Getting Things Done: Where To Go Next

After reading through my recent series on Getting Things Done, Calvin took action and then had a few questions:

I picked up the book, read it twice, and set aside a weekend to get started. It really works! I feel like I’m getting so much done now that it’s crazy.

I guess my question now is what comes next? If I’ve learned anything over the past couple of years it’s that everything in life is a journey and there is no end point. Where did you go after discovering Getting Things Done in terms of your time management?

I thought long and hard over the last couple of weeks about Calvin’s email. What comes next after you get GTD and have started to incorporate the ideas into your life?

My first big realization was that Getting Things Done is somewhat akin to getting a set of really good tools. In itself, Getting Things Done doesn’t solve any of the problems in your life, just like a pile of tools won’t create a armoire or fix a bicycle. What it does do, however, is give you the tools to really start that journey. That journey is going to be quite different for everyone because we all have different circumstances, dreams, and goals. A woodworker is going to use a hammer differently than a homemaker will, for example, but it’s a valuable tool for both of them.

I tried to isolate some of the key ideas and directions I went in after really understanding Getting Things Done for the first time. Here are what I consider to be five of the most important ones, things that everyone can take up for further reading and ideas.

Simplifying everything
One of my biggest realizations came about when I began to see how full my calendar was every day and how many things were constantly filling my inbox. The sheer deluge of stuff was often overwhelming, leaving me with only small amounts of time on the periphery of each day for personal growth and other such concerns.

To put it simply, I had too much to do and too many things going on.

My solution was to simply pare back on the less important things in my life. This not only meant involvement in fewer activites, but it also meant paring down my possessions as well, because the more possessions you have, the more maintenance and upkeep is required, from dusting to keeping up maintenance schedules.

What really mattered to me? My family. Reading and learning new things. Building a writing career. Some avenues of community service. Once you get beyond that, everything else is pretty secondary.

So I started trimming back on those things. I chopped some social events from my schedule. I sold some of the items that I had built up but scarcely had time to use. I stepped back from some community responsibilities. I started buying less stuff and reusing more things. These choices left me more time for the things that mattered most to me.

Key Reading on Simplification
voluntary simplicityFor me, the most valuable book I read in terms of thinking about how to simplify my own life was Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin, which I reviewed in detail a few months ago.

The entire point of the book is that you don’t have to overconsume in areas that are not important in the larger scope of your life. It forced me to think of the impact of each of my choices in terms of time investment, environmental impact, social impact on those directly around me and those not directly around me, political impact, and so on. What I often found is that our actions have many, many costs that often fly directly in the face of what we profess to hold most dear. From my review:

For me, this was one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in the past five years or so. It made me think deeply about a lot of the assumptions I’ve had in my own life and made me question many of my personal choices. It actually helped me move forward in my personal finance progress because I started to question things at a deeper level than I had before. Why am I actually earning this money anyway? What impact does this choice have on others, and how does it echo back to me? Something as simple as buying a gallon of gas has an impact on many levels, an impact that bounces back in many different ways (not just environmentally, but economically and politically and socially). The same goes for buying a disposable diaper and tossing it in the trash when it’s used up.

That idea has constantly led me to strive for simplicity in almost every aspect of my life, from food cooked at home with fewer ingredients to a personal calendar that’s not quite as overstuffed as before. Every choice you make has costs, often far beyond your initial reaction to the choice.

Learning how to critically review and revise my life progress and plans
Initially, I struggled quite a lot with the idea of a “review.” I understood that I needed to look for holes in my system of keeping everything organized. What caused me difficulty was some of the higher levels of reflection. The connection between enormous lifetime goals, which felt very vague, and my activities for the coming week, which felt very tangible and real, was a difficult connection for me to make.

I soon began to realize that a big part of this challenge was figuring out who exactly I was and what I truly most wanted out of my life as a whole. It’s very easy to claim something like “I want to be a good father” as a life goal, but what exactly does that mean? And, perhaps more importantly, how does something like that begin to reflect in shorter-term goals, all the way down to next actions.

It is that bridge between the next action and the lifelong goal that is really key to living the life that you want. It is well worth devoting a couple hours per week to working out the specifics of that connection, including specific goals with shorter terms and next actions you can take to move you in that direction.

It’s not easy – or at least it wasn’t for me. The ability to state a goal, refine a goal, break it down into smaller goals, break those down into smaller actions, and keep up with all of it is a truly key part of an organized life, but it’s not a part that comes naturally to me in any way.

Key Reading on Self-Reflection and Evaluation
making it all workDavid Allen’s less-heralded follow-up to GTD is Making It All Work, which focuses almost entirely on the items I talked about above (I reviewed Making It All Work in 2009). In fact, Allen might as well have called the book GTD Philosophy and Techniques for Introspection, because that’s the focus – and it also explains why it’s less-heralded than its predecessor.

I like to think of the two books as addressing the same problems on different levels. Getting Things Done is like a toolbox. It gives you everything you need to sculpt your life in the way that you want, but there are no real ideas or thought exercises on how exactly to shape that big chunk of clay that is your life. Making It All Work is more like an art instructor or a well-written book on art technique and philosophy that takes you from having a bunch of tools and a big pile of clay to having a sculpted life, from the rough formations you make out of the clay to the finest detail work.

Once you’ve really mastered the basic GTD tools, I’d argue that Making It All Work is a more useful read because it focuses on what you can really do with those tools.

Getting my money under control
Setting and reaching such personal goals is a powerful step towards personal freedom, but if you don’t have financial resources to achieve those goals, they don’t really matter. Thus, hand in hand with the idea that you’re getting your time and your priorities in order is a need to get your money in order.

How is that important? Take, for example, my lifelong goal of being a writer. You don’t just wake up one morning and decide to become a writer if you have a bevy of personal responsibilities on the table (like children, for example). You’ve got to develop a plan, and one major component of that plan is financial stability.

Obviously, this element was the genesis of The Simple Dollar. It was my journey in getting my financial house in order that started this site, but even then, the genesis of my change was a realization that I needed a strong financial backbone to be able to achieve the things I really wanted in life. That meant making some hard choices.

Key Reading on Money Management
YMOYLThe single most vital book I’ve ever read on personal finance covers these issues almost perfectly. Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin is an absolute home run of a book, one of the ten books that changed my life (along with GTD).

What’s in this book that sets it apart from the rest? Rather than focusing on the mechanics of investing or the principles of saving money, Your Money or Your Life focuses instead on the deep connection between your financial health and your life choices. To put it simply, the more money you spend, the more restricted your personal choices become. A huge mortgage makes it much more difficult to quit your job and do something different. Life routines that result in a constant outflow of money keep you from taking the leap into something you deeply value.

This general theme – personal finance not as an endpoint but as a means to an end of building the kind of life you want to live – is something that my book, The Simple Dollar: How One Man Wiped Out His Debts and Achieved the Life of His Dreams, focuses on.

Developing and improving specific skills
The inevitable result of reading and following GTD and continuing along on the journey presented in that book and the ones above is that you begin to realize that many of the goals you desire for yourself – the elements of the life that you dream of having in the future – rely upon building specific skills along the way.

One of my lifelong dreams has been to play the piano. My vision of the future has a piano in our home and includes my own ability (and, hopefully, my children as well) to sit down at that piano and play a song.

That kind of goal isn’t reached without acquiring skills. The beautiful part of GTD is that it streamlines your time and information management to the point that you have room in your life for such skill acquisition and the ability to manage it through to the point where you’ve acquired the skills that you want – or that you need – to build the future that you dream of.

The first step, of course, is identifying those skills, which is exactly where Making It All Work and thinking about long-term goal setting comes into play.

Key Reading on Skills
What comes next after you’ve identified skills that you need to acquire? Further reading on that specific skill. Lessons. Education.

Online communities are invaluable in this process. Seek out an online community that’s strong in a particular area and simply ask what these experts did to acquire their skill – and what they would suggest to an unskilled newcomer. People are almost always thrilled to help someone who admits that they’re a novice and treats them like an expert.

Another good one-stop reading on skill acquisition is Scott Young’s article on learning a skill in three months. While the timeframe of many skill acquisition goals will be longer than that, the principles still hold for virtually anything you’ll teach yourself.

Getting philosophical
The final element of thought that GTD inspired within me is to simply address the big question of why I’m on this earth to begin with. What is my purpose in life?

When you start following that path, you quickly get into spirituality and philosophy, areas that address that subject deeply and seriously. This is really a very open-ended path, but I would suggest, more than anything else, reading opposing viewpoints and sticking to things that are fairly classic in that they’ve survived some degree of a test of time. In other words, avoid brand new commentaries and philosophies, at least at first, because you don’t have enough background to really judge them. Stick with the classics, in other words.

Philosophy and theology do not have to be dry, either. I find that focusing on how the things I read really apply to me and to the world I see around me really brings these elements to life. I also find great value in reading things that contradict what I think or, alternately, two books that present very different viewpoints.

Where does all of this lead? For me, it just leads to a deeper understanding of why I’m here and where I’m going with my life.

Key Reading on Philosophy
The first book I would start with would be Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. Read it with an eye of looking at your own life and experiences in the world. Keep track of the specific things that intrigue you, excite you, and make you think away from the book. Follow those areas.

I wound up following a theological path that, at one time, had me considering seminary or some form of religious study. I’m not sure that’s exactly the place I’m at right now. However, I will say that this line of thinking has convinced me that one of the core values of my life is helping others, and I think that’s a big part of where my motivation for The Simple Dollar comes from. Yes, reading philosophy led me here.

Where will it lead you?

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