Having a solid system to hold our thoughts and show them to us when and where they’d be useful can be such a relief. The promise is that we can finally find focus. But a system of work can fail for several reasons:
- We see our lists in disarray, leading to feelings of failure
- We are overwhelmed by the work we have making it difficult to find time to review our system and keep it up to date
- We have difficulty establishing habits to look at or review our system
…among other possibilities. I’ve covered managing a few of these already:
- Dealing with a System’s Decay
- One Way to Manage a Decaying Task List
- A Principle of Completable Lists
- Lists and Optimizing Their Windows of Power
Another reason we can find trouble with a system, for example Getting Things Done, is in the transition to managing our wishes. GTD addresses it by encouraging a person to rely on their intuition. You may have a series of projects, and you can use your intuition to help prioritize. However, I think there is more to be said here.
When first discovering GTD, it can be exciting. You finally have a thing that will help you get things off of your mind! You can just add things to an inbox, sort it out later into action lists and the like, and suddenly things will magically start happening. The days in which you’d let your wishes swim around your head as daydreams are gone. Now you have a way to make them real. Now they have a place.
As a result, you might be tempted to start writing all of your thoughts and ideas of things to do. Things that need to get done and things you’d like to do all can now have a place. In fact, this is encouraged. A useful refrain is that there is a vast difference between having 95% and 100% of your ideas in a system. There is some truth to the idea.
But we hit a wall. While adding our thoughts, interests, and responsibilities to lists is very useful, the work of breakdown, prioritizing and assigning time is still there.
Worse yet, our ideas are not static. They grow and develop. In fact, much like picking fruit, once you start, suddenly the tree starts making more! Dangerously mixing in a third metaphor, once the flood gates have opened, we may be surprised to find how much was behind them.
This is a complex stage of developing a system. To say that there is a simple fix is naive. One can easily feel overwhelmed, toss the whole thing, and return to whatever “kind of” worked before.
To help, a few guides might be useful to consider:
- Begin your system by adding habits that you are already doing. These can be habits you wouldn’t need to have written down. You would only need to write a few markers, rather than go into any granular detail. Maybe “morning routine” could be enough, even if that is only brushing your teeth and eating a bowl of cereal.
- Add new ideas into a storage of sorts. In OmniFocus, for example, you could set new projects on hold and/or place them in a folder called “In queue” or something along those lines.
- Add these new projects, tasks, and the like into your working day, activating them, one at a time. Give each one a few days to become a part of your system.
In this way, you learn to guide your actions, and adapt to them, rather than suddenly engage all at once. Certainly, there are other parameters to consider such as multiple projects with due dates and the like. However, I believe the principle stands.1
Consider that in meditation, we often get much further by allowing a thought its space to appear, bloom, and fade rather than attempting to force it in or out. The same goes for gardening our actions.