What We Talk About When We Talk About Productivity
Every so often, I find myself feeling like things have come a bit unraveled in my life — like I have lost control. I can see all of the symptoms — unread mail piling up, chores not getting done, deadlines sneaking up on me. And often, I attempt to treat only the symptoms. I ignore the underlying disease. And that disease is almost always the same thing: I have abandoned my system. I’ve stopped following GTD.
I don’t want to sound like GTD is a be-all, end-all prescription for all of life’s woes. But I do think that with a system like GTD — one that ensures that the stuff of your life is organized and prepared for you to act upon — you set the stage for doing anything else in your life that is worthwhile. So it stands to reason that since I’ve begun using a system like GTD, when I let slide my engagement with that system, I let things in my life slide as well.
Productivity is For Everyone
I started doing GTD in earnest back in 2010. That was when I got my first salaried job, when I got married, and when my name became attached to a mortgage. I understood that if I was going to take those steps, and take on those responsibilities, I had better take some sort of principled approach to doing it. My generation’s mantra of “follow your passion” just wasn’t going to cut it. For me, GTD was the way to plan out and live a life with some measure of confidence. It was a way to calm my ever-scattered brain, and instill some sense of focus and purpose. I know I’m not alone in this either.
But I feel like I need to explain that GTD and things like it are not just for entrepreneurs and those with office jobs, it’s not just for high performers and those with huge ambitions. GTD and other productivity systems are for everyone. Why? Because everyone has things they would like to do. Because everyone has to shift focus regularly. Because almost everyone can admit that there is some space between who they are now and who they would like to be. In short, if you have anything that you care enough about to want to do something about, then a productivity system of some sort is for you.
Your Life is Not Just Yours
I think this is especially true of those of us working on self-improvement and productivity, but it’s not limited to us. We feel like we’re doing this on our own. This endeavor, and the systems and projects we take on, are only ours. After, all, it’s my life, right? I own it. It’s just me in charge, right?
But the funny thing about your life is that it’s not just your life.
A life is a hopelessly intertwined series of desires, expectations, commitments, and shared endeavors. You rely on others. They rely on you. That is the nature of a life — one worth living anyway.
This was proven to me very recently, in fact. My wife’s close childhood friend, who was the maid of honor at our wedding 6 years ago, passed away very suddenly. She was 31. She wasn’t sick, she wasn’t engaging in risky behavior. She was on a pontoon boat parked in the river, and a fishing boat literally hit her, and killed her.
This woman who died so unexpectedly left behind 3 young kids, a husband, numerous family members, and close friends. They were all grieving — and it’s heartbreaking. Her life ended, but so did all of those people’s lives with her. Her life was not just hers, it was all of theirs. There is so much interconnection, so much buttressing of others’ feelings, hopes, and dreams upon your life, and that simple fact is so often and so easily forgotten.
All this is to say that for the past few years, I have found myself focusing on that inescapable fact: my life is not just mine. My actions, my words, and my attitudes affect everyone around me. More importantly, my lack of actions, my lack of attention, and my lack of vision affect those around me as well.
To me, this means that I should take care to always be doing the best that I can to be the person that I want to be. This way, I can stop constantly stressing about my own inner life, and start working to make sure that all of the lives wrapped up in mine are positively affected.
The best way to do this was to have a personal productivity system in place — a way to get my own house in order, so I can effectively be there for others.
Curing an Existential Disease
So my focus lately has been on something that I have always suspected to be fundamental to living my life in the best way I can: GTD.
GTD stands for Getting Things Done, which is two things. First, it’s a book by David Allen published 15 years ago. Secondly — and most importantly — it is a movement — a way of life. I will not bore you here with a summary, because I actually think the summary is less than half of the story about why this book is really so good. The book is nominally about “productivity” (whatever people take that to mean) and organization. It does a great job of walking you through how to capture and organize the thoughts you have about what you want to do, and help you think about whether you want do do them, and what you want to do about them.
That first part is important. I have a lot of things pop into my mind. Many of them take the form of it’d be cool to do this thing. Most of them take the form of Oh! I’ve got to do this thing, and this other thing, and I told Bill that I’d have this other thing done by next week, so what do I do about all that?. Then I get stressed, and if I catch myself, I can feel my shoulders tense up, and my palms getting sweaty.
I have lived so much of my life in some degree of that stress, that anxiety, that feeling of not being in control. The real benefit of GTD is that — if done right — it is essentially a cure for that feeling. Seriously, it is. Yes, it is a “personal productivity system”. Yes, it is a method for being better organized. But because it is those things, it is most importantly a way to live a happier life, to more fully exist in the moment, and here’s the kicker: it is a way to — at any given moment — feel okay about what you are not doing. Read that sentence again. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
One thing that I have learned in my thirty some-odd years of life is this: the vast majority of stress and anxiety that I feel is about what I’m not doing. Such stress is a terrible existential disease. It represents a divide between who we want to be and who we are.
If I know who I want to be, and I take time to understand how I can come to be that, it is much easier to be satisfied with who I am now.
Right now, I am a person doing the things that I recognize as components of projects. Those projects are themselves components of larger goals that I have for myself. Those goals are part of a vision of who I want to be.
It Isn’t Just About You, But…
If you take anything away from this scatter-brained preach-piece about productivity, let it be this: productivity, when done right, is not a selfish thing; it’s about calming your inner storm, so you can be infinitely calm and patient for others.
GTD and systems like it are about being as productive as possible — about getting all the things done you want to get done. But doing those things are ultimately a way to make a better life for yourself. And intimately tied up with making a great life yourself is making a great life for others — for and with others. It truly is not about you; it’s about others in your life. It’s about serving others, and giving of yourself. But it’s nearly impossible to effectively give of yourself when you are all out of sorts.
GTD, and systems like it, should serve the goal of getting you back in sorts, and keeping you there. Then, at long last, it can stop being about you, and start being about those whose lives are so big a part of yours.