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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.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
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