Is GTD Time Management? (Video Podcast) - Next Action Associates

While Getting Things Done® (GTD®) may not officially be regarded as ‘time management’, being able to manage your time well is a prerequisite for an effective GTD practice.

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0:00:05.2 Todd Brown: Hello everyone, and welcome to another Change Your Game with GTD podcast. My name is Todd Brown, and I’m here with Robert Peake.

0:00:13.0 Robert Peake: Hello.

0:00:14.7 TB: Our goal in these podcasts is to give you some thinking from our perspectives as experienced GTDers, as coaches, as trainers, as people who live this for ourselves and for our clients every day, give you our perspectives on some information that we hope will help you to realize the promise of GTD, which is to get more of the right things done in less time and with less stress. And, Robert, when you and I were talking today about, as we all always do just before we hit record, what we were gonna talk about, one of the really interesting ideas that you had was this idea that we spend a lot of time talking about how GTD is not time management. GTD is not time management. And the point that you made was, well, actually using some sort of classic time management approaches or time management thinking can help us as we think about how best to refine our GTD practices and systems. So could you maybe lay the groundwork here for us? What did you mean by that?

0:01:13.8 RP: Yes, the Heisenberg Principle of GTD is not time management, and yet it is. Yeah, I think time is one important dimension to manage. And one of the things I’ve found is that if people aren’t appropriately managing time in some fundamental ways, it’s gonna be harder for them to implement GTD effectively and sustain GTD over time. The most classic example I can think of is people that are just absolutely allowed themselves to be in, for one reason or another, totally back-to-back meetings during the day, then looking to adopt an approach that involves being able to get stuff done using a system when they’re not in meetings. And frankly, they’re nearly always in meetings, or other situations where the calendar management, for whatever reason, is out of their control, no longer optimal. And also just on the flip side, the positive side of putting in the time, when you’re building a GTD system and when you’re maintaining and supporting one. The simplest example being you’re marking your weekly review each week on the calendar so that you can actually make sure you do that.

0:02:37.9 RP: So it just really occurred to me that, no, GTD is not just a kind of simple remedial time management approach, but managing time well can then turbo-charge, or is even a pre-requisite to some extent, of an effective GTD practice that then transcends just the time management, time boxing kind of element and allows you to be really flexible and responsive in the moment, rather than in a potentially over-structured sort of rigid time management, traditional time management way. That was what was on my mind. What attracted you to the topic or what were some of your thoughts when we were kicking this around?

0:03:21.5 TB: Yeah, I really like this topic as a way to get into, how do we… To get into the question, how do we figure out whether we’ve got the right focus? And I think the description that you’ve just given of people who have, let’s just use the calendar as an example, over-committed in their calendars, they’ve chosen or allowed themselves to be over-committed, too many meetings, just too much going on on the calendar, and then they find themselves in the situation where they can’t do anything else. When are they gonna do all the real work? The other work’s a better phrase, the other work…

0:04:02.7 RP: The job besides email, basically, I’ve heard one person call it. My job besides just being an email responder. Yeah.

0:04:09.7 TB: Besides email and sitting in meetings, when am I gonna do all the rest of that stuff, right? And I think that what we find a lot is that that is… We say GTD is not about time management, but we do say that GTD is about managing focus and managing where you choose to place your focus. And I think what we’ve got is an awful lot of people who don’t really have… Well, their use of the calendar, for example, they’re allowing themselves to become overly booked that way, I think means that what they’ve lost is this idea that, “Hey, if I’m gonna be optimally focused, not just on the stuff that’s in my calendar, but on everything else that needs to get done in my world, there’s going to have to be a bit of a balance, which is not reflected in my calendar as it exists today.” So if you talk about time box, again as an example, we do talk about that of course in GTD, it’s not like that’s evil or bad or wrong, but I think that it can be used as a tool to help us to make sure that we do have the right balance between all of the various things that we believe in GTD that you should be focusing on.

0:05:24.0 TB: So, great example, the weekly review, as you mentioned. I think the weekly review is something that most people that I’ve run into, as clients, as people that I’ve worked with over the years, most people don’t have… Before GTD, they don’t have anything that looks really like a weekly review. Some people do. Don’t get me wrong, some people do get that sort of higher perspective on their work and they take regular time to consider not just the stuff that’s coming at them and seems critical and urgent in the moment, but they get the higher perspective, they think about the bigger issues.

0:06:04.4 TB: But it’s pretty rare, pretty rare. And so when we talk about time boxing, we might say, “Hey, well, block some time in your calendar to do a weekly review.” That’s a different form of focus than just… And this is where I see a lot of time boxing getting used to the extent that it is used, people just block time in their calendars because they’re just desperate, it’s a cry for help that says “I am so overwhelmed by the stuff that’s going on in my life, I just feel like I’ve gotta have some time in my diary which is not otherwise committed, and I will… ” And in most cases, I think the thinking that goes along with that is, “I’ll figure out at the time what I’m gonna do then. I’m not quite sure what I’m gonna do then, but I’ll figure that out at the time. But as long as I’ve got some time in my diary that’s blocked, it feels like I’ve enhanced my sense of control, even maybe just a little bit.” I don’t know. Does that resonate with you? Does that make sense?

0:07:00.4 RP: It sure does, and it resonates with so much of what I’ve seen with clients. And I think one of the things we need to contextualise is that GTD is a practice that involves consulting your lists in the white space, is one of the practices that I… As I put it, meaning when it’s up to you to decide, having lists orientate is, for some people, a revelation to some extent. And when we say, look, there’s only three types of things that really should be in your calendar, the time-specific activities like a meeting, the day-specific activities, like you’re gonna do that all day or at some point in that day and the day-specific reminders, like someone’s birthday or someone’s gonna be out that day, or your taxes, or do any kind of due date is a day-specific reminder generally. When we say that’s it, I think people start to think, “Okay, calendar. Calendar bad.”

0:08:00.8 RP: And part of that is just a response to the fact that most people, all they have had up to the point of discovering GTD has often been a calendar. So when all you have is a hammer, it all looks like nails, when all you have is a calendar as a trusted system, it all looks like stuff you should be scheduling in. But it’s important not to swing too far the other way with all of that. I was working with a client recently, and we’d identified a project outcome, the finish line for a multi-step outcome they cared about, we identified a next action, what the very next step would be, what the kinda entry point is to working on that, and we identified some project supports, some thinking and materials that’s gonna support them in getting their project over the finish line. And I said, “Is that now off your mind for now?” And I kinda went, “Well, maybe there’s something else to put in there, like a calendar reminder to check in with yourself or a due date for this.” And they kinda went, “Can I do that? Am I allowed in GTD to use the calendar that way?” And absolutely. So, more and more, I’m saying there’s really four components, not just three but four components that might shake out of a single typical to-do item.

0:09:14.9 RP: And that is of course the next action of the project, any project support, but also anything you need to do to support yourself on the calendar to be able to make sure that the time-specific things or reminders or just the deadline itself, whatever, is gonna come back to you. So, both in adopting GTD, putting in the time is important, and I think in the practice of GTD, recognizing that the time element is really important, not to be overused, but used appropriately and effectively, I think is also really, really key. Now, you’ve done a lot of different… You’ve done project management and different methodologies, and you’re also someone who came to GTD in kinda the middle… Or at some point in your career, whereas I got it so early on I almost kinda can’t remember what my calendar bad practices were and this kind of thing. But I’m just interested, when you think about traditional project management, which I’m assuming is some of what you did, PGTD, Pre-GTD, are there elements of that that you find applicable either to adopting GTD or to utilising GTD more effectively? Like when you think of all the kind of classic, classic stuff, what in there is stuff where you go, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” about that?

0:10:37.1 TB: Yeah, it’s a great question. I think, for me, what was really revolutionary about GTD when I first got exposed to it was that it was finally, here was somebody… I saw this video of David Allen on the internet, that was my very first exposure to GTD. And finally I thought, here’s somebody who’s really applying process thinking to how we work every day. And I had been exposed, as you quite rightly… I was at a very large corporate, my last role before founding this business, and I’d been exposed to all kinds of frameworks for planning. Formal planning methodologies, all kinds of things. And of course they’re still around and they’ve evolved and they’ve gotten a lot more, in some ways, a lot more nimble and a lot more helpful.

0:11:35.0 TB: When I was… I’m really gonna date myself now, but when I was first starting out my career, the waterfall methodologies for planning were very, very common, and these kinds of things that are supported by tools like… Tools that allow you to do that kind of Gantt chart, that, “Here’s an element that we need to work on, and here’s who’s responsible for what and here’s what’s dependent on what” and all of that. Those tools were around. We did a project once in a little company that I had a training project, where we trained the entire IT division of a very large financial institution to do basically Gantt charts, okay? And the thinking was that once we do this, everybody will automatically become so much more effective and efficient. And for months we used to run training courses for these folks in how to do formal waterfall-based sort of tool… And it was focused on the tool, in particular, by the way, that they were interested in.

0:12:34.9 TB: And, hey presto, at the end of the day, it didn’t really work very well, because those tools are not focused on the same things that GTD is, there’s always this gap. And this was, again… When I first saw GTD, it was like, “Oh, okay, okay, okay, someone’s now finally got it.” If you try to manage your day, literally be as nimble as you need to be day-to-day, using a tool which is about Gantt charts and PERT charts or it’s Microsoft Project or whatever, which is a great tool for what it does, but if you try to use that to manage your own, your own sort of productivity, it starts to fall…

0:13:13.6 TB: In my experience, I haven’t seen anybody do that terribly effectively. So that’s what I think was for me the real revelation, was all of a sudden here’s somebody who really has got the focus right. And so it was that kind of process thinking at that most basic level. It was a meta approach to how we make decisions every day, minute to minute, literally, that makes sure that we have the right balance between the tactical, all important stuff, right? The stuff I said I’ll get done by tomorrow, that’s important, I gotta get that stuff done. But at the end of the day, and this is just… This problem has just gotten worse over time, of course, the volume of things that are coming at me, and now with the proliferation of tools that will throw things at me, what that means is that without some time on perspective, without some time looking at the bigger picture, I’m really gonna struggle. So yeah, I think that’s what comes to mind to me as the big aha about that. Does that answer your question? I’m suddenly wondering whether that answered your question.

0:14:25.7 RP: Yeah, yeah, it does. It definitely gives really good contrast, and you mentioned teams, team-based planning approaches, and I think there is a key intersection in the kind of outcome approach to thinking at least that. That whether it’s the end of the Gantt chart or whether it’s the end of the Agile sprint or whatever, you’ve defined some kind of in-state and then you’re backing it out from there. We just say, generally speaking, very often, do as much planning as you want, but very often for an individual moving their individual life and all their different priorities together in parallel, it’s usually that outcome state and then the very next step, and then having a list of options of very next steps. For teams, having some of the middle bit filled in sometimes works, and frankly, sometimes doesn’t, because new inputs could completely blow up that Gantt chart. You could be… As you know, you can be redrafting that Gantt chart on a very regular basis. And there’s also often a real element of artificial deadlines. Bringing back the time component, there’s a lot of this sort of, “Let’s all get this done by this date.”

0:15:36.2 RP: Upside of that, of course, is that sometimes it focuses the team on collaboration. It’s like, “Hey guys, we’re not gonna win as a team unless we make sure once I move this part along then you pick it up quickly.” So passing the baton, that element of passing the baton, it can kind of focus the group mind to have some kind of deadlines and goals in a time-based way. But I think you’re absolutely right that… I just, time and time again I look at the best-laid plans and how people think things are gonna go, and I go, Look, to find the middle bit if you want to, but frankly, that middle bit very often is not gonna go the way you thought it would, and just because it doesn’t, doesn’t mean you’ve messed up, and just because it doesn’t go according to that artificial timeframe doesn’t mean that you’ve messed up. And I think that’s so important for a personal productivity approach, that you recognize that to some extent, things take as long as they do. And that’s not to say don’t set goals. I think the Higher Horizons model is a really good one for setting goals in a very…

0:16:41.7 RP: In a way very similar to traditional project management, where you can say, “Right, if I wanna be here in five years, then I wanna be here in two years, then here’s my projects for this year, then here’s my next actions.” And you can also start to set up some analogous stuff on the calendar, too. You can say, “Okay, well, let me check in with myself six months from now to see if I’m where I should be halfway to that one-year mark”, etcetera. So the whole classic parcel it out and back it up and all that kind of stuff, I think still applies, but I think also some of those real kinda artificial… There’s so much credibility given to people being able to predict how long something’s gonna take and stick to it. [chuckle] My point of view is those were just not very complex tasks, frankly. If you can completely predict and then accurately do it, either you’re patting the heck out of it or frankly, it’s not nearly as complex, at least as my life is, to be able to predict exactly how some of these things are gonna go.

0:17:44.5 RP: So it’s a funny thing, time, and our belief that somehow we should control how things go in time. And I think you’re absolutely right, some of the places where these team methodologies do even succeed, it’s a bit much, particularly on the time element, for individuals. So I don’t know if that resonates or…

0:18:11.4 TB: Yeah, no, completely. I’m reminded of, I think it was Mark Twain, who said that prediction is difficult, especially prediction about the future, which I think is… Which is classic. And you’re right, there was so much time spent, and I mean time in a very macro sense, over many, many years trying to, in some ways, sort of get reality to… To bend reality to our will, or to our collective wills. And I think the evolution of these more agile tools and scrum-working and that sort of thing, I think is just a recognition of the fact that reality was not being bent to our wills, in a lot of cases. And as you were talking, one of the things that occurred to me that I think is really interesting is, a lot of the tools that are now used in these more agile environments, so I’m thinking of tools like Trello and Microsoft Planner and then these sort of tools that are quite flexible, they provide a little bit of structure but not a huge amount of structure, they can actually be used both on a team basis very effectively, and you and I are working on a project right now, which is our Scrum Master, you’re sort of running as a… Running using one of those tools.

0:19:27.9 TB: So, they absolutely work on a team basis, but I’ve also seen clients use them quite effectively for individual GTD systems. And I think that’s really fascinating, because, as I say, there’s no way I would recommend that a client uses, I don’t know, a project work bench tool that just does Gantt charts and PERT charts and that sort of thing as the basis for their GTD system. But I think what’s happened is that these tools as they’ve evolved have recognized that they need to provide a bit of structure, but not a huge amount of structure, and that’s where the magic kind of lies. And as I say, that means you can, in practice, you can use those tools for both team things and individual things. The thing, though, that I think is really important for people to recognize is, the kind of information that you’re keeping in a GTD system is of a different granularity, by and large, than what you’re keeping in your team-based system. And of course, there is overlap.

0:20:26.1 TB: So, if on your project you’re responsible for a particular outcome, well, that’s gonna be reflected in the team’s tool that says, “You need to get this done by… ” Well, again, back to your point about dates, whether or not the date is indicated, but you’re responsible for that outcome. And that will, of course, also be reflected in your own system, but of course, what won’t be reflected in the team’s system is, “Okay, well, what’s my next action?” Probably. “What’s the very next thing I need to do tomorrow morning to move that thing forward?” That sort of level of detail is not… Well, can be managed, sometimes managers who are into control, micro managers sometimes. And I’m not saying it’s never helpful, especially if someone’s really struggling or if someone’s new or whatever, they might manage things at that sort of granular next action level, but by and large, the team isn’t gonna care that my next action is, “I need to browse. I need to search on the web for something to try to move this forward.” So, the tool’s the same, as I say, but the way in which we use it I think is quite different.

0:21:40.5 RP: Yeah. Yeah. Very rarely do you put a deadline on a next action, but almost very often on a project, if it’s collaborative in nature. So we wanna get this done either as soon as possible or within a certain time frame so that, again, the passing of the baton, the coordinating part of that. Yeah, it’s… Time is, I think, an important dimension to wrangle. Based on what you’ve seen with clients in terms of good practice, bad practice, if you were to kind of advise them on, “Here’s what you need to do to put in the time to make a good GTD system work. Here’s kind of what… The basics of what your calendar should or needs to look like in order to enable GTD to be effective for you,” what are some of the key… What are some of the highlights of what they need to have in place in the time… To manage and wrangle the time dimension well enough that they get the most out of GTD?

0:22:37.3 TB: Well, look, we’ve got a model in GTD which I think is hugely helpful, which is what we call the three-fold nature of work. And so, very briefly, for those of you who haven’t run into it before. So, work only really comes in three forms. It is either what we call pre-defined work, which means in essence you’re kind of taking things off of your lists, you’re going to the meetings that are in your calendar, that’s pre-defined work. You defined it at some point in the past, and now you’re doing it. Pre-defined work. Second form is what we call defining your work. So in a GTD sense, that’s what we would call clarifying and organizing. So, deciding next actions, deciding outcomes, putting that information in your system. And then the third type of productive activity of work is just doing work as it appears or unplanned work.

0:23:32.9 TB: And so I think that framework can be hugely helpful. Just doing a little bit of a self-audit. Just keep notes for a week and see how much time you spend in each one of those categories of things. And these days, what I find with many clients, not all, but with many clients, is they’re spending a lot of time just doing unplanned work. They’re being driven by their inbox, or they’re being driven by posts in whatever internal social media type tools they’re using. They’re just spending all of their time reacting, or the majority of their time reacting. And, again, one of the things I think that’s subtle about the model, but really important, is understanding the limitation of that. What does it mean if you spend all of that time reacting? What does that mean to your own productivity?

0:24:29.5 TB: What does it mean to your ability, not just to get… Not just to be the nice person, supportive team member who’s getting back to your colleagues, and I’m not saying that’s not important, but how about your bigger outcomes? Are they getting any attention? Are they getting enough attention? So I think the three-fold nature of work can be used, as I say, as a framework for sort of deciding, “Where am I spending too much time? Where am I spending too little time?” And then having made that determination, you can, “Hey, let’s go back to classic time management approach, and let’s just do some time blocking of two hours once a week of working off your lists,” for example, if you think that that’s something that’s not getting enough of your attention. So that’s what comes to mind for me. What do you think? What do you reckon?

0:25:16.9 RP: I think that’s absolutely right, and it’s a great framework. By and large, the main challenge I see is that most people’s pre-defined work is largely meetings that have been pre-scheduled. And of course, the great things about meetings is that they generate structured work, but then, as you say, if there’s so much of that, if that’s, again one of those tools that is the only tool you have, so everything else looks like something that tool can fix, as you say, then a lot of it then is the fire fighting when you’re not in meetings. The kind of scrambling around to go, “Okay, what’s the top priority that I can knock out?” And so there’s a real sacrifice of sense of control, I think, when you’re not putting in the time, when you’re not allocating that resource of your time to the other two dimensions, the dimension of planning your work, which means emptying out those inboxes, and doing pre-defined work, which means engaging with those lists that include projects and actions and higher level stuff that you may have said you’d do in a meeting and maybe coming due at the next meeting point.

0:26:21.7 RP: And it just doesn’t feel good to be scrambling at the 11th hour to have an update, to be fire fighting when you’re not in formal meetings. And there is a way out. I think that’s one of the real messages of GTD is that you can get back in control. But often one of the places to start is with how you’re allocating time or not to the process, to all three of those areas. So yeah, great reminder, the three-fold nature is the real art, I think, of doing GTD day-to-day on a real practical basis.

0:26:56.8 TB: Great stuff. Well, Robert, believe it or not, we’ve almost come to a half an hour. So, as usual, this has really gone by quickly. Thank you for your input and your insights into all of this. And thank all of you out there for being part of our audience today. As always, if there’s anything that we can do to support you in your ongoing journey with GTD, please do let us know. In the meantime, from me and from Robert, thanks for being with us. And we look forward to seeing you next time. Bye for now.

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