Time for a Time Checkup

This is a tale of obsession, passion, and guilt. You guessed it: The subject is time management.

Six months ago, I embarked on a mission to wring a few more hours of productivity out of my week. I chronicled my work with a coach in an article in BusinessWeek. If you missed it, shame on you. But I'll save you the time of thumbing through past issues or firing up your laptop and recap: I'm the executive editor of the magazine you are holding, and I work a frightening number of hours each week while keeping my fingers crossed that my 11-year-old is eating at least a gram or two of protein and has not taken up smoking.

Marian Bateman, a nurturing and utterly delightful senior coach at David Allen Co., walked me through the many steps it takes to set up the "Getting Things Done" (GTD) method created by her company's founder. I "collected" and "processed" my stuff. I reconfigured the task function in Microsoft Outlook in unimaginable ways. I set up systems of folders with the help of a handy-dandy labeler that now feels like a beloved family member. And when I promised editors here that I would do a follow-up in six months, there was swagger in my step.

A bit too much.

As I write this I'm dangerously close to blowing my deadline. Would I be further along if I had "captured" this article as a "project" in my Outlook task function and broken it down into a series of "next actions"? Why hadn't I put my deadline on my "hard landscape," aka a calendar?

Even before the GTD master himself called me on my cell phone—at the exact second scheduled, I might add—I knew where I'd failed. I had absorbed what David Allen calls the "tricks and tips"" of GTD, not to mention an annoying amount of its lingo. But although I had been dutifully using my task list to remind myself to pay my daughter's dashing but pricey orthodontist, I had done nary a "weekly review." That's the roughly hour-long process by which Allen's acolytes close their office doors and regroup by sifting through their in-boxes, calendars, projects, "action support" folders, and brains. (That last bit is called a mind sweep. Sorry.)

A "MIND LIKE WATER"Does it really matter that I blew off the weekly review? Allen says it does, and many of the roughly 1 million folks who have bought his Getting Things Done book would agree. The whole point is to empty your head so you can "start with a clear space," Allen told me. Without that you can't "calibrate new stuff against your inventory because you don't know what your inventory is." The goal is to have a "mind like water," a phrase Allen borrowed from karate. (Somewhere along the way, he found time to earn a black belt.) If you throw a pebble into a still pond, it will respond appropriately to the "force and mass of the input, then it returns to calm," he explains in his GTD book.

I'd be the first to admit that my mind's consistency is more like overcooked oatmeal than water. But percolating up through the gooey mess was a thought that had nagged at me ever since I had taken GTD out for a test drive. Didn't this whole GTD thing involve an awful lot of rules, if not outright orthodoxy? Allen didn't seem too happy when I mentioned the word "cult." He didn't agree with the rules part and reminded me that some very independent people use GTD. Surely the idea of keeping track of stuff and reviewing it from time to time is a pretty good one. But do you have to have the fervor of Allen's more than 1.1 million Twitter followers—growing at the rate of more than 4,000 fans a day—to make that happen?

To answer that question I decided to get in touch with Leo Babauta, who writes on productivity from Guam. His blog, Zen Habits, has 137,500 subscribers. Leo—he just doesn't seem like Mr. Babauta—has tons of followers on Twitter, too, though not nearly as many as Allen. (This is not a contest, guys!) Once a big fan of GTD, Leo decided it was too complicated and created his own version, Zen to Done. In his e-book on the subject he complains that GTD "focuses more on the capturing and processing stages than it does on the actual doing stage."

Getting to Leo was a lot harder than reaching Allen. While GTD counsels processing e-mail in-boxes to zero, Leo had decided to throw his overboard. In a July blog post he announced that henceforth Twitter would be his "main form" of communication.

I didn't like the idea of contacting Leo with a public Twitter post. After a bit of hunting, I finally found his e-mail address and zipped a message off. An "autoresponder" replied with a six-step process for scheduling a phoner. One involved entering the e-mail address for Leo's Google calendar into a "guests" field in Outlook. The address had a stew of 26 letters and numbers before the @.

This may save a lot of time for Leo, but it had just soaked up more than half an hour of mine. I dashed off a polite but whiny response saying I was having none of it. By then it was approaching 1 a.m., and Charlie the puppy was pulling at my pant leg to remind me I was late for his nightly 12:30 a.m. game of fetch.

TAKING BABY STEPSSeveral days later, Leo and I finally touched base the old-fashioned way—by phone. He was sympathetic about my guilty conscience on the weekly review front and said he had felt much the same way. "As great a system as it is," he said, "there is just too much overhead—reviewing, collecting, planning." His theory is that habits are only formed "one little baby step at a time." He reported that since publishing Zen to Done in late 2007, he'd traveled farther along the road to simplicity, and he shared his current secret for productivity success.

He keeps a text file on his computer. Anytime he needs to do something, he just pops it onto the list. It's all part of his quest for minimalism, laid out in The Power of Less, published in January. "Basically I have a new philosophy of just following my passion," he says. "I do things that I'm excited about. I know it sounds New Agey."

A text file. That sounded remarkably like the simple "to do" list I'd always kept in a notebook. That's the list that got me into trouble in the first place. As my personal and professional lives grew more complex, it was never quite enough. I suspect I'm as passionate about my work as Leo is about his. But sometimes I have to do things I'm really not all that excited about.

Oddly, or maybe not so oddly, Leo and Allen agreed that I wasn't actually doing so badly with GTD. Leo suggested I celebrate the successes I'd had with it. Allen, after listening to me describe how I was using GTD, called it "a pretty good stick rate." It takes about two years for GTD to become second nature, he said, adding that he hoped our conversation would spur me to give the weekly review a shot.

So maybe I'll crack open David Allen Co.'s three-CD set on weekly reviews that has been gathering dust in my living room for the past six months. Or check out the "tweekly review" seminar that a David Allen coach recently tweeted on Twitter. I might even buy one of the "mind like water" T-shirts now 25% off on the official GTD site. "If you do enough weekly reviews," Allen says, "you can't stand not doing them."

We'll see.

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