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

A Year of Getting Things Done: Part 2, The Stuff I Wish I Were Better At

This is the second of a three-part series looking back on a year of doing Getting Things Done. Part 1 from Wednesday was “The Good Stuff”; final installment appears Friday morning.

The Stuff I Wish I Were Better At

Maintaining a tickler file

Oh, the shame. To have named my site after the disused dust collector under my desk.

It’s not that I don’t use my tickler, exactly, but that I don’t use it correctly. It still works swell as a place to park concert tickets and phone bills, but I do a crap job of checking it every morning. And that’s the whole point. I know that.

Better in ‘05, I swear.

Weekly review

I realize that, after next actions, the weekly review is probably the most important piece in making GTD work; it’s definitely the key to the big picture. But, you know, Sunday comes and Sunday goes, and there’s my big pile of lists and files, still sitting there, unreviewed. Bad on me.

In practice, this has more often become a “10-day review” which, as you might expect, is not really working for me. Seven days is a great natural unit for raking through everything for uncaptured next actions and reminders. It’s something I’m really working to improve, because it’s unerringly useful and stress-reducing. Another good habit to redouble for the new year.

Getting back on the horse. And quickly.

One thing I’ve loved about GTD is how forgiving it can be once you have your basic system in place. It’s relatively easy to get back on track anytime you realize you’re starting to veer off course. Again, the beauty of the next action is that you aren’t swiping hopefully at some high-minded piñata: you’re just focusing on the next thing that needs to get done at any given time. Easy enough.

Having said that, I sometimes find it a little daunting to ramp back up when I’ve been slacking. The lists, the reviews, the previously mentioned tickler—while the rituals and rites of GTD are easy (and enjoyable) to maintain when I’m being a good doo-bee, it can take a while (at least an hour or three) to get back to my comfort level each time I’ve fallen off the wagon.

Then, of course, it’s worth mentioning the nearly vertical curve for getting started. While I, for one, think it’s definitely worth the time and trouble, it’s not uncommon for new GTD acolytes to spend from two to five solid business days initially getting their GTD act together. (No, really: it takes that long, I swear.)

So, mostly, this is just a whine to myself. When I’m staying on top of things, it’s a super-easy ride. But if I get distracted for 2 or 5 days? Woe betide me. I need to minimize the slips and speed up the recovery time.

The Big One: Finding one system that works (and then fiddling with it as little as humanly possible)

Man, this is so my biggest problem by five lengths. It’s the doughnut in my Atkins and the turd in my punchbowl. I just suck at this.

I have had the worst time setting up a single, integrated workflow that works for me. I’ve flitted endlessly between text files, Entourage, Mail.app, vim, online RSS-based calendars, all-in-one apps, paper planners, Moleskines, index cards, and more in search of the right combination. Each tool and habit has its benefits, to be sure, but I never seem to land on a really satisfying set of apps and practices that feels like it has exactly the right “flow” to it. Most corrosively, I often (really often) blow tons of time ramping up to some new bauble only to ultimately discover it lacks some critical piece (export, reminders, etc. etc.). Bad habits for someone who ostensibly wants his work life to be more productive and waste-free.

Of course, I can write some of the time and effort down to “research” and the fact that part of my work involves learning about new productivity widgets, but I can’t avoid the fact that I still don’t have a method of handling all my information (and actual work) in a way that I find satisfying and intuitive. Plus I have to admit to some terrible habits surrounding my ongoing search for “The Perfect System™.”

Yes, friends, it’s what plaintiffs' attorneys  call an “attractive nuisance.” The further under the gun I am with a deadline, the more likely I am to squander the available time pursuing some nominally useful “productivity hack.” Half a day might go toward developing a system of personal metadata for a 0.01a piece of freeware I've grabbed off SourceForge. Or maybe I’ll notice it's 4:45 and dark outside and suddenly realize I've spent the entire afternoon  writing and testing a shell script that automatically names my files based on a customized date format. Oh, yeah. It's real, this attractive nuisance of “productivity.” I will always be attracted to the shiny object that feels potentially productive—even if it takes me away from the drop-dead, end of business day deadline I'm facing. It's a disease, and I’ll own that.

Clearly, this bit deserves its own post (or a freakin’ series of posts), but I have finally (and painfully) admitted that my single biggest risk to succeeding with GTD is the time I spend just frankly dicking around with it. And, based on what I’m hearing from other folks, the pattern is far from unique—more likely it’s repeated thousands of times every week as people  slog gamely toward tools and habits that feel as intuitive and  transparent as David’s basic system.

With the benefit of hindsight, I’d tell new GTD fans that there’s a devil in these  woods. Sure: allow yourself firewalled time each week to experiment with new tools and methods, but never let it displace the time spent on the actual work you need to accomplish. Remember: doing “Getting Things Done” is not the same thing as doing your projects’ work. Be careful not to let doodling on your pretty map replace the important business of walking the actual territory. Trust me, it’s a hazard. Big time.

So what’s your hangup with GTD? What’s been the hardest piece for you to get just right?

More on Getting Things Done

Our saga concludes Friday morning with the final installment of “A Year of Getting Things Done.” In “The Future of GTD?,” we’ll focus on some smart ways for David and Co. to update their wares and do a better job of reaching out to the enthusiastic communities that have built up around Getting Things Done.

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:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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