I recently took the weekend off and went downhill skiing with some friends in Fernie, BC. For a little light reading I took David Allen’s book “Ready for Anything” Besides learning how out of shape I am (Oh look. Another project just popped up!!), I also read as far chapter six, in which David addresses the issue of priorities and why GTD does not begin with them, and instead focuses on getting rid of the open loops that tie up our psychic RAM. I liken it to being taught to swim in a small pool, with a life guard and an instructor, so you can master the basics and increase your chances of success, rather than jumping into the deep end of the pool by yourself and suddenly being in a sink or swim situation with survival on the line. Some people can do that and be successful at it, but I am not one of them. I like everything well planned, and well prepared for, but how can one plan for the future if you can’t manage your day?
I am, by nature, a big picture thinker. I worked out my long term goals, based on who I want to be, what I want to have, and where I want to be living, a long time ago, in great detail. But life has a funny way of being unpredictable. Major events happen that completely change everything. Before I started practicing GTD, these events would create a complete failure in the trust I had for the system. Why go through all the planning and organization, if some random event, over which I had no control, could so completely upset everything? I have no issue with redoing things, but starting everything from scratch, in fine detail, all over again, seemed to be such a waste of time. I found that I needed to overcome a huge internal friction just to re-do all the planning, and so I put it off for a long time. And life still continuously sent me mini projects that got dropped, or were done poorly while I sulked about my “bad luck”. Not good.
I don’t know about everyone else, but I very often do not have the luxury of being able to prioritize every task at the moment it enters my domain. In fact, most things that cross my desk need to be done, and are therefore not only important, but critical. Add to that the need to coordinate various schedules for team members and assign tasks based on each members strengths to get the best result possible, and the time for detailed analysis and priority setting for each task as it goes in to the inbox is not available at that time. GTD’s structure of every thing into the inbox first, then process with Do, Dump, Delegate, or Defer (however you choose to do so) later, has allowed me to accomplish everything (usually) that is dumped in my lap at the daily level. In the case of really critical issues, so far, someone has flagged then as process now, but those by definition are the life changers mentioned earlier.
Because my daily stuff was being accomplished, I gained trust in the fact that I could, in fact,plan in finer detail, but only for the next week or so, and not so effectively further out. I gradually learned that the longer term stuff could be completely left alone for a period of time before needing to have the next actions detailed and it would still get accomplished. Limiting the detail in longer term planning has given me the freedom to plan for the future with far more effectiveness and flexibility. My longer term goals are now more vague, and as deadlines for them approach, they are developed with greater and greater detail. This means I spend less time planning and more time doing. The system is able to bend a little, and thus is robust enough to handle major issues. There has not been the enormous outlay of time at the beginning, and so if a major, unplanned event happens, it is less work to change a few objectives rather than a few hundred next actions. This revelation was, to to me anyway, extraordinarily liberating.
This is not to disparage long term, detailed, goal setting. I still use it, I have just found that, for me, I can maximize it’s effectiveness when the steps to achieve the goal it produces can be automated. Things like saving for retirement, getting a university degree, or anything that requires time to accomplish but the next actions are repetitive, automatic or assigned are perfect for this type of planning. A second type of long term, highly defined goals that lend themselves to this is when the next actions result in something that can be repurposed. For example, a travel trailer savings fund can be spent on a trip to Mexico if and when a huge deal shows up. Yes, you still have to decide if taking the deal is right for you by weighing the pro’s and cons, but it is the ability to repurpose the results of your planning is what matters, the freedom in being able to choose.
So that is how I plan things. Obviously some projects are handed to me that aren’t as flexible as I would prefer, but as long as my system can handle the strain I will just process them as best I can. The level of task granularity increases in stages with the greatest level having a time horizon of a one to two weeks out depending on the goal. I still have a plan based on who I want to be, what I want to have, and where I want to live, but it is phrased as objectives, with far less detail than I used to put in. The only down side is my reviews have become critical if I want to maintain any control of my schedule and any direction in my life. But that is being done anyway, right?