“Getting Things Done”: Why now?

Less than three months after the death of my mom (which inspired me to write a series of blog posts for everyone else to learn from what I went through in handling her estate), I received a promotion at work.  I went from being a technical person in IT, to being a manager.

For the first year or so on the job, things went well, despite a bunch of interesting challenges that arose at work.  But then a series of spectacularly bad things went wrong in my personal life (while still grieving the loss of my mom).  My wife (who is awesome) was affected as well, and while we’ve stayed together and supported each other as much as we could, each of us had different ways of coping, and each of us has needed to reach out to friends and family for additional support. It takes a village and all that.

The problem

As I lost sleep more and more often, and as more and more frequently I had to handle non-work calls during the day, or had to miss chunks of the day for meetings related to our personal troubles, my focus at work started to collapse.  I was reaching a point where, just being a human being trying to process what was going on (what my psychologist has flat out called trauma), I would sit at my desk and stare into space, or just mindlessly poke at the Internet, for chunks of time.

Okay, Shawn, you’re human, you have a nice job with a supportive organization, things happen.  Except I was losing track of things I was supposed to get done.  I was forgetting everything.  I was dropping balls.  Too often in meetings would I go “Oh, crap, yes, sorry, I’ll get that sorted, I’m sorry I dropped it.” Much too often.

Which meant I’d go home from work feeling miserable.  So I’d eat worse, and sleep less, and hate life more, so I’d focus less the next day …

I reached a breaking point only a few weeks ago, and had an epiphany while driving home from work.  I traced this misery back to its source: feeling out of control, because I didn’t know what the hell I was supposed to be doing.  And the solution came to me.

In just a few weeks, my mental state has profoundly transformed.  Every day since that epiphany, I have looked forward to getting to work, wanting to take on challenges and solve problems and get things done.  I feel 1,000% better about my job, my career, and myself.  So I want to share the method with you, in the hope that it will be of help.

The solution

Many of you have probably heard of, or maybe even perused, David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (first edition 2001; revised 2015).  Allen sets forth a comprehensive methodology for keeping track of things that need to be done (“open loops”, as he often calls them) in your life, both professional and personal, and for making sure they are managed effectively so you can think more clearly, with greatly reduced stress.

I first read the book in 2005 or so as it was becoming a bit faddish among nerds on the ‘net.  I implemented it in my life at that time, but honestly, I let it go after a few months, because I just didn’t see the value to it.  My life was a lot simpler then.  I wasn’t married.  The problems that have sucked so much of the life out of me in the last few years hadn’t arisen. Importantly, I wasn’t a manager, and was only responsible for my to-do list at work, not anyone else’s.  Now I’m responsible for eight talented IT professionals and their priorities and projects.  Now I need a comprehensive system that works.

So when I had that epiphany driving home from work that day, my brain very quickly went “You’ve seen an approach for this.  You’ve had basic experience with it. Do it. Now.

Subsequent posts in this series will dive into the system and how I’m making it work for me.  Bear with me.  The system is a whole lot of what might be called “formalized common sense”.  You don’t need any particular piece of software, or indeed a computer at all, though I will definitely say, for me, it helps a lot to be doing much of this electronically.  I’ll explain why as I go, but I’ll also talk about the paper-based alternatives that can work for you (and why they might be better for you).

Disclaimer: I have no connection with David Allen or any of his companies, except for having read his book and applied the methods he describes for getting my life organized.  My description of the methodology is my own and any mistakes are my own as well.