gtd and spiritual practice

July 2, 2007   |   1 Comment

GTD is an amazing system for multi-leveled personal organization. There are three things I love about it:

It’s enormously intelligent
It shamelessly satisfies the inner geek
It produces spiritual benefits

It’s this last one that is so interesting. The system brings a sense of order, pleasure, and quietude– the intelligence that famously comes forth from disciplined use of GTD. This is a big deal… Perhaps it explains why we (okay, I) can spend hours looking at other people’s systems on Flickr.

The very first time I put the system into full play (like 10 years ago via a cassette that came with my now-forgotten Time Design), I expected to feel good about getting my stuff in order and whatnot, but I had no idea I’d be all blissed out from the process. I left my office, desk clean, inbox empty, Brother labeler in a dust heap,and felt unbelievably lighthearted and Ready For Anything. Probably most GTD-ers know this feeling.

When I became a full-time writer, however, I found that the system didn’t work as well as when I was a Marketing VP and such. Yet the writing projects required management and had deadlines just like a regular job. I would add “new book about Buddhism” or “O Magazine article” to my Projects, but when it came to Next Actions, I couldn’t make it work. I tried to add “write chapter on the Four Noble Truths” or “comprehend the true meaning of fearlessness” to my Next Actions, but this didn’t quite get it. For stuff like “read article about the nature of mind” or “research statistics on anxiety”, it still worked. The only thing I couldn’t figure out was when and how to be quiet and creative. I tried reserving the first half of the day for creative stuff and the second half for e-mails and meetings. But the mind of writing doesn’t mix well with the mind of administration. Yes, yes, I read “The War of Art” but still found that I couldn’t just flick a switch and get creative. Blaming this on “resistance” was interesting, but not helpful. When I overly plotted, outlined, or anticipated, the wrong mind was in charge. I’d schedule (and totally show up for) “writing time” 8-11 every day, but sometimes I could find the groove and sometimes I couldn’t. Then when I was supposed to be returning calls, a better word choice for something would hit me and I’d feel compelled to pay attention. I once heard Jerry Seinfeld say in an interview that bringing an episode to screen was like racing to carry an egg in a teaspoon over the finish line. This is a good metaphor for any creative project. It’s always precarious and you can’t take your eye off it. What to do?

You don’t have to be a writer to know what I’m talking about, you just have to be someone with a heart and soul who is curious about being a human. We all have things we feel driven toward that we can’t quite justify, like cultivating patience or learning Spanish. They require focus, creativity, and unrestricted mind space.How and when do these things get factored in?

Here are 3 things that help me:

1. Meditation practice.
Spending time observing (but not reacting to) my thoughts taught me that I could choose where to place my attention.

2. Three definites and two maybes. I read somewhere that someone writes down the 5 most important things to do that day. If he can do 3, he considers it a good day. I just go straight for the 3 and list 2 alternates in case I rock my world early in the day. Invariably, those 3 were about my core priorities.

3. Keep a separate self-development list and include it in the weekly review.
Each week, I look at this list but not for the purpose of determining next actions. On it are things like “write another book” and “try to become enlightened.” (Just kidding.) Only concrete stuff like “draft acknowledgments” (the best part about writing a book) and “e-mail editor re jacket copy” go on my Projects or Next Actions lists. But for the self-development priorities, instead of thinking ahead, I think back. I remind myself why those things are on the list in the first place. I re-experience the moment of inspiration or insight that led me to put each thing on the list. I remember how much genuine enjoyment I get from living up to my commitment to myself. I keep in mind that, eventually, habit will always trump lethargy.* Each week, I re-anchor my mind in who I really am and why I’m really doing all this.

Together, these 3 steps help me hold my mind steady and no matter how many times it is drawn away, to return it to what I really value. Then nature takes care of the rest.

*The ideas in #3 are adapted from the Buddhist definition of laziness. It describes three kinds:

Regular (no explanation needed)
Becoming Discouraged (considered a form of laziness because you’ve forgotten the sanity behind your aspirations)
Being too busy (which means you’ve arranged your schedule to leave out yourself)

There are four antidotes:
Trust
Aspiration
Exertion
Pliancy (self-existing momentum)

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1 Comment

  • Posted by:  BZ

    BTD – Best Thing Done, What Matters Most?

    The purpose of life is joy.

    The next action is the one that feels most joyful.

    The trusted system is life, and our spirit

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