Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Secret To Doing In GTD: Mental Toughness

Once I got my GTD system set up and my inboxes to zero, I was faced with a new challenge that all GTD'ers face and that was how to "do" everything that was now organized in my system. From what I can tell, I am not the only one who faces a wall of getting all of those next actions done. It seems to be a pretty common problem.

The secret to doing in my mind is mental toughness. You have to be mentally tougher than the next action you face. If you aren't doing, you haven't developed the mental strength you need to complete the next actions on your list. As I have often done, I compare tasks to weights you lift in a weight room when you are working out. It is easy to lift a five pound weight. It's quite another to lift 300 pounds.

The same goes for tasks. Some feel like five pounds while others might as well weigh 300 pounds.

When I first faced the problem of doing, I wasn't quite sure how to handle it. And for a while, I didn't really "do". I just kept collecting and processing into my system. It looked good and functioned well. I knew what I had to do. I felt good about that. I had never had that feeling before.

But as good as GTD is, the fact that everything you have to do should be organized in your system, also can be it's biggest liability. Seeing all that you have to do in one big list can affect you mentally in a negative way once you can see it first hand.

The thing is though that you always had that much to do, you just have quantified and it seems like more but it really isn't.

So once I got to the point of "doing" how did I handle it? Well, the way I see it, doing is a function of focus, determination and decision making.

The first thing that I did was treat my next action lists like a new inbox that needed to be emptied. I would print out my list, remove myself from all of my other stuff by sometimes changing locations. This provided me the focus I needed to at least look at the list. The list was no longer hidden in my system but in my face.

At that point, I was determined to start getting things done off of my list. While I would ideally like to work off my list in a first in first out order, I decided that I would do the easy stuff first for a while. This helped me accomplish two things. The first was that I reduced the size of my list which helped me feel better about it. The other thing that it did was get me conditioned to do. It helped doing all of the five pound tasks. Once I could handle those, I would start to focus on the tasks that weighed more. What I found was that eventually I could tackle the harder things on my list.

The final thing that I noticed about doing it that since the decisions on what to do with certain tasks are harder and hence they weigh more, was the main reason I couldn't move things off of my list. I just didn't want to decide what needed to be done. This goes back to the perfectionism that I talked about the other day. Trying to be perfect in everything you do right out of the gate hinders decision making and more importantly action. What you want to do is make decisions and work to improve your decision making ability over time. I do that by practicing and seeing what happened and I learn to make better decisions down the road.

So for me, I broke things down into the steps I outlined above. I first got myself in the habit of focusing on the tasks that needed to be done and I eliminated all other distractions. I was determined to work on at least some of the tasks to get in the habit of doing them. I then made decisions to do stuff even if there was a chance there could have been a more perfect way to do them, I did them anyway.

When I did this, I found that my ability to focus, my determination and decision making improved. This happened because I increased my mental strength to handle more.

There was one other thing that I think is very important to doing and that is defining when you are done with the other phases of your GTD system. If you know that you have defined everything you need to do in the collection phase, then you are more likely to work on the processing phase. If you have defined everything you need to do in the processing phase, it makes it easier to focus on doing.

The key here is defining what done looks like for each phase. And you do that with a daily checklist. Once I created a daily checklist, it was much easier to define the time and effort it took to get through those steps and much easier to focus on doing.

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Michael Kuhn

Black Belt Project: Build Mental Strength


Good point--so many lifehacks and productivity systems in general (and GTD in particular) are designed to make "doing our work" easier and more accessible. But at the end of the day no matter how well organized or strategically thought-through our lists are, and how clear our purpose is and how clean our workspace and mental space might be, someone still has to show up, sit down, and get to work.

David Allen argues that his system reduces the work to very doable chunks and lessens the friction, so I imagine he would say less mental toughness is required to "do.". But less is not none--it still takes something.

Clearing your head makes doing an easier task to face. But sometimes I noticed that the GTD system hides what you have to do and makes it easier to avoid it. Thanks for the comment. I always appreciate hearing from and getting input from readers.