'd say we have enough time to devote some of it to those spiritual problems. If we can take our eyes off our checklists and flow-charts and weekly reviews long enough to think about them.

So, Mr. Mann, thank you for your terse e-mail. Forgive me for "flaming" you. I'm sure you're a sincere and decent person, and as I indicated before, I think your enthusiasm for your subject has made 43 Folders an enjoyable read. But I disagree strongly with what you wrote and how you chose to write it in this post. Whatever hostility I have is directed at that, not at you.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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