GTD for Anxieteers
December 9, 2010 10:44 AM   Subscribe

Try as I might, I cannot seem to get Getting Things Done done. At best I can get a few weeks out of any system before crashing. How do I fix this? Let it snow in the details.

Here's my pattern.
  1. After a few months of things piling up, I finally decide "This is it! I'm going to start getting things done! And I'll use GTD as the basis since other systems have failed me in the past!"
  2. I pick some tool or tools to help. Todoist, Remember the Milk, a PDA (remember those?), paper and pencil...
  3. I'll start using the system. Hey look, things are getting done!
  4. At some point, I'll add something to the system that I just don't want to do due to some mental block. A few examples:
    • A tough phone call that I don't want to make
    • A task that is more of a should (e.g. "Make an exercise plan") -- I should do this, but actually doing it implies following through, which I'm not prepared to do
    • A task that has a dependency on somebody else
  5. The task sits there, taunting me. I cannot remove it because it is a next action.
  6. Soon the list fills with these kinds of tasks. They drown out the simpler ones.
  7. I try reorganizing, moving tasks into projects so I can separate out the anxiety.
  8. Then I have a ton of projects, which makes the list even more insurmountable
  9. Anxiety about incomplete tasks turns me off from looking at the list at all.
  10. Task list ignored in favor of Metafilter
  11. After a few months, try again, perhaps using another technological solution
So. Seriously. I have things I need to do. They aren't always simple. What's the secret? Are other systems more amenable to task anxiety than GTD? I recognize that there's no tech that really is going to help, but perhaps there's a better approach?
posted by rouftop to Health & Fitness (31 answers total) 81 users marked this as a favorite
Hey, this is me. I think I'm just going to swear off all fancy to-do-list things, if it goes further than a day planner. My new approach is based on maslow's hierarchy of needs. If a task doesn't fit in with the urgent parts of that, I'm just ignoring it. Once I've met my base needs by doing my base tasks (job/food/clean clothes/sleep), I'll consider other things.

Also, learn to say no to yourself. You don't have to do everything - making endless lists is part of this.
posted by shinyshiny at 10:57 AM on December 9, 2010

I've gone through this myself a bit. I find the only way I can survive is to modify systems to something that could better be called "Getting Things Done This Week." After the week is up, I nuke the entire list and start again from scratch. This prevents project bloat, encourages real prioritization (a habit actively discouraged in GTD) and limits list-related anxiety for me, but may not be the best for long-term planning.
posted by deludingmyself at 11:04 AM on December 9, 2010

I think you just have to make the phone call eventually (I've found worrying about it ON PURPOSE until worrying becomes worse than doing it works). I do have two solutions for your other two things, though they're not very GTD-compliant. I have a "waiting on someone's input" list where I dock things that are, you know, holding. When I get that thing, I move it back to my main list.

And then I have a "later" list, where I put things that I'd like to eventually get to but it isn't happening now. If something's been languishing on my To-Do list for days and days, I'll shove it over to "later." And, yeah, some things sit on that list for EVER. But clearly they're not very important, in that case. Anyway, I feel like I've "captured" them and can stop worrying about them, but they don't clog up my list in the meanwhile.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:05 AM on December 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

Whenever I am overwhelmed about a particular task or project, I break that down into the tiniest steps possible, including the easy ones. Often, I may just write it down on a piece of paper.

Like cleaning the bathroom.

1) Gather all cleaning supplies, including gloves...

Doing the task in tiny increments, one after another, really helps build up the momentum sometimes.

For making a difficult call, I'd start with...

1) Prepare all info you may need (if you need to research or have a script ready before the call, break this step down further if you have to)
2) Pick up the phone...etc.

The tinier and easier the steps, the better.

Hope that helps.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 11:07 AM on December 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

What really helps me stay on the narrow GTD path is REVIEW. When Omnifocus for the iPad came with a review system, it really helped me stay current. This won't help you make those tough phone calls, though.
posted by Brainy at 11:08 AM on December 9, 2010

A task that is more of a should (e.g. "Make an exercise plan") -- I should do this, but actually doing it implies following through, which I'm not prepared to do

One of the hallmarks of GTD is to narrowly define the "next action."

"Make an exercise plan" is too general. You need to break it down into smaller and smaller chunks, so each chunk is immediately actionable. Your exercise plan might look like this:

"Get a pen and paper so I can make an exercise plan."
"Write down a set of exercise goals on one sheet of paper, e.g. 'lose 5 pounds by Date X.'"
"Get a calendar that I can hang in my bedroom to remind me of the exercise plan."
"Schedule a time to sit down and make an exercise plan."
"Review calendar and identify three consistently open, 1-hour slots on my week to exercise."

And so on, and so on...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:09 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I find it's extraordinarily wonderful to delete undone things from my task list. Almost as nice as marking something "done." At some point, that list bloat becomes too much, as you say, and your task manager turns into a reminder of how many things you haven't done, instead of a list of things you need to do.

For me, once a task has sat there for over two weeks past its due date, it's clearly just not going to happen. If it's really crucial, I try to just do it to get rid of the shame. Not crucial to my *current* priorities and goals? Nothing will catch on fire if it doesn't get done? Delete!
posted by MadamM at 11:10 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

First, care.
posted by angermanagement at 11:11 AM on December 9, 2010 [5 favorites]

I have this problem in a huge way lately. 2 things I've read recenly that seem like they might be helpful: Procrastination and The 8 Habits of Highly Productive People. The procrastination one is pretty interesting, the other is kinda simple minded, but sometimes that's what it takes?
posted by Blake at 11:12 AM on December 9, 2010

I have a ton of projects

then don't. I know it's cliche, but how about not trying to run before you can walk. While you're still learning the system, decide on just one or two projects (or whatever is the absolute bare minimum you can survive on) and put all the others on pause until you'll can handle just the minimum. Think of these projects as spinning plates -- if you go from 1 to 10 in the space of a few weeks then inevitably you're going to get overwhelmed.

Also, "should" projects are absolutely the last projects you should be trying to undertake when you're just starting out. Is postponing the exercise plan project for 6 months while you get the really important projects up-and-running going to kill you? probably not.

Personal organisation is not something you can switch on like a light -- especially if it's not something that comes naturally to you. What you're trying to do here is learn a new skill, just the same as learning a new language or a musical instrument. So expect yourself to fall off the wagon a few times in the beginning when it's tough -- but you're making it even tougher for yourself when you try and do too much too quickly.
posted by davidjohnfox at 11:14 AM on December 9, 2010

Eyebrows is right. Some times you just have to make that hard phone call or have that tough meeting. No system will help you do that.

For me, getting my email under control really helped.

I resolved to only check it 3 times a day (first thing when its quiet and I am alone, right before lunch and right before quitting time). I then setup 2 folders. One is called WAITING and it was for email that I sent that I am waiting for a response before I can move ahead. The other is ARCHIVE and it is just that. It is rare that I ever have more than 2 or 3 items left in my inbox and an empty inbox at the end of the day is fairly common for me. The items that are in the inbox are things that I am working on right now. If I am not working on them then they go into the archive
posted by Razzle Bathbone at 11:14 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think you have to acknowledge that there are some tasks that you just aren't gonna do, and allow yourself to take them off your list. It's possible that making the phone call fills you with such dread that you will never, ever do it. If that's truly the case, admit it to yourself, drop it from your to-do list, and start planning how to deal with the consequences of not making that call. Making a list of things you aren't going to do and using it to beat yourself up over and over again isn't going to ever improve your life.
posted by pocams at 11:14 AM on December 9, 2010

Many good-on-paper time management systems fail because they are too logical. I am a very logic-oriented person, so, as it happens, I love concepts which seem all logical on paper, such as GTD. Yes, I tested many GTD programmes. Yes, I was even going to develop my own, that one that addressed my needs just right.

In that midst of trying and trying GTD, weekly reviews and all, something happened: I had a perfect GTD-week. That one week, I did everything I had set to do, no procrastination at all. Yay! That was about one year after starting GTD. Instead of what I expected, it did not feel good. At all. That Friday, I was overworked, burnt out and I dreaded facing next week. So I dropped it all. For some months, all I had left was my calendar.

So, let me tell you: organization and a time management system *is* important to most people. It is to me. I certainly cannot remember everything I need to do like my granny or mom seem to do. I need my computer files organized.

However, I think the best thing to me is a simple time/task management system that rewards my efforts and does not make me beat myself for the wrong reasons. Also, after some years of listening to Radiolab, reading How We Decide (i.e., a very rough understanding of neuroscience), I understand most of my decisions are not due to pure logic, and instinct can also help me choose tasks to do and manage my time. All logic and no intuition makes me a dull procrastinator.

I would say: look into simple to-do lists and a calendar, and keep using them. It can be fun. If you want a good, sensible, but also intuitive way to work your lists, I suggest Autofocus, a work-in-progress by Mark Forster:

I recommend version 1. I keep jumping to new versions because each one teaches me something new, and the overhead to switch is really small. But version 1 is the simplest and easiest to get started, and may be just what you need. All you need is a notebook and a pen.
posted by natalinha at 11:17 AM on December 9, 2010

On preview, surely no system will make the call for you. But some tricks may help you dreading the phone call less. Or maybe help you change your life so that no more such phone calls are needed. :)
posted by natalinha at 11:20 AM on December 9, 2010

I can feel ya on getting a GTD system down.
What worked for me was documenting EVERYTHING I am doing in a day.
My list may not get done, but I can see I went to the gym for 2 hours this day, worked on web design for an hour and a half and can assess my time management. After being able to visually see where my time is going I've been better able to see where my time has been spent and make better use of time available. My system also allows me to get an idea of how long certain tasks generally take so I can project in the future my availability.
posted by handbanana at 11:20 AM on December 9, 2010

I was just gonna suggest Autofocus. In most (all?) versions of it, you're required to nuke tasks that sit on your to-do list for too long, which forces you to confront this sort of resistance — either by doing the damn task or by admitting to yourself that you never intended to do it.

It doesn't actually make the resistance go away, mind you, but it's less of an enabler than GTD, if that makes any sense.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:22 AM on December 9, 2010

When you recognize one of those tasks taunting you, that's a sign. Dump it's ass into the "someday/maybe" penalty box. My "someday/maybe" is a file folder in a desk drawer so it's not in my face all the time, but once in a while I get it out and have a look, maybe resurrect something I'm more prepared to do now.

If you're not doing the task and nothing bad happens, does it really need to be a task? You just need to be more ruthless on the "am I really committing to DO this" screening before putting it on your next actions to begin with.
posted by ctmf at 11:34 AM on December 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

I experimented with the AutoFocus system for awhile. One thing it does is try to use intuition--you scan your list and see what "rises up" as a thing you could do right then. It also has a built-in way to review old, languishing tasks, a moment when you say, "Hmmm, this is the oldest thing on my to-do list but I haven't done it...maybe I don't need to do it, or need to admit I'm not going to." I found both of those things helpful.
posted by not that girl at 11:58 AM on December 9, 2010

It might be helpful to try and acquire or master one habit at a time instead of trying to master everything at once.
posted by Calzephyr at 12:07 PM on December 9, 2010

2nding that it sounds like your action items are too broad. Even for a tough phone call, you might want to have an action to write out a plan for the call / practice your phrasing / whatever.

The someday / maybe list is your friend for things like "make exercise plan". It's captured, it's off your mind, and you can review it when you have capacity (I look at mine maybe once a year?).

Finally, it's *good* to cross out action items that aren't necessary anymore or you recognize you aren't ready to do. The goal is to not have unnecessary stuff taking up brain space. It is perfectly appropriate to decide not to do something that you would do in a perfect world. I usually mark this in a different way than if I've completed the item (calling it "closed", squiggly cross-out vs. straight line).
posted by momus_window at 1:00 PM on December 9, 2010

I have to agree with the pocams and ctmf: you are setting yourself up to fail by continually putting items on the list that you know are going to leave you paralyzed and unable to move forward. If it was a life-or-death thing you would have completed the task by now so chances are its an obligation that you can just drop. Turn off the voice telling you that you "should" do that task and let it go.

And if it just is not something you can let go of? Ask a sister/friend to come and hold your hand while you do it. Sounds silly and juvenile but that has helped me more than once!
posted by Ranindaripley at 1:03 PM on December 9, 2010

GTD-ish answers to your main problems: your tasks that are more of a "should", or tasks with a dependency are not Next Actions, they are projects and should go on a Projects list. When you have your review (yes, I'm also terrible at this) you look at the projects and think about what specific actions you can move forward with them - Cool Papa Bell explained that really well.

If you've got projects you'd kind of like to do, or you think you "should" do in the future, push them onto a someday/maybe list and look at them again in a while and see how you feel about them then. As Momus said - GTD is also about consciously deciding not to do things, or at least not to do them now.
posted by crocomancer at 1:28 PM on December 9, 2010

I'm a big fan of columns and rewards.

I stick to a simple list (paper or usually a text doc). I separate jobs into absolutely must do / really ought to do / wouldn't it be awesome if I do - and limit myself to one thing in the last category, mostly as a joke because I already know that it ain't happening, but feel the reminder is healthy.

I don't do actual columns, I just try to put things down in the order I'm most likely to do them - morning tasks, afternoon tasks, etc, shopping lists or errands in the order I get to those stores (since I tend to always go in the same order based on proximity). If there's a call I dread, I put it with other calls, since once I'm on the phone, I'm more likely to keep going.

I also take the bigger, more annoying procrastinatable tasks and break them into mini lists: instead of LAUNDRY I will put: wash laundry, dry laundry, fold laundry, put laundry away...

Then, and this is the important thing: cross things out after you do them. Checkmarks are okay, but putting a big honking line through them is better, because it makes the list look more spare. This is a big reason behind the mini lists - having lots more items crossed out makes it feel like I've accomplished a lot, thereby making me a Winner At Accomplishments, and more likely to get to the rotten stuff. Anything that doesn't get done stays on the list for the next day - but the order will change as more important or timely things pop up. And if I really don't want to do something, and I know it, and I'm sick of looking at it on the damn list, it makes me ask myself if I'm really ever going to do it -- and if I'm not, I cross it off, let myself be a failure at that, and move on. The ugly bookcase is never going to be painted. Ever. I am now okay with that, or at least okay enough that even though it nags at me when I look at it, it's not allowed on my list. And maybe someday it will just happen on its own. Or will seem fun. I'll keep my fingers crossed.

Finally, rewards. There's usually something I want to do way more than the stuff I have to do. On days when I really really have to do the important things, I let myself do the fun things after every X number of items done. So - cross off three things, then get 1 hour of internet (yay!). Cross off 2 things and then snack. Whatever it is that I can feel in the back of my brain insisting that it is way better and more important than stupid life needs.

Basically, it's not a sophisticated lifehack, it's a psychological tool to make me do stuff by recognizing I'm still me and that I must be tricked into adulthood.

Anyhow, if it makes you feel better, you're definitely not alone in this
posted by Mchelly at 7:08 PM on December 9, 2010

Oh, also - "* A task that has a dependency on somebody else" is one of my biggest bugbears. I deal with those by acknowledging that they don't belong on my list. They belong on the 'someone else's' list. My list just says "Remind ___ about X" or something along those lines. SOmething concrete I can do. If the other person can't or won't help, then it's also on them to realize it's important and be responsible for doing it. If the other person won't help even with a reminder or twenty, then I either put it in the "never gonna happen" category and work on letting it go (not easy, but in the end, still much lower stress than constantly waiting and nagging), or finding someone else who can help with it.

I've often found that things I think can only be done with my husband's help are actually things he is better at than I am, or knows more about, but not things I can't do without him - only things I'd rather foist off on the spousal collective. If I want it enough, I can usually either do it myself, start doing it and fail spectacularly enough that I clearly need immediate rescue (which is much easier to get than spontaneous help, go figure), or find a neighbor / friend / service to do for me.
posted by Mchelly at 7:36 PM on December 9, 2010

GTD has the concept of contexts - things you can only do in certain situations, like "Out in the Car" or "Connected to the Internet". GTD also acknowledges that your energy level varies, and encourages you to be aware of that and have a list of easy tasks for when your energy level is low.

I'd suggest having a context (or at least some kind of tag) for "Hard Stuff". (Or "Challenges," if you want to be more positive about it.)

Those things that are daunting? The above suggestions are correct - it's really helpful to break them down into tiny, manageable steps. But I'd also suggest putting those things on your "Challenges" list, to acknowledge that you might have to brace yourself to get started on them, or give yourself a little helpful pep talk before you start. "Look, I'm only MAKING THE EXERCISE PLAN. It doesn't mean I actually HAVE TO DO IT. I'll ... um ... I'll add a step:

1. Get pen and paper to make exercise plan
2. Write down 3 ideas for exercise
3. Write down a few more ideas about exercise
4. Decide whether I'm actually going to do one of those things
5. Depending on 4, call the gym/buy running shoes/make a workout playlist.

Acknowledging that you're doing something you don't want to do can give you the moment you need to muster the strength to do it. And putting those things together in a list can help you be a little more gentle with yourself - so you can see that you have 25 regular things to do and 8 big scary Challenges, and if you make a step toward one of your challenges, maybe you can reward yourself and feel good about doing the hard stuff, rather than lumping the hard stuff with the easy stuff, where it turns everything into one big morass of I Don't Want To Do That.
posted by kristi at 10:19 AM on December 10, 2010

Have you seriously considered delegation? It takes many forms, one of which is surely applicable. In the work place, you might be able to delegate to a more junior coworker. Or you might be able to trade your "don't want to dos" for someone else's "don't want to do." Or you can just pay someone else to do it. It gets done, you can strike it off.

Not everything can be delegated (can't outsource calling your mother!) though. Some of that falls into a strange category where it's doable, and even quite enjoyable, but you know it's going to be like time travel, where you forget lunch, miss a meeting or neglect email from your boss. For these, it's getting over the initial resistance and hump that gets you much closer to done. I find what works here is to have a clearly defined simple microtask that gets a little portion of the total work done, and hopefully draws me into the vortex of focus and inbox neglect.

If delegation isn't working then perhaps a something more psychological is in order. The first one is instant gratification. Pay yourself a bounty for overdue tasks in some form. The second is to hunt down a precommitment strategy. Blake's "procrastination" link has a good example (and one I've lived). Students in section B were given the opportunity to plan their writing homework, and the grader would give zeros to any submission after their self imposed deadline. The members of B who chose weekly homework deadlines did well because they recognized their likelihood of procrastination and used the grader as a predictable external force.

So here's a thought. Get a group of friends together, and hold the following weekly contest: everyone shares one hairy todo item, (and pools some money?) and agrees to meet for drinks on Friday, on the following condition: everyone who meets their goal gets to join one another for drinks at the local exciting pub (using the money?). At the very least, you'll have 4 people at your desk hounding you to make that tough phone call at 4:45 on Friday!
posted by pwnguin at 9:30 PM on December 10, 2010

Eat that frog. Every day, do the most dreaded, unpleasant next action on your to-do list FIRST. Once that's over with, you'll feel a lot better and can happily focus on the more pleasant tasks on your list. Doing one unpleasant task a day first thing will eventually whittle them all away.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:14 AM on December 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

I build up groups of these items on my to-do lists also. Those tasks will eat at my soul and motivation to do the other work. Some days you just have to declare a morning/afternoon of pain and do all of the unpleasant stuff you've been avoiding. You will absolutely feel better when it isn't nagging you mentally.
posted by joelr at 8:53 AM on December 11, 2010

There's two different issues here.

1. Taunting tasks frequently don't belong on your Next Action list. "Make exercise plan" isn't a Next Action, it's a Project requiring lots of steps. "Research reasonable fitness goals for my weight/age/snowflake details", "research fun methods for acheiving fitness goals" and "visit nearby gym to see if it's any good" are Next Actions. If the task depends on someone else, it belongs on your Waiting For list, not your Next Actions one.

Use your Review to check if the tasks on your list actually belong there or would be a better fit for Projects, Waiting For, Someday/Maybe or your long-term goals lists.

2. There is no planning or organising system in the world that can help you feel less anxious about a task that you have a reason to worry about.

You've got a few options for an anxiety-making task: doing it, not doing it, or getting someone else to do it. Are the consequences bearable if you just don't bother? Can you delegate it to someone else who'll make sure it gets done? You'll be surprised how often the answer is 'yes'.

If you can't give it away and the consequences worry you more than the task does, then you'll just have to get it over with. Do it first thing in the morning, then give yourself a small reward: a proper coffee or a little time wasted on the internet (set a timer!) or whatever is fun for you.
posted by harriet vane at 8:42 PM on December 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've come to terms with the fact that I won't ever stick to just ONE productivity system. I love setting up a new system or tool, and for the first couple of weeks it works wonderfully because it's new and shiny and fun! Then, like you, I get bogged down. I have finally learned that that is time to shift tools. Try a new system. There are lots of them in the world. Hundreds. I haven't run out yet. And occasionally I return to one that has worked in the past. But only after enough time has gone by. This way you are constantly getting the benefit of a shiny new productivity system that makes you want to work.
posted by lollusc at 6:37 PM on December 12, 2010

Just wanted to chime in -- I made the jump to autofocus, which wasn't much of a jump since my old task list was at least 6 months old anyway. Three weeks in, I'm having great success with it. These features really work for me:
  • Give tasks a passIf I don't feel ready to tackle a task, I don't have to do it right then. Just skip it.
  • Isolate languishing tasksI didn't expect this, but when the only thing left on a page is something I don't want to do, somehow it doesn't feel quite as foreboding -- I just want to finish the damn page. And if I still can't bring myself to do it, I have other options: find a better next action, create a tickler task for it in Outlook (not a "do this now" task, but a "add this to the bottom of the list" task), talk to the wife about it... any of these things let me cross it off.
  • Checkboxes suck. Strikethrough rules.It's much easier to see what's done and much more satisfying!
  • Analog lists have no digital distractionsThis one is the killer. Many times when I use online setups (e.g. todoist) I get distracted on the way to the task list. But if I keep my autofocus notebook on top of my desk, I notice it every so often. Then I see not only the tasks to do, but also the ones I've already done... and I feel motivated.
I suppose it's a little early to be singing praises like this, but seriously, I've never lasted more than 2 weeks with anything else. Thanks to all who recommended it.
posted by rouftop at 11:14 AM on December 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

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