Systems are Not Always Easy Part 1
I’ve spent a lot of my time over the past years evangelizing the power of having a system and the David Allen Getting Things Done (GTD) method. One thing I haven’t talked much about is that while having a trusted system has huge advantages it doesn’t come for free. Like all systems it must be maintained or it breaks down slowly until one day it either stops working completely, or you’ve given up on it for it’s inefficiency. Having a system isn’t unique to GTD but it is my favored variant of system. There is a lot of GTD flavor and verbiage here but absolutely nothing in this post is unique to GTD, this will apply to most of the systems I have used.
Over the course of many years I’ve had this system break down a few times. I’ve had it become this mess of not working for me anymore. Usually at this time I start looking for all these other systems that promise to “fix” GTD by being a system that doesn’t need maintenance or somehow are less effort. Sometimes I’ve tried completely different types of agile systems. I have never had this fix the problem, because no system is without effort and most systems are more or less the same amount of effort in my experience; the issue isn’t with them but what I am keeping in them.
My problem starts when I hit that “but I’m too busy to do a review” feeling and stop using the system. Am I too busy? I am usually not really so busy I can’t spend 30-45 minutes out of my week to align my goals, empty inboxes, and review lists. There is always 2 minutes in the morning to review my lists and flag some tasks. So why don’t I? Why can’t I just maintain this easily.
I can tell you that answer with a little bit of digging, and this is where the work comes in. We as people tend to say “don’t have the time” when we mean “don’t have the energy”. So why am I lacking the energy to review some lists? What is making maintenance that sounds simple on the surface take up that much energy?
It boils down to emotional friction for me. I don’t want to go over my lists and review things because they remind me of all the things I haven’t done yet. When I see things I have put off I feel bad. Often something is on the list I really don’t want to do or brings me anxiety.
I should have called the clinic weeks ago, but it stresses me out, so it’s still on the list, so looking at the list impacts my mood. Then I stop using the list because “oh I know what’s on there and I’m not sure if I am going to do it”. That is a lot of energy to expend just to have a list of things to do.
Maybe this is the exact same reason your own system is falling apart; it’s full of don’t want to dos and simply just will not to dos.
It is great to be emotionally invested in the things in your system but if “Talk to Rachel” isn’t something that’s actually going to bring value to my life then why is it on my list? It’s on the list because it popped into my head “Oh well I really should…” or my favorite little lie came up “I need to do this”. The core idea of GTD is that every idea you have you write down. Everything that hits your inbox that feels like it’s actionable should go into your system. Where I fall apart is remembering that not everything that hits the system should be done.
This is why I have a Someday/Maybe list; a bucket of ideas I had that I still want out of my head but have not committed to doing. So quickly I forget if I’m not going to call the Optometrist and get new glasses this year then I should stop lying to myself and put it there.
Also using my system as a wishing well is also poisonous to wanting to use it. My project list will eventually balloon up into a good hundred projects. Can I possibly be working on 100 projects at a time? Well, maybe, but not likely. Even then, that’s not a healthy workload for anyone. Anything I’m not working on actively, nor will I be in the next quarter needs to be incubated as well; Off to a Someday/Maybe list or put On Hold somehow.
When I am excited about my system, when I trust it and don’t have any mental friction, I always have the time and energy to maintain it and use it to get things done. However it’s going to slowly start filling up with things I won’t do and that is when it becomes a burden to maintain. Taking the time to incubate the things that I’m not doing now and punting those things I am not going to do is not easy, but not making a choice is a choice. The earlier I make that choice the less I have to be stressed about it and the less expensive maintenance becomes.
Now wait a moment, did I wrap this post telling everyone to put off or simply not to do the things they don’t want to do? Yes and no. I’m not your mommy, you know what should be done… or do you? I don’t always know what I should be doing so let’s go over how I review these blockers in part two.