Last week, I broke down at work ...
Being a woman in business, this in and of itself is humiliating. But my work friend and mentor had asked how I was doing, and I just couldn't keep it in any longer.
“I’m in a complete funk,” I told her. “I can’t write. I can’t seem to do the simplest tasks. Everything is so much harder than usual! It’s been over a month of this. I don’t know what to do or how to snap out of it.”
She asked if I was depressed, to which I could thankfully say no. I’ve suffered from depression, and this was definitely not the same. “It’s not hopelessness or isolation … it’s as if there’s so much happening that I can’t focus on any one thing. Like I’m trying to wade through thick mud.”
I told her how I was behind on my work projects. I love my job. I am never behind. I cried about how I was completely forgetting to finish tasks and was having to be reminded to do things multiple times. This was not like me at all. She listened intently and let me shed some tears. After she was sure I was finished, she asked,
“Have you read ‘Getting Things Done'?”
“Getting Things Done,” or GTD, is a popular self-management book by David Allen. In it, he explains his “stress-free productivity” methods that millions of people swear by. I had heard of the magical GTD … almost to ad nauseam (I had briefly dated a certified GTD instructor who talked of little else).
“Yes,” I told her, “but it was just too complicated.” This was true, though only partially. The full truth was that the sermons I’d endured had made me almost impervious to it.
“Let’s get together later, and I will teach you,” she told me. I sighed inwardly, quite confident that David Allen and his lists upon lists would create more stress than it would alleviate.
The next day I met her for our lesson. She had come prepared with a fresh pad of paper and some pens. She gave them to me and explained what I’d be using them for.
“The first step is called a ‘Mindsweep.’ You take 15 minutes and jot down everything that’s taking space in your brain.”
“Like a to-do list?” I asked.
“Everything that’s on your mind. That may be tasks you have to do, stresses that you’re worried about or even things you need to buy,” she clarified. “Anything that comes to you.” She pulled out her phone to time me. “Because we don’t have a lot of time, we’ll just do 10 minutes.”
At her prompt I started writing:
I went on and on, and when the 10 minutes were up, I wasn’t even close to running out of steam. My friend gave me another five minutes but emphasized that the maximum writing time allowed was 15 minutes. I plowed on.
When the timer went off, I sat back and looked at my list. I had filled seven sheets of the 5-by-8-inch notebook with 15 minutes of my messy mind.
“Now, let’s look at the list. We’re going to look at each thing and ask, ‘Is it actionable?’ If it is, we either make it a project or an action. If it’s not, we either incubate it or trash it.”
This already sounded complicated.
“So, what’s the first one?” She asked me.
I laughed. “Boyfriend,” I told her.
“What does that mean?” I went into a rant about this; the uncertainty and frustration of miscommunication, and not knowing what I wanted.
“This is a great place to start,” she smiled at me. I was surprised. I thought for sure she would find my first item daunting; I did! “Let’s break it down into each of those concerns.”
I listed several of the things I had mentioned. We looked at the first one together: HE DRIVES ME CRAZY SOMETIMES.
“Is it actionable?” My mentor asked. “Is there an action you can do to cross this off?”
“Um … no. Nothing really to act on,” I replied.
“Then do you want to incubate it to come back to or trash it?”
I thought about it. “No, I don’t need to think about it. It’s just a frustration.”
She smiled brightly. “Then trash it!”
I shrugged and crossed it out. Well, that was one less thing to worry about.
Next item: IS HE COMING THIS WEEKEND?
“Is it actionable?” she prompted.
“Yes. I can just ask him.”
“Can you do it in under two minutes?” she asked.
I told her it was easy enough; all I had to do was text him.
“Then put a star by it and as soon as we’re done with the list, DO IT.” She said this firmly. “If you can do it in two minutes, just get it done and out of the way.”
As we continued down the list, she helped me identify if each thing was an action, a project, something to incubate (or as I like to think of it, let simmer) or trash. For projects (something with multiple actions), I just needed to identify the first step to getting it done.
GET MY SH!T TOGETHER: Doing that now. Done. Trash it.
SEND EMAIL ABOUT PRODUCT: Action. Can do it in less than two minutes.
RETURN SWEATER: Project. First step? Print return label.
I CAN’T BELIEVE WHAT I HEARD ON THE NEWS: …
This was a big one and taking up a lot of space in my mind. But I thought hard; is it actionable?
No. I crossed it out.
SO MUCH CRAZY STUFF IS HAPPENING: …
Is it actionable?
Nope. It’s not. It’s just me worrying. Trash it.
WASH THE DOG: Action.
By the time we reached the end of the list, an hour had passed. “If you do this every day, your list will get shorter and shorter,” she assured me.
With the last bit of our time, my friend briefly walked me through the remaining steps of GTD. We had already finished the first two stages: capture and clarify. The final three stages were to Organize, Reflect and Engage. She explained that since things were identified, we could organize them. Then, each day we reflect on the organized items and decide next actions. Finally, we DO THEM.
Before she left the room, she reminded me, “Do the ones that you can do in under two minutes RIGHT NOW.”
I looked again at my list searching for the actions I had put little stars by.
IS HE COMING THIS WEEKEND?
I texted my boyfriend. “Are you coming down this weekend?”
Done. I crossed it off.
SEND EMAIL ABOUT PRODUCT.
I quickly drafted and sent the email.
With each item I completed, I began to feel more and more energized. I was getting so much done! Each little thing I accomplished was helping me unravel the tangled ball of yarn in my head. Once I finished all of the two-minute tasks, I moved on to the actions: Write that article? I totally can! EASY!
Three days later, I’m still marveling at how clear my mind is. I didn’t just get my list actions done; I was motivated to do other actions. I cleaned my house. I went to the gym. I video chatted my niece and nephew. Of course, I had been having trouble getting anything finished; my brain was spending too much time trying to solve problems that weren’t actionable! They just sat there stuck, clogging everything else that needed to get through.
I haven’t put the last three stages into full practice yet, but already I feel dramatically different: Lighter. Focused. Productive. My friend was thrilled at my success, and we scheduled another “lesson” as soon as possible. I’m excited and eager to master the GTD method; I feel like myself again.
David Allen’s GTD method works. I know it looks tedious at first; why would I be identifying actions and projects instead of just DOING them? Isn’t that just procrastination? But the clarity gained makes all the difference. Give it a try and remove the mess from your mind. You can purchase Getting Things Done, as well as get help starting the process through YouTube tutorials, such as this one or even this.
Now grab a pen and notebook and get ready to take back your life.