Welcome back to GTD® from the Top. In this series I’m aiming to distil the core ideas behind the Getting Things Done® methodology into easily digestible bites. I’m hoping that you’ll use this series to reflect on how GTD might better help you or your organisation to be as productive, fulfilled, and stress-free as you want to be.
Earlier in the series we explored the fundamental nature of our commitments, and the importance of both achieving and maintaining as concepts to understand our productivity. In the third edition I looked at the importance of envisioning outcomes as a way to influence both what happens in the future and to optimise our current engagement with our world. In episode four I explored best practices in organising the information we use to keep ourselves productive when we want to be, and undistracted when we don’t. In the last edition I considered what’s necessary to make sure that your organizational system is set up and maintained so that it provides optimal support.
Episode 6: Where should your focus be?
In this last episode in the series, I’ll look at how we can best choose, minute to minute, what to focus on. In a world that provides us with a steady stream of options, some of them productive and some of them unproductive alternatives (options that feel, in the moment at least, like procrastination), how do we choose optimally? How can we trust that we are regularly focused on the things that are best for us, in that moment?
Not everyone is used to making such thoughtful decisions. In my years of working with clients I’ve seen many who regularly don’t give these decisions much thought. Rather than decide themselves, they delegate the responsibility of making the decision to the universe. They focus on the latest email that’s arrived in their inbox or the last message in their Microsoft Teams channel. Why steer myself when the world seems so willing to steer for me?
How many of us have allowed ourselves to be driven by their email inbox? I certainly have. You might reasonably ask what the problem with that approach is. Hey, the thinking goes, at least I’m busy. If the boss checks, I’m engaged in something that looks like it’s helpful to the organisation.
The next time you’re tempted to let the world steer, try this experiment. Write down the top five things that are important to you over the next few months. Then check your email inbox or your Slack channels. How many of those things that are important to you are represented on the first page? Not that many, I’m guessing. So the downside of letting the world steer is that your inbox’s estimation of what should have your attention is at odds with your better-informed judgement about what’s important to you.
So, if you were going to steer yourself, what would you consider to ensure that you were consistently choosing the things that deserved to have your attention? What might get in the way of making optimal decisions, and how would you avoid those obstacles?
One potential problem would be lack of perspective that meant that your commitments, be they short-term and tactical or long-term and strategic, weren’t getting the right balance of your attention. This is a trap a lot of people fall into. Without externalising and reviewing all of our commitments from time, we often fall into the trap of giving the in-your-face (or, perhaps better, the “in-your-inbox”) actions too much attention. The GTD model that can help here is the Horizons of Focus, which gives some light structure to your various externalized commitments and enables you to review them from time to time to ensure that nothing is falling between the cracks.
Another common pitfall is striking the wrong balance between getting stuck into what’s new (the latest post in that Slack channel, for example), versus choosing something to do that appears on one of your reminder lists, versus engaging with what’s arrived recently with an eye toward not getting stuck into it, but rather in planning what you’ll do about it later. These options are considered in the GTD® model called the Three-Fold Nature of Work, which provides a useful framework for self-audit as you make your way through your day. What am I engaged in right now? Scrolling through emails looking for something to get stuck into? Is that the best choice for me right now? Or should I perhaps be engaging with something on one of my lists? The Three-Fold Nature of Work helps to ensure that you have the right balance.
One final consideration is a fairly tactical one. Once I’ve made the decision to choose something off one of my reminder lists, how can I ensure I’ve chosen the best option in the moment? The GTD model called the Limiting Criteria gives you a guide here. What context are you in, that is, where are you and what resources are available? Anything that you can’t do in your current context can be eliminated from consideration. Then consider time available. You don’t want to be choosing to engage in something that you can’t make satisfying progress on. And finally, what are your energy levels like? Are you mentally and physically up for high-demand action, or would watering the houseplants be a better choice?
I hope you’ve found this blog series useful. I’ve tried to boil down the core concepts that have become clear to me over the many years that I’ve been coaching and training others in GTD, as well as in my own experience as a GTDer. No matter what’s getting in the way of your productivity, or what possibility you sense might enable you to get more of the right things done with a clear head, GTD provides you with concepts to guide your thinking and your practice. It really is possible to work smarter and live better. GTD can show you the way.