Moms and GTD (Warning, kind of grumpy)

Longtime readers know that I was once a big fan of David Allen’s GTD system.  But after a while, the whole thing started to stress me out.  I think there are things about the system that are useful, but they’re sort of common sense–doing one thing at a time, break big tasks into smaller chunks.  But in his books, Allen makes getting stuff done sound like it’s just a matter of clearing out an inbox and checking off things on a list.  The important thing is making the right list. Now that I’m home, both working and doing mom stuff, his system doesn’t really work for me.  For example, the other day, I put on my list “finish laundry.”  Yeah, stop laughing.  Because the laundry, as anyone who’s done it knows, is never finished.  By the time I’ve emptied all the baskets, at least one is full again and the cycle starts all over again.  On any given day, if I wrote down absolutely everything that needed to get done, I’d be completely overwhelmed.  And then, add to that the unexpected crap that comes along very very regularly.  Over the weekend, the basement flooded, which will entail a phone call to the plumber and lots of cleaning.  One kid is sick–Mr. Geeky is retrieving him from school as I type this.  And Mr. Geeky himself was sick starting a week ago, went to a conference last week, and then returned sick and laid in bed all weekend (I think the kid has this illness). We’re currently down to one car because we haven’t had time to repair the other car after the great icicle incident.  The part is in; now it just needs to be put in place.  And then there’s constant bill-paying, school paperwork stuff, managing insurance and wills and other grownup things.

And that’s just the house stuff.  I’m not even talking about work stuff.  It’s a good thing I’m being very low-key about my work because if I didn’t, nothing around the house would get done.  It’s kind of a catch-22.  I should put more time and effort into working so that it will pay off financially, but if I do, no one’s picking up the slack.  This became clear during the five weeks I taught a while back.  In part, of course, it’s because I didn’t insist on others picking up the slack.  I didn’t ask Mr. Geeky to do a couple of loads of laundry or have the kids straighten the living room.  And I didn’t do that because the class was so short and temporary.  I have a dilemma in my head right now because on the one hand, I’d like to eventually be working more (either full or part time) and on the other, I worry about what will not get done around the house.

I can’t believe we managed all this when we both had full-time jobs.  It meant, usually, that we either a) crammed it all in over the weekend and/or in snippets in the evenings and/or b) did less of it. We did have a housekeeper back then, which helped, but did not resolved some of the deeper disorganization issues.  She kept the floors and toilets and carpets clean.  But the papers piled up, and laundry didn’t always get put away, and we ordered out a lot more.  And I was pretty stressed about all that.  And I feel like I can’t return to working more until the house is in a position for it to run more smoothly and I’m increasingly feeling like I can’t get it in that position by myself.  No amount of list-making is going to help me to the hard work of getting it done.

Frankly, and I know I’m not the only one, I get discouraged about the fact that I can’t seem to keep things neat.  And when I got home on Saturday to find the basement filled with 4-5 inches of water, I felt even more discouraged. I stood halfway down the stairs and just said “Oh my God, oh my God” over and over.  And the cat was meowing from her perch in the window across the room, and I went and put on boots and trekked across the water and rescued her.  But then the dog showed up and she ran across the water and all my efforts were wasted. And then I got a broom and poked at a hole in the floor to check if it was clogged (it wasn’t) and then I took off my boots, which weren’t tall enough to keep the water out, so I took off my socks too, and Mr. Geeky was lying in bed, sick.  And I just thought, well fuck.  Yes, I really thought that.  The whole damn thing–the cleaning, the semi-maintenance of financial order, keeping kids and cats and dogs fed and cared for–seemed completely sysyphean.  And if I hadn’t been keeping it all together for the sake of everyone around me and myself, really, I probably would have cried.  Cried. Over housework.  Over the damn basement flooding.  But really, it was kind of the proverbial straw.

And now here I am writing about it instead of tackling the basement or anything on my list.  Because what’s going on in my head right now is a sort of defeatist mentality.  If I clean up the basement, which will take me all day, all the things on the list that’s been sitting around since Thursday won’t get done.  So it will be Tuesday at the earliest before I can tackle anything.  If I weren’t being defeatist, I might just think, well, maybe you’ll get the basement done and get to the list too!  Realistically (not even defeatistically), I know I can’t get the whole thing done today, and really, I’m planning to start within 10 minutes.  Because it’s a big job.  And somebody’s got to do it, and I am currently hating that that somebody has to be me.  Mr. Geeky? Working until 8 because he has a meeting at 4 at another university.  And this schedule? Typical.

All that is a long way of saying that yes, I still make lists.  I still try to keep some of the aspects of GTD in mind.  For example, making a plan for what needs to get done first in the basement.  But in reality, such an ordered system doesn’t work for me and makes me feel bad about what’s not getting done, especially when it comes to the “mom” part of my title.  I think that’s true of many moms.  I need something better.  And, then, I need a vacation.

WoW Wednesday: Learning Time Management

This is actually not about managing time in terms of managing play time, but about managing time within the game. When your WoW time is limited, you have to make decisions about what to spend time doing. There are literally thousands of things one could do in game: quests, dungeons, raids, achievements, gathering materials and crafting things from those materials. All those things take time but have certain rewards.

I now have 3 characters to play with. The one at the left is my main character, the one who’s at the top of her game (though she can always use more gear). Her skills are maxed out. Many of her faction reps are maxed out. With the exception of one top-level raid, she can pretty much do whatever she wants. What I’ve been doing with her lately is simply running her through a few dailies. When a good dungeon run opportunity crops up and I have the time, I will run that as well, since the rewards are tokens for good gear. On any given day, I can spend less than an hour on her and she won’t really suffer much if I don’t play her at all.

My other max level character is Zamar, who I just moved from another server and who has such bad gear that what she can do is limited. She needs to run dungeons, but she’s not geared enough for some of them. She needs faction rep to obtain gear and that requires quests (some daily, some long series of quests), which can be quite time consuming. And then I have another low-level character that obviously needs a lot of work. So, if I only have an hour or two to play, I have to prioritize what I do, especially with these lower level characters. This occurred to me the other day as I was standing in the middle of a city, trying to decide which direction to go. And then, I thought, hmm, this is a dilemma most people have in real life. How can this transfer?

When I log into WoW, sometimes of course, I’m just planning to goof around. I play as a respite from work. But sometimes, I have goals, just like I do in my work. I go through a series of questions as I try to determine what to do. And I think this series of decisions might be a good thought process for any decision. So, here it is:

1. What is most important for this character right now? What is he/she most lacking?
2. If the character is not lacking anything, what is a good reward for him/her right now?
3. What task will get the character closer to the need/reward?
4. How much time will that task take?
5. If the task time > allowed game time, what is the next priority or can a part of the task be completed in the allotted time? (Then jump to 4).
6. If the task time < allowed game time, go do task. This is pretty much the same decision tree I use in real life. I often have a list of priorities and I simply decide which one gives me the most bang for my buck in the time I have at hand. The hardest decision is the first one, deciding what’s most important. In the game, it doesn’t much matter. In life, there can be some unpleasant consequences. For example, if I were to prioritize gameplay . . . .

Ignoring time

I really appreciated seeing this post this morning about not focusing so much on the clock. I have a real tendency to do this, scheduling every minute of every day. Today, for example, Geeky Boy and I had to go to the high school to rework his schedule, so I started my planning from there. I decided I would go to the high school at 10, followed by a trip to the grocery store, lunch, cleaning, and then a trip to the pool, exercising either there or when I got home. I planned free time in the hour before dinner, dinner, and then just open time. Sounds oppressive, doesn’t it? The other thing that happened was that I didn’t wake early enough so a few things I wanted to get done on a writing project didn’t happen until just now. And, though I should be cleaning, that’s not happening now because I wanted to post this and read a few other blogs, which is not quite leisure, not quite work. So, you see, my schedule is easily disrupted and then I feel bad about not getting things done, etc. Bleh.

Jonathan Mead (author of the above post) echoes this sentiment:

Trying to constantly manage and monitor my time has only led me to greater anxiety, and always feeling like I’ve not “done enough.” I’m always thinking about how I could have “spent that time more wisely.” But the purpose of life is to enjoy it, is it not? So can’t we perform highly without the anxiety of counting every minute?

He makes a lot of good recommendations for being productive without feeling pressed for time. My favorite is having a theme for the month. Although I didn’t quite consciously think about it, my theme for this month is about getting organized and eliminating clutter. I wanted to be prepared for the new school year with a house that’s more streamlined and with everything in its rightful place. I think the idea is that, while I might schedule time for cleaning, if that’s the theme, then when I have the time and motivation during each day, I can tackle a cleaning project.

Next month, I’m going to tackle exercise, something I’ve struggled with forever. I really hate structured exercise–going to the gym, being in an exercise class (except for yoga; I like yoga classes)–but it’s not like I’m a total lump. I don’t mind walking instead of driving places. I’ll play soccer or tennis with the kids. I like gardening. Generally, moving around on occasion, even every day, is not something I’m opposed to. But it’s extremely easy for me to make excuses. It’s too hot, too cold, too wet. I have this that or the other that I need to do. I’d rather read, play games, watch tv. You know the drill. So I’m going to make some effort now, but really focus next month on moving at least a little every day.

The exercise thing is partly why I’m not as fond of Mead’s advice to follow your rhythms. That’s easy enough for me to do with intellectual activity, but inertia keeps me from doing physical things that I find unpleasant. And that’s where I think a schedule can help. And I suspect some people find the same is true of other kinds of work. Certainly people can schedule those activities for times when they know they’re more motivated, but they might have to semi force themselves to at least getting started.

I’m trying, then, to find a good flow for myself where I feel productive, but don’t feel anxious. Easier said than done, but I’m giving it a whirl.

Post Vacation Mondays are Rough

We’re all dragging a little around here, having spent the last two weeks staying up late and sleeping in. For whatever reason, Mr. Geeky bounded out of bed and has been dealing with most of the usual morning routine for which I am extremely grateful.

Toward the end of the break, I started thinking about how I wanted to approach the new year in terms of “productivity.” I had read this article in Wired where Chris Hardwick tries three different productivity systems. I had only read GTD (of course), but had toyed with buying the other two, so I was grateful to Hardwick for having read them for me. I gleaned a few good tidbits from his experience.

1. Don’t check email in the morning. I had already decided not to check email in the morning. I used to check it, oh, about now, before I’d even finished coffee. This is a bad idea. Email contains stuff other people want you to do and when you’re working for yourself, you should put your own work first. Yes, some of it will be responses to your own queries and from people you really want to hear from, but it will all still be there a couple of hours from now. I managed to not check email at all over the last week. This was hard at first, but got really easy later on.

2. Take breaks completely away from your work. Go for a walk in the park. Knit. For god’s sake, get away from the computer! Hardwick actually did go for a walk and found it really did clear his head. I’m not sure he’ll keep up with it, but it’s something I definitely want to do. It will go nicely with my resolution to get outside more.

3. Think in terms of next actions. This is something I got from David Allen, of course, but Hardwick took this message to heart too. It is the one thing that I think is really useful in breaking down tasks. For example, one of my resolutions is to remodel a room in the house. Mr. Geeky and I would both like to work on the bathroom. The first thing we need to do is find potential contractors. So, I put on my list “Search Angie’s List for Contractor for Bathroom.” Simple. When I’m done with that, I’ll put, “Call so-and-so for bathroom consult and estimate.”

Although this didn’t come from Hardwick, another approach I’m taking is to only focus on three things in any given day. I’m also going to constantly review my tasks and goals to make sure things are balanced. I think in the past I’ve always put too much on my plate because that’s what most of these productivity plans encourage. Even the 4-day workweek book is about starting businesses and making enough money to hire people to do everything for you. The work may be frontloaded, but it’s still a lot of work. Now I have an eye to keep my days as open as possible instead of trying to be “productive.”

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.

Labor Day, Eve of New School Year

This is the first year that classes at my institution haven’t begun (or been held when we start earlier) on Labor Day. I say it’s about time. It’s always frustrated me that a school whose founding was all about helping the underrepresented (women) would ignore a holiday that benefits mostly the underrepresented. It was actually the students who lobbied for this. First, they got MLK Day (second semester classes began on MLK Day). Then, it made sense to have Labor Day. It amazes me how highly intelligent people don’t see the symbolism of making your laborers work on holidays. Sigh.

Often I make resolutions for the school year, but I’m not going to this year. I’m purposely taking things one day at a time. Today, I know I need to get my kids a few last-minute supplies and I need some clothes. I might putter around the garden (it’s beautiful outside) or just sit outside and read. I might help the kids organize their rooms. I might watch a movie this evening. I’m definitely doing laundry (already have a load in the wash). I might work on a presentation. I’m going with the flow.

I’ve noticed that the beginning of this year has not been terribly stressful. Yes, I was busy last week and no, I did not get everything done, but you know, it just doesn’t matter that much. The world has never ended simply because a few tasks didn’t get completed. I don’t work for NASA or the DoD. It’s just not that important.

On productivity

This has been a busy, busy week, filled with productivity and failure (yes, both). I have to say that the people I work with often rise to the challenge of difficult situations and we really do band together in that goofy, sappy way you think of when the chips are down. So I’m grateful that there are good people in the world and that they happen to work in my building.

I’ve taken on a new strategy, which flies in the face of GTD, but I think I like it. I only check email twice a day and each time, I only spend 1 hour at most responding. In my line of work, I could spend all day just reading and responding to email. So, what I do is scan email, looking for important things, and respond to those first, and then deal with the more mundane issues. Honestly, I’ve had a lot of people figure out their problems all by themselves. I figure people will either email again or call if they get truly desperate. And this way, I actually get work done, I feel less frustrated (because I’m not constantly seeing messages that make me think, you have a Ph.D. and you can’t figure this out?), and the day goes by pretty quickly. David Allen may not approve, but I think I like this plan so far. I do twitch a little when I realize there are over 300 messages in my inbox, but likely by the time I get to some of the earlier ones, I can delete without reading them.

Surprisingly, even though this was a post-vacation week, I didn’t have the usual post-vacation slump, where I wish I were still on vacation and kind of flounder around hoping that work will disappear. I guess it was because there was just so much to get done, I didn’t have time for that. The other strategy I developed over the last few weeks (also somewhat anti-GTD) is to just focus on getting 2-3 things done in a day. So often I’m staring at a huge list of things and it seems overwhelming and I get frustrated when only a couple of things get done. But that’s because most everything I do takes several hours and if things don’t go smoothly, well, you know how that goes. So now I write down a couple of things to focus on and it feels better to have accomplished everything on the list. I use post-its, so I don’t even have room for more than a couple.

So maybe I’m falling out of love with GTD a little. I think I felt that sometimes, it made me focus so much on getting more done that I wasn’t getting the right things done. While my inbox was at zero, I wasn’t getting the more important things done–important both to me and in many cases, a large number of people. I still like having a kind of repository for stuff that needs to get done, but I think looking at it once a week is a better plan than staring at it every day. At least for me.

On falling behind

One of my frustrations with the time it took me to finish the menial labor (10 hours all told) was that it was putting me further and further behind. I had been on vacation just before Memorial Day. I returned to 4 days of intense planning for the following week of 9-5 training. That meant that email, tickets, phone calls and other incoming bits of information just wasn’t getting much attention. And those projects I had wanted to work on? Yeah, not so much.

So yesterday, I decided enough was enough. I determined to clean out the inbox, check off the to-do list and be fresh and ready to go. And sure enough, I did it. I have only 10 or so emails in the inbox. My to-do list is up to date and I feel much less stressed and actually feel like I can accomplish something. How did I do it? By working at home. It’s amazing how much time the face-to-face interruptions at work take. Sometimes I welcome them. Sometimes I initiate them, but sometimes they really are keeping me from getting work done. And then there’s the phone and email. I do make every attempt to check email 2-3 times a day, but it’s true that occasionally a message comes through that sends me into a half-hour tailspin. I’m trying to be more zen about these things and I think not feeling like I’m behind will help with that. When email feels like pile-on, it’s hard not to get frustrated by incoming requests.

My goal for the summer: to not fall behind. What this means is scheduling appropriately, doing what my calendar tells me, and not avoiding tasks. So what I’ve started doing is looking at my to-do list and really assessing whether I’ve set due dates appropriately. It doesn’t make sense to have 15 tasks due on one day, especially if 2 or 3 of those will take several hours to accomplish. I am trying to be better about spreading out the work and assessing what really needs to get done and what can honestly wait. I’ve also started working on whatever my calendar tells me to work on. I make appointments with myself for a reason. Now I need to keep them. I’m also working on just doing the unpleasant things. Some of these I can consider delegating and my colleagues are great support for sharing the work load when necessary. I’m also trying to anticipate the work that’s coming–beginning of the semester overload–and finding a way to make sure that those who dump tasks on me at the beginning of the semester don’t dump them on me all at once. It’s also going to mean getting help.

I think, too, I need to recognize sooner when I’m falling behind and sequester myself sooner. It would have been much better if I could have gotten through my work in an hour instead of 5 hours. Five hours of catching up is five hours I could have spend focusing on long-term projects and goals. I need to remember that lost time the next time I’m starting to see the inbox fill up.

Doing what my calendar tells me to do

One of the things I’ve been wrestling with this week is figuring out a way to mark off some time for everything I want and need to do–and still feel like I can kick back with a beer on the weekends. Some of this work will have to wait until I return on Tuesday because I’ve refused to look at work email or the work calendar this whole week. I’ve already started thinking about what I need to get done next week. And I’m trying not to think about it. Looking at work stuff would just open the floodgates.

A while back, I put all kinds of things on my calendar–recycling schedule, workout schedule, cleaning schedule–and it didn’t take long before I ignored them. The recycling schedule has actually changed but I haven’t entered it into the calendar yet. I’m one of those people who will mentally say, “Okay, I’m going to do x until 11, and then take a break, then work on x until 2.” Sometimes I actually mark that on the calendar. What I want to do when I return to work is do more marking off of the calendar and then, I need to actually do what it says. The problem is, more so at work than at home, is that it’s easy to be distracted and to get sucked into crises that crop up. I need a way to manage access to me and my expertise. I know that sounds odd, but it’s true. So, for accountability’s sake, here’s some things I want to work on:

  1. Hone my process for checking email and the ticket system. Ideally, I’d like to connect the two, but from what I understand the email notification part of the ticket system is somewhat broken. I want to get away from checking email all. the. time. And I need to check the ticket system more frequently. My thoughts are that email should get checked three times a day while the ticket system can be checked once a day, perhaps an hour or so before the day is over. I might want to put these on the calendar and/or set an alarm to notify me.
  2. Schedule time for the review process. In the GTD system, this is what gets most neglected. I was trying to do this on Fridays, but I think Mondays are better. That way, I can scan the week’s calendar, scheduling things as necessary.
  3. Schedule time for getting the little things done. I often have a list of things that take 5-10 minutes each. I often tackle these when my brain is fried, but they sometimes pile up when I don’t take the time to do this. I don’t need time every day, but maybe every other day.
  4. Figure out if there are things other people can do. I’m constantly trying to figure out if certain tasks should really be done by someone else, not necessarily because I don’t want to do them, but because the task would get done faster by someone else. For exLinkample, the help desk manages the simplest of Blackboard issues: logging in, how to upload a document, etc. In theory, this frees me up to work with people on larger issues such as course design. But I think there’s more support like this that I can and should find.
  5. The bottom line is, I need to do what my lists and calendars tell me to do. If I’m going to put effort into planning my time, so that, in theory, I’ll be more productive and have more free time, then I need to follow my plans.
  6. Finally, I need to be more zen about the stuff that comes in and find a way to explain calmly to people why stuff can’t happen right. this. minute. This is going to be the hardest part I think, both for me and for others.

Actually, I’m thinking that this resource might help me work my system better. Other tips and suggestions most welcome.

Calling David Allen

I am currently somewhat GTD challenged. Oh, I have my lists. I’m putting things on lists so that they’re not in my head. I’m keeping a relatively empty inbox (from over 400 today to 101). But the lists, they are not getting smaller. The stuff on the lists is all little stuff, sticky stuff, stuff I keep trying to do, but I get sidetracked, interrupted, or otherwise prevented from doing. Example, I’m supposed to be upgrading software. I’ve tried this three times, none successful. I think I know how to fix the issue now, but have not had time to do it. I’m at a point where I’m not sure what to prioritize. There are certain obvious things with deadlines, but then there’s the not so obvious stuff. There are things that are important to me but not important to others. Things important to others, but not important to me. See the problem?

A recent David Allen post, in fact, talks about how knowing what your work is (which is the cornerstone of his system) doesn’t necessarily make less work. In fact, it usually makes more work.

I’m wondering if what I want is less to do. I don’t think I do. I think I am the kind of person who thrives on doing stuff. However, the stuff I’m doing needs to be mostly meaningful to me. I know 100% of can’t be. There’s always banal stuff to manage in life. But maybe 80% can be meaningful. Maybe 90%. That’s a goal. I also need time to step back and assess where I am, process everything, re-prioritize. David Allen says to make time for this. I’m starting to take this more seriously and block off time where I sequester myself away but it’s easy to let this slide when a seeming crisis arises. When I do manage to protect that time, I spend a chunk of that time researching, thinking, contemplating the bigger questions in my field. And I spend a chunk of that time processing stuff. I did this before my vacation last week and it’s amazing how easily I was able to pick up where I left off. I still feel slightly overwhelmed, but in a kind of controlled way.

The other thing I need is time to not think, to just be free of everything. I’m amazed by how much better I function when I take a few hours, days, whatever, to do nothing. I bought myself a jigsaw puzzle the other day because I wanted a low-tech way of entertaining myself. I have all kinds of (probably wrong) theories about why it’s good to make your brain do something else for a while. I’ll let the cognitive scientists among you sort that out.

Anyway, I’ve just been thinking about the irony of GTD. In fact, you might finish discrete projects, but in reality, you’re never done. Sisyphus indeed.