Getting Things Done (GTD): Just Say No to Urgent Unimportant Tasks

urgent importantIt’s been awhile since I posted anything controversial on this blog. This might make up for that. I suspect to hear some “it’s not that easy” protestations. I’m ready for them — I’ve walked the talk on this.

You’re probably familiar with Covey’s urgent/important quadrants, shown in the graphic at right. Covey’s thesis is that we spend so much time on quadrant 3 matters (urgent but unimportant) that some quadrant 1 matters (urgent and important) may get neglected (since often they’re onerous and time-consuming), and most quadrant 2 matters (important but not urgent) get pushed down the priority list and never get done at all (until/unless they become urgent quadrant 1 matters, which quite often happens too late, like on our deathbeds).

One of the things I’ve done with my GTD list (see model below) to try to address this tendency, is to flag urgent items on my list in italics, and important items in bold (and quadrant 1 items in bold italics), and pledge to do at least one important (quadrant 1 or 2) ‘next action step’ every day.

Dave’s Getting Things Done process and list format
workflow diagram 3

2005.12.16 Fr 17:00 /2 Appointment with Jo
2005.12.17 Sa 18:00 /4 Meeting with K
2005.12.19 Mo 17:00 /6 Discuss proposal for TNE with John
2005.12.16 Fr 09:00 /3 Discussion paper on AHA!
2005.12.16 Fr 13:00 /3 MIC research
2005.12.17 Sa 09:00 /6 Followup coaching session with R
ASAP Donate old Christmas tree to charity
ASAP Submit PKM paper to journal
Recurring Activity x cumbersome (call G to discuss)
Writing Project  y too big (break into shorter actions)
Entrepreneurship/Education Project z not thought through (call J to discuss)
Innovation Project q not sure I want to do it (decide!)
Knowledge/Tech/Coaching Project r customer not ready (set up proposal)
Project Outside Current Competency s don’t know enough (research)
Inspiration 1 Link
Inspiration 2 Link

The problem was, despite my best intentions, the urgent stuff kept getting moved up and the important stuff moved down. At the end of every day I was deleting completed tasks in italics, adding new urgent tasks, and, with a sigh, rescheduling tasks in bold to later dates.

Since my stress-induced disease hit me and woke me up, I’m not doing that any more. In fact, I’ve declared war on quadrant 3 (and 4) tasks: They don’t get put on the list at all. Every action on my (much shorter) GTD list is now bold quadrant 1 or 2 tasks. Most of the quadrant 3 tasks, it turned out, fell into one of these categories:

  • E-mails and voice-mails
  • Paperwork (including electronic administrivia like backups, site maintenance etc.)
  • Meetings (regularly-scheduled ones, and those you were foolish enough to agree to when you shouldn’t have)
  • Chores (stuff you hate doing, but have accepted as your responsibility, like committee activities)
  • Routines (stuff you do on a regular schedule, like exercising)

Impossible not to do these things, you say? I thought so too, until I realized the stress of dealing with ‘urgent’ tasks, and the disappointment of not getting to important (to me) ones, were making me miserable, and ultimately ill. How did I get rid of the urgent unimportant tasks? It was a three-step process:

  1. Lower others’ expectations: Essentially you need to train other people not to give you urgent unimportant tasks, and, when they do, not to expect you to do them. My disease gave me an easy excuse to do this, but I’ve been amazed how quickly people catch on to your becoming ‘unreliable’ at doing unimportant tasks and lowering their expectations of you without animosity or other serious consequences. It’s easier to get out of non-essential meetings than you might think (and you might even be able to persuade your company to make all meeting attendance optional). And if the consequences are serious — if the person you’re trying to train is your boss and s/he makes your life miserable because you’re not spending 90% of your life doing stuff s/he thinks is important but you know isn’t, maybe it’s time to stop acting like a trained seal, ‘fire your boss’ and find some meaningful work. [Do I dare suggest that for some, marriage/family is like a second job, and lowering others’ expectations may be just as important in that role?]
  2. Ask yourself this question: Five years from now, what will the consequences turn out to be if I simply don’t do this urgent unimportant task — not today, not ever? If the answer is ‘not much’, that should give you the courage (and it takes courage!) to ‘just say no’ to these time-burning, stressful, distracting tasks. Don’t put them on your list. Don’t do them. Don’t give them another thought. Instead of doing my anal monthly bank reconciliation, now I just scan the bank statement for large, unusual or duplicate items and (never having found one) file it away. I’m moving all my bills to auto-payment, overcoming my ‘loss of control’ fear. There are some chores I do that can’t be ignored or delegated, but amazingly, most of these turn out to be easy and/or fun (like mowing the lawn with the riding mower). And I’m a lot more casual about routines — so what if I skip a day of scheduled exercising? Doing chores and routines less often really doesn’t have any long-term consequences, and can free up all kinds of time. You need to give yourself permission to cut yourself some slack.
  3. Delegate these tasks to people who think they are important: If you have admin staff, or junior staff itching to get into your good books, or friends or acquaintances who like this kind of ‘busy’ work and really find it meaningful, or just want to help you out, give it to them. Some people like doing paperwork. Don’t feel guilty about it. Don’t give them extra compensation or feel obligated. Just let them do it. Or find ways to automate these tasks or otherwise make them simpler and less time consuming.

As an example of step 3: A couple of weeks ago, we hosted the annual neighbourhood barbecue (which has actually evolved into a day-long series of events that take quite a bit of planning and preparation). In past years, the two preceding days have been, for me and my wife, an exhausting flurry of activities, where everything else gets deferred to make sure we’re ready. And sometimes we don’t get as much chance to socialize with the neighbours as we’d like during the event, because we’re constantly dealing with urgent little matters (e.g. “we forgot to get mayo for the burgers, could you run to the store?”) This year, because of my health, I had to scale back my ambitions. I cleaned and resurfaced our barbecue deck, because I wanted to learn how to do it and because it needed to be done desperately (i.e. quadrant 1). But many of the things that I urgently wanted to do but which weren’t that important I knew weren’t going to get done. I prepared my excuses for not having weeded the lawn, not having repainted the patio furniture etc.

But then something amazing happened. Starting the day before the event, neighbours started calling up and asking if there was anything they could do. And instead of the usual stoic “no that’s fine, we’ve got it under control” we said “OK that’s very kind of you”. One neighbour who loves to paint and prides herself on her skill at it repainted 16 plastic patio chairs and tables. She loved doing it, did it brilliantly, and eliminated that quadrant 3 task from our list. Another neighbour came over with floral arrangements for all the tables. Another cleaned our pool. Another, who fancies himself an oenophile, picked out and delivered all the wine for the event. Other neighbours donated lovely hand-made prizes for the annual charity raffle that follows our dinner, reducing the cost of the prizes and allowing us to donate more to the local community charity. This was all spontaneous stuff, turning what would have been stressful chores for us into joyful activities that made the whole event better and more collaborative. All we had to do was ‘let go’ of the responsibility for these quadrant 3 tasks, and others who actually like doing these tasks self-delegated to do them for us. The only cost was a few genuine and appreciated “Thank You’s”. A next-door neighbour went home and retrieved some mayo. During the actual events, like Goofy Golf, we participated more fully than ever before. We had as much time for socializing as our guests. Everything went flawlessly. We partied until 2am and were so relaxed we could have gone on longer.

This may be an exceptional example, but it makes the point: What’s an unimportant, distracting chore to you can be something important, satisfying, even joyful to someone else. Let go, stop being a control freak about your responsibilities and you may be amazed how much others will willingly, even enthusiastically take off your plate, while creating no obligation to you to ‘return the favour’. It’s human nature to enjoy helping other people we like. Why is it so hard for us to let them do so?

The first and second steps are harder, but they get easier with practice. Some people are naturals at doing these things, and studying them as ‘role models’ can help you learn how to do these steps quite gracefully, until they become ‘second nature’, and can show you how to ‘get away with them’ without adverse consequences.

One of my mantras lately has been: We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, then we do what’s fun. Getting rid of the quadrant 3 tasks is a means of reducing the number of things you ‘must’ do, freeing up and making time for what’s easy and fun (most stuff that is really important to us tends also to be fun). So by this simple process, just by human nature you end up spending more of your time doing things that are important and joyful. Besides, you tend to do a better job at things you think are important. And the few urgent things you can’t avoid become less stressful and overwhelming, so you have more time to do them and you do a better job at them too.

The upshot of all this is that my GTD lists have become so much shorter, quickly crossed off, and easy to memorize (you don’t forget stuff that’s important to you) that I no longer refer to them daily, but weekly. I’m getting a lot more done with less work and less stress. I’m enjoying what I do every day. I’m making progress on things I’ve been putting off for a decade. I have the time and perspective to think things through more rationally, emotionally and intuitively, so I’m making better decisions. My ‘personal productivity’ has soared.

My apologies if this all comes across as a bit evangelical. I’m just kicking myself for not realizing it before. Why does it so often take a crisis, a kick in the head, to wake us up to some simple changes that can transform our lives, and make us so much happier and fulfilled? I’m beginning tothink I’m not the only ‘slow learner’ out there.

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12 Responses to Getting Things Done (GTD): Just Say No to Urgent Unimportant Tasks

  1. andrew says:

    Right on! I believe you say over there ;-)

  2. Michelle says:

    Now why would this be “controversial”? :)This is probably the most satisfyingly positive post I’ve read from you for awhile and I congratulate you on refining the difference between ‘Working to live abundantly” and mere “Living inside ones ‘work'”. In essence, I do think that this is what GTD is REALLY about… doing enough that brings the greatest satisfaction without leaving you breathless to enjoy it! :)Mitch

  3. Jennifer says:

    Story of my life… The older I get the more I learn what things don’t need to be done. When something comes up in a meeting that someone thinks I need to do, I just nod and pretend to write it down. I know they’ll never notice if I don’t do it. And I know it doesn’t need to be done. The charade seems to make everyone comfortable, so I just go along. Life is so much nicer since I learned the difference between real work and make work.

  4. Kevin Carson says:

    Nice post. I made a strategic decision to scale back my blog posting to fewer, more substantive articles, and to cut out most of my email list participation. I was really starting to dread checking my in-box.

  5. Paul says:

    Nice article.One of the drawbacks of GTD (and there really are very very few) is that it is very focussed on the individual as an independent rather than interdependent agent.By reviewing things on your ‘to do’ in light of how others might view these actions, or be able to contribute, the independent GTD-er allows themselves to become part of a social network again, to enjoy a collaborative approach to projects, and to celebrate the contribution of others.Nice article, nice reminder.

  6. treatment says:

    I praise u for sharing this great piece of information! THANKS :)

  7. WDW says:

    Superb ideas. In case anyone is interested, here’s how I’ve implemented them. I have two lists in my GTD system. One for my real goals (mostly quadrant II) and one for things I’m really required to do (mostly job-related quadrant I stuff). Anything else that I’m interested in or sort of need to do (like reading, blogs, chores, etc.) I put in a different system. I can still collect and sometimes do less impotant things (like reading this blog post!), but I track and do them in a different system so they don’t overwhelm me or confuse me and so GTD is always about quadrants I and II. It really frees up the mind.

  8. Shawn says:

    I’ve shared this w/ a number of colleagues and friends over the last week. Thank you!

  9. expectations can kill you . . . I’m a slow learner too. But . . .I have to say I have learned. . . My wife a realestate broker with 90 agents under her leadership was all work . . . I say was. . . she died of cancer a few years ago. . . Since her death I’ve been trying to survive by a process of elimination of things, activities, people, expectations put in place by circumstance. . . I’m 61 an artist and still looking to sift through the GTD list

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  11. Sean Inglis says:

    This is an elderly post I know, but I stumbled upon if (in the old fashioned sense) looking for examples of the Important / Urgent quadrant.This is one of the best distallations of the effect of moving / removing tasks and the effect this can have that I’ve seen. My wife is a coach specialising in the education sector and she sends her thanks for your lucid and non-technical explanation.

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