Guest Post: How to Deal When GTD Kicks Your Ass – 5 Steps for Sanity

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Photo credit: Hector Pierna Sanchez

It’s morning. You’re staring at your Next Actions list like you would a creature out of nightmare — something huge and ugly that’s reaching out to crush your soul into unproductive little pieces. It’s been this way for a week or so now, maybe more; you’ve lost track. All you know is that this GTD thing everybody goes on about — the super-productivity system you thought would save you from overwhelm — has turned on you. And it’s seriously kicking your ass.

Something has obviously gone wrong. But now what? You’ve invested a lot of valuable time into Getting Things Done, and the thought of starting all over again, either with GTD or some other system, is near mind-shattering. The longer you stare at your computer, though, the more appealing the idea of taking a hammer or some other blunt instrument to it becomes — and that can’t lead anywhere good. So again you ask yourself: Now what?

We’ve all been there (I’ve probably been there more than many, in fact) and it always seems bleak — but it’s a lot easier to get your productivity system back on track than you might think. It just depends on your approach.

If you’re anything like me, you got into GTD to take control of the crazy amount of things you need to accomplish on a daily basis. At least, that was part of it for me. I was also afflicted with the “big think” virus: I would have a goal (or 10) in mind — something huge and fantastically creative of course — and then I would just jump in to it (them) with both feet, flapping my arms about wildly while I tried to figure out a good place to start. My old vocal coach-slash-counsellor called it “Trying to build a house from the roof down.” Eventually, I would expend so much energy flapping, that I would just burn myself out. That lead to last-gasp analytics of the projects, which would inevitably end with me so overwhelmed by what needed to be done and how to go about it that I would just say “screw it” and go play video games. What I needed to break things down to a manageable level, and David Allen’s Getting Things Done system seemed like the perfect thing to help me make that happen.

In the beginning, it was all roses. I got my system set up — I even figured out how to integrate it with Evernote, and then later with Producteev — and got things humming along just nicely. Unfortunately, as time went on, I ended up with longer and longer lists of next actions. My contexts were bursting at the seams, and there was just no way for me to keep up.

I looked at my lists and felt that old overwhelm creeping up on me again. Then I started to avoid looking at them altogether. I didn’t even realize I was doing it, at first, and the problem was, to make myself feel like I was still continuing with the GTD system, I was still collecting new tasks. In the end, the tasks weren’t even making it to the processing stage anymore, and I found myself with a faux-GTD system that was all Inbox — just a fancy shell over my original way of (not) doing things. I had completely reverted — and my computer was shivering in fear of the imagined sledge hammer by my desk.

In any case, that was the past. I now have my GTD system up and running again, and it’s working the way it should be. To get there, all I had to do was follow these five relatively simple steps:

Identify the Problem
Start by taking a step back. Overwhelm is an insidious beast and you won’t be able to do anything about it unless you approach with a clear mind. Think of it like cleansing your palate while eating particularly rich foods. Everything will taste better, and you’re that much more likely to make it through the meal.

Now pull out a pen and paper and start to write down your main goals again. If you have trouble doing this, you have already discovered the core of your difficulties. Nothing ever truly gets accomplished without a clear goal to apply it to.

Once you have your goals in hand again, use them as a focal point as you examine your approach to productivity over the past few months. Try to identify what worked and what didn’t work, what you liked, and what you found frustrating. Think about the tools that you use, any modifications that you made to the methodology to suit your life, and the different projects you’re engaged in. Then do your best to identify all of the other things that you’re giving your attention to. Write it all down. This is the best way to discover where the bottlenecks are, and what about your approach has allowed things to backlog.

For me, the problem was as simple as not adding how long a task might take (which lead to scheduling too many things on any given day), combined with collecting things under the banner of my overall goals that really should have been either ignored, or put into Someday/Maybe-land. A little more analysis also revealed that I was not nearly disciplined enough with my weekly reviews, which would have helped me to identify those two problems in the first place, thus saving me from the hole I had dug myself into. Finally, I discovered several things outside of the GTD system that were distracting me. Things like keeping my email open, social media notifications, and working in a place easily accessible by my lovely wife and extraordinarily cute little girl. They don’t mean to be distractions, but how can they not be?

Once you’ve identified the problems that have lead to GTD-breakdown, find ways to streamline your system. Remove extra steps, use a better tool, cut out (or at least cut back on) distractions, and do whatever else you reasonably can to deal with what is getting in the way of your productivity.

Reprocessing
This might sound scary, given that you are here because of an already overwhelming amount of task data. Don’t worry, though — at least half of the work has already been done for you. You already have things collected, and a number of those things are already processed into tasks. Now, all you need to do is take a look at those tasks, and reprocess them based on your newly refined goals, working around the problems that you identified in the first step. Chances are good that you will find a lot of tasks that are already complete, or no longer relevant — and every one of those tasks that you get rid of will make you feel just a little bit better. Kill them dead with impunity!

The easiest approach to reprocessing may be to start with your Projects list, as it will be smaller than your combined tasks, and it will be easier for you to identify the projects that can be removed completely, or added to Someday/Maybe. Once you have gone through that list, you can simply throw away any tasks related to those removed or moved projects, which will speed up your overall processing time, and get you in the right frame of mind to approach other tasks in the same way.

If this still seems overwhelming, then do the reprocessing in chunks. You won’t lose anything if you don’t do it all in one day — just make sure that you keep coming back to it until it’s done.

Reestablish the Collection Process
Now that you have the backlog out of the way, it’s time to start collecting again. The difference here will be that you are once again sure about your goals, and your system will be tweaked for optimal collection and processing. That’s a fun and fancy way of saying that you’re back on track, focused, and ready to rock your way to the productive lifestyle you aspire to.

Before you get going here, however, do a final check to make sure your refined Inbox is as easily accessible as you need it to be. If you are using Producteev or another online tool, be certain that the email addresses, extensions, apps, and other methods to send things into those services are in your contact lists, installed, and/or otherwise ready to go. Give yourself some leeway here, as well. It’s possible that things may not work entirely as you thought they would, so you may need to do a bit more tweaking over the next week or so.

Create Good Habits
GTD or any other productivity methodology is really nothing more than a collection of habits. It starts with discipline, certainly, but after a while the things that you do daily to maintain the processes should become second nature. Problems arise, however, when we have or create conflicting habits that could drag the system into another breakdown. Since you’ve already identified the bad habits that contributed to the last crash and burn, you are already a step ahead in the game. Unfortunately, bad habits don’t go quietly, and creating good habits in the face of the bad is not easy.

The key here is to not try to do everything at once. If you try a massive attack against all bad habits, trying to replace them with the new good ones, you will end up with a fight on your hands that will lead you back down the path to overwhelm. Instead, go with surgical strikes. Make a list of those bad and good habits and attack them one at a time. If you lapse here and there, don’t flay yourself over it. Just methodically get back on the proverbial horse and eventually, you will be successful.

*The Weekly Review is Your Friend
It’s human nature to get a little lazy with things now and again, and this can be a problem, if you let it. Again, don’t be overly harsh with yourself, as it will only make you more likely to abandon your system. Who wants to do anything daily that is attached to self-recriminations and other forms of negativity? Not me — and probably not you, either. Instead, just make sure you keep up with the parts of the system that are there to help you keep things together. Chief among those is the Weekly Review.

The Weekly Review is where you get the chance to check on the health of your system. You can see where your projects are at, and can examine what worked and what didn’t work over the past week. I can’t put enough emphasis on the importance of taking the time to do this — and thoroughly — every single week. If you let it slip too far, you will miss out on key indicators that could help you catch a problem before it starts or spins out of control. Schedule at least an hour every week — two hours, or more, if necessary — and go through your review in detail. If you get done early, that’s a bonus for you! Either way, the time spent will be worthwhile, and will save you more time in the end. Just make sure you reward yourself when you finish so that you have incentive to keep coming back.

As a final thought on getting back to (and keeping up with) GTD, remember that good visual presentation goes a long way. This isn’t to say that a pretty app or sexy Moleskine notebook is the best approach for your system, only that anything that makes it easier for you to look at and process your data will increase the likelihood that you’ll keep coming back.

Bonus:

  • Make sure that your contexts are clear and well organized.
  • Keep next actions on any given project down to one or two at a time, if possible.
  • Make tasks obvious that will take a while to complete.
  • I’m sure you get the idea…

Most importantly, if your system starts to break down again, don’t wait until you are on the verge of a mental breakdown before you do something about it. GTD can be a powerful ally to the productivity Jedi — but if you give it enough leverage it will turn around and give you an ass-kicking you wouldn’t believe. Eternal vigilance and such, dig?

Share what you do to keep your GTD on track!

Bobby Travis is a geeky dad with passion for writing and online marketing, coupled with a serious bent for productivity systems. You can chat with him on Twitter (@bobby_travis), connect with him on LinkedIn, or read more of his work on 40Tech. He is also a big fan of money, so if you want to hire him for some freelance work, he won’t be mad at you! Email him at contact@bobby-travis.com.

Learn more about Producteev weekly digests. Tune in to our first twitter chat about productivity!
Wednesday, May 18, 2011 from 1pm – 2pm EST. Topic: Getting Things Done.

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  • Don Kenner

    Good advice. I’m in the process of reestablishing good habits now. My problem was letting the Weekly Review slide. You really cannot do that and expect GTD to work for you.

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