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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