Eating the Menu


It’s a nice place. You have been here before, and recall how much you like the food. Yet as you scan down the first page of the menu, your breath quickens and your pulse shoots up. Turning to the second page, your eyes widen; you are practically hyperventilating now. A bead of sweat traces your brow as you think to yourself in a panic:

“How am I possibly going to be able to eat everything on this menu?!”

I am guessing this strange little fantasy is not something that has actually happened to you. Yet for many of the clients I coach on the Getting Things Done (GTD) method, the first time they pull together a comprehensive list of their possible next actions, they feel overwhelmed.

This is because, rather than relating to these items as a menu of options, they are often relating to them using their previous paradigm–the to-do list. In the psychology of the to-do list, we write down a few items, and then convince ourselves that we will be a Productive Good Person™ once we get through all of the items on the list. Dangling this moral imperative over our heads is what motivates us: after we’ve done our homework and chores, we can go play.

Yet nearly every list I have encountered of this type is vastly incomplete (as compared to all the next actions that would move the things one cares about forward), and not clarified to the level that it is–to continue the menu metaphor–full of clear descriptions of items that are both bite-sized and appetising.

To embrace GTD, we must embrace the menu paradigm, picking off whatever will be most nutritious and satisfying, never expecting ourselves to “eat it all”. Instead of the satisfaction of doing all the things we agreed to do on a (very limited) to-do list, we dwell in the satisfaction of making good choices, moment-to-moment, from a complete, current inventory of next actions–a menu that helps us know what our options are, rather than compelling us to stuff ourselves at every sitting.

In fact, one of the great benefits of this system is being able to get all the next actions out of our head into a trusted GTD system, and then walk away from that list with that confidence that we will pick up the right things, at the right time, later. Just as you don’t stress about whether the restaurant will have food available for you when you are between meals, so too your trusted system can help you do things not on the menu–like resting and relaxing–totally guilt-free.

So if you’ve been feeling a little panicky after clarifying and organising your inputs into a nice big list of all your next actions, repeat after me: it’s not a to-do list; it’s just a menu.

Bon appétit.

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