Getting the Need for GTD

I seemed to have hit an inflection point in my job recently that I’ve been struggling to overcome. While my work has had multiple buckets of concern, I’ve been able to managing things fairly well using my memory and jotting notes and to-do’s in my notebook. However with moving into a position that requires managing complex, long-term, and poorly-defined processes, I’ve been increasingly finding it difficult to keep everything straight in my mind. My tasks aren’t are clearly defined, and I’m required to be more independent in how I manage both my own personal workflow and the various areas under my responsibility.

Simply maintaining a to-do list doesn’t seem to cut it anymore. There is too much to keep track of, too many legacy pieces of information that has accumulated over time, and the pace at which things are added or change is steadily increasing in velocity. Add to this the need to keep on top of things in our personal life at home, volunteer work, and activities that I find gratifying, and I’m feeling slightly paralyzed in knowing what I should fix my attention to.

In an effort to get a handle on things, I’ve picked up David Allen’s Getting Things Done. It’s the first time in a while where it feels like the text is speaking to me. I went into the book a little leery of going after yet another gimmick or shiny new toy. GTD is a seminal system in the productivity space, and so it sometimes carries with it some baggage from some of the more problematic areas of the space. Yet, I’ve found it helpful so far in thinking through my problems. At its core, my problem is in two areas: the meaningful transformation of input, and in execution.

I suppose GTD will eventually help me with the latter (I don’t know – I haven’t finished the book yet as of writing), but it’s been incredibly insightful in tackling the former. I tend to take notes and capture to-do items all over the place. However, what I’ve been lacking is examining each of these pieces of input and doing something with it; processing them into their buckets. The list has grown so large and unwieldy that I am having trouble finding stuff when I need it. I have tried popping items into information systems like Notion, Trello, or using tags to help me find it later, but most of these systems have lacked the context to help make the inputs useful later. Instead, they sit in whatever capture system was used to grab them at the time – physical notebook, email inboxes, Trello, tags in OneNote, calendars, or tasks in Teams.

I’ve found GTD helpful in suggesting organizational structures and parse out what will be meaningful later and what can be archived out of mind. I’m still working through developing a system, but so far embracing ideas from GTD has helped keep things more readily at the top of my mind, which has translated into less general anxiety as I go through the work day.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Slipped Time

Sorry for the lack of posts these last two weeks. I have lots of reasons (the holiday Monday, work has been keeping me busy, feeling tired from childcare, and our family being sick the last week), but those are poor excuses for not carving out some dedicated time to put thoughts to screen. I have been doing a decent job of holding myself accountible with work, but knowingly allowing two weeks to go by unplanned without posts shows that my systems still have some issues with keeping me on top of everything.

I appreciate the grace you have offered in my absence.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Blocking Distraction

For as much as think I am in control of my impulses, the reality is I am buffeted around by my whims far more than I wish were true. The biggest bane to my daily work is the mighty well of distraction that is YouTube. I’ve lost hours of time in a day allowing my subscriptions to serve me fresh content. I try to justify it to myself – “I’m just going over for a quick mental break,” or “I just need to see a tutorial on how to do x-action in Excel.”

Then, I look up and hours might have passed without me consciously knowing it.

Some time ago, I used a browser blocker to prevent me from accessing the worst offenders for distraction (all social media, YouTube, and Reddit specifically). I’m no stranger to signing an Odysseus contract, which I’ve written about before. However during the pandemic, I relaxed it a bit since, hey, we are all going through a rough time.

As of late, I’m forced to conclude that enough is enough, it’s time to hold myself to a higher standard. I went back in, and toggled StayFocusd back on, and so far have done a better job of accounting for my time. Between blocking distractions, using pomodoro sprints, and writing down what I do in my time blocks (quick estimates, nothing too detailed), I’ve done a pretty good job of limiting distracted time.

It’s not perfect, but it’s more than a 1% improvement, which will hopefully compound over time.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

On Tardiness

For all the lip-service paid on this blog about doing the work, I have been posting late recently. My target is supposed to be going live by 9am on Monday mornings, yet I can’t remember the last time I had a post scheduled to go live on time in a while. I think the last time I was ahead was heading out for my honeymoon in 2019, where I had three weeks lead time while I was away.

Part of why I’m behind continues to be working from home – in the before times, I would procrastinate in the office from real work by writing. But since working from home over the last twenty or so months, all time feels like procrastination time. With no one looking over my shoulder, it doesn’t matter what I am doing on my screen so long as I continue to deliver on the goods.

And as with most procrastination, the longer I go past my deadline (e.g. today), the harder it gets to get to work on the task. It usually results in taking a mulligan for the week, or cobbling together a half-thought into a semi-stream of consciousness post just to have something shipped. You’re welcome.

It feels good to publish, but I shouldn’t consider it a win to get something up for the week for the sake of hitting the metric. At the same time, I should extend myself some measure of kindness and acknowledge that I still did the work.

I still show up to do the work, just not according to what was expected of a professional.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Planning and Preparation

Last week, Seth Godin wrote a poignant observation about the wisdom of refilling your gas tank at the right time. This of course was a metaphor; it’s not about literally filling your gas tank (except when it is). Instead, the observation is about recognizing that you are better able to weather uncertainty when you are mindful about resources, whether that’s financial, physical, human, or even your own attention.

Yes, sometimes we are so strapped for time that it’s hard to remember to prioritize fil1ing before empty, but if you pay attention to your resources, then as he says you can “have your emergency on your own schedule.”

His post was well-timed, because I’ve found myself falling behind this week on some critical tasks. When I reflected on it in my journal, it’s easy to say I was busy. It’s true, I was busy – I was in a lot of long meetings, I had appointments, and obligations at home. But I’m always busy, so this week wasn’t necessarily out of the ordinary.

Instead, my lack of progress is due less in part to other people’s demands on my time, and instead it’s largely due to my own poor planning and preparation. Without an appropriate plan for the time that was all my own, I was left to flit carelessly to this whim and that urgent thing.

As a reminder to myself, open blocks of time in my calendar are not default downtime. I have more control over my time than I realize (or behave).

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Art of Self-Discipline

On the days when I’m languishing and finding it difficult to be productive, where procrastination and anxiety keep me in rabbit holes of distraction, and at the end of the day I look at the clock and realize how much time I’ve wasted, it’s easy to write myself off as a lazy, slovenly person. It’s easy to think of myself as the kind of person who does not have discipline, that I wasn’t born with that trait – fatalism has kicked in; I should accept who I am.

But that’s not what self-discipline is. It’s easy to see self-discipline as some sort of binary state when you are comparing yourself against others further along their own paths than where you want to go.

The Romans had a saying that “we can’t all be Cato’s,” referring to the stoic politician who served the State with self-sacrifice. But that saying is wrong. It should be “we aren’t all Cato’s, yet.”

In virtue ethics, your moral character is judged against an abstract ideal – the Stoic Sage. But possessing virtue is not a trait or character state. Possessing virtue is a process of becoming, of doing the right thing at the right time.

Having self-discpline doesn’t mean you are a paragon of discpline. It means you are exercising discpline in the moment. If you fail, it just means you are still working on becoming who you want to be.

The Japanese refer to this as ““, the Way. You never reach perfection, but your life is one long project of incremental progress towards what you are meant to be.

That is the way of self-discipline.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Work Focus While Home Alone

Working from home poses challenges for most folks when it comes to being able to focus. Many of my colleagues noted how difficult the summer months could be while children were home from school. For me, with an infant at home, the distractions were fairly minimal, especially because my wife handled 99% of the care during the working day during her leave from work.

But now she’s gone back to work and our child is at daycare during the day. While you’d think this means my productivity output has jumped by leaps and bounds, it’s actually done the opposite. With no one in the house to bother me, with no one to look over my shoulder, or for me to quickly hide the fact that I’m goofing off watching irrelevant videos on YouTube instead of looking at spreadsheets, the seeming unlimited time means I have a hard time getting started.

This almost seems like a cousin of Parkinson’s law, but instead of work filling the allotted time, the strength of the impulse to get started is negatively correlated with the amount of free (unsupervised) time I find myself with. Quite the opposite, there seems to be more inertia to overcome.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

PS – as a note to my future-self: there is a connection here with what Mel Robbins says about procrastination, that it’s not a function of laziness but instead a coping mechanism for the anxiety felt by the task. I should look into this more.

Parenting Lessons One Year On

We recently celebrated our son’s first birthday, so naturally I’ve been reflecting on the last year of being a first-time parent. If I were to summarize the most important lesson (beyond any of the technical skills you need to keep your kid alive), it’s that parenting is the largely an illusion of control. Your child is a chaos engine that you will try to wrangle, understand, and predict, but from moment to moment, day to day, week to week, things change wildly without discernable reason. Things that worked suddenly stop working.

The tighter you try to hold onto control, the more frustrated you’ll be.

As a corollorary, in accepting that your child is pure id, you must also come to terms that your child (at least for the first year) carries little intentionality behind what they do, and so you must not attribute your frustration to them. Instead, recognize that your frustration is a product of your own unrealistic expectations. If you align your expectations to this reality, I find it’s much easier to weather the physically and mentally taxing moments.

This isn’t to say that you won’t feel anger or frustrations directed toward your child. I’ve accepted that I will feel these feelings and there isn’t anything wrong with them so long as you don’t act on those impulses (physically or verbally). As the adult, you are expected to have learned to understand your physiological signals and adjust accordingly. As your child grows, and as they experience new feelings in themselves – feelings that they won’t have the context to understand – it’s your job to guide them through the experience so that they can learn as well.

In sum:

  • You are not in control of anything.
  • The frustration you feel is usually a product of having misaligned expectations for how you think your child ought to act.
  • Your child doesn’t understand the signals their body is giving them. You, having learned to understand your body, will be key to guiding your child through this period of discovery.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Nicola McDermott’s Notebook

As my wife and I were watching some of the Olympic coverage, we caught a recap of the finals for the women’s high jump event. I was always terrible at high jump as a child, but I stand at around 191cm (over 6-feet tall), so watching the athletes jumping heights that would clear my head instils a lot of awe in me. One jumper in particular caught my eye – silver-medalist Nicola McDermott from Australia. After each of her jumps, the camera would catch her diligently writing in a notebook.

Screencap from video: https://youtu.be/tYFV02xldbE

I have heard of athletes who meticulously journal to help with performance psychology, but this was the first time I caught it live. You can learn a bit more about what she records after each jump in this Guardian piece. One quote from the piece caught my eye:

“The 2.04m – I gave myself a 10/10 for that jump, the execution,” McDermott explained. “I felt the clearance in the air. But the lack of experience with the timing meant that it just didn’t happen today.”

I like that she framed it not as a failure of her abilities, but instead a lack of experience with the execution. Instead of seeing it as “I can’t do this,” it’s “I haven’t done this yet.” The productivity sphere labels this as an example of growth mindset, and given the stakes of the Olympics it’s inspiring to see an athlete have such an upbeat, positive attitude that would likely cause me to beat myself down in defeat.

While mere mortals like myself typically go through the motions of any given action, Nicola’s journaling habit and mindset is worth modelling as a method of providing yourself with immediate feedback and a view from without – one that gets you out of your own head. It also takes ownership over the process, because it forces you to break the activity down into discrete parts that you can focus on and improve.

Congratulations to Nicola on her personal best, and the example she sets in performance excellence.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan