Getting Things Done, Happiness, and Our Strange Sense of Priority

I slept in today. Or, rather, I lay in bed, listening to the birds, smelling the Spring air, daydreaming, thinking about what I would write about today, trying to shut out of my mind all the other things I ‘had to do’. As a seasoned procrastinator, I knew that when those other things became urgent enough, I would haul my ass out of bed and get to them.

There is method to this madness. The decision on What To Do Next is the one we are most practiced at, and if we don’t get very good at it, we end up making a mess of our lives. I thought about the things from my Getting Things Done list. The list isn’t that long, and most of what’s on it has been there awhile and is etched in my memory), I thought about the ones I would try to get accomplished today. In the order I will probably start working on them they are:

  1. Daily blog post (2-3 hrs)
  2. Batch of fruit smoothies (1/2 hr)
  3. 5k run (3/4 hr including warm-up/down and shower)
  4. Lawn work (1.5 hrs)
  5. Clear up some of my horrific backlog of e-mail and blog comments responses (15 hrs)
  6. Two proposals for jobs/contracts that I’d really like to do but which I think unlikely to succeed, plus one proposal I think likely to succeed but that I’m not that keen on (20 hrs)
  7. Hard drive backup (1-2 hrs)

I know myself pretty well. I will accomplish #1, #2, either #3 or #4 (the other will get done tomorrow), and a part of #5 or #6. Eight hours’ ‘work’ in total. I’ll reward myself by reading or listening to music this evening.

But what subconscious criteria did I use to make these decisions? And how did I decide not to do anything today about any of the other 35 items on my GTD list, which include:

  1. Research on vegetable proteins, towards inventing non-animal food proteins that would taste just like meat and dairy products and deliver the same nutrition, and hence obsolesce factory farms
  2. Research on intentional communities, towards eventually starting one
  3. Pulling together another complete chapter of The Natural Enterprise
  4. Writing more of my novel The Only Life We Know
  5. Research on podcasting technology, so I can finally get started on Blog Hosted Conversations
  6. Phone calls to resurrect my AHA! Learning & Discovery project
  7. Updating my blog Table of Contents and blogroll

In the spirit of my recent posts on self-experimentation, I tried to come up with a quantitative measure of the factors I would have considered in making these decisions to see what ‘rules’ I was using for deciding what to do next. The factors included:

L = How much I like doing these things
G = How good I am at doing these things (or how good they are for me)
N = How much this work is needed by someone other than me
A = How much this work is appreciated by someone other than me

These factors correspond to the three circles above, reflecting our Passion, our Gift and our Purpose, which to some extent determine how we ultimately ‘choose’ to make a living. The critical factors in my Getting Things Done list (in deciding what to do next) are:

U = How urgent it is that this work get done today
I = How important it is to me, ultimately, that this task or project get accomplished eventually
E = How easy it will be (will I be in the right place with the right people, energy & tools) to do this today

Time demand (how long it will take) is also a factor, but long tasks can always be broken up into shorter ones if they meet all the other criteria. What’s more, I will also do a whole bunch of other small, short tasks today, that won’t ever make it to the list. So while I didn’t want to lose track of time demand, I didn’t include it as a factor.

I looked at the 14 tasks that I had decided to do (or not do) today, and assigned them a score (2=high, 1=moderate, 0=low) for each of the seven factors above. I added in ‘reading and listening to music’ as task #15, because that’s what I know I will do this evening. Here’s what the scores looked like:

Task L G N A U I E
1 2 2 0 1 2 2 2
2 2 2 0 1 0 1 2
3 0 2 0 1 0 2 2
4 1 1 0 1 1 0 2
5 0 2 0 1 1 1 2
6 0 1 0 0 1 0 2
7 0 1 0 0 1 0 2
8 2 0 2 1 0 2 1
9 2 0 2 1 0 2 1
10 2 2 2 1 0 2 1
11 2 1 2 1 0 2 1
12 2 0 0 1 0 1 1
13 2 2 1 1 0 1 1
14 0 1 0 1 1 0 0
15 2 1 0 0 0 0 2

I already suspected that these seven factors didn’t have equal ‘weight’ in the decision on what I will do next. It isn’t as simple as adding up the totals for each row and picking the largest total. But I was surprised to discover how simple the rule was for determining what I would do today:

If U=2, do it today. If (U+E)>1, do it today if time permits. If (U+E)<2, defer it to tomorrow.

This may only be true for me. If you’re sufficiently anal to try the above exercise for yourself, I’d be interested in your findings. If it is true, that we do what’s urgent or easy, and defer everything else, this has some sobering implications. It means we don’t (until/unless it becomes urgent or easy) do what we most like doing, or what’s needed by others, or even what ultimately on our deathbeds we will consider our most important accomplishments.

The art of procrastination is pushing off difficult tasks (i.e. E=0) until they become urgent (i.e. U=2). That can require some considerable rationalization, and even some dread as U moves from 0 to 1 and then inexorably to 2. Thinking about some of the all-nighters and 16-hour-days I’ve pulled, they were usually situations where there was one large task, or a whole bunch of smaller ones, all with U=2 and no tomorrow. Of course it would be logical to see these coming and plan your time so that you didn’t face that crisis, but then we’re not logical, are we?

Some of you may wonder why I consider my daily blog post (task #1) to be urgent. I’m not sure of the answer to that, but I know I really sweat if I miss a day, and I rarely do, even if there are other urgent tasks on the agenda. Likewise, you might argue that if the blog (task #1) is urgent, then the related blog comment responses and e-mails (task #5) are urgent as well. But e-mail is one of those perverse tasks that can actually become less urgent if you procrastinate and put it off. People will eventually give up expecting a response. When I do get my e-mails and blog comment responses up to date, then it become urgent to keep them that way. But sometimes, like now, I relapse. I’m only human.

So what use is all this? I’m not sure if it makes me feel better about myself (I’m just being who I am), or worse (that string of N=0 for everything I will do today makes me look awfully selfish). If it’s true, though, at least for procrastinators, what could we do to increase the sense of urgency or ease, for the things that make us happy, for the things we’re good at, for the things that are needed or at least appreciated by others, for important things, so that they actually get done? Before blogs came along, writing a daily column and engaging with hundreds of people on the issues it covers would have been impossible. Then, the 2-3 hours we now spend blogging were spent doing other urgent or easy things — in my case mainly wasting time watching TV or reading newspapers. By increasing the ease of writing and sharing your ideas with others, blogs and other social network tools have arguably enabled us to make ‘better’ use of our time.

I’ve suggested before that the best way to make a difficult (E=0) but important (I=2) job easier (increase E to 1) is to break it down into manageable tasks, or to collaborate with others and share the load. That sleight-of-hand works sometimes, but often we can still see how difficult the whole task is, and if it’s not urgent (U=0) that still won’t be enough to get it done. 

If we suddenly discover we only have a few months to live, then doing all the important things (I=2), the needed things (N=2), the appreciated things (A=2), the things that make us happy (L=2), immediately becomes urgent (U=2), and then we do these things (if we can). Why should it take such a horrible revelation to make us start doing the things that make us happy, make us follow our passion, do what we were arguably meant to do? Just as the Shangri-La Diet ‘fools’ our bodies to believe we are less hungry than we really are, is there a trick that could ‘fool’ our minds to believe that everything that makes us happy is urgent? Living every day as if it were our last is a nice homily, but how could we actually learn, or trick ourselves, to do it? To start doing the things that are not ‘merely’ urgent?

Or are we so accustomed to urgent tasks being onerous and unpleasant that if the things that make us happy were suddenly urgent, they wouldn’tmake us happy anymore anyway?

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2 Responses to Getting Things Done, Happiness, and Our Strange Sense of Priority

  1. Sophistica World Think TankThursday 25, 2006Dear Dave,I have been following this thread for quite some time and would like to comment.Please don’t take this personally, but the blog is your greatest time leak. A mind such as yours should be operating in the real world and not the virtual. The blog is addictive, just like other addictions, and I was so addicted as well. I was number one on LinkedIn for Canada, belonged to academici, Creative Minds Worldwide, amodus and wrote two blogs for the purpose of creating a project that would fulfil my need to take my skill set and apply it to a humanitarian project.One day I had enough. What caused me to realize this I don’t quite know, but then I acted on, “I’ve had enough” and quit everything.An enormous void was created in myself that caused physical problems with real symptoms at first, but as time went on this void was filled with the deep passions that were always inside of me; the kind that we have “enthusiasm” for when we’re young and just starting out. How could this be? I am an adult and the innocence of youth has long faded, or did it? To my surprize it hadn’t. Over the years, and I am now 51, these passions just faded as well as this incredible Enthusiam for life I once had. So I don’t know you, but I thought by sharing this with you, it might give you a different perspective on things. In closing here’s my deal with myself: If I don’t like doing something, or I don’t know if I like doing something there is only one thing to do. Stop doing it; and pay attention to see if anybody else notices. A second thing I found is that there is a little voice inside of us that runs on the “guilt” motor; I know it’s clever ways it weaves itself into the fabric of our lives so quietly, that we don’t even notice it is there, but it ruins our ability to re-connect with the “child-like enthusiam” we had in our youth. But you might ask is it possible to get it back? The answer to that is yes. I can honestly say that happiness is not a byproduct of what we do or say; it finds us when we’re doing the one true thing that we are passionate about. People from all over the world are looking for this kind of joy, happiness or love. We all live complicated lives; that’s the uncertainty of life as opposed to the certainty of death. If we live complicated lives, then wether we have multiple homes and complicated lives–or maybe we have nothing and complicated lives, the false truths that Hemingway wonderfully expresses in this quote but had no idea that it is a false truth,”People are the limiters of your happiness[sic],” is false; we are if the assumption or even the smallest part of the reality of our lives that suggest to us that people suggest,influence,lead,manipulate us ,et al. But we have to take a stand to preserve the “Moral Integrity of our youthful enthusiasm for life.” We have to say, “Hey man I don’t go for that or buy into that; back off.”As ever,Michael

  2. says:

    Michael’s comment struck a chord with me. So often we can set up a treadmill that we find very difficult to get off. Only through illness or redundancy do we sometimes discover by accident that not only can life carry on but it can be a lot more fulfilling too.

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