GTD for academics: The mindset and the precepts

March 9, 2015, 9:00 am

352200409_283935d56a_mLike many of you, I have a lot going on both in my professional as well as my personal life. Also like many of you, I am pretty committed to finding and maintaining a healthy work/life balance so that I can get maximum enjoyment out of both life and work. But how do we find and maintain that balance? For me, it’s a matter of being sort of obsessive when it comes to productivity. And with this article, I want to kick off a regular series of posts where I talk about my system for productivity, which uses the Getting Things Done or GTD system created and championed by David Allen.

I remember the first time when it dawned on me that whatever it was I was doing to manage time, tasks, and projects wasn’t enough. It was at my previous institution; I was walking down the hall when I happened to pass my VPAA, who said to me: “So, I’ll see you at 2:00?” It took me a half second to realize that he wasn’t joking, and that there really was some Important Thing at 2:00 that utterly failed to make it onto my radar. Somehow I mustered the intelligence to say, “Yeah, see you then!” even though I had no idea what the Important Thing at 2:00 actually was. Even worse, once I was back in the office, I could find no evidence that this Important Thing had ever been scheduled. So I just showed up to the Dean’s office at 2:00 and prayed that I would figure out the subject of the meeting once it started.

That’s an amusing story, until you realize that this time it was some innocuous meeting with the VPAA that I spaced, but next time it could be something major, and spacing that could cause serious damage, to my reputation if nothing else. No academic wants to be branded as an absent-minded professor, regardless of the humorous stereotype. We instead want to be known as people who have their acts togeher, who can be relied upon, who deliver when they say they are going to deliver and who rarely if ever drop the ball.

After that little episode with the Dean, I ditched my Franklin Planner (it never really worked for me anyway; I’ll explain why later) and started doing some research on time management. I came across this “GTD” or “Getting Things Done” idea and it appealed to me because the article where I found it said that geeks like it — there are ways to implement it using technology and a lot of tech nerds swear by it. That was good enough for me. So I bought David Allen’s book from which GTD gets its name and read it over the weekend. And it’s not an overstatement to say that it changed my life in the process. In fact today I rank Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity among the top five books that I have read that have truly shaped who I am now.

I’m not going to try to give a thorough run-down of GTD principles here, because you can get that from the book itself. Instead let me try to decsribe the mindset in which GTD operates, and from there the basic principles will unfold.

We academics do get a lot of things done, with or without fancy management philosophies. Most of us got our Ph.D.’s done, for instance, and that’s a huge task. But we may well ask the question: If we can get some things done, how come there are things that don’t get done — that stack of papers to grade, that review of a journal manuscript, that writeup of the minutes from the committee meeting — which are much less demanding?

I think the key lies in a fundamental misuse of the term “task”. I just said that completing a Ph.D. is a huge task. But really that’s not right. Tasks are small and more or less irreducible, for example: Sending an email, meeting with a student, making out one problem for an upcoming test, picking up your dry cleaning, and so on. Completing a dissertation, on the other hand, is a project — a huge, complex, multi-year project that is composed of possibly hundreds of smaller things to do. It’s those smaller things that are properly called “tasks”.

One of the most common mistakes academics (and students, and everybody else) make is confusing projects with tasks, and trying to complete a project as if it were a single thing. That’s why you don’t ever finish grading that stack of papers. It’s because you look at that stack of grading as one thing and that one thing is going to take hours and hours, and psychologically you just can’t deal with it. And so our attention turns to other things that are not as important or urgent. If it were just one paper to grade, as unpleasant as it might be, you’d probably suck it up and grade it, because it’s only one paper, and even if it sucks to grade it, it will be over soon. So these “tasks” which are really complex projects never get done, and they hang over us like dark clouds, mocking us. If we were to see that stack of grading for what it really is — a project with lots of individual tasks (read: individual papers to grade), then we are psychologically off the hook for completing the whole thing at once; if we have time and energy just to grade four or five of those papers, then hey, that’s progress. Continue that progress at a reasonable pace, and eventually the project gets done.

That brings up another thing we academics often do wrong: Making decisions about what to do next without considering where you are, what you have time for, and how much energy you have. We operate on the paradigm of the “to-do list”, which is drilled into us from an early age as being the Right Way to Manage Your Stuff. But what is a to-do list? It is a linear array of tasks (which are often actually projects, another mistake) organized with an implicit ordering of priority from the top down. Or if you use the Franklin Planner like I used to, you lump some of the list into “A”, “B”, and “C” categories (roughly corresponding to urgency and importance) and then assign linear orderings within those categories, so you end up with tasks A1, A2, A3,… and then B1, B2, B3, … and so on.

Either way: It’s linear. And the problem with that is that life is nonlinear. We make our to-do lists with the most important task at the top. But then something happens: An unexpected drop-in by a student, a fire that has to be put out, a meeting with the Dean that you forgot about (this has never happened to me, of course) and suddenly our linearization is absurd. You have to renegotiate the entire day, and you just can’t do that on the fly with a linear to-do-list mindset. So nothing gets done.

So the way I see it, the philosophy behind GTD rests on three principles.

  1. Every piece of “stuff” in your life that has to get done or that you would like to get done, should be organized into projects, which are then broken down as far as possible into irreducible, atomic tasks.
  2. Those tasks are then organized according to the context in which they live, the amount of time they require, and the amount of energy they require.
  3. The most important principle: At any moment, you have to make a decision as to what to do next, and that decision should be based on what context you are in, how much time you have, and how much energy you have.

A word of terminology here: In GTD the term “context” roughly, but not totally, corresponds to physical location. For example there are some tasks that can only be done on campus (making copies of tests, for instance; or getting books from the campus library) so they should be tagged with the “campus” context. But context can also refer to situations, like for example tasks that have to be completed over the phone, or those that can only be completed while online, or — for me — tasks that involve grading, which requires that I be in a certain psychological “place” when doing them. The idea is to lump together tasks that have the same context and do them all at once, and only do them when your context and the task’s context match up. You cannot do a task with context “campus” when you are not on campus, no matter how urgent it may be, so if you are not on campus, this is a task that you can safely ignore for now. One of the sayings from Allen’s book that I live by is that you have to be comfortable not only with what you are doing but also with what you are not doing.

There are two very important precepts to GTD that accompany this mindset. First, you should capture everything that comes to mind that you should do and put it into a trusted system that is reviewed on a regular basis. In other words: Don’t try to remember what you need to do. Get it out of your head the moment it occurs to you and get it into a trusted system. Second, every project should have one task that is designated as The Next Action. This would be the action associated with that project that is the next physical thing that you can do in that project — not the most important thing or the most urgent thing, but the next physical thing.

So in the GTD mindset we don’t have to-do lists. We have trusted systems that house all of our projects, which are broken down into atomic-level tasks and organized by context, time, and energy and one of those tasks designated as the Next Action. This way, when I have to decide what to do next, I don’t have to think so much. I simply check the system; look for tasks that match my context, time, and energy; and then pick one and go with it. What I do not do is waste time and energy trying to complete “tasks” that are really projects, or try to complete tasks that aren’t a good match for my resources at the time. You can begin to see why the subtitle of Allen’s book is what it is.

At some point in this series, I will describe in detail how I have my own system set up. But before I do that, I want to describe what life is like now, having been a GTD disciple for several years. I have so much going on at any given point, how do I get in control of it all and make sensible decisions about what do to next — and what not to do next? And how do I get it all done? In the next post, that’s what I’ll try to address.

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