David Allen is my own personal guru.
Not really personally. He wouldn’t know me from a crack in the sidewalk; he wouldn’t know me if I walked up and kicked him in the kneecap. But though we’ve never and probably shan’t ever meet, his book Getting Things Done–more particularly, the audiobook version, as read in David’s own engaging yet soothing tones–has been more helpful in… well, getting things done… than any other "motivational" book, seminar, Web site or other resource out there. At least in part because it doesn’t try to be inspiring. It just lays the steps out there for you and tells you how to start doing them. The bare bones of the GTD system are provided; customizing it is up to you.
If you’ve been reading this blog for more than three days or so, you’ve probably noticed that I also experience intermittent episodes of moderate-to-crippling depression. The grey days, the low times, the mornings it’s all I can do to roll my mopey ass out of bed. I was thinking about this last night, and realized what a vicious circle (not cycle) it becomes:
- Wake up feeling crappy about low level of personal accomplishment. (Sidebars: feeling crappy about such things as personal appearance, cranky and unlovable personality, messed-up state of world affairs and one’s failure to get involved in changing them.)
- Spend day feeling too horrible to get anything done.
- Realize nothing has been accomplished. Fall asleep, miserably.
- Return to step 1.
And so on, and so forth, ad nauseam.
Fortunately, it appears to slowly but surely be dawning on me that one can effectively shortcut this process with kind of a tweaked and foreshortened version of the GTD principles. By forcing myself to start getting things done, I’ve found I can refocus my thoughts away from the constant muddy whirlpool of self-referential depressive thought and improve my mood just through simple distraction. I’m calling what I’m doing, for lack of a less profane name, "Getting Shit Handled" or "GSH." Because seriously, sometimes when the black curtain comes down, it’s not about actually getting things done so much as it is just handling your shit.
Here’s what I’ve come up with as my GSH principles so far:
- Break things down into itty-bitty steps. Then write those steps down. (David Allen calls these "Next Actions." A Next Action is the smallest step required to move a project along; frex, rather than adding "Organize office" to my e’er-o’er-weening to-do list, I might put "Sort magazines and throw out old issues," "File company information from trade show" and "Complete and return homeschool notification forms" all as separate items.)
- Pick an action from to-do list. Estimate how long it will take to do it; then subtract 10% from that time. Set a timer accordingly and get cracking. Four times out of five, I find I finish whatever the task at hand is before the timer goes off. Juvenile and Skinnerian, I know, but it sure seems to work.
- As an alternative, choose a fast, bouncy song that runs about as long as you think it will take to accomplish the task (or slightly shorter) ; crank it up and get to work. My current favorites for this process are Daft Punk’s "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" and LCD Soundsystem’s "Yeah", followed closely by Teddybears’ "Yours to Keep." I can sweep and mop the kitchen and bathroom floors in the 9:21 it takes for "Yeah" to play.
- Go on to the next thing on your list; note that "next thing" doesn’t necessarily mean the very next thing written on the list, but rather something that corresponds to the "context" in which you’re working. David Allen describes contexts as situations where you have the tools, time and energy necessary for a specific type of task; frex, if you’re at your computer, you could naturally take care of e-mail tasks. If you’re going out to the grocery store, you could bundle your additional errands into a single trip. And if you’re going to be driving your car somewhere, you can handle all your phone calls ha ha ha ha ha ha yes that’s exactly what I do when I drive.
- Break up your more-fun and less-fun tasks, and be sure and mix in some physical activity with all the screen-staring and keyboard-tapping. Today, I put together a six-song playlist that lasted just under half an hour and went outside to rake mulch, sweep the sidewalk and pull weeds–it was a much-needed break and now I’m happy ’cause my front yard looks better.
- Reward yourself after a chunk of well-accomplished tasks with something as simple as vegging out with a gardening catalog and a glass of ice water, or as elaborate as getting a bunch of friends together for cocktails.
- Keep your to-do lists in a bound notebook or someplace else where they’ll all stay together. Because when you start getting down on yourself, it feels really really good to flip back through the pages and look at all the things you’ve done in the last week/month/whatever that prove you’re not nearly as much of a giant loser oxygen-wasting inertia-ball as you seem to keep telling yourself you are.
So anyway, that’s the basics of Getting Shit Handled. Updates to follow as the system is refined, or as it proceeds to collapse around my head in a swirl of ash and disappointment.