GTD lacks a systematic method for filtering and focusing

seraphim

Registered
I've chosen to use a title that may be a little provocative, because I feel GTD doesn't address this issue methodically enough for people like me who have a problem with overcommitment and overwhelm. Maybe I'm missing something, and all the experts here can set me straight.

Problem: Whenever I collect and process and organize, I end up with Next Action lists that are too long to have any chance of being completed, and I am paralyzed with overwhelm.

Part of the problem happens because the standard question during processing is "Is This Actionable?" Well, yes, lots and lots of things that come through my inboxes are actionable. It's easy to determine the Next Physical Action and put it on a list. Or to throw the item into a project file. But as noted above, this does not solve the problem. It just makes my Next Action lists very long.

During Weekly Review (or immediately during Processing and Organizing), I can decide to move many of those items to Someday/Maybe, or just delete them. But what about all the other items that remain?

My Next Action Lists and my Someday/Maybe list get so long, they cannot be reviewed effectively in a 2-hour weekly review. Not even in an all-day weekly review. There's just too much to review, too much to think about.

Sometimes it's easy to decide how to handle some of these things. Some of the tasks and projects are "absolutely must do this week", and I might even put them on a special Next Action @NOW list. Some of the tasks are "yeah that would be nice, if I had 48 hours in my day" and go directly to Someday/Maybe or just get deleted. Maybe half of my inputs fall into one of these categories. Those are easy to deal with.

It's the other 50% that causes the problems. Stuff where I'm not sure if it's really important or not, not sure if it ties into my commitments or not, not sure if it will cause things to fall apart if I fail to handle it. Is it "actionable"? Sure, it's often easy to determine the next physical action and put it on an appropriate list. But it's not so sure whether I should even be committing myself to this action at all. That sounds like the definition of "someday/maybe", so these items often go straight to that list. But that list gets very, very long and very difficult to review effectively.

When the lists get too long, and a 2-hour weekly review doesn't help, the whole system starts to fall apart. Please show me where, in any of the GTD books, charts, or official material, this situation is dealt with.

I looked for the keyword "overwhelm" on the GTD site, and all I found were summaries of GTD itself, such as the one here: http://www.davidco.com/faq/gtd-methodology/what-can-be-done-keep-getting-overwhelmed-work Yes, I already do all that - but I am still overwhelmed.

There are lots of ideas on the forum (e.g. http://www.davidco.com/forum/showth...and-Master-List-Overwhelm&highlight=overwhelm ), but they are ideas I have found and read in many non-GTD sites and books: you need to prune your commitments, you need to learn to say no, you are just out of control, etc. Yes, all true, all good advice -- but not a systematic part of the GTD method.
 

Oogiem

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Lots of questions there and lots to consider. I guess the key for me is the note, I think it' s in Making it all Work but not sure that the question "is it actionable" during processing really is "is it actionable now".

My definition of now is within the next 3 months (a season) because of the work I do. But that alone allows me to put hundreds of projects into someday maybe that might otherwise clutter my current lists.

The two keys to handling large amounts stuff for me are:

1. Set a review time that is appropriate for the task I am putting on hold. So the template projects I have that are like checklists that I use to create a new one of that type are only reviewed once or twice a year. On hold projects like things I want to sew or knit may only get looked at once every 3 months. Things that could be done this season but are just out of scope for other reasons will get looked at every week during that season.

2. Defining contexts appropriately. I can handle hundreds of projects at once and feel good about it as long as any single context doesn't' have more than 20-25items in it. If a context gets beyond 25 next actions I know I need to either put some projects on hold or refine that context more accurately.

So for me that means that right now I have over 1000 projects of which 119 are currently active and being worked on and 56 are waiting for a future time to become active ( a tickler file for projects) while the rest are in true someday/maybe. I am also working with 41 separate contexts right now.

I schedule major reviews at the solstices and equinoxes. My big year end review is at the winter solstice and usually takes me about 10-12 hours over the course of a couple of days. I review every single thing on my lists and on hold in detail at this review. Plus I also do a lot of year-end filing and preparation for next year. Summer solstice review is about a 6 hour one where we go over what projects need to be done before winter. The equinox reviews are shorter, typically about 2-3 hours and are like simple course corrections. These longer reviews are where I really delve into the higher levels and re-think my life and projects, esp. the winter solstice one.

I use a list manager that makes it easy to set a review time appropriately for every single project and that really helps me.
 

cwoodgold

Registered
GTD isn't a complete system for everybody. Each user usually needs to choose
options within GTD, add components to it, and maybe modify parts of it.

I think the GTD system normally calls for reviewing all Someday/Maybes every week.
However, it's easy to modify that and separate the Someday/Maybe into lists
to be reviewed over different timescales, e.g. weekly, monthly, every 3 months etc.

I think David Allen explicitly discourages sorting the items within an action list
by priority, on the grounds that priorities are always changing. I don't agree
with that. Taking that same idea to a further extreme would lead to putting all
Someday/Maybe items onto current lists, and further overwhelm.

When I put items on an action list, I grade them by (a) importance/urgency and
(b) amount of time/energy they'll take. That way I can do the more important/
urgent first, or read only the more important/urgent and decide there's nothing
extremely pressing so it's OK to take a break or switch contexts, (i.e. I don't have
to read the whole list to determine time). When I have normal energy I can do
the more difficult items first; when I'm tired I don't even have to read the more
difficult ones to choose any easy one. See http://woodgold.wordpress.com/2011/04/17/sorting-actions-by-energy-level-required-etc/

I find my powers-of-2 system is great for reducing overwhelm. See my description of it on the thread "Is GTD scalable for someone with ADHD?" http://www.davidco.com/forum/showthread.php?12409-Is-GTD-scalable-for-someone-with-ADHD

When something comes up, I usually put it immediately onto a next-actions list. If it isn't appropriate for a next-actions list, I might for example put a note on a next actions list "put reminder about X into tickle file" etc. Also, since my actions lists are
sorted by importance and energy, I can put somewhat someday-maybe-ish things there without contributing too much to overwhelm.

However, I don't think it's a good
idea to normally just put everything into action lists if many of them are going to be moved
to Someday/Maybe on the next weekly review. In other words: for you, it
might not be a good idea to put things immediately onto actions lists.
You could put them immediately onto Someday/Maybe (except for a few very
urgent ones), then move some onto action lists at the next weekly review.

Or you could put them onto some other list, I don't know -- what do other
GTD-ers do? What's the standard GTD thing to do? When you process something
out of your inbox, what happens? Do you create a project but not add any
actions to your list until the next weekly review, or what? Does it go into
a list of pending projects (Someday/Maybe), to be moved into active projects
at the next weekly review? Making it an active project immediately might lead
to doing that for everything and having too much on the actions lists.
At the weekly review you can choose a reasonable number of projects,
with a feeling of balance and overall priorities rather than considering each
project one at a time as it comes up.
 
Sounds to me like you have a huge opportunity to decide value vs. risk in what you are choosing to take on. A key to GTD is balancing what you create with what you complete in a way you feel good about. From what you describe, you are disproportionately creating vs. completing, with no real filters yourself for what's valuable to take on now vs. what holds a risk with saying no or deferring.

I would really go after your higher Horizons of Focus if I were you (as described in Making It All Work or the article Levels of Your Work on our free articles site) to get clearer about your priorities. Sounds like you're not applying your own filters to what you're taking on.
 

mcogilvie

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What Kelly said. However, while everybody is different, it's often helpful to others to know what kind of volume you are trying to handle actions added per day and actions handled per day in particular. GTD is not going to tame the untameable. That's where those higher levels come in.
 

TesTeq

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You can ignore more stuff than you think and no tiger will eat you.

seraphim;108320 said:
I've chosen to use a title that may be a little provocative, because I feel GTD doesn't address this issue methodically enough for people like me who have a problem with overcommitment and overwhelm. Maybe I'm missing something, and all the experts here can set me straight.

I think you expect the tool to tell you what you should and shouldn't do. You expect a shovel to tell you where to dig.

GTD is just a method to manage stuff that arrives in your inboxes. It will not decrease the amount of this stuff, analyze it or determine what's important for you and what's not.

GTD shows you the real picture of your world and in this way helps you to decide what can be ignored.

And I tell you: you can ignore more stuff than you think and no tiger will eat you.
 

cwoodgold

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TesTeq;108355 said:
You expect a shovel to tell you where to dig.
...
And I tell you: you can ignore more stuff than you think and no tiger will eat you.

These are both great quotes, TesTeq!
 

Birdingtn

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Something to Be Learned from the Long Lists

Could it be that the message your long lists are showing you is that you are over committed and trying to do too much? By writing it all down, you now have a perspective that you likely could not have gained any other way.

Good luck!
Michael
 

seraphim

Registered
Thanks for referral to Making It All Work

Oogiem;108333 said:
I guess the key for me is the note, I think it' s in Making it all Work but not sure that the question "is it actionable" during processing really is "is it actionable now".

Thanks for the referral to Making It All Work. All the Amazon reviews say there's nothing new in this book, it's just a stale rehash of the GTD book, so I never took a closer look. But on your recommendation I bought the book and read through the Getting Control: Clarifying chapter, and it does have a lot of good suggestions there. Thanks!

My definition of now is within the next 3 months (a season) because of the work I do. But that alone allows me to put hundreds of projects into someday maybe that might otherwise clutter my current lists.

Good idea.

So for me that means that right now I have over 1000 projects of which 119 are currently active and being worked on and 56 are waiting for a future time to become active ( a tickler file for projects) while the rest are in true someday/maybe.

That means you've got over 800 projects in someday/maybe. How do you find the time to review them regularly? This has been a stumbling block for me, and there's no real clear answer in either book. Simply reading through such a long list could easily take me half an hour. It seems like that's an awfully big chunk of the recommended 2-hour weekly review.

I am also working with 41 separate contexts right now.

!!!! Can you give an example? How does that work?

With up to 25 items per context, that means you could have up to 1000 individual next actions tracked there.

This does give me some hope, because my lists have often been up in that range -- hundreds to thousands of next actions, and hundreds of someday/maybe ideas to pursue.

Another question on your contexts - what prompts you to switch contexts? How do you know which ones to start in?

Thanks again for your suggestions! :)
 

seraphim

Registered
Thanks for your helpful ideas!

cwoodgold;108340 said:
I think the GTD system normally calls for reviewing all Someday/Maybes every week. However, it's easy to modify that and separate the Someday/Maybe into lists to be reviewed over different timescales, e.g. weekly, monthly, every 3 months etc.

That's a useful idea, thanks!

I think David Allen explicitly discourages sorting the items within an action list by priority, on the grounds that priorities are always changing. I don't agree with that.

The idea of assigning priorities and sorting by them and all that is repulsive to me, personally, because I know that it's a trap, for me. I start optimizing and creating all kinds of "useful" flags and tags and so on. It becomes a bottomless pit that I must avoid. But if it works for you, great! :)

When I put items on an action list, I grade them by ... amount of time/energy they'll take.

I'm thinking I may start a context list for @low-energy where I can put things I can accomplish when I'm not feeling so good. That way, I can get something accomplished (even if small), rather than mindlessly web surfing or wasting time in some other way. Thanks for the thought.

I find my powers-of-2 system is great for reducing overwhelm. See my description of it on the thread "Is GTD scalable for someone with ADHD?" http://www.davidco.com/forum/showthread.php?12409-Is-GTD-scalable-for-someone-with-ADHD

I haven't had time to read that whole thread, but a quick glance sparked my interest. I will definitely take a closer look. Thanks!!

However, I don't think it's a good idea to normally just put everything into action lists if many of them are going to be moved to Someday/Maybe on the next weekly review. In other words: for you, it might not be a good idea to put things immediately onto actions lists. You could put them immediately onto Someday/Maybe (except for a few very urgent ones), then move some onto action lists at the next weekly review.

That's basically the same advice that I found when reading Making It All Work. David Allen gives the example of a client who generated all kinds of ideas and subconsciously felt the need to follow up on each one. Once he learned to put those ideas onto a separate someday/maybe list, his sense of overwhelm decreased tremendously. (p. 122)

Thanks again for your helpful ideas!
 

seraphim

Registered
Need more on the practical mechanics of applying this

kelstarrising;108343 said:
Sounds to me like you have a huge opportunity to decide value vs. risk in what you are choosing to take on. A key to GTD is balancing what you create with what you complete in a way you feel good about. From what you describe, you are disproportionately creating vs. completing, with no real filters yourself for what's valuable to take on now vs. what holds a risk with saying no or deferring.

Yes, that is an insightful response. But I don't really see much in GTD (including Making It All Work) that gives practical hands-on guidance here.

I do have a pretty clear idea of my 20,000-foot and above perspectives. But I have trouble finding useful mechanics for filtering the inputs, tasks, and projects to make sure they represent the best choices to fulfill the larger perspectives. In the day-to-day activities on the "runway", things are moving very fast and everything seems so interesting and seems like it could be pertinent or useful to explore further, to act on further.

Lots of inputs go to the trash but lots of them remain as "would this be helpful to explore further?"

I would really go after your higher Horizons of Focus if I were you (as described in Making It All Work

The ideas there were good to read, but I didn't get much practical help from it. How to translate the upper perspectives into action on the ground? Am I missing something?

or the article Levels of Your Work on our free articles site) to get clearer about your priorities.

The article was very superficial, and I didn't find it helpful. Thanks anyway. :)

Sounds like you're not applying your own filters to what you're taking on.

Yes, I think that's an accurate observation. I think I need more practical guidance on how to do that.
 

seraphim

Registered
mcogilvie;108354 said:
it's often helpful to others to know what kind of volume you are trying to handle actions added per day and actions handled per day in particular.

The volume of stuff I'm dealing with seems similar to what Oogie M described: hundreds of active next-actions, hundreds of projects, thousands of someday/maybes. But I have just a handful of contexts.
 

seraphim

Registered
"learning to say no" can help but it's not enough

TesTeq;108355 said:
I think you expect the tool to tell you what you should and shouldn't do. You expect a shovel to tell you where to dig.

Nope, that's not it. Sorry. But I do expect a product to live up to its own promises. And the promise of GTD is that if you process your inputs, put "maybes" onto a separate list for later handling, clarify your desired outcomes (projects), identify next actions, associate next actions with appropriate contexts, take action in each context following your intuition, think hard about your larger perspectives, and review and refresh it all regularly -- then you will have focus and clarity, results that make you happy, and problems like overwhelm will go away.

I do all that and it doesn't help with the overwhelm. In my experience, it just isn't true that following all this will make it clear what the source of the overwhelm really is, that it will become clear what to ignore and what to accept.
 

seraphim

Registered
Yes, I am overcommitted. Now what?

Birdingtn;108384 said:
Could it be that the message your long lists are showing you is that you are over committed and trying to do too much? By writing it all down, you now have a perspective that you likely could not have gained any other way.

Thanks Michael, yes, this is true, as I wrote in my first post at the top of the thread.

Yes, writing it all down does give one a clearer perspective, but sometimes that's not enough to really get a practical sense of mastery over it all.
 

seraphim

Registered
Summary So Far

Thanks again to everyone who has responded so far. This has been really helpful for me. Here is a summary of specific GTD-based things I've found from all this, that I think will be helpful.

  1. Making better use of the Someday/Maybe list (and maybe having more than one) - As described in Making It All Work, pp. 121-124. One key example was a client who "thought that if he had an idea, he ought to be moving on it. Because he had to turn down his idea-generating machine to prevent overwhelm, he felt stale." Creating a special Someday/Maybe list for all those new ideas, and reviewing it regularly, really helped him. And I think this idea could help me, too.
  2. Getting serious about the Someday/Maybe list - also in Making It All Work, pp. 122-123. There is "the propensity for most people in our culture to seriously overcommit..." and "many clients run into a major snag in their implementation of GTD, when they get to the point of responsibly tracking their projects and actions, and ... having so many 'incompletions' is more than they can handle. Their response is to go numb to the lists" and fall off the wagon. I can totally relate to that. The "major key to progress" is to get serious about "reviewing each item on their lists more consciously, and making responsible decisions about whether there is really any chance at all that they can get to those actions soon." If not, the stuff needs to be moved to a someday/maybe, and those someday/maybes must be reviewed regularly.
  3. Review higher-level perspectives when it becomes natural to do so, not just because you "should". Making It All Work, pp. 206-207: "Trying to 'set goals' because you think you should, without first dealing with major issues and projects" doesn't work well.
  4. Clarify your commitments at the 20K and 30K level - your tasks and projects all flow from here. The material in Making It All Work on these subjects is helpful, but actually I found Mark Forster's approach in Do It Tomorrow to be more practical and straightforward for managing overcommitment. He recommends the idea of doing a "audit of commitments" whenever one reaches a point of overwhelm, which is very clearly defined in that system. Peter Drucker also has some very useful ideas in The Effective Executive: prune, prune, prune. If you prune your commitments too hard, the ones you really need will come back to you by themselves: so don't worry about pruning too hard. For dealing with overwhelm and overcommitment, I found these ideas more practical and directly applicable than the ideas in GTD. But it's all good. :)
 

TesTeq

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Pruning my lists like a tree.

seraphim;108391 said:
Nope, that's not it. Sorry. But I do expect a product to live up to its own promises. And the promise of GTD is that if you process your inputs, put "maybes" onto a separate list for later handling, clarify your desired outcomes (projects), identify next actions, associate next actions with appropriate contexts, take action in each context following your intuition, think hard about your larger perspectives, and review and refresh it all regularly -- then you will have focus and clarity, results that make you happy, and problems like overwhelm will go away.

I do all that and it doesn't help with the overwhelm.

For me it works because when I look at my overflowing lists I say to myself:

It would be stupid to expect from anybody (including me) to do it all - it's time to prune my lists like a tree:
  • to remove diseased or storm-damaged branches
  • to thin the crown to permit new growth and better air circulation
  • to reduce the height of a tree
  • to remove obstructing lower branches
  • to shape a tree for design purposes
 

seraphim

Registered
TesTeq;108394 said:
it's time to prune my lists like a tree

Thanks TesTeq. I agree that systematic pruning is a big help. But I really didn't learn much about pruning from GTD. The books don't spend much time on it. I learned a lot more about pruning from other sources. I've had to come up with my own ways of integrating pruning into my GTD workflow.

There's nothing wrong with adapting GTD to my own needs. But given that David Allen acknowledges "the propensity for most people in our culture to seriously overcommit" (MIAW p. 123), I wish there were more material in the books that focus on this particular problem.
 

TesTeq

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Re-negotiate your commitments.

seraphim;108396 said:
I wish there were more material in the books that focus on this particular problem.

In my opinion there is no universal anti-overcommitment cure. To avoid overcommitment you have to get rid of some commitments - David Allen proposes to re-negotiate your commitments when necessary to avoid overcommitment. But there cannot be an universal rule what you should delete or postpone. Some of my goals may seem stupid for you but I want them on my lists and you may wonder why I don't want to travel more.
 

Oogiem

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seraphim;108386 said:
How do you find the time to review them regularly? This has been a stumbling block for me, and there's no real clear answer in either book. Simply reading through such a long list could easily take me half an hour. It seems like that's an awfully big chunk of the recommended 2-hour weekly review.

My reviews are usually in the 1 hour to 2 hour range. I have moved the get clear part of cleaning out all my inboxes to a separate checklist and try to finish that the day before my review. I have the review frequency on many of my projects set to something other than every week.

For example. I have in Someday/Maybe a project to Scrape and clean out the old apple cellar, remove the fallen timbers and clear the pad for a new building. Now that is a long term but not critical project. I have it set to be reviewed twice a year, at my winter solstice and spring equinox reviews. Reason is that's when we decide what major farm projects we will attempt to finish that summer. If I can't and won't do it in that year, why see it on every weekly review? By careful use of review frequency I can keep each week's review down to a manageable set and if I have a niggling feeling about something, I'll see it as a note in my inbox and can usually find the project and decide why it's now bothering me.

Projects like knitting another Dragon Scales shawl are winter projects. I'm not going to be knitting lace in summer so why even consider that as an option during summer reviews? Actually for my knitting, weaving, sewing, quilting and scrapbook projects, I tend to do wholesale mark reviewed on a monthly or every other month basis. I try to have no more than 1 or 2 projects in each major area active at any given time. When I finish a project I then look at all my someday/maybe's in that area and decide what new project will become active based on what I want to work on or perhaps a skill I need to practice or one that uses materials I want to use up or some other criteria.

seraphim;108386 said:
With up to 25 items per context, that means you could have up to 1000 individual next actions tracked there.

I could have that many but right now I have 231 available actions for my 127 active projects as of today. The one with the longest list has 23 items in it. 25 is what fits on a single screen on my computer and that seems to be the limit of what I can read and look at quickly which is why I use that as my guideline for when I need to split a context. Several of my contexts have nothing in them right now.

seraphim;108386 said:
Another question on your contexts - what prompts you to switch contexts? How do you know which ones to start in?

I often switch contexts based on where I am. I have a context for our guest house, and one for general outside without any help and one for outside with help. If I am over at the guest house for any reason (pick up a a meat order for delivery, i.e. work as it appears, for example) I'll quickly look at that context before I get the meat out of the freezers to see if I can do anything else while I am there. If my husband says he's got some time to help me do some outside work I check what's on the outside with help context and we try to get all of them done at once. If I've been working like a fiend on my Android LambTracker program and just need a break from it but it's too hot to work outside I'll pull up my Safari context and do some net surfing or look up stuff there. Brain fried and I'll often look at my inside by myself hobbies context and take a half hour break from work doing something fun, maybe make a scrapbook page or two, or knit a bit. If during my weekly review I realize that I never went into a context that has some stuff in it that is getting more important/urgent then I make a point of scheduling some time on my calendar to work that specific context. I make an appointment with myself to get it done without interruptions (emergencies aside) and consider it a hard landscape scheduled time.

First thing every morning I look at my calendar for the hard landscape of what's got to happen that day and also set my system to show me only next actions not all available ones. I use due dates sparingly but I do use some so I will quickly see if any are happening today. Then I look at the weather. If it's expected to get really hot, I know that any outside work is going to have to be completed before 10am. If we've got thunderstorms moving in in the afternoon I know that I need to be able to be outside as soon as they are done to look for fires and also can't work on the computer during the storm. I look and the predicted weather for a couple days in advance, if for example I have a scheduled project to vaccinate the lambs and weigh them and it has to happen between 30 June and 7 July I look at the weather starting on the 29th and try to figure out which day will be best suited for that task. I'll tentatively block that day or days out on my calendar and re-evaluate every morning when I get up as to whether we can do it that day or not.

This morning review takes about the amount of time for me to finish 1 cup of coffee. I finish my second cup looking at forums, reading news on-line and processing some e-mail. Then I have a clear picture of my day and can get started.

Sometimes the entire day's plan is totally changed by what I find when we do chores, fences broken, or sheep escaped or dogs in the wrong pens and that takes priority. Find a sick, injured or dead animal at morning chores and the entire day gets rearranged to deal with the vets or other people as required depending on the problem. That doesn't happen often but it's not unheard of.

So I do use both the work as it appears and my intuition to decide what contexts I need to be in and when.
 

MJP

Registered
Wow!

Oogie - you are my GTD Idol!

Seriously, this is the best play-by-play account of how someone uses GTD in their daily life that I have ever seen. The specific examples you give really bring it to life. My life has nothing to do with farming, but reading this has sparked some visions in my own head of what blackbelt GTD might look like for me.

Thank you for taking the time to write this out. And thank you seraphim for starting this thread and being so diligent in your efforts to refine your GTD practice!

MJP
 
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