a message to overwhelmed friends; alt., why I love Tracks and GTD

Hipster PDA and GTD notes, tighter crop

Hipster PDA and GTD notes, tighter crop by Teo. License:

So, this was an all-too-common pattern in my life, prior to about 18 months ago:

  1. get busy
  2. lose some or all track of what is on my plate
  3. feel guilty about not understanding what was on my plate; and never say no to more projects, in part because I didn’t fully understand what was on my plate
  4. start ‘hiding’ from new work- avoid phone calls, email, etc., from people who might put more work on my plate, to avoid more guilt and more work
  5. not actually get things done, because too much mental energy went towards the guilt and the (failing) organization, and often because I missed critical information by avoiding people under step #4
  6. return to step 3 and ratchet up the negative energy; repeat until things completely blew up and projects failed (or sometimes succeeded despite me). At that point, return to step 1, except with less trust and buyin from the people around me.

The guilt and stress come from failing the expectations of other people, of course, but they also come from failing my own expectations- every time something got dropped, it just made me feel worse, and I never quite got enough good things done to make up for it.

So… yeah, enter Getting Things Done. From their about page:

Implementing GTD alleviates the feeling of overwhelm, instills confidence, and releases a flood of creative energy. It provides structure without constraint, managing details with maximum flexibility. The system rigorously adheres to the core principles of productivity, while allowing tremendous freedom in the “how.” The only “right” way to do GTD is getting meaningful things done with truly the least amount of invested attention and energy. (emphasis mine)

I read the book before entering law school, because I knew that if I got into the old loop I was deeply hosed. I can honestly say it has made my life massively better- the one time that I really got away from GTD was not coincidentally the one time in law school I’ve really felt crushed and depressed.

I’m not going to claim that the system is perfect. I certainly pick and choose what parts of it to use, and even those parts I don’t follow perfectly- as anyone who saw my end of semester crunch last semester will attest to. And I think it is a little weird that there is now apparently this gigantic consulting business and quasi-mythology around it.

But here I am adding to the mythology. I can legitimately say that GTD’s focus on tracking things so that your tasks are out of mind when you’re working on other things; so that no energy is wasted thinking about ‘oh my god I have so much to do’; so that you can actually say no because you have a very good idea of what is on your plate- with GTD these things have been real for me and they’ve made my life better.

There is a decent nutshell version here, but if you’re feeling overwhelmed and like you’re drowning in things you have to do, I can’t recommend the book highly enough. Put down whatever you’re stressing about, set aside a saturday and sunday, and go to it. You may not become a proselytizer; you may not even use most of it; but unless you’re already a very organized person, you’ll be better off for it.

The other part of the solution, for me, is Tracks– a web based app that lets you implement some of the GTD strategies. It is not a pure or complete GTD app, but it is pretty darn useful. My entire life is in it, pretty much. Once I read the book, I knew I wanted to have a software solution to do the tracking for me, and Tracks has been absolutely great for it. Can’t recommend enough, especially trunk (soon to be a new release), which has great features like the start of a mobile view, so I can see my task list even on my blackberry.

I would not have run for the GNOME board this year if not for GTD and Tracks- the combo has made me productive enough that I feel comfortable taking on new tasks like the Board, despite also having piles of old stuff to do as well. Perfect: no. Awesome: yes.

So there you have it: if you’re a friend of mine (or even an enemy!) and you’re feeling like the things on your plate are beating you instead of you beating them, go get GTD. It may not work miracles for you- but it pretty much did for me.