A Perspective of a System

People sometimes tell me they fall off the wagon of productivity. Too often, there is a worry that it is some defect of will. Instead, I wonder how much is actually about perspective?

For me, returning to my system is about returning to home base. I go there so I can feel solid about my next decision of what to do. After settling with my system, I decide feeling that the rest of my work can wait.

Currently, I owe much to Getting Things Done (GTD) (affiliate link) and the evolutionary adjustments I’ve made for myself since. Getting Things Done, or GTD for short, is a system of work developed by David Allen, first published in 2001. In short, it is a method of organizing your work so that you can hopefully focus on the things you want to do.

I don’t think of GTD as a be-all-end-all, but rather as a nice starting point. I’ve had other systems over the years, too.

High School Years

In high school, I had system that worked fo as long as I was in high school:

I’d set my work to do on my left. I’d move what I wanted to focus on in front of me. After completing the work, I ‘d put it to my right.

Meanwhile, I had a system to take breaks. Either Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, Kill ’em All, or And Justice for All sat at the ready in the tape deck. (Not terribly varied, I admit. Appetite for Destruction and Permanent Vacation eventually joined the roster.) I didn’t listen to the music while I worked or studied. Instead, when I wanted to take a break, I’d hit play and close my eyes. I’d listen deeply for one song, tracing the sounds more than the lyrics, enjoying the contours of the music flowing, halting, flying off cliffs, and crashing into the ground. The song would stop, I’d hit stop on the tape deck, and then continue with my homework.

It wasn’t a complex system, but it was clearly a system. All the major components were there. I had a way of storing what needed to be done. I had a means of storing what I had done. I had a means of decision, opening, being with the work, and then closing each session of work. And I had a way of taking breaks that involved a meditative focus.

The system worked as long as the only important thing I had to do was homework. Once there was more responsibility involved, things got tough.

Thankfully, I didn’t have the Internet either. I don’t know how I would have done with it around. Because when it came about, I started to have more troubles focusing. There were too many distractions.

Later Years

But I cannot blame the Internet entirely. My responsibilities began to mount. At the beginning of college when I worked in a lab. I had lots of things to do for the researchers, the other staff, as well as myself. I created a simple todo list. Unfortunately, the list had problems of getting stale, becoming unusable and the like.

College meant that I had to do more than just homework and show up to gymnastics and piano practice. I had to learn to be more on my own, be social, and generally take care of myself.

How the heck do people pay bills? Why do people keep talking about balancing a checkbook?

In medical school’s first two years, the left to right workflow I developed in high school suited me just fine,… well, for the most part. I took care of the mail as soon as it arrived (I think – frankly this is only a theory because I can’t remember how I used to pay my bills. But somehow I must have!)

When my interests of video games and music were gradually threatened by the specter of an adulthood viewed as a wasteland where play would go do die, I rebelled, though gently. I made a promise to myself that I would play the piano everyday, just as my teacher had encouraged me to do years before.

A Solidifying System

So that became the two-fold seed of a system that worked and continues to work for me today:

  • First, I must have something I want to do. If I couldn’t think of something, then figuring out a project became the task.
  • Second, I had to address my responsibilities so I could get to the things I wanted to do, guilt-free.

In other words, the better you can address your responsibilities in a meaningful way, the less they’ll interrupt you, and that way you can continue getting to where you want to go.

I’d still have trouble organizing myself and my lists however. GTD helped me put things in perspective: To make my responsibilities interrupt me less, I had to try to realistically take care of them or put them in a system I trust to help me take care of them. Additionally, the methods of creating multiple lists, Inbox processing, and a stable habit of review completely revamped my system into something that could solidly address multiple areas of my life.

Any system I create now still follows these same principles.

In Practice

Whatever system you decide to create is fine so long as it supports the goals of meeting responsibilities and helping you to plant, nurture, and develop where you feel most meaningful. When you have a tool that helps you get there, it seems odd not to use it.

But if you’ve never had such a system, it may not seem like a possibility. You may be worried that you cannot create such a system. In some ways, it is more about knowing how to create a system that is important, not the system itself.

David Allen has often said that he breaks his own systems regularly. I would suggest that what he is also saying is that he has learned to build new ones as needed and trusts in his own ability to do so.

Building a system is a practice. And there are learnable skills to design that practice.

There are certainly difficult moments. For example, I may have items in the Inbox and icons on the Desktop. These are both evidence that I haven’t completely decided what I want to do with things yet. That means I may not be able to do the things I want for risk of coming up against something or blowing through something that needs my attention. Meanwhile, I’d rather not think about it and just play guitar for a little bit.

The example is representative of a moment where a system can begin its decay. Several tasks are not decided upon, but I still want to do something.

Instead, I say to myself, “I want to play the guitar.” I have to pay attention to my own thoughts – is there something that I’m worried I’ll miss if I just jump into playing? In other words, how can I have fun responsibly?

If I am worried, I begin to settle my system. I

  • Sort the Inbox, adding thoughts as needed.
  • Clear the Desktop, adding links as needed.
  • Adjust the Navigation, Quick, and Today lists if needed.
  • I make sure that the Today list is more than doable.
  • Anything else gets shuffled again in Navigation, Quick lists or otherwise.

Eventually, I have a settled system. From there, I now have a tool to help me make a settled decision about what to do next. Maybe I’ll still play the guitar. But now I’ll have a clear idea as to what I’m setting aside to do so.

It’s not just that I have a perfectly settled list somewhere. The act of repair is something I have to do regularly. And it is that act that helps me have the trust in myself to act well.

Again to invoke David Allen – it’s like brushing your teeth. When it becomes enough of a habit, it becomes something you want to do. That clean feeling is very helpful. But if you’ve never gotten there, it may be difficult to believe it can exist.