A holy book for the information age is turning stressed-out worker bees into members of an unlikely new cult obsessed with keeping an empty inbox.
To converts, popular time-management manual Getting Things Done is a way of life and its author, personal productivity coach David Allen, leader of their flock.
When I was in Seminary one thing became very clear. Changing from doing research in physics to doing parish work meant that I needed to change the way that I managed my life. In physics things happened pretty much in a linear manner. And my ability to hyper-focus on specific task was an advantage to reading papers, solving problems and working in the laboratory.
In the parish however hyper-focusing was not particularly helpful. People who have emergency concerns need you to be able to drop what you are doing and give them your entire attention. But all the time-management skills I had learned as a physicist simply couldn’t let me do that. More critically I couldn’t even manage my calendar. I was regularly missing meetings and appointments. On two occasions I even forgot I was preaching in the parish I interned at until I was reminded when I read the bulletin just before the service. (This is how I learned to preach without a manuscript…)
My seminary parish took pity on me and sent me away for a week long seminar on time-management. The seminar leader used a Day-timer as the principle tool and I learned skills in that class that I’ve used for years since. The only shift I made from the principles taught in the class were that I could never manage to make the Day-timer calendar work work directly for me. I’ve always had more meetings and interests than I really have time and my calendar would quickly get filled up with tentative appointments that were later cancelled and reoccurring appointments that were never properly propagated forward. My brother-in-law suggested that I try using an electronic calendar. I bought my first PDA (an HP-LX200) and I never looked back. I managed to kludge together a hybrid system that let me get along reasonably well by combining the tools that were built into early PDA’s and the techniques taught in the time-management seminar.
That is until email became important to me.
I think I get something like 200 non-spam emails a day at the moment. Many of them are written to electronic discussion lists, but I have to read all of them and occasionally act upon information in them. Because of the many roles I play as a parish priest, Astronomy professor, National and Diocesan Church volunteer and family member I found that I was trying to juggle more and more balls and managing to do it less and less well. My email inbox had grown to have thousands of messages in it that I needed to process. My desk was covered with paper and letters that I was supposed to have read but hadn’t had a chance to do so yet. My calendar and to-do list were there, but they were becoming more and more useless. I was drowning in a sea of information.
Then the other week I found myself absolutely furious that someone had sent me information in such a way that I couldn’t figure out how to manage. It was as if I reached a tipping point. I’ve learned over the years in spiritual direction that when I react with inappropriate emotion to something it’s a sign that my life is becoming seriously out of balance. In thinking through what was happening I realized that I had too many balls in the air and that I wasn’t doing a very good job of juggling them. In fact I was doing an increasingly poor job of it – at least as far as I was concerned. I was beating myself up because of my sense of failure and it was only adding to the stress that I was feeling. Something had to change.
I knew that I needed a system of some sort system to manage all the various tasks and ideas and information that was constantly swirling around in my head. Over the past couple of years I’ve seen a number of off-handed references to something called “GTD” or “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. I checked out the phrase on Amazon – found that there it was the title of a book on time management for knowledge workers in the Information Age and that it was highly regarded. I decided to give it a shot.
A couple of weeks later here I am. My desk is clear. My inbox is empty. I have lists of things that I need to do and I’m able to see them all in one place. I’ve re-worked how I manage the flow of information in and out. For me at least the system is working.
The most important points that Allen makes in his book are that people who are drowning in a sea of information need to find a way to manage that information so that they will actually use it. That means the system needs to be trustworthy (no lost sticky-notes) and fun to use (or else what’s the point?). Allen doesn’t so much give you a system as he explains the ideas behind his own technique and invites you to work up something that makes sense for you.
I suppose this need to apply design principles and create a custom made system is what makes this all so much fun for the nerdly and geeky folks among us. I know it was for me. But the other benefit is that you end up with a custom designed workflow that makes sense for your own situation. Allen does make specific recommendations in his book about how to manage your filing system and specific techniques. I have found that he’s generally spot on in what he says and I’ve used his ideas pretty much completely. But I’ve still had to figure out the system that I’ll use to organize and track the projects that I’m trying to manage.
More than anything I have (for the moment at least) a sense that I know what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m pretty sure that I’m not missing anything… I may not be doing it, but now I’m not doing it for a reason (like it’s not as important as something else that needs to be done).
For what it’s worth – reading the book or skimming some of the websites devoted to it (search Google for “GTD” and “43Folders”) might make a really useful summer project.