Passports and Pinball - Next Action Associates

Ever seen a pinball machine? Great, then you’ll have a mental image of a metal ball pinging around under glass, side-to-side and up-and-down, flippers flipping and lights flashing for as long as you can stop it from disappearing down the hole.

I sometimes use this odd metaphor in GTD® coaching and training to help people see how a project’s next actions ‘travel’ around a GTD system over time, and to illustrate this, I’d like to share the story of a personal project that began in 2016 and finished just recently.

That year, here in the UK at least, the future suddenly changed, and, irrespective of how you voted in the Brexit referendum that I’m referring to, things have been unclear for everyone since.

For me, personally, the realisation also gradually dawned that clouds had appeared in the cobalt blue skies of my Mediterranean retirement dream, so a project that had been languishing on my ‘someday maybe’ list for ages got promoted to my ‘Projects’ list: ‘Get Trinidad Passport’.

Trinidad & Tobago is a Caribbean nation off the coast of Venezuela. I’ve always been entitled to ‘Citizenship by Descent’ there through my dad, who came to the UK in the Windrush years, and suddenly a second passport in my back pocket felt like it would be a very nice thing to have indeed.

So let’s turn to GTD. And pinball…

The desired outcome of the project was always the same. Every week, during my GTD Weekly Review®, there it was, reminding me: Get Trinidad passport. And every week, the next action was the metallic ball moving from list to list.

My GTD lists saw all of the following next actions come and go as I slowly trawled the paper trail of my dad’s life over the course of two years, locating all the necessary bits and pieces of bureaucracy from the UK and Caribbean. Here’s a simplified snapshot:

2017

  • Call Shaun about passport application process (@Calls)
  • Check with Embassy about dual citizenship (@Calls)
  • Print TT passport application forms (@Office)

2018

  • Trinidad High Commission – referee professional status (@Agendas)
  • Email Lisette – Legal contacts in Port of Spain (@Computer)
  • Email Jeannie re passport reference (@Computer)
  • Call Mum – give marriage certificate to Nick this weekend (@Calls)
  • Nick – 11/3 – dad’s old TT passport (Waiting for)
  • Search loft for dad’s birth certificate (@Norfolk)
  • Mum – 18/3 – dad’s death certificate (Waiting for)

2019

  • Call Trinidad High Commission – clarify 1988 citizenship rule changes (@Calls)
  • Mum – clarify timeline of dad’s naturalisation (@Agendas)
  • Google public notaries in Manchester (@Computer)
  • Call Home Office re original copy of naturalisation cert (@Calls)
  • Copy dad’s naturalisation certificate (@Office)
  • Book train tickets to London (@Computer)
  • Get passport photos taken (@Errands)
  • TT High Commission – 1/8 – Passport ready! (Waiting for)
  • Buy recorded delivery envelope (@Errands)

The pinball has landed on virtually every one of my GTD lists at some point or another over the course of this journey. Ping. Ping. Ping.

Sometimes it kept moving forward (“We’ve found dad’s birth certificate!”) and I was ready to fill out the next form, take the next trip to London or pick up the phone to a distant relative to figure out the next missing piece.

Sometimes it sat still. (“Sorry. The woman who types affidavits is on vacation. Come back in October.”) I’d hit ‘Pause’ and the next action would be a ‘Waiting for’ or a calendar trigger (a.k.a. ‘Tickler’) to call back and try again in a few weeks.

Sometimes the ball and the project felt like they were going down the drain – that’s the technical name of the ‘game over’ hole on a pinball machine, by the way – and there were hairy moments. Who knew that my dad’s middle name didn’t match other official records? The Trinidad High Commission in Belgravia did, as it happens, and, to my great chagrin (but not my surprise), they weren’t open to just letting it fly ‘on this occasion’. Not at all. Next action: Google ‘Government archives in Trinidad’ and hunker down for another delay. Damn it.

The ball pinged around my lists for over two years as the quest ground forward. The thing is – and this is where I thank GTD – the project took as long as it had to take, but not longer. Like pinball, much of it I couldn’t control, and I had no idea how long it was going to go on for, but I had as much control as was possible and for most of the time it was neither on my mind very much nor stressing me out.

For two years, it just ticked forward week-by-week, always on the radar, sometimes edging forward, sometimes not, until finally, a couple of weeks ago, the daft picture above of me with a passport and a giddy grin appeared in the family WhatsApp group. Woohoo!

I chose to tell this story as a blog for a couple of reasons; one is because I hope it helps show how the moving parts of a project and its next actions work together over time, tied together by the Weekly Review. I’ve noticed when teaching GTD that this dynamic between projects and next actions doesn’t always ‘click’ immediately for people, so hopefully a post-coaching pointer to this blog will help in future.

Secondly, to be honest, without GTD this project would probably never have got done (and several previous decades of it not getting done attest to this). It was unclear, it was complicated, there was no deadline and no urgency, nobody else pressing me for it, and even if I had that elusive passport, I probably wouldn’t do much with it in the short term anyway.

It was, basically, the kind of project that was ripe for disappearing down the back of the psychic sofa, re-appearing every August at Notting Hill Carnival as a fleeting ‘Oh yes, and I must remember to…’, and then gone again a few days later once back into the daily grind.

But, as I hope this blog suggests, it doesn’t have to be that way. GTD helps you get things done.

So, citizen of wherever-you-are, what’s languishing on your someday maybe list that could be calmly and steadily moving towards successful completion with the help of GTD?

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single next action.” – Lao Tzu (ish)

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