Playing the piano
When being asked what GTD is all about, I’m often reminded by what I see every day when I’m watching my kids practicing the piano. I remember the day they started their first practice as if it was yesterday. Their fingers clumsy on the keyboards, not really knowing what to do, but quite determined hammering down on the ivory. They started practicing, just like they start practicing every single day. Sometimes there has been some resistance, but for the past four years since they started to practice, they really started practicing again every single day. Not too long, not too short, but very focused, with kind but firm guidance from their mother. While each individual practice, certainly at the beginning, did not appear to amount to much, it’s amazing how good they have gotten in those past four years. They each have been diligently chipping away at their mountain.
The core of GTD
You may wonder what this has to do with GTD? I think it touches the core of what GTD is all about. Let me explain.
GTD to me is essentially a self-management system which allows us to focus on deliberate practice of our essential to do’s every single day, again, and again, and again. Consistently using a system such as GTD helps you to avoid just practicing and focuses you on practicing towards one or more specific goals.
My children could be practicing the piano by just hammering down any key. It just would not take them very far. In the same vein, it wouldn’t make sense for you to just execute tasks as they occur to you. Rather, task optimization and optimal task execution can only occur if and when you put some thought into planning if, when and how you will be doing these specific tasks.
Higher altitudes determine task relevance
The first and most relevant question is of course whether doing something with the input that triggers your action response is relevant at all? Do you really need to do this? Is this a task for you? Is it a relevant task at all? If you’re clear on your higher altitudes it will become far easier for you to determine whether or not you need to do something. For clarity on your higher dimensions, try journaling.
Time is a context
Once you have determined whether or not you need to do a certain task, activity or action, you need to judge when it needs to be done. Now, later or someday when conditions are right?
Seasoned GTD practitioners recognize the critical aspects of time bound constraints and contextual constraints. The conditions you need to be present in order to be able to successfully execute a task are referred to as contexts. Never really discussed in GTD as such, time is as much a context as tool presence or location. We just have a tried and tested tool for time bound planning, which we call agenda. The essence of contextual task execution is to execute tasks with a minimum of context or tool changes. That practice improves efficiency in task execution.
GTD is not (yet) doing the work
But even with optimal planning, you still have to do the work. Doing the work is the point where you start chipping away at your mountain. al the rest is pure preparation.
If you spend an inordinate time planning and preparing or tweaking your GTD system you’ll never start chipping away at your mountain. On the contrary, if you failed to plan adequately, you’ll start chipping away at a piece of rock here using this tool and a little bit there using that other tool, but you’ll never get anywhere. Your effort will never be focused enough.
However, If you strike the right balance between using the appropriate time for planning and review while keeping a lot of time for actual execution and you do this day in day out, you may actually be surprised if you look back after for example a year on what you have achieved. It is amazing how far you can travel towards an intended goal if you focus and structure your task execution.
This, to me, is what makes GTD so powerful. It is a tool that allows you to laser focus your attention on your primary goal which is chipping away at your very own mountain.