Aug 9

Jimmy Guterman

Jimmy Guterman

The Limits of Efficiency

During the 2001-2002 tech downturn, two alpha geeks I respected recommended Getting Things Done, a book by David Allen that promised a path to stress-free productivity. As a longtime freelancer who was very stressed-out by the need, suddenly, to do a lot more work to earn way less compensation than I enjoyed during the boom, the book was quite useful. Although author Allen recommends that adherents will get the most benefit if they follow all the tenets of its rather all-encompassing system, I found that even paying attention to a handful of its directives led to getting more things done with less stress. The idea that you take every incoming demand and immediately determine whether you need to do it, defer it, delegate it, or delete it is quite sensible and works in many business and personal settings. Even a little of the plan went a long way.

By developing what Allen calls a "leakproof collection system" for all these incoming demands -- and by having a notepad or PDA-like device with you at all times -- helps you get the mundane stuff down so you can concentrate on the fun higher-level stuff without the nagging feeling that you're forgetting something/everything. As James Fallows wrote in an essay about Allen in The Atlantic (registration required), "I've internalized Allen's gospel to the extent that I try always to have a note pad --paper or electronic -- with me; and I'm nervous when someone tells me he's going to do something but I don't see him write it down."

Although I found the "GTD" system helpful in everything from prioritizing tasks to keeping my email inbox under control, I also found the GTD movement rather cultish. Allen leads expensive seminars and markets physical products and software programs that aim to put his theories into practice (including an Outlook plug-in). The Net is filled with spirited blogs, like 43 Folders and Lifehacker, that disseminate the GTD worldview. And, of course, David Allen has a posse. But, as with all belief systems, many acolytes have their own versions of what the Great Man said, and there are no arguments more minute, tedious, and off-putting than those among true believers. (I'm not referring here to 43 Folders' Merlin Mann or Lifehacker's Gina Trapani. They both run excellent sites.) I don't like being part of a cult, so I gradually drifted away from the fold.

Or I did until a little more than a year ago, as I was recovering from surgery and taking on too much work, as freelancers nervous about the near future tend to do. As more and more of my colleagues, especially fellow freelancers with multiple clients, complained of out-of-control inboxes, both physical and virtual, and I felt something similar starting, I returned to GTD. Within three weeks, I was back on a more even track. I knew what I needed to do, when I needed to do it, and where everything was. I should have been experiencing Allen's nirvana of stress-free productivity.

But I wasn't, and I suspect that many in the Radar readership will know why. It turned out that my problem wasn't that I was insufficiently efficient. The problem was that I was way too overextended. I had taken on more than even a very efficient person could handle. Efficiency is great, but it can only get you so far. I recommend Getting Things Done, as long as you don't treat every word as immutable and inarguable. It can help you out of many bad habits. It can't, however, stop you from agreeing to take on too many responsibilities.

How are you managing the workload when efficiency isn't enough?

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Comments: 24

  Jennifer [08.09.07 09:58 AM]

Very sensible of you. Thanks.

  Michael Blix [08.09.07 10:00 AM]

Doesn't any system surely consider the use of the most important asset, i.e. time?

  Mark Woodman [08.09.07 10:23 AM]

Timely advice, as I just started reading GTD to get a handle on things.

Thanks for the reminder that no matter how well you pack your suitcase, eventually it gets full. :)

  Bill Read [08.09.07 10:43 AM]

One thing you are missing here is that part of the whole GTD methodology is learning to renegotiate your commitments, both internally and externally. In short, learning when to say no. For me, that part of GTD is one of the most important. Before GTD, I was never really sure enough about my current level of commitment; but after I got a handle on my input and projects, I am much more able to refuse new commitments without the previous level of anxiety and guilt.

  Jimmy Guterman [08.09.07 11:22 AM]

True enough, Bill, if you're lucky enough to be in the position to say no.

  Rolf F. Katzenberger [08.09.07 12:28 PM]

A sensible and balanced summary.

With respect to being "overextended", please don't assume that GTD advocates it or even leads to it. Give Allen's follow-up book "Ready for Anything" a try and you'll find guidelines to protect you from such dangers. Section 3, e.g. is titled "Knowing your committments creates better choices of new ones". That's precisely what GTD helps me with: I see all of my committments in front of me, so it's easier for me to say "no".

I guess in terms of the Gartner Hype cycle, GTD is just about to pass the "Peak of Inflated Expectations"...

  Shawn Levasseur [08.09.07 01:23 PM]

"Although I found the "GTD" system helpful in everything from prioritizing tasks to keeping my email inbox under control, I also found the GTD movement rather cultish."

So what? The system and its followers are two separte things. Ignoring the latter shouldn't prevent you from using the former. Never mind what the "cool kids" or the "dweebs" may be doing. If GTD works for you, use it.

Heck, I'm sure that most of the "cult" is being very inefficient in focusing so much on the Getting Things Done process that they don't get things done in the lower case sense of the phrase.

Jimmy, you say you're not in a position to say "no " to much of anything. Well, that's not a GTD problem. GTD merely has allowed you to see that overextension is your problem and not anything process related.

You just have to find some way to delegate or defer some things, or select what's more important now.

Don't let the "cultists" get in the way of the fact that GTD is merely a tool, not a way of life. Sometimes a hammer does you no good if what you need is a screwdriver.

  tom [08.09.07 01:39 PM]

You're always in a position to say, "no." "I can get to that in three months, unless my boss re-arranges my priorities," is usually the same as "no."

  Paul [08.09.07 01:45 PM]

I'm a little behind the times, since I make do with a Franklin Planner. In one of the books that support that system, however, I remember an incident retold by the author. The author had asked one of his employees to do something. The employee, who was heavily burdened, pulled out a list of everything his boss had asked him to do. Then he asked, "Which of these tasks do you want me to delay in order to take this on?" The author gave the task to someone else, instead.

  James [08.09.07 02:07 PM]

My experience with time efficiency has been that much energy is invested by workers in energy-depleting actions, i.e.: complaining about the workload, avoiding the work, taking too many non-productive breaks from the work, etc., rather than actually doing the tasks of work. I acknowledge there are limits to the amount of work that can be done, having said that. Generally, a primary strategy and method that I use and that I encourage my direct report staff to use is to focus firmly on the work in front of them and avoid distractions.

  Laurent [08.09.07 03:16 PM]

It is good to recognize the fact that you found yourself "overextended". To me, GTD and similar systems are bottom-up approach. We also need to remember systems which address top-bottom approaches. What are your goals, your priorities,... ? Do less, do it better. And make sure what you do is rewarding and helps you achieve your life goals. On my side, I have not quite mastered this step myself ! :-) ... but is not life a quest ...

  Ajeet Khurana [08.09.07 04:08 PM]

In the "insufficiently efficient vs overextended" personal debate, I have found that it is not one vs the other.

My GTD principle has been:

10 overextend myself
20 hate it
30 figure out ways to improve efficiency
40 Goto 10

I think this is kind of a reasonable response that most organisms display in nature. For instance, our muscles develop this way when we exercise.

  Erik [08.09.07 06:36 PM]

Several years ago I ran the website for a small federal government agency. Because every department wanted to add more content, I essentially worked for all of them.

One day I hit on the idea of printing out a priority-ordered list of all work that was in the pipeline for the website. The list ran about a page and a half. I taped it to the door of my office, and posted the words "Please check this list before making a request."

Everyone thought it was pretty funny, but it worked quite well. I'd line through tasks as I completed them, so people could see wasn't just stonewalling. Periodically I'd revise the list.

After that job I became a project manager, then an operations officer, so I never was able to replicate that simple but effective technique. I think what really made it work was the fact that I was willing to tell everyone that I could only keep so many balls up in the air at one time.

  Eric [08.09.07 08:59 PM]

Could you talk to my boss? Seriously, any problem with hitting deadlines around my office means we're inefficient. We are a bottomless pit and you can just drop as much in there as you like. Doesn't matter, it can be done, whiners are clearly slackers. Gonna. Stab. Him.

  Darren [08.09.07 11:10 PM]

As a couple of previous posters have pointed out, Allen doesn't merely help you become more efficient and then leave you to it. He talks a lot about *what* you're getting done, not just *how much* you're getting done.

Was it one of his books that used the phrase "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing"? That quote really sums it up for me.

  Sky [08.09.07 11:41 PM]

I believe that human mind has no limits. At the same time we should remember that we are influenced and conditioned by our enviroment. Feeling of being overextended, is relative! Try meditation to reach greater resources within you.

  Vincent van Wylick [08.10.07 03:46 AM]

I believe in using GTD semantically, if that's the right word. No system ever replaces the "getting done" part, if you constantly spent time thinking about and updating it. There are some excellent principles in Allen's book, and some, like getting my mail to zero, I've been following dedicatedly.

But there are also many software-makers, especially on the Mac, jumping on the bandwagon, constantly offering systems that are slighly better. If you constantly change systems, according to what the self-help industry would like, nothing would get done.

As the movie ''school for scoundrels' says: you can't help yourself, if yourself sucks. Focus on the essentials of what matters in your life, and you help yourself enough.

  AndyW [08.10.07 05:19 AM]

As a consultant, I have been successful in managing my workload by only focusing on a few things each day then moving on. I prioritize the list each day.

You have to eat the elephant 1 bite at a time, but no one says "this is how you prioritize" which bite first, or how many bites does it really take.

It is my responsibility to effectively communicate my intentions and the reality of accomplishing the tasks. Too many tasks, mean longer time or more people. Simple as that.

Easy to say on a blog, but I've actually told CEO's CIO's and boards the exact same thing. They usually do not like it, but at that level they accept it. It is the middle guys with ego's and ambitions that answer yes, then force you/us to do the extraordinary work.

  Clay Andres [08.10.07 07:18 AM]

Speaking of cultish followings, I remember an interview of Stanley Kubrick from the 60's (perhaps in the New Republic?) in which he spoke of keeping a notepad at all times so he could write things down and not forget them. And If I'm remembering correctly, he went on to say that he didn't trust people who didn't write things down.

I tried it and failed. I'm older now.

  Brian [08.10.07 07:26 AM]

@Erik: I chuckled a bit when I read your comment because it reminded me of the time I used the same technique of "making the list visible" way back in the murky past when I was a sysadmin for a medium size company. I put my list on a big whiteboard in my office, and when people would burst in with a request, I'd get up from my chair, uncap a pen, and approach the (jammed full) whiteboard and they could literally see where they fit into the list. Quite effective!

Now, years later, I'm a full-time freelancer and that technique sadly doesn't work anymore. No one would see it but me!

These days, I do rely on GTD to keep everything flowing, but in addition to that, I allocate my time and energy across my projects in advance, projecting across the next four weeks or so at a time. "This article will use X hours, this development project will use X hours, etc" Then I know, on the front end of my GTD flow, what new items to defer or decline as they arrive. It's not a perfect science, but it help me avoid overextending.

As for folks who are not freelancers and are having trouble saying no in a corporate environment, I must say that over the years I was in that environment, I observed that people tended to FEEL they could say no much less than they actually could. Be careful, of course, but you may have more wherewithal to say no than you believe.

  Clay Andres [08.10.07 09:18 AM]

The interview with Kubrick was by Jeremy Bernstein and is from "The New Yorker," Nov 12, 1966. Here's a quotation that refers to the notebooks. A good example of order from chaos.

"Kubrick likes to keep track of things in small notebooks, and he had just ordered a sample sheet of every type of notebook paper made by a prominent paper firm -- about a hundred varieties -- which were spread out on a large table."

  Will [08.11.07 07:02 PM]

Even in high school I struggled with becoming more efficient so I could achieve more. I constantly ran into a wall and concluded upon graduation in 1989 that while efficiency helps, it is insufficient to handle increasing responsibility. The answer was in doing what was most important and actively deciding what *not* to do.

Now nearly 20 years later, I still heed the siren call of Covey, Allen, and (to a lesser degree) Ferriss. They drive me to seek efficiency and do offer some help, but simply doing less and deciding earlier in a task what 'good enough' is have been very helpful for me.

Also of help have been the following books on time management:
Time Tactics of Very Successful People
How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life
The Time Trap
The 25 Best Time Management Techniques

The most recent helpful activity (from books above) for me has been to do a time log, jotting down the time and the activity I'm doing every time I change my focus. It takes just a few seconds each time, and I'll have my newfound assistant at GetFriday put it into an excel model so I can see where my time is really going.

In the end, as many of these books and Covey pointed out years ago, first doing the tasks and projects that contribute to your long-term goals is critical. And getting a handle on the long term goals that are really important to you is the first step (whichever end you put it at: Covey = front end; Allen = back end). Saying no comes easier for me when I know what is really important to me.


  lawrence [08.15.07 12:54 PM]

there's a nice principle from the world of "Extreme Programming":

Quality, Scope, Human Resources, Time. the person asking for the work picks three, and the person doing the work sets the fourth.

  Matthew Cornell [09.22.07 07:55 AM]

Thanks for the story - you bring up lots of good points. I've been a GTD practitioner (and it *is* a practice one requiring work to get to mastery) for a few years, and a specialist in personal productivity for the last year, and I've had a few realizations related to your post:

o First, and important word that doesn't get included in typical GTD summaries is "important." I say I help get more important work done with more ease and less stress. I think Sally McGhee stresses this as well.

o GTD is just the first step in taking control of our lives. It gets people on top of the overwhelm that keeps us from doing what's *important* to us. The premise of this "bottom-up" approach (rather than a top-down purpose/goal-driven one) is that clearing our minds leads to space to consider and ultimately act at the higher levels. It's certainly been the case for me...

o Drucker pointed out the difference between efficient and effective. Efficient is getting things done right, and effective is getting the right things done. GTD helps with the former, and (as I said) leads to the latter.

o Adopting a practice like GTD allows us to get an objective measure of what we've committed to - every project and action is right there in black and white. The first result is often "Oh my god - I have way too much to do!" This opens the door to conversations about what you're doing, and possible renegotiations (with your self and others) about your commitments.

o Regarding the cult aspect, I don't see it. Allen actually *is* in an organization that some consider a cult, but it's not GTD. I think he created a "perfect storm" with both his content (process-oriented and air tight) and his timing (highly overloaded lifestyles). It didn't hurt that technical folks adopted it early on and spread the word.

Bottom line: I recommend clients try it, stick with it a while, and decide if it helps. If yes, great! If no, try something else. My best productivity tip is not "get a two minute timer," "do your most important task first thing," etc. (all good ideas), but start on the path of conscious improvement of your self-management, whatever direction that leads you.

The biggest surprise for me was that we don't learn the best practices by default. We adopt ad-hoc techniques we've had to invent, or taken on ideas that were effective when the telephone was high tech, but no longer scale.

Whew! Long reply...

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