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on not getting things done

So a while back I started using iGTD, mac software to implement the Get Things Done project management methodology. I reported on the software and the method a few times, with this “final” assessment.

Well, time has gone by and the famous black clouds of GTD guilt (as Maurizio calls them) started gathering slowly, then eventually exploded into a couple of months of total inability to … get things done.

I sat down two weeks ago and went through all my projects. Turns out I have sixteen (16) project on the go, on ice, in development, or in disarray, including a number of “real life” non-profit things I do, away from my cmputer. So part of my inability to get things done, I think, was the sheer number of things I ought to get done. But so often I would sit down and go thru the interminable list of things and projects, most of them still on the list because they are unpleasant (eg. sorting out Collectik finances, god help me). And because of the sheer number and sheer range i would sort of catalog thru all of them, stomach turning at each new undone-thing-to-do, and finally … not get anything done.

I became oppressed by iGTD (an old story I am told).

Every six months or year or so I reorganize everything, to try to get projects back on track. So it’s time for that again. And I’ve identified what I think is a major problem with GTD for people like me: too much choice. The philosophy behind GTD is that you separate things into contexts (things you do by email, things you do by phone, things you do online/offline etc … you make up your own contexts). You can sort by project (eg LibriVox or Collectik etc), or context (email or phone etc): and another principle is that anything that can be done in less than two minutes should be done NOW. Those are the worst. Phone calls are my absolute least favourite thing in the world, and so I just don’t get them done even if they will take 2 minutes.

But the big problem is too much choice. iGTD turns into one of those massive menus at mediocre restaurants, where there’s a huge page for sushi, a huge page for pasta, a huge page for burgers and twenty other pages. Lots of options, none of them appealing. And you *know* none of them will be very good.

When I was in university I wasn’t the most conscientious student. I was doing a BSc in Mathematics & Engineering, and a BA in Philosophy at the same time. Which meant that the month around finals was crazy: I usually had 2-3 big philosophy papers (plus all the reading), and since throughout the term I usually was not studying or doing many of my engineering assignments, by the time finals came around I had to learn whole courses in the space of a couple of weeks; and since my mid-terms and assignment marks were weak, I had to ace my finals to get thru.

So in order to make sure I passed everything, I would break all my tasks down into hour-long chunks (learn chapters 1-3 of Fluid Dynamics Text; reach ch 6-9 of Kant; write 2 pages of paper on Nietzsche; do practice exam #2 from Abstract Algebra). Then I would schedule everything into a 9-hour study day, with nice long breaks for lunch and dinner.

The last month of each term was so intense, but also thrilling – my mind was running on high-octane, I was processing so much, and it was exhilarating (tho I wouldn’t recommend this as a good-practice study habit).

Fast-forward to 2007, and last month I had a mild breakdown, well, not a breakdown, but I realized how totally ineffective I’ve been for the past few months, and it was starting to drive me crazy. So I went back, for the first time, to my university study plan, and reproduced it for November and December.

I attacked all my projects and sorted out things needing to get done in discrete chunks (eg. edit chapter 2 of Boundary Conditions; record War and Peace, chapter 20 for LV; organize Collectik finances and taxes; write copy for new start-up site … etc). So far so iGTD.

But I *also* estimated time required to do these things, something that iGTD is missing.

The I made out a calendar of November & December, broken into 1-hour chunks, and started slotting things in, trying to keep things variable (writing, finance, web), and making time for coffees, lunches etc. This was my first week on the new plan.

I didn’t get everything done, but I have a much better handle on what needs to be done, and how long all of it will take. And instead of a huge list of iGTD staring at me, I know, at least, that at 10am on Tuesday, I am supposed to be going thru Collectik contract bugs, and from 1pm to 3pm I am supposed to be editing my novel.

I feel better … let’s see how long this lasts.


  1. Christopher Hughes Christopher Hughes 2007-11-17

    My experience with GTD also ended in failure. My problem is that things are always changing. A project that seemed vital can end up being abandoned without ceremony. So – I have rather a self serving opinion about it.
    I have had some success at getting certain things done (in business, anyway) but, in part, because I can cope with a very high level of uncertainty and chaos in the process of getting things done. Many people *need* certainty and order – I do not, at least to the same extent. I have often been advised, when building a business to ‘stick to the plan, come hell or high water’. I firmly believe, however, that if the plan is not working, it should be scrapped as soon as possible. The plan is incidental to the team. A good team can come up with a great plan – a great team cannot make a lousy plan work.
    Detailed planning works fine when you can predict your priorities into the medium term. However, when you have to change focus suddenly, having a list of things nagging at you is very stressful. So, GTD does not help my strengths, it only helps me with my weaknesses, and in so doing, undermines my strengths.

  2. Christopher Hughes Christopher Hughes 2007-11-17

    My mini-breakdown was rendered rather pubicpublic by my trying to delete my twitter account (don’t try it, you can’t) – part of a ill-advised attempt to de-clutter my life. Thing is – the clutter is the bit that I actually enjoy.

  3. Christopher Hughes Christopher Hughes 2007-11-17

    pubLic – not pubic. gah. changes the meaning just a bit. that would be a case of decluttering too far…

  4. Hugh Hugh 2007-11-18

    change made… i still find iGTD useful as a simlpe list keeper – but no good as “what shall i do next” decider.

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