I’ve always been one to obsess over the most efficient way to “get things done”. Literally – I read David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done when I was sixteen. It irrevocably changed how I approached my life, simultaneously calming my life, and introducing another level of chaos: am I doing enough? And am I doing it the right way?
Suddenly, everything that should (or could) be done was now an ‘open loop’, that needed recording in some way. I wrote everything down.
Next actions, project lists, someday/maybe lists. The weekly review.
I still do most of this now, particularly the weekly review. It’s often combined with the Bullet Journal or some flavour of the month gadget/productivity tip I’ve seen on reddit or Pinterest, or whatever.
Habit trackers, hydration trackers, book trackers.
The point of such systems is to create a structure, external to yourself, that you can trust completely.
And there’s the rub.
Like most things in life, productivity systems like GTD, Bullet Journal, Don’t Break the Chain, etc, are helpful systems.
It makes sense to write things down, because memories are notoriously unreliable. It makes sense to track habits, to give yourself a sense of accountability or keep a promise to yourself.
It makes sense to write down things you want to get done that day if they’re time sensitive.
I mean, isn’t that their appeal? Productivity systems just make sense: it’s a neat, quantifiable way to check you’re “on the right track”, and your life is “going well”.
However, if you are prone to taking things to extremes, perfectionism, or a sense that you need your life to be “just right” – as I am – such systems can trigger issues. As time has gone on, I’ve felt increasingly pressured by the very systems I made to help me out in life. It’s easy for the endless lists and goals and projects to become a stick to beat yourself with. Naturally, if you’re always focusing on what needs to be changed rather than appreciating what is going well, dissatisfaction is bound to occur.
Didn’t floss your teeth yesterday? Failure.
Didn’t achieve any of the goals you set yourself this month? Why do you even bother?
Made a spelling mistake in your journal/put the wrong date down? Oh boy…
Again, the issue is largely regarding the rigid, perfectionist approach I’ve taken with these methods – NOT the methods themselves. That’s a deeper issue than productivity itself. Any tool can be destructive if you use it in a destructive, harmful manner.
Even so, there’s another problem I began encountering… And that is a consistent feeling of What is this all for????
Why am I doing all these things? Why do I care about doing these actions or ticking these habits off my list? Why do I care about anything at all?
I believe this sort of thinking comes from my shift from Goals Based thinking to Values Based. In a nutshell, goals based tasks are dependent on achieving a certain outcome. I want to get to my target weight so I’ll do exercise. I want to be “good” at Mandarin so I’ll do some flashcards. I want to reduce my anxiety so I meditate.
Values based tasks, on the other hand, focus on why you want to do something, and how that helps you live life as the person you’d like to me.
To rephrase the above tasks from a VB perspective – maybe I exercise because I care about my body, or I want to have more energy and stamina to do other things I value. Maybe I practise Mandarin because I value learning things, just to learn, or so I can connect with family in that manner. Maybe I meditate because I value being mindful and checking in on my mental health.
Traditional productivity systems, I’m finding, neglect to truly acknowledge the why of an activity. You could write a blithe little inspirational comment next to your to do list if you wanted, but still: an unticked check box only represents that something was unfinished. It doesn’t take into account how values are a continual, minute to minute practice. You don’t just do it once and it’s over forever.
So what I’m wondering: is there a way to merge these two ideals?
I don’t know yet.
Until next time… where I will not have the answer, but might have stumbled a little further upon this personal journey of mine.