A bit of a breakthrough

I felt I made a bit of a breakthrough yesterday. Not so much an epiphany, which to me at least seems limited to consciousness and insight; no, this was an actual “I did it!” experience that made me feel all giddy for at least eight or nine minutes. (Well, maybe it was only seven, but I spread them out somehow.)

As I may have mentioned (but I am pretty sure I have never discussed in any length or detail before) I am a devotee of David Allen’s 2001 book Getting Things Done. If you don’t know it, I am not going to go into it as such right now (although I do absolutely recommend that everyone on Earth read it, and soon). It is a book that proposes a way of dealing with everything in life, called Getting Things Done (or GTD), and it really does seem to work. It is not a system with a lot of bells and whistles, it’s not a gimmicky shell game which ends up trying to sell you a bunch of stuff to make the system work (although he does try to sell you a bunch of stuff to make the system work through his website, none of it is in anyway essential to the message of the book).

I have read and re-read the book almost constantly over the past three years (I finished it for the first time while I was still working in the financial field, just days before our second child was born). I have incorporated a lot of the thinking that Allen proposes. But I have not yet done much to make the leap from thinking to doing, which is kind of a biggie. Merlin Mann, a longtime David Allen apologist who has become my total mentor over the past year through his many podcasts, has nuanced and focused the GTD message for me. It’s not that I am confused or unsure how to follow GTD: I just haven’t done the hard work yet. I haven’t made myself focus, haven’t pushed myself to any kind of discipline. I have continued to coast along, tripping and grooving on how awesome this GTD idea is, but never doing what I need to do to make that awesomeness part of my daily life.

So, yeah: time to get on that. And yesterday felt like a big next step. I get a lot of projects to do at this job, as I did at my previous job. I must seem like a projecty kind of guy. Maybe I am, I don’t know. But I invariably stall, spin my wheels, and drop the ball, and then my supervisor comes looking for me and my progress report, and then there is disappointment all around. This week was no exception: a recent meeting yielded more than a dozen discrete but related questions to research, and other than re-writing my scrawled notes from that meeting, I had made barely any move on the required research aside from sending a couple emails. Late in the afternoon, I caught myself staring at the list of questions, unable to decide where to start, thinking of little beyond wondering when my boss was going to stick his head in and ask how I was getting on and the resultant awkward spin I would try to put on my lack of progress.

Then I decided to try something different. I re-wrote my list of questions again, but this time I grouped them into four main headings, along with a distinct “thought question” that would probably make more sense once the other components had been explored. I made up an index card for each of the main headings, turning each into a sub-project in my nascent system. Then I typed up the same structure in outline form and emailed it to my supervisor, along with the report that while I had little or nothing to report, I had organized the captured to-dos form our meeting thus, and would now be forging ahead with the research on them. I also invited him to let me know if I had failed to capture anything on my list that he wanted included, and attached a link to a major new study on exactly the topic of our inquiries which had just been released this week.

So, not a huge achievement. All I did was take a tiny bit of responsibility for self-reporting regarding a set of actions which I had agreed to, and which were still undone. But I demonstrated that I had a clear sense of the scope of the project, that I had a plan for proceeding, and that I was alert to other developments that had a bearing on the project from outside. All that in less than twenty minutes, but it made me feel that it might really be possible to live every day like this. And that would be an amazing way to live.

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