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The joys of renegotiation

In his book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (AKA GTD), David Allen talks about broken agreements (between ourselves as well as with others) being the cause of many of our negative feelings, and provides advice about how to prevent them. He identifies three options:
  • Don't make the agreement.
  • Complete the agreement.
  • Renegotiate the agreement.
All of these can work to get rid of the unpleasant feelings.
Making my agreements explicit, and faithfully tracking them has made a huge improvement in my life. Here's an example: I'm currently having a slow time at work, and my motivation is terrible. For me this is a problem; when I'm motivated I'm a high performer, but take away the challenge or the creative urge and I'm in trouble [1].

So I decided to meet with my boss (an incredibly smart, motivated, and understanding person) to ask to renegotiate a number of projects that were weighing on me, with the thought of focusing on most important and/or most motivating. He resisted a bit, especially with one of his favorites, but quickly agreed, partly because he's very familiar with GTD (he introduced me to it) and knows they're not gone forever [2].

Let me tell you, I felt a lot lighter after the meeting. With those commitments temporarily off the table, much of my self-imposed stress about those projects is gone, leaving me to focus on the remaining tasks. And this is one aspect of GTD that I love - the how agile it is with respect to change. As Jason Womack says, "Shift Happens," and I need a system that's able to adapt with changes in myself (e.g., energy level, excitement) and in my external life (e.g., changes in job direction). Note that the latter is increasingly crucial in everyone's work, including research, where experimentation and discovery can (should?) lead to radical changes.

Do you have any commitments that need renegotiating?

  • [1]In his provocative Great hackers article, Paul Graham talks about Nasty Little Problems - those that offer no learning. He says:
    Along with good tools, hackers want interesting projects. What makes a project interesting? [...] any application can be interesting if it poses novel technical challenges. [...] The distinguishing feature of nasty little problems is that you don't learn anything from them. Writing a compiler [the first time] is interesting because it teaches you what a compiler is.
    This idea really resonated with me - I'm much better tackling problems that involve learning (learning == interesting) than I am at solving Nasty Little Problems.

  • [2]GTD has a Someday/Maybe list for projects that are "incubating." This list is checked during the weekly review, and it's brilliant - it gets them out of your head (and releases your mind from tracking them), but also ensures that they're not lost. I often move projects between this and my active projects list, depending on circumstances. See the "Someday Maybe" cloud (via the "Incubate" arrow) in the workflow chart.

Reader Comments (4)

"Shift Happens"
Yeah, I got that quote from Seth Godin...Sometimes it just fits the situation!


December 4, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterJasonWomack

Thanks for the reference, Jason. I love Godin's writing - I'll check it out. [ Survival Is Not Enough: Shift Happens | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0743221230/002-2579401-1442465?v=glance&n=283155 ]

December 4, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

This was an excellent post. I sometimes forget about the power of renegotiation. I have a colleague at work who's feeling overwhelmed by the number of tasks the boss is dropping on his desk. (I suspect the boss loses track of how much he delegates since he doesn't have to do it.)

I forwarded him a copy of this post and suggested he might try renegotiating some of his projects with the boss (who, unfortunately, doesn't entirely match the description you gave of yours). If nothing else, it'll highlight the volume of stuff that needs to be given priorities for completion.

Thanks for a great reminder!

December 5, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterDon

Thanks very much for the feedback, Don. It really made my weekend! I hope your colleague is able to get some relief.

December 5, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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