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Applying GTD, but still no stress relief

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  • Applying GTD, but still no stress relief

    A little background first: I have been practicing GTD for a couple of months now and although I'm certainly no black belt yet, I cannot image how I used to keep track of anything without it. My girlfriend on the other hand does not really feel like taking up the system, so she uses her own 'system'.

    A couple of days ago, we had a discussion on stress. She says she feels quite overwhelmed and stressed by all the projects and assigments she has to do for her courses at the University. I replied that it might not be the fact that she has to do so much that causes the stress, but the fact that (a) she does not know what she is actually trying to achieve, (b) she does not know what the next action is how to get there or (c) she does not have a system for keeping track of those NAs (as DA suggests).

    When we tried to analyse her situation in order to feel some stress relief, we discovered that (a) she can tell quite well what she needs to accomplish for her courses, and (c) that she has some system to keep track of actions that need to happen, but that the biggest problem might be that she is not yet clear on the Next Action, the next physical visible thing she needs to do to get the project forward.

    When we tried to come up with some NAs, we found that the NA is actually "search for literature on the internet". She needs to do this in order to come up with enough information to base a research paper on. However, searching for literature can be such a 'big' action, it might take her a couple of days searching before she has found the right articles that form a solid base for her paper. And probably because this duration and outcome of the NA is rather vague, she feels no stress relief at all, even though the NA is defined, the outcome is defined and she has a reminder of this NA in her own system.

    I've been thinking about this for a while, but I can't quite grasp how to 'best' apply GTD, refine or break down the NA, etc. I was hoping some black belts on this forum might be able to give some insight!

    Kind Regards,

  • #2

    It sounds a tricky problem. Something that I found helpful was to give myself permission and say to myself that it was OK to sit down and think what had to be done - note the subtlety here - not think about actually doing things - but WHAT had to be done.

    I quickly found that it was amazing how much preparation stuff (i.e. thinking about the goals, vision, NAs etc) that I got accomplished in a short time - but it took me a while to get into that frame of mind. But I can honestly say that by giving yourself/GF permission to think about NAs etc really helped.

    You might also try taking a non-coursework example and breakdown something that you want to do - like a holiday - and get in the frame of mind of imagining success, creating NAs etc.

    Hope that helps - J.

    P.S. Don't beat yourself up if it doesn't come immediately - I'm sure it will take time.


    • #3
      "Search for Literature on the Internet"

      I don't think you've found the true next action.

      Does she know what web sites she wants to start searching? Or does she need to google some subjects and determine the web sites?

      Does she already have her topic? Or is she searching to identify or refine her topic?

      Does she need to search first for subject areas related to her topic and then see how much information is available so she doesn't commit to a topic with not enough material?

      Is the problem because she anticipates that the search will span multiple sessions so it feels too big to be a next action?

      For me, not knowing the context, "search for literature on the internet" is not broken down into a concrete next action. It may actually consist of multiple searches with different purposes. I'd suggest some more thought or brainstorming before actually logging on. Or a less than one hour high level search to gain some information to base a brainstorming activity on. Then a quick outline of the steps of the project, whether it's just the research project, or whether it's all the way to a deliverable such as a term paper.


      • #4
        Okay, maybe some background is in order to get the situation straight. Lets zoom in top-down on the scenario.

        In order to pass the course, she needs to write a paper of about 2500 words on a topic (any topic) related to Human Resource Development (HRD). Before writing the paper, the teacher has ordered that a research proposal must be written and handed in that states the research question that the paper will answer, and a motivation (based on literature) explaining why this is a relevant question.

        My girlfriend is clear on the following things: the broad area that she wants to write a topic on is "informal learning in the workplace". She also knows (from previous feedback from the teacher) that she wants to focus on the effect of corporate context / conditions in the workplace on informal learning.

        What she now needs to do is (1) formulate a research question that she feels confident she can write a paper on, and (2) formulate the motivation, based on available literature. In order to do both, she needs to find literature that supports this: literature that provides the motivation for her paper, and literature that she feels can support the writing of such a paper.

        I think the problem might go two ways: she cannot really search specific enough because she does not have a research question yet, and yet she cannot formulate a good research question, because she does not have specific enough literature that allows her to formulate such a question. The only possible solution I can think of is: just find lots and lots of literature, but somehow this does not seem like an efficient and effective way to solve the problem.

        To answer your questions, WebR0ver:

        Is the problem because she anticipates that the search will span multiple sessions so it feels too big to be a next action?

        I personally think this is the source of the stress. Note that I am the GTD'er of the two of us, my girlfriend does not really think in terms of Next Actions. But yeah, I think this might be the biggest source of stress.


        • #5
          There are two possibilities: 1) is that she really has too much work or 2) that she hasn't but it just seems like it.

          If she really has too much then she perhaps needs to decide that is the case and renegotiate some of her commitments. My guess is that she will decide she has a lot of work but that she thinks she can handle it. It just seems overwhelming and demoralizing at times.

          In that case she can try and use one benefit of GTD which is to break down next actions into small chunks that don't seem overwhelming one at a time. The trick is in writing the next action in such a way that makes smaller. It might seem crazy but just rewriting the next action to something like: "do initial search .. to find first lead about ..." or "identify useful sites for ...". can make all the difference. If there is less procrastination things get done faster, and then you have more time, and then.. you get a virtuous circle going.


          • #6
            Informal Trial and Error

            One of the things I used to do (I finished my Bachelor's in International Business a little less than 4 years ago, so its still reasonably fresh in my mind ) was kind of an informal trial and error.

            Basically, I'd suggest maybe brainstorming a few general topics that she might like to research. Then, picking a few key words from each, I'd do a little searching of the online academic journals (most university libraries have subscriptions to these search engines, that can either be accessed from the library or remotely) on these topics. From here, she might be able to see 1) how much literature there might be available on the various topics, and 2) a recurring theme within these topics (either the individual topic or a combination thereof) that may help clarify the research question she'd like to propose.

            Basically, it works along the principles that you don't have to be right and choose the final research question from moment one, provided you don't spend too long formulating your rough ideas. If you have 3 or 4 general areas that you eventually choose one from, you've perhaps given yourself better reassurance in your choice of topic, and, through the original cursory examination of other options, perhaps an alternative perspective which can improve the paper as well.

            Hope this helps, and best of luck. I remember the final month long dash into exams, writing 20-50 page papers and giving hour long presentations as well as trying to prepare for exams!




            • #7
              Originally posted by daan View Post

              I think the problem might go two ways: she cannot really search specific enough because she does not have a research question yet, and yet she cannot formulate a good research question, because she does not have specific enough literature that allows her to formulate such a question.
              Ah, the chicken or the egg question. [For our international participants, the question is, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?"]

              I think Adam's suggestion is a good one. So a way to ease in (or the Next Action) could be to formulate 3-4 possible research questions. Or better yet, outline the steps to complete the "Turn in Research Proposal" project. The first step could be "Formulate 3-4 possible research questions."


              • #8
                What you are talking about here is doing a literature review. As a grad student, figuring out how to turn this into NAs was a big part of implementing GTD.

                The key is thinking more carefully about how you do a literature review. A literature review is not a project that you can plan out from start to finish before you begin. It is an exploration of somehting you know little about, and thus evolves as you go along. So the key if figuring out a good way to start, and then letting the NAs proceed from there.

                Maybe you start by typing phrases at random into Google Scholar and seeing what comes up. I think of this as a form of brainstorming using a search engine. Type a phrase into Scholar, read the abstracts of a few articles, and generally explore how others have approached a similar question. In this case the NA is "Brainstorm with Google Scholar" or "Search for X Y Z on Google Scholar."

                Another good way to start to to find a particularly influential and recent article on the subject, which will usually include a good literature review. Meta-studies and review articles are particularly good for this (i.e. "The state of the X debate," or in my field "Annual Review of Political Science.") In this case the NA is simply "Read article X."

                Either of these steps will produce new NAs for your project, in to form of new articles to find and read. What papers do the papers you find cite? What papers cite the papers you find? Finding and reading (or reading the abstract) these papers are new NAs.

                The end result is to have a research question. So at a certain point when I feel ready I create a new NA to brainstorm a question and write a brief summary of the literature.

                The danger, of course, with this kind of project is that it's hard to define a clear ending. And, indeed, a literature review is never really done. There's always one more article is some obscure journal to find, one more dusty book to get out of the stacks. Sometimes I put a time limit on my lit reviews; unless I feel that there's a crucial reference I've missed I'll stop after a few hours. Usually it's enough to ask myself, after completing each "paper hunting" NA, whether I'm ready, and whether completing one more lit review NA will really help my better define my question.

                So in summary:

                1) The first NA in a lit review is either structured brainstorming using Google or finding an influential paper for a starting point.
                2) This NA creates more NAs, as the initial paper or papers direct you to new papers, which direct you to new papers.
                3) After you're confident that you have a good map of the literature in your head, brainstorm a question and write a short summary of the literature.

                That, at least works for me, and I think is consistent with the principles of GTD. If anyone has suggestions I'd love to hear them, as improving this area of my work flow would make me a much more efficient academic.


                • #9
                  If she has access to a reasonable university library, she may also find it helpful to ask a research librarian for assistance. They are experts on finding research grade reference material and are used to digging.