A Review of David Allen’s Productivity Bible, ‘Getting Things Done’
We were 40 minutes into leaving the house, still a choreography of chaos, when my son said, “Mommy, they’re too tight.” I vaguely remembered a we-need-new-boots-discussion with both kids. That was 3 weeks ago. My tired brain, trying to lighten the load, threw that thought overboard.
The mental load is my constant companion. So, tasks spill onto the floor in unfortunate ways at inopportune times. Like when trying to get two kids in 6 layers of clothes out to sled before dark. Even before the boot incident, I knew I needed a systems upgrade. My new job, holiday madness and scheduling weeks of ceiling leak repairs, pushed things to a new low. I decided to consult David Allen’s tomb, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.
In Most Families Mom Carries the ‘Mental Load’
We’re stressed from the invisible-never-ending planning for our families. However, before you get too excited about this book review, let me be clear, there’s no simple solution to mental load overwhelm. It comes from having too much to do. Reducing it requires a combination of outsourcing, spouse-sourcing and eliminating commitments by setting boundaries.
Once you’ve chosen priorities then processes to manage them become helpful. At its core, Getting Things Done, is a system to reduce the mental load, also known as cognitive load, which is not unique to Moms. However, because we plan everything-childcare-and-household in most families, our needs differ. The book is a guide on how to take inventory, rethink commitments and ultimately, restore self-trust. Allen states in the book, “…uncompleted tasks take up room in the mind that limits clarity and focus.” Yes. Exactly.
If you’re willing to invest significant time upfront in routines that streamline things later, it’s worth reading. I found part one, that outlines the big picture, a much faster read than part two, a deep dive on implementation. Armed with file folders, a label maker and newly organized home-office (aka dining room table) I got to work.
Here are 3 helpful takeaways from the book:
1. Take Inventory of EVERYTHING on Your List. Yes, Everything!
Allen said, “…Your mind is designed to have ideas based on pattern detection, but it isn’t designed to remember much of anything.” The value of an “external mind” (i.e. notebook, computer, project list) cannot be overstated. To learn our brains are not a reliable place, for the 57 things we commit to, was freeing. Allen recommends 2 full days to capture everything. And yes, it takes that much time. If your kids are young, I’d suggest doing it when you have childcare. He said people express a range of emotions after completing this exercise including, “Overwhelm, panic, frustration, fatigue and disgust,” sometimes followed by self-flagellation, “I could have, should have or ought to have done this before now.” This, Allen asserts, is the beginning of healing.
Viewing the book through the Mom-lens, there are variations to routine activities (i.e. pack snow pants for school on cold days) or unpredictable U-turns (i.e. nanny is running late) I’ve found daunting to capture. Just a list of what needs to happen when I’m away on a work trip is like writing a novella! I suspect even the most seasoned Getting-Things-Done-Mom-devotee cannot capture the dynamic nature of everything. David Allen, however, recommends checklists as one way to address repeated actions in the book.
2. Use Brilliant Shortcuts
Even if you don’t follow the full system, there are many transformative quick tips. My favorite is the “2-minute rule.” Basically, when something you need to do pops into your mind, instead of documenting it, just do it immediately if it takes less than 2 minutes. There are so many mini-tasks I’ve spent more time organizing or obsessing over, than just doing.
Another helpful tip is moving from a cryptic ‘to-do list’ entry to a descriptive ‘next action.’ So instead of writing ‘date night sitter,’ upgrade to, ‘call Amanda about babysitting on January 23.’ This saves your brain unnecessary processing time when your energy is low to get something off the task list. In the book Allen states, “Completion is not required to alleviate that burden on the psyche. The next action is a sufficient end result of planning if it’s parked in a place we trust.” Awesome!
3. Restore Trust With Yourself
Disappointing ourselves is worse than disappointing others and it’s often the source of internal tension. Allen said, “The price paid for breaking an agreement in the world is the disintegration of trust in the relationship. But what are all those things in your in-tray? Agreements you’ve made or at least implicitly accepted, with yourself. Your negative feelings… are the symptoms of disintegrated self-trust.” Yep. Simple but profound. Allen goes on to explain, “How do you prevent broken agreements with yourself? You have 3 options: don’t make the agreement, complete the agreement or renegotiate the agreement.”
Face The Motherhood Guilt Traps
Of course, this is where it gets tricky. They all involve the trifecta of Motherhood guilt traps: pleasing, perfectionism and productivity. Few Moms are completely comfortable setting boundaries. Or letting go of perfectionistic tendencies, a particularly stubborn part of how we’re socialized. Allen states, “You’d lighten up a lot if you just lowered your standards.” Ouch. Yes but achieving society’s standards, no matter how ridiculous, are entangled with our personal values and goals. Allen shared a perspective from one of his clients, “When I realized the price I was paying on the back end for not keeping those agreements, I became a lot more conscious of the ones I made.” Achieving this, although hard, would help resolve some friction at the heart of the Mom-identity crisis.
Give Your Mind a Rest
Getting Things Done is a philosophy and lifestyle. It’s endured in popularity for nearly 20 years so there are many techniques that spring from its principles. Allen states, “…it’s more than just a way to manage tasks and projects, it’s more concerned with fundamental issues of meaningful work, mindful living and psychological wellbeing.” Beautiful! The mental load, a huge source of stress, limits how we live, love and lead. If you want the motivation to reduce the grasp of cognitive load and step-by-step help with in-box management, you’ll enjoy this book.
If you’re a Mom who ‘GTD’s’ and have tips to share with us, please leave a comment!