GTD for Academics: Engaging the system

GTD for Academics: Engaging the system

This is the second post in a series on the Getting Things Done or GTD system of task/time/project management, from the standpoint of higher education. In the first post , we set the stage with a couple of anecdotes that illustrate two reasons why I think having a system for managing your time, tasks, and projects is so important. In this post, I want to discuss the idea of a system a little more. What do we mean by this? Why do we need a system at all? What does a good system look like? And why does GTD meet the requirements of a good system?

What I am not going to write about here, not yet, are tools --- the software and hardware I use to do GTD. That's because GTD is more than the tools that implement it. It's a system of thinking about your work that can be implemented in a lot of ways, and starting to set up software tools without a solid understanding of the underlying concept goes nowhere fast. A lot of people new to GTD get caught on this point, getting (understandably!) excited about using new software while continuing to engage in many of the same thought processes and behaviors that led to the issues that drove them to GTD in the first place. But the tools themselves are just tools, and they don't solve problems. Humans do that -- you do that. GTD requires a behavior change, and the tools won't do that for you.

So let's talk basics.

What to do, and what not to do

In 20 years of teaching in colleges and universities, I've learned that almost every moment of every day contains a point of decision about what to do and what not to do at that moment. We are constantly making these choices whether we realize it or not. We can't avoid making them --- even saying "I refuse to do any of the things I could be doing" is a choice about what to do and what not to do. So choices define our work. The question is, do I have a way for making the best choices in a consistent way? Or am I just doing what grabs my attention --- or doing nothing at all --- regardless of whether that thing makes sense for the moment in which I am choosing it?

To make this concrete, consider these situations. In each case, ask yourself: What could I be doing, what should I be doing, and what should I not be doing?

  • It's 3:45pm on a Sunday. I'm at home and at the computer but I don't really want to work on school stuff.
  • It's 8:45am on a Monday. My three-hour block of teaching starts in 15 minutes (and the classroom is across the hall). I have plenty of energy but not much time.
  • It's 2:30pm on a Wednesday afternoon. I'm at work, in office hours, and there's nobody there right now but that could change at any moment.
  • I'm on a plane headed to a conference. The flight lasts two hours and there's no wifi. I have my iPad but my Macbook Pro is in my bag in the overhead compartment.

We could go on and on with these situations, and we will, starting right now. What could I be doing, what should I be doing, and what should I not be doing?

The answer to "What could I be doing?" is a list of things to do. If you sat down and wrote all the things that you need to do, you would have this list --- and if you are like most academics, this list is dozens of not hundreds of items long. We cannot do all of this at once --- in fact we can only do one of them at a time. So when we make those decisions in the moment about what to do, we have to pick one thing. This is where we have to answer the question "What should I be doing?" Of the many things we have to do as academics, which ones fit the moment that we are in? And to answer that question, we also have to know which of those things don't fit the moment.

So it seems like in order to make a decision about what to do in a given moment, we need two things:

  • A comprehensive list of things that we need to do in some way or another.
  • A means of searching and filtering that list for the best items that fit a given moment.

When I say "a means", I am not talking about a rigid set of rules, like a computer program. Algorithms don't really work on people. Instead, what I'm thinking of is some method for making choices that taps in to what makes us uniquely human. Looking back at the example vignettes we listed, it seems like making a decision about what to do depends on at least the following things:

  • My values -- The big ideas that I find most personally meaningful and that define who I am as a person.
  • My goals -- The concrete accomplishments that I am working toward that I find meaningful.
  • My physical context -- My physical location, the attributes of the space I am in at the moment, and the tools I have available.
  • The energy I have available.
  • The time I have available.

So when it's 3:45pm on a Sunday, I can look at the massive list of things to do and say:

  • (Values) As a Catholic, I have made a choice to follow Church teachings and not engage in "servile work" on Sundays but rather use it for rest and religious observances.
  • (Goals) Among several goals that are served by not working on Sundays, I have a goal to write more blog posts. (That's fun, not work.)
  • (Context) I'm at home, so anything that requires being on campus or on an errand is off the table.
  • (Energy) I'm kind of at "medium" level right now so I don't want to take on any big projects.
  • (Time) I have about 90 minutes before I need to start dinner.

As it happens, this narrows my entire list of hundreds of things to do down to three. The one I chose, is to write this post.

A possible rebuttal

Wait a minute, some people will say. Do we have to be doing something in each moment? Can't we just do nothing? Don't we get to rest or just simply goof off? Must we always be getting something done?

Of course we don't have to be getting things done all the time. That's pure workaholism and we need to reject that in the strongest possible terms, especially in higher education where it seems to be institutionalized. Instead of writing this post, I could have just watched football. I certainly do not constantly work. For example, I do not work on job-related tasks at all on the weekends. No grading, no course prep, no answering emails. I choose to use that time for rest, doing stuff with my family, working around the house, going to Mass, doing the grocery shopping. We need this white space in our lives, not only for ourselves but because it's not just our lives. "Our" lives also belong to others, and they do not need us constantly working.

But the thing is, in order to have this white space, in order to have the choice to not work and be at peace with it, we have to exert control over every moment and ask: What could I be doing, what should I be doing, and what should I not be doing? And then do these things. Otherwise what happens is, you get to the weekend and one of two things happens. Either you work straight through and don't get sufficient time for rest and play; or you opt out of work like skipping class in college and you end up having the time, but not the peace that comes with it. In order to take this time for rest and play and be at peace with it, you have to be certain that the choice you are making to rest is absolutely the right one, that you are making that decision from a position of strength and not weakness.

In other words, in order to have the kind of balance we want in our lives, we have to be in control of our work and not the other way around. And this requires being intentional about your time, your work, and your priorities.

The need for a system and what a good system looks like

There is no hope for us if we try to manage all of this just inside our heads. Maybe if we only had one or two areas of responsibility and no more than half a dozen projects going on, we could just keep all of our to-do's loaded in our heads. But for the rest of us, the vast majority of academia, we have way too much going on to try to use only our brains for this. We need a system, something outside ourselves that puts us in a position to make good choices about what to do and what not to do in a given moment.

The ideal would be some kind of Pepper Potts-like personal assistant who knows our schedules, knows the things we need to get done, knows our locations at any moment and what tools we have at hand, and can gauge whether some choices fit our energy level and disposition at a given moment --- and then give us a list of things that would fit the moment well. In the perfect system, we would use our brains to make choices from among the good ones and not spend brainpower figuring out what the good ones are.

Sadly, however, I am not Tony Stark and so this is out of the question[1]. So we have to come up with our own man-made systems. I think a truly effective system would look like this:

  • It would be simple. The system itself would have to require far less energy and time than the tasks it is supposed to organize. There can't be a major learning curve. It should only take as much time, energy, and effort to maintain and master as you choose to put into it. Also, the system should be relatively frictionless when I use it, and it should be easy to get the information I need from it.
  • It would be platform- and tech-independent. The system should not require any particular technology --- period. If I wanted to use a pen and a notebook, I could do it. If I wanted it to be electronic but usable across three or four different operating systems, I could do it.
  • It would be always on. Any time I need to refer to the system or add something into it, I should be able to do so almost instantaneously and not have to wait or be in a particular location or on a particular device.
  • It would be integrated. The system should fit with who I am and what I do and how I do things. The system should not work against itself.
  • It would be agile. The system should not lock me into one way of thinking about the work I am trying to organize and get done. It should evolve with my work and my understanding of my work and with changes in my life. The system should also adapt to sudden changes, like when something unexpected happens during the day.
  • It would be actually helpful. The system should relieve me of significant amounts of cognitive load as I work. It should give me good information about what to do and what not to do when I use it.

Bad systems

I can think of two kinds of systems I've used in the past that don't meet these criteria: to-do lists, and the email inbox.

To-do lists are better than nothing. But I've found they have three main problems:

  1. You have to decide what to put on them. But without an underlying system for making those decisions, it's hard to be comfortable with what you end up with on the to-do list. You'll subconsciously be wondering if there's something that ought to have been on the to-do list that didn't make it on. So this tempts you to start adding things to the list, which leads us to the next problem:
  2. They are almost always too long. We make the to-do list and then we fail to complete them and end up discouraged, and enough days of discouragement with anything will lead you to do nothing at all. Not worth the effort. Finally,
  3. They aren't agile. How many times have you made a to-do list that seemed eminently doable in a given day, but then you get something dropped in your lap or an unexpected student drop-in that blew it away? To-do lists are rigid and bad at flowing with the unpredictable currents of life in academia.

The other bad system is your email inbox. Perhaps I am hitting home with many of you. How many emails are sitting in your inbox right now? If you are like a lot of people, that number is in the hundreds --- maybe the thousands. What's wrong with this situation?

  1. An email is not a thing to do. In order to know what to do in a given moment you have to have a list of things to do. But an email is not a thing to do. It is a container, that might have nothing to do in it; or several things to do; or support material for some thing to do that is mentioned elsewhere.
  2. The email inbox is not actually helpful. Those emails, sitting there in your inbox, are not removing cognitive load from you; in fact they are adding and compounding it because you have no idea what there is to do that is contained in them.
  3. The email inbox is not agile and cannot be easily queried for information. Put yourself in one of the situations we mentioned earlier. It's 8:45am and you need to be in class in 10 minutes. You have a moment to get stuff done. Can your inbox give you just the right menu of choices from which you can select one, maybe two things to do? How easy is it to narrow down your choices using just your inbox?

So if you get nothing else out of this article, let it be that to be truly productive and intentional about your time, you have to have something better than simple to-do lists and a massively overfull email inbox. (I've seen some academics actually take a kind of pride in how stuffed their inboxes are. My thought when I see this is: No wonder you seem so busy. The first order of business for you is to get that thing under control --- down to zero. More on that later.)

Hence, GTD

So here is where GTD comes in. It is a system that is predicated on the humanness of its users, where simplicity and agility has to be paired with robustness and informational power. It uses two components: Lists of things to do, but not just this but also a means of tagging those things with information that can be searched and filtered to find just the right things to do at a given moment. And when done right, it's almost effortless. We'll start there next time.

  1. Although the current advances in AI have me pretty excited about this. Maybe a GTD chatbot isn't too far off? ↩︎

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.