Back in the day I was a commuter. On the face of it the trip was a daily grind; from Manchester to Sheffield and back again by train over The Pennines – the ‘backbone’ of England – but in actual fact I loved it because it gave me a protected bubble of peace and quiet to bookend the beginning and end of every day at work.
A lot of that sense of calm came in the Vale of Edale section of the journey. It’s one of the most beautiful places on God’s green earth but it wasn’t the views that made such a difference, it was the fact that the valley was rather cut off from the world, surrounded by the hills of the Peak District. To enter the valley from the Eastern end meant passing through the Totley tunnel, the 4th longest in the UK at three and a half miles long. Entering from the West, on the other hand, was through the Cowburn tunnel, slightly shorter but, instead, the deepest in the UK, running under 875 feet of Northern rock.
What it all meant was that for most of the trip there was little chance of a phone signal or of logging on to email. It was one big, sheltered bubble and it was probably the biggest daily contributor to my mental wellbeing back then.
These days, the commute is about ten seconds from my bed to my desk. What’s more, the phone signal is 5G, the broadband is ultrafast and there isn’t just email arriving through them now; there’s Teams messages, texts, LinkedIn, Twitter, Slack, WhatsApp and more. It could be brutal, yet even though I no longer have a hidden valley in which to shelter from it all, I have GTD® instead to keep me sane and, if you’re just starting your journey with GTD, this blog highlights three key ways that it does this.
Firstly, GTD puts you more in control of how you want to engage with your world. When you first implement GTD Fundamentals, you learn how to conceptually break down your workflow into five fundamental steps – capture, clarify, organise, reflect and engage. Understanding and implementing the best practices around each of these can bring much greater stability to your workflow. Seeing the GTD Clarifying process as a standalone activity in its own right can be particularly helpful, transforming a feeling of being relentlessly distracted by every ping, ding and ring into a much greater feeling of control and agency.
Secondly, GTD gives you a trusted system outside of your head that acts as a line of defence between you and the pressure of your commitments. It doesn’t make them go away but it does take on the job of doing the reminding. Without any way of doing this, there nothing between you and having the world nag you constantly about what it wants, and this is a pretty tiring and unrewarding way to live. When people talk about not being able to switch off, this is why. With a trusted system, however, your brain is freed up from taking those hits and free to think about what you want to think about, for as long as you want to think about it or think about nothing at all. You don’t need to be deep under the ground to achieve this kind of calm if you have a system and a process that regulates how you manage your attention.
Thirdly, having a GTD system enables you to see only what you need to see when it’s time to choose what to do. Knowing that you don’t need to constantly see everything that you could potentially do in the foreseeable future usually feels like a great weight being lifted from the shoulders of new GTDers. Only seeing the things it’s useful to see in a given moment creates clarity and confidence about how your time is being used, and the satisfaction that you’re doing the right things. And when it comes to clocking off time – whatever the commute looks like – knowing that everything will still be there in your GTD system tomorrow creates the quiet space that you enter each night because you can then easily disengage from it.
I find it’s helpful to think of GTD in terms of the boundaries it creates and maintains for you. Boundaries can be physical, like the door you lock behind you each night, or they can be temporal, like the quiet space many people love in the early mornings before the world wakes up. Both of these can be eroded, however, if you don’t have solid mental boundaries and this is where GTD helps. It gives you quiet, protected headspace.
So, don’t let your life keep hitting you like a runaway train. If you’ve not yet started using GTD, just know that there’s another way to work and live. If you have started using it, then you’ll probably already know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.