Keeping It All In Focus

Sept. 10th, 2018

I’ve been reading David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity over the past few months and been loving it. I don’t think the Getting Things Done (GTD) system is one that’s particularly well suited to those of us with ADHD or executive functioning challenges. The author has been quoted as saying “If you aren’t doing the weekly review, you aren’t doing GTD.” And the concept of someone with ADHD doing something boring consistently is problematic off the bat. It’s not impossible but it quickly begins to feel like we are working for the thing that’s supposed to be working for and helping us. This is why so many of us love the bullet journal system because there are very, very few hard and fast rules or constraints.

Adapting GTD to work for the ADHD brain is a whole ‘nother subject, however.

A lot of the things GTD advocates I was already doing. Like the Someday/Maybe list, a location to store projects and goals that we don’t want to or can’t take action on immediately, like learning a foreign language, renovating the kitchen, or traveling to Spain. I already had a system that did that.

What I didn’t have, have never had, and I have a feeling most people with ADHD find challenging even once they develop a system that actually works, is one of the foundational principles of GTD: easily being able to know what we want, need, and have committed to do in the next 2 weeks. The “weekly review” is part of that, but no matter how much I reread passages of the book, scoured the numerous blogs on the subject, or rephrased things in my head, I couldn’t figure out A) how this was possible or B) what the concept of a “review” even meant. To me it was pointless because the second my eyes left the information I was reviewing, it left my brain.

The book even "admitted" that the average person is likely to have between 10 and 100 or more projects on the go at any one time! How can any amount of reviewing keep those fresh in my attention? The idea isn’t to keep them remembered all the time, quite the opposite. David Allen wants all of us to get everything out of our memories because our brains are so much more creatively useful when we aren’t using resources for remembering. That concept of reviewing though, to keep “current” with what’s orbiting us, continued to baffle me.

GTD says that every project (defined by the system as any desired outcome with more than one action step) is to have only the next action listed in the To Do or “Next Actions” list. This still means that if you have 100 projects, you will have a starting To Do list of 100 tasks, plus tasks not associated with any projects. Insane! I don’t know if the following is how GTD is intended to be worked, but this week I developed a method of making it so a review of my commitments actually is useful.

First I thought about what I actually put effort into during the course of a week and it turned out to be eight things: housework, self-care, business maintenance, business growth, business non-urgent work, writing/D&D prep, crafts, and personal projects. I couldn’t think of any effort I put into anything in a week that doesn’t fall into one of those categories. Socializing and maintaining relationships falls under self-care, as does anything I choose to do for others because I view that as an integral part of who I am, and if I’m not acting true to myself and my values I am not practicing effective self-care, in my opinion. The first three categories are maintenance and do not have any projects associated with them. So if I were to define one top project for each of the other areas, then I would have just five projects "on the go" at a time. I’ve now done this.

There are exceptions to this, such as for crafts. I get bored easily if I have only one knitting project on the go, so I easily and happily maintain a few. They are all in a crate near my desk which again means that if I want to know how many knitting projects I have at once I only need a second to review them. And while my writing and my D&D campaign both take place in the same setting, and this is how I justify maintaining both as hobbies, I am still doing work on each separately at times.

So now the weekly review embedded in my Sunday routine will take just those few moments promised by David Allen. I can look at a list of five items and know that is what I’ve decided I will be working on this week. This also means that I will achieve specific results faster because my effort is concentrated on one project rather than spread across a handful in each category.

And, as always, this is just this week’s version of my organization and productivity. If writing this blog has taught me anything it’s that no system is infallible. In fact I’m often reluctant to develop and implement a new system for myself because of how many I’ve gone through that have fallen apart. It feels like wasted effort. The bottom line I keep reminding myself is this: if something isn’t working, you’ll be wasting time trying to keep it going anyway, so that effort might as well go into trying something new, even if all you learn from it is that it also didn’t work. No system will fix the way anyone’s brain works, but the work to find the systems that fit us best is worth it in the end.

How do you keep everything you need to know about in focus?