Rethinking GTD: Production Times and “the Zone”

Hello folks!

I'm back once again for our little weekly series on productivity. It seems I'm a lot better at writing for TealArt, when I have this modest weekly column. Once upon a time I wrote weekly columns for another website, and while they were crappy, I think I did well with that form. I think I'll probably stick with my TealArt writing in this format. I still have 3-4 more topics for this series, but we'll pick something interesting after that, and an associated rambing or two, but I think on the whole I'm a bit too long winded at TealArt for bloging in the typical sense to work. Just to share, I also think that while I'm terribly interested in what I do durring the day, writing for TealArt is at it's best when I'm not mashing through half baked ideas from my day. It's happier for all of us.

So my little discussion about productivity and rethinking GTD for this week, is shorter and about scheduling to your/our strengths.

As I said last time, GTD is all about getting all the pieces together to make it possible for you to do everything you need to do when you can. I've called this the "on the go" phenomena. This view of productivity assumes that given enough time, and the completion of pre-requsite tasks, you should be able to get anything on your list done at any free moment.

Simply put, this is wrong. At least for people who do the kinds of things I do (students, academics, writers, and so forth), it feels like there are windows of opportunity in which certain tasks can be done. For instance, you may set aside an hour after you get done with class/work/meetings to write an essay, and by the time you're done with these activities, you're too wound up, or exhausted, or frankly just not up-to writing the essay; however, if you had used the hour before the meeting/class/work to work on the essay, you would have been more successful. Sometimes, if you're in a stuck place, or trying to do something when you're not ready, a little reboot--like taking a shower, a walk, or a snack, can help.

We all have, what I'll call "prime periods of possible productivity, and I guess my primary argument here is to resist the tendency of many productivity systems to fight these prime periods. Do what you can to extend, stretch, and maximize what you can get done when you're in the right zone. To do this, you have to have a good feeling of how you work, and a sense of what works for you. It means trying lots of different work situations and times, and being able to pounce on situations that aren't working for you. Take (brief) notes, be reflexive, and be vigilant. One of the worst things, in my mind, is to work on a paper/blog/essay that absolutely refuses to be written, because these kinds of negative experiences make it harder to come back to this paper later.

Lets think about this like sleep: if you're having trouble falling asleep, and it's taking longer than it ususally takes you to fall asleep, generally it seems better to get up and do something else for a little before trying to sleep again. Think about "doing things" in a similar way.

This isn't perfect, and there is a fine line between taking a reboot, and procrastination, but the line between sitting before a blank screen and a blinking cursor, and actually working. This is where the human factor comes in to play.

Just to continue the personal case study, I've found that I can pretty reliably write every morning for about 3 hours, and in that time, I can get a great deal of work done; more than, I could get done, in say twice as much time in the evening. So I've worked pretty hard to get up every day and write for 3 hours, before starting to read, or going to class or whatever is on my schedule. I've also found that having a couple of sizable chunks of time, is better than a single block of time, or lots of bits of time, less than or equal to an hour. The key was learning my patterns, and then working with them for the best result.

Sometimes we don't have control over what times we can work, and sometimes deadlines require us to change our pattern: these are circumstances when borrowing more from a system like GTD or the four quadrant system mentioned in the comments of the first entry in this series would help you overcome these challenges. My hope is that with the date based list organization that I described last time, you can get a good idea of what needs to be done, and when, so that when you have your time, all you have to do is look at the list and run with it.

This week rather than try and adapt or adopt something new into your personal system, take a moment here and there and attempt to understand how you best (and do your best work), so that you can attempt to create situations that are the most conducive to these sorts of operations. This isn't to say that you shouldn't change the way you work if you think it's not effective, but more simply, that what you do probably works pretty well, or at least has elements that you can use, and rather than trying to strong arm your life into a system, take a deep breath and try and work with what you already have.

Until next time, tycho(ish)

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