Categories | Community Contributors | Features | Getting Started | Getting Things Done | Implementation
As those of you that read this site regularly may know, I am relatively new to GTD having just begun following David Allen’s principles immediately prior to taking on the editorial role here at GTDtimes. When I started I determined that it might be of value to others to read a little bit about my own experiences as I’ve been applying myself to utilizing GTD.
My first post on this topic mainly related to my realization that my prior reluctance towards implementing GTD in my own life in spite of recognizing how beneficial it was in other people’s lives related to arrogance and perhaps a little fear. This second post is more of a factual accounting regarding my actual experience in using GTD.
Getting started with GTD is both easier and more difficult than you imagine. For me, it was actually pretty easy to set up the key components of my own GTD program and I found that I really didn’t need any help with the moving parts – for example, I found that once I was clear on what mattered and why I had no trouble at all setting up my Entourage folders in such a way that I could effectively deal with each incoming piece of email as soon as I looked at it.
This, for me, was a major achievement and the cause for considerable relief as for the first time in a decade I could see all the messages in my Inbox on a single page. I can’t tell you how good that feels – for once your inbox becomes the source of relief rather than anxiety. At times I used to have as many as 5000 messages in my inbox, some of them deletable, some actionable, some undetermined and none organized. Now if it’s in my inbox I haven’t read it. It’s as simple as that.
Similarly, I was surprised to find that a project/next action list was fairly easy for me to choose and equally easy to implement. I chose to start with Things after reviewing it for GTDtimes. While it isn’t perfect it is easy to set up and use and doesn’t require a lot of maintenance. It doesn’t sync with iCal, however which means that I have to enter due dates that require pop up reminders twice which is a bit inconvenient. It would also be nice if there was an easy way to get tasks into Things while you’re on the go (something they’ve promised with an iPhone version of Things supposedly due in June). Since I edit this site and thus look at lots of software there is a constant temptation to try something else but I’ve been sort of doggedly sticking with Things mainly because I’ve been warned about falling into the trap of spending more time tweaking one’s GTD implementation – especially via software and gadgets – than actually Getting Things Done and knowing my own tendencies in this regard I’m trying to stay out of trouble.
That was the easy part…
I had a lot more trouble with purging all my excess material and getting what was left after the major purge into a good, simple system. In truth, this is still an ongoing process. I love to read and I have literally thousands of pieces of reading material; books, magazines, brochures, you name it – plus on top of this mail, newspapers, documents, research I’ve printed out, etc. I’m not quite a pack rat living amongst piles of newspapers inches from the ceiling but it wouldn’t be honest to say I live a paperless life either by any means.
While tossing much of the stuff I’d accumulated was a liberating feeling there were certain things that provoked anxiety. Funny stuff too – for example programs from conferences I’d attended that had lists of every vendor along with contact information. I don’t know why I felt weird about tossing these items in particular – it’s not as if I can’t find that information again if I ever need it. I can only conclude that some habits are harder to break than others.
As a result the complete purging process has taken me a lot longer than I would have expected and it has been more difficult for me than other parts of my GTD implementation.
One thing that hit home with me was when David talks about the mess that lives inside most people’s center desk drawer – you know the one with paper clips and rubber bands and broken pens and cell phone batteries and add to that the odd tool, some bills that belong in an in-basket and myriad and sundry other items that seem to have migrated there without ever having been invited?
Yeah, I had one of those – possible one of the most egregious examples ever. In fact, it was so bad it took an act of God or someone coming over to visit to actually get me to shove the thing shut.
It was a wondrous moment in my GTD set-up that I was able to completely clear this drawer of all but the most essential items and keep it – while not exactly immaculately tidy, at least devoid of non-essentials and easily shut at any time. Small wonders shall never cease!
This is a surprising benefit to me because the content of this drawer was a constant source of distraction for me whenever I was at my desk which is a lot of the time. There’s definitely something to be said for keeping the toys out of the office (or at least out of convenient reach) as I’ve found that as soon as I’m feeling stuck or tired or simply want to do something different the toys that are in easy reach – whether it’s the latest Nokia phone, a laser pointer or some other equally distracting item, suddenly become a lot more interesting and a lot less productive work gets done.
Speaking of productive work brings me to the most interesting or personally profound realizations I’ve had along my GTD progression to date. Just what is it about certain tasks that causes us to procrastinate? I know that GTD says that one reason for this is when you’re not exactly sure what it is you’re supposed to do that makes it easy to procrastinate, but what if you’re perfectly clear on the job at hand and you still seem to find fifty other things that require your attention even when you know that you’re running out of time or even behind schedule?
David suggests that this may be because you aren’t really dealing with a project made of individual tasks but rather tasks that are themselves composed of tasks – in other words you haven’t broken down and defined your next actions sufficiently well and as a result each individual task making up a project appears too big and becomes daunting. A friend of mind used to call this “staring up the steps when you should be stepping up the stairs”.
But what if that’s not the problem either? What if you have a solid understanding of what you need to do? And what if you’ve defined each individual task correctly and have the requisite skill and time to perform these tasks but you still put them off?
I ask because I realized that there are some things that are on my list that get exactly this sort of treatment. Ultimately these are the things that either get me in trouble or which I end up doing at warp nine at the last minute with my hands shaking. Anyone else fall into this less than desirable group? Why do you think you do this?
I asked myself this question and realized it related to another area in my life where I realize that I have a problem; arriving places on time. I asked myself a similar question; why do I end up being late when I have no reason to be late?
Some people would suggest that this is a passive/aggressive behavior that relates to taking control of a situation by putting everyone on your schedule and for some people I imagine that this is true. For me, however, I realized that this isn’t the case and that both my chronic lateness and tendency to procrastinate on certain projects or tasks actually relates to another issue entirely. Risk taking behavior.
Dr. Marvin Zuckerman, who is the acknowledged authority on sensation seeking or risk taking behavior, also known as TAS (short for Thrill and Adventure Seeking) has developed a test to determine your TAS score. As you can imagine, extreme skiers, moto-crossers, free climbers, and other “adrenaline junkies” all have high TAS scores. But what you probably aren’t aware of is that so are a lot of chronic gamblers, people who frequently drive under the influence and even people who engage in unprotected sex despite knowing the risks of such an activity.
Thrill and adventure seeking manifests itself in countless ways. There’s even a form of TAS that expresses itself in the odd behavior of opening up a stranger’s medicine cabinet and taking whatever prescription medications are there just to see what happens. (Sadly, this form of TAS has a very high mortality rate as you might expect).
A few years back I wrote an article for Surfer Magazine about this very topic. In the course of my research for this work I contacted Dr Zuckerman and after reading his book scheduled an interview. To better prepare for this interview the Dr suggested that I take his TAS examination so that as part of our discussion I could see how my score translated to my own behavior. More on this in a moment.
One of the things that I found most interesting was that Dr Zuckerman found that there’s a very strong association with extremely high TAS scores and certain brain chemistry anomalies. Basically, it turns out that people that frequently engage in high risk activities tend to have a lower than normal production of certain neurotransmitters and this is one possible explanation for the behavior abnormality. From my Surfer article:
Neurobiologists now believe that chronically low levels of a critical neurotransmitter called dopamine exist in the brains of high sensation seekers, particularly in a region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. Interestingly, many drugs that elicit feelings of confidence, excitement, euphoria, and well-being also cause an increase in dopamine levels in this part of the brain.
The problem, of course, is that in much the same way that a junkie needs more and more of a drug to get the desired effect, a sensation seeker needs more and more risk to get the desired rush. The end result is not tough to imagine.
Fortunately, this “problem” doesn’t result in exceptionally high mortality except in one group. According to Dr. Zuckman’s research children that score above a certain number on his TAS examination have a much higher than average tendency to have fatal accidents prior to reaching twenty-one years of age. High enough, in fact, that when Dr. Zuckerman reviewed my responses to his test he was actually quite surprised that we were even having the conversation.
Apparently I score so high on his test that my odds of making it as far as I have are incredibly poor. This is not a surprise to people who know me well and have witnessed me jump off roofs, jump off cliffs skiing, race bikes, mountain bikes, skies, fly in a stunt plane, and do other even more ridiculous things that I don’t have the desire to mention here.
So how does this relate to procrastination you ask? How indeed.
Having retired from my career as a professional cyclist, and having been too busy working to surf as much or surf waves as big as those as I like most, I realized that as a fear-junkie, I wasn’t doing anything to get my fix. Or so I thought. Having put my principal risk taking activities on hold my brain had found a deceptive way to get what it wanted. It made me late.
Of course once I was late I had to rush and rushing is fraught with risk. Driving one hundred miles per hour to get somewhere is risky. Being scared that you’re going to get a ticket is risky. Being scared that you’re going to be in trouble is risky. You see where I am going with this?
Brain chemistry is a curious thing. It seems that at the most basic level the chemistry that makes me, me can cause my behavior to be less than desirable in order that certain chemical conditions that my brain recognizes as normal be met regardless of my desire to the contrary. And I’ll bet I’m not alone either.
The question is, now that I’m aware of this particular issue will I be able to act differently? If so, and as a result I don’t get my chemical imbalance corrected through reckless driving and the fear of the consequences of being late, how will my brain get what it wants? What new means of generating adrenaline and the associated dopamine cascade will my brain come up with if I refuse to allow it to have its way with my task list?
This is something I don’t yet know and may not know for some time. What will be interesting to see is if now that I am aware of the underlying reasons for my own procrastination I will be able to better manage that behavior as a result of the knowledge. In short, will the self awareness gained as a result of implementing GTD allow me to overcome my biology?
What about you? Does anyone reading this have a similar experience to share? If so, how did you figure out the reason for your behavior? Were you able to overcome it? Did you begin to do something else to compensate for taking control of the original undesirable behavior?
There are a lot of questions about this that I’ve yet to ask let alone answer but I do find it quite interesting that it was through the lens of GTD that I was able, after years of not knowing why I was acting a certain way, to finally see through my actions to their underlying cause. I only wish that when I showed up thirty minutes late for a meeting it would fly when I said, don’t blame me, I have a disorder in brain chemistry that makes me late. Sadly I don’t think that will wash nor do I think that they’ll give me a special driver’s license that exempts me from speeding tickets as a result of this problem. Oh well, that’s probably a good thing. Can you imagine how I’d replace the fear of getting a speeding ticket? No? Neither can I.