24. July 2012 · 2 comments · Categories: Editorial · Tags: , ,

About a year ago I tried to regain control of my schedule, my work, my life by fully implementing Getting Things Done. Perhaps unsurprisingly I fell off the bandwagon pretty quickly. I think this is the experience of many people trying to change the way they organize their lives, and I’m planning a reboot soon. Nonetheless, many of the core GTD principles have been incubating in my mind and I’m trying to incorporate them into my day-to-day life even without the overarching organizational system.

One of the most profound of these concepts was the idea of redefining “productivity”. I think too often productivity is conflated with busyness; if we’re busy doing something then we must be being productive. In a great series of podcasts about life as a modern academic, however, MIT Physics Prof. Peter Fisher warns against activities which keep you busy without actually being productive — which raises the question, “What is productivity?”

I’ve come to the view that “productivity” is anything which increases the awesomeness in the world. You can define awesome any way you want, really, but when you do something awesome you’ll know it. In science this encompasses sitting around thinking about a new idea, writing some code, doing an experiment in the lab, staring at some new data, or writing a paper. More broadly I think it’s productive to plan your vacation, buy chocolates for your spouse, read a good book or practice the piano. Put another way, being productive is doing anything that gets the world closer to the way you want it to be.

Non-productive busyness, by contrast, is generally not creating awesomeness (or at least only very indirectly). Note that I’m not talking about true time wasting (facebook, twitter, checking the BBC news every 30 seconds, etc.). Instead I mean things like dealing with administrative paperwork, responding to banal emails, or sitting in meetings with ill-defined agendas. We have to do these things to a certain extent — they are part of how the world functions — but they’re not satisfying or fulfilling. Nobody smiles while filling in their EU grant reporting paperwork.

So where does GTD come into this? Part of the goal of improving your organization is to spend the minimum amount of time being busy and the maximum amount of time being awesome. It sounds simple, but the problem is that busyness is so much easier than productivity. It lets you abdicate the responsibility of choosing what to do with your time: “Oh well, I’m stuck in this meeting so it’s OK for me to mindlessly check my iPhone.”┬áIt’s the intellectual equivalent of flicking around the channels on TV to see what’s on rather than choosing to do the dishes or do your homework.

So the next time you’re sitting in a meeting, remember this: when it’s over you’ll be an hour closer to dying; will the world be more awesome?


  1. I started to introduce GTD into my life about 5 years ago, managing my research processes, and day to day life.

    I can only say that it took a couple of years of practice to get integrated fully, and probably a couple more to finesse in terms of the software stack. I didn’t realise initially it would be so much work. Now I have a system which I think adheres to the spirit of GTD. Evernote is the bucket – my capture tool. Then these items get processed into ThinkingRock which I think is a great desktop GTD system.

    It’s hard to explain to people just how worthwhile this is. Knowing that I am never going to forget anything, because it’s all written down is a lifesaver – sanity is preserved, and I can relax of an evening knowing that there’s nothing on my mind that needs attention. Although heavily sold in the book as a benefit it’s one that does require dedication to the system to appreciate.

    The bits which stumped me most were the granularity of tasks – exactly how much do I want to break down a project into is component part? I think I have settled on this now, if I could delegate it in a single sentence to someone it is a single task.

    The other thing which still requires the most effort – the Weekly Review. Whilst my GTD list is pruned often, sometimes I will complete tasks as they are reprioritised and the Weekly Review is the time I cross them off the list as done. Also just as important, deleting tasks that where once captured but are clearly never going to occur. The other job I try to do here is make sure the aforementioned granularity is appropriate to the work.

    More productive, more organised, happier! That’s worth a bit of effort in anyone’s book I think.

  2. Hi Dan,

    Great points. I’ve gone through nearly all the same things you describe (e.g. how granular is a task?). I will have a look at ThinkingRock, though I have a propensity to bounce around different software solutions (something that Merlin at 43folders specifically warns against!). When the system is working, though, I agree that it’s hard to explain to other people how amazing it is without coming across like an evangelist.