est. reading time: 7 mins
“Are you winning, Miles?”
The person asking is a burly, retired Mancunian who owns the plot next to mine at the allotment. He has a penchant for crooning ballads at the top of his voice as he cultivates the cabbages, cauliflowers and potatoes that feed his children and grandchildren across the borough.
“Yes, Vinny”, I reply.
I nearly always answer yes. Even when the carrot fly have ravaged another crop, even when the slugs have eaten my strawberries, and even when I’m knee high in weeds that resemble triffids. I’m always winning.
I’m always winning not because I’m a mindless optimist but because the allotment is a hobby. Of course, I like it when things grow, and even more when they get eaten, but it’s not the point. Merriam-Webster’s definition of a hobby is “a pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation”, so I don’t get upset each year when I don’t win the prize marrow contest. It’s the journey, not the destination, and it’s OK to be amateur because, even so, the wins of this particular hobby are many;
- It’s time away from a screen in the middle of the day.
- It’s time to think with a bit of time, space and perspective.
- It’s time to get some fresh air and exercise.
- It’s time to connect with my community.
In other words, it’s all the things that often get crowded out of busy modern lives. It’s that stuff in the ‘Important but not urgent’ box that’s so hard to get to because there are always more emails and meetings and things to do.
What I’ve found down the years is that sustaining this hobby doesn’t happen by accident. It takes a fair bit of effort and design to make it happen, and most of the tactics are ones that can apply to the rest of your GTD® practice, too…
Protect the space
Anything that needs a chunk of time is more likely to happen if you’ve got some wiggle room in your schedule. Planning that time ahead in the calendar isn’t a cast-iron guarantee that things won’t change but it raises the odds for success. During my GTD Weekly Review® I routinely block out 90 minutes in the middle of the days to give a bit of a buffer zone for a quick trip down to the allotment if it turns out nice (and it helps that I also have an accompanying step in my customised GTD Weekly Review checklist to always look ahead at the weather forecast and see when that might be). Sometimes I use the slots, sometimes they’re just a regular lunch hour, but the point is that it creates choices.
You can take the same approach to other things you want to protect time for such as your daily clarifying time and your GTD Weekly Review itself; i.e. the kinds of things that get easily squeezed. Make it something you check and plan for in the calendar review step of your GTD Weekly Review.
Sometimes things change quickly in the course of a working day – a meeting gets cancelled, or a coaching gets rescheduled – and in such situations it’s helpful to be ready to pivot. I have my allotment kit – tools, wellies, mac – all ready in a bag by the door for those unexpected opportunities. If the sun is shining it might be a great opportunity to bring lunch forward and nip down to water the tomatoes.
Time has a habit of showing up unexpectedly in our rapidly evolving diaries and GTD can help you be ready to optimise how you use it when it does. Your GTD lists help you on these occasions by presenting a curated menu of choices so you can quickly decide what to do in that time rather than waste it trying to figure out the choices. It’s no different to having your wellies ready.
Everything is a win
I’m not a hardened bloke like Vinny who spent his working life building council houses and who seems to deal in nothing less than 8 hour stints of hard graft. I think and talk for a living from a comfy chair. I have a brittle spirit when it comes to manual labour and my backside has a tendency to want to stay in that nice warm chair when it’s a bit parky. I find it helps here to regard anything done at the allotment as a win. Anything. In winter, just walking down there to pull out a couple weeds and come back is a win. It’s still a good walk and I’ll usually end up doing more once I’m there.
You can adopt similar tactics with your GTD practice if you find that you’re encountering resistance to parts of it. Take your daily clarifying, for example. Some people can sit and clarify dozens of emails, one-by-one, with steely-eyed focus until the inbox is empty. Others find their attention wavering after a few minutes. Break up your clarifying into smaller chunks at different times if that’s what works best for you. You’ll still be winning at every turn. Like me and Vinny, we’re all different in how we best tackle things, so vary your tactics. Break things down to the size at which they work for you and then build back up from there once you’re in motion.
Celebrate the wins
Another aspect of getting motivated is to celebrate when things go well. It’s helpful, when trying to grow new habits, to reward yourself for success. After a decent session at the allotment, I invariably succumb to a chicken shawarma from the local Turkish bakery on the way home. Your motivation to practice GTD is no different. Treat yourself after your Weekly Review, especially when you know you’re still encountering resistance to doing it. Kebabs and cakes have wonderful motivational properties if deployed with precision and moderation, you’ll find.
Lose the guilt
A final thought. If, like me, you’ve been raised in a work culture that’s strongly influenced by the Protestant work ethic, you may need to reframe your thinking around what work looks like. Our work culture tells us it’s plain wrong to finish early or take a long lunch, even if we’ve done more than enough and are completely on top of things. It’s our work culture that says that allotment time is ‘off time’ but I don’t think things are quite so clear cut.
For me, like Schrodinger’s Cat in the box, time at the allotment is, in one sense, both ‘off’ time AND ‘on’ time simultaneously because being off is a key part of performance when you’re a knowledge worker. The breaks are a component of the workday that catalyse higher performance and creativity. The allotment is usually the place where some unexpected flash of insight occurs that wouldn’t have happened if I’d stayed in front of the screen being busy. Being away from your work replenishes your energy, attention, and concentration. The alternative, pushing on through every hour that God sends just to get more done, is more likely to simply exhaust you and generate mistakes that then need to be fixed later.
It’s one of the big benefits of GTD that you actually have a sense of what ‘done’ and ‘enough’ look like and when you reach them because you can actually see your commitments. This is how the GTD Weekly Review enables you to know you can switch off for the weekend, and it’s the same process that enables me to look at my calendar, look at my lists, look at my inboxes and decide I can go and pull weeds for an hour on a weekday.
We often say in our training and coaching that GTD doesn’t make a distinction between work and personal because your brain doesn’t. I think we need to go even further and make fewer distinctions about what work looks like generally because performance doesn’t just occur in an office or in front of a screen. It’s also driven by walking the dog, going for a run, and weeding the allotment, too. It’s all part of optimising one’s overall effectiveness and we need to lose the outdated ideas and guilt around what work does and doesn’t look like.
We’re knowledge workers and if those ‘off’ activities are also part of what it takes to do our best work then so be it, even in the middle of the work day. What matters is not where you work; what matters is what you get done.