Thursday, November 06, 2008

Why Productivity is Bad (Sometimes)

A couple of months ago, I pretty much quit looking at my to-do list. I quit putting new things on it and I just kind of went with the flow. Although I still think the GTD system that I used has some really good points, I think there are a lot of aspects to the productivity mantra that leave me cold.

I've actually always liked organization systems. Ever since I was in about junior high, I started making lists and schedules. I guess I've never quite trusted my head when it came to remember what was on my plate. In college, I didn't have much of a system, but did feel organized, especially the last year and a half when I was working two jobs and applying to grad schools. I planned a class schedule my last semester that put all my classes on Tues/Thur. I worked and/or wrote on the other days.

By grad school, I had very little to really organize. I had 3 classes and it was fairly easy to keep up with everything. When I moved into the corporate world and had a kid, suddenly there was a lot more to keep track of. So I followed the 7 Habits system. And that worked for a while and it was nice to think that things I was doing were "things that mattered" and "contributed to my life goals" but still I was just checking stuff off of list.

When I discovered the GTD system a few years ago, I liked it for its simplicity and its geekiness. I was able to use some technical tools to track my tasks and it was fun to keep tweaking the system. I credit GTD for helping me organize a conference and for helping me finish a Ph.D. while holding down a job and raising a couple of kids. It was really useful for breaking down big projects into smaller tasks and focusing on the next thing that needed to be done rather than being overwhelmed by the hugeness of the end goal. It's also helpful for going through email and stuff that's sitting in piles around my house. I can look at an email or pick up an object, ask myself "what is this?" and then figure out what needs to be done with it. Again, it holds back the feelings of being overwhelmed by forcing me to focus on one thing at a time.

But it started to make me feel like a cog in a machine of my own making. I began to just check things off the list and even reviewing at the end of a week, I just added more stuff to the list. And a lot of that stuff was stuff that was coming in from email and other outside sources. I had little opportunity to step back and look at the big picture. Even though David Allen's books do talk about thinking at different levels during the review process, I think the system is mechanized to such a degree that it's really hard just to not do anything. That time has to be scheduled just like any other. I started to feel guilty if I just wanted to read a book or take a bath or sit quietly with a cup of tea. I kept thinking, "Shouldn't I be doing something right now?"

So I quit looking at lists. I quit making lists. Instead, every morning, I asked myself, "What do you want or need to do today?" I'd come up with a couple of things and I'd start working. Even though I'd started down this road while I still had a job, I hope to continue it and thensome now that I don't go to an office every day at 9 a.m.

I think I will come back to some revised version of GTD eventually. There are still the nitpicky tasks that are better off on a list: forms to return to school, bills to pay, recycling to drop off. Right now, I have a purring cat in my lap and I'm watching the wind blow the leaves in the trees. I may not be productive at the moment, but I feel pretty good about it.