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Monday
Feb202006

Why every problem should be a GTD project

David Allen is quoted many places [1] as saying in his GTD | The RoadMap seminar:
Anything that's a "problem" is a "project."
When I first heard this in Boston in late September my thought was "sure - makes sense" and that was about it. However, like much of what's behind GTD, it's simple but deep. In this case, I've found that creating a "full" GTD project for every single problem is a great idea, even if the problem seems to require just one step to solve, because the problem often becomes more complex, presents surprises, or needs to be tracked (i.e., doesn't go away the first time).

Here's a typical example (this seems to come up with billing errors in particular): I was recently charged for an optical exam that should have been covered by my insurance company [2]. Here are the steps:
  1. Bill goes into paper collection point [3].
  2. Process - What is it?
  3. A bill for something that should have been covered. Ugh!
  4. Add to @Calls: "Health Services re: glasses bill - 545-0111" [4]
  5. Later, when time: Make the call, talk to (very helpful) person - promises all straightened out. Great!
  6. Toss bill in recycling bin.
Oops.

Here's the problem: I naively assumed the problem was really taken care of. But guess what? Three weeks later, return to step 1. However, I don't have the original bill, I don't have the person's name I talked to, and I don't have a file that should contain all of this. So now, because I didn't do the basics, my stress level is higher than it should have been!

So now I've learned my lesson: I now use any problem as a trigger to create a project - I make an entry in my project list [5], create a folder with my labeler [6], and file any related paper work in it. Just. In. Case.

One question that comes up is: Doesn't this approach create a bunch of needless files? Well, I think it's better to have the files around in case I need them, than the alternative. I've created plenty of space in my office for filing (as Allen recommends) [7], so it's not a problem. And removing them in the yearly purge (it's on my checklist) is not a problem.

So is it a problem? Make it a project!


References
  • [1] See, for example: buzznovation: GTD...the Road Map...San Jose and From the Belly of the Beasts: Getting Things Done: the Roadmap.
  • [2] Note that I realize actually having insurance puts me in a certain class, which does not make me happy (see this Center on Budget and Policy Priorities story if you're interested). In other words, having an insurance problem is a privilege.
  • [3] There's a photo of my office setup here, for the morbidly curious
  • [4] I always try to write the phone number on my @Calls list. Plus, I stopped writing "Call ..." because they're all calls...
  • [5] I'm now using Post-It notes for GTD projects, instead of lists.
  • [6] Please, use the LetraTAG QX50 instead of Brother models, which waste a ton of tape. Also, the tape is of the expensive laminated variety. The Dymo, on the other hand, uses economical paper tape, doesn't waste, and runs forever on its batteries. I bring this up because I had a client who bought a Brother and was very upset about it. I now carry some extras with me just in case they're not available locally. (Note: You can sometimes get them from TigerDirect for about $10.)
  • [7] Instead of buying cheapo filing cabinets from the big box office supply store, we go to an awesome local used office furniture store, which has a ton of inexpensive, but very high quality, filing cabinets. Our two-drawer cabinets are usually $300-400, but we got them for ~$50 each. They really work smoothly, and have have plenty of capacity. Plus, you never know what you'll find in them!
  • Ramit's story I Will Teach You To Be Rich: Sprint tries to rip Ramit off? Oh my provides another example of why it's important to keep good problem records.
  • In my article Some GTD warning signs I mention problems not being projects as a warning sign.
  • For a great resource on problem-solving techniques, check out this MindTools article. (It's a great site overall, I've found.)
  • In her book Free to Succeed: Designing the Life You Want in the New Free Agent Economy Barbara Reinhold encourages us to "Find the opportunity in the problem." In my case, I tried to get to know my eye care provider's office manager a little better, part of my effort to connect with three new people a week. (More in my article A geek "gets" networking: The strange magic of connecting with others.)
  • The article Five Whys describes the motivation for asking "Why?" at least five times:
    When you are faced with a problem it is useful to stop and ask why five times. ... The aim is to ensure that a problem stays solved and never happens again. We do this by identifying and eliminating the root cause of the problem. When the root cause is eliminated the original problem is solved permanently. If the root cause is not dealt with the problem can happen again and again in the future.

  • In his book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnegie identifies some basic techniques in analyzing worry, which apply well to problem solving:
    1. Get all the facts.
    2. Weigh all the facts - then come to a decision.
    3. Once a decision is reached, act!
    4. Write out and answer the following questions:
      1. What is the problem?
      2. What are the causes of the problem?
      3. What are the possible solutions?
      4. What is the best possible solution?

Reader Comments (11)

Matt - In this same situation, I would do things only slightly different.

Instead of tossing the bill, I would write on it who I spoke to, when, and what the promised outcome would be. Instead of creating a project folder for the paper, I would probably stick it in my tickler file to show up in a month with a post-it note on it saying, "Confirm that this has been handled. If it hasn't then plan for follow-up. If it has then shred."

The more I use my tickler, the more I love it!

February 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterRicky Spears

A very interesting practical example.

In the same situation, at the sixth stage, I would probably have simply filed the letter in the folder I would have previously created for the insurance company and made a note of the issue in the "waiting for" category on my mind map to be able to track it.

February 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterPascal Venier

I also find that creating a project often helps focus my attention about something I otherwise might get stressed about. When something at work crosses my desk, I don't always immediately know whether it will be a one step next action or a month-long project. The actual act of creating a project and deciding the next action will truly focus my attention and let the system handle the worrying for me. Sometimes I end up with one more project in an already full projects list and filing cabinet, but I'd rather buy another filing cabinet than go back to the bad old days when I wasted 10% of my day due to the stress of juggling all the requests I get in a day.

February 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterRusty Haskell

Ricky and Pascal - Thanks very much for the great alternatives! Shows not only the flexibility of GTD, but how much my readers know.

February 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Rusty - I am totally with you. The stress reduction is a major plus for me as well. Thanks for the insight.

February 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

That's interesting, Matt. I think I'll start putting all my social and emotional problem as projects. I never used to do that before and they are definitely more 'problem'atic than my other projects.

February 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJetru

Thanks for the social/emotional angle, Jetru.

February 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

[quote]When I first heard this in Boston in late September my thought was "sure - makes sense" and that was about it. However, like much of what's behind GTD, it's simple but deep. In this case, I've found that creating a "full" GTD project for every single problem is a great idea, even if the problem seems to require just one step to solve, because the problem often becomes more complex, presents surprises, or needs to be tracked (i.e., doesn't go away the first time). [/quote]

Matt,

This is great...I did, several years ago, learn to take this one step further.

Anything I want to "learn" gets objectified, and listed as a project. Also, I put on that projects list EXACTLY what I want.

I'll give you two examples:
- Identify VO2 max and implement a training program to account for it
- Place in Ojai 5K

Now, the first one will take a bit longer (the appt. is in March), but I'll focus on it every week, at least once a week, until I feel confident in taking it "off the list."

And, well, the race was last Saturday...and...
http://jasonwomack.typepad.com/working_outwhile_youre_ou/2006/02/my_last_race.html#more

February 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJasonWomack

Thanks, Jason. I like how you generalize it and make it concrete, which encourages making regular progress on it.

February 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hey, Joe - thanks a ton for the great comments! Some quick responses:

> When you create your PowerPoint slides that is often the first time
> you actually think about your project.

Great timing - this is a topic I'm about to blog about, in my case it's "if you really want to learn about something ... teach it!". I'd like to know more about Rich Gold, but I couldn't much of his writings online.

> I'm on the verge of yet another self reinvention, so the time may be
> ripe.

You've used the phrase I like so much in this work - Reinventing myself.

Thanks for the quote from the Casteneda book - I'm very interested in the role my perspective plays in living gracefully, specifically with respect to challenges. Again, perfect timing...

> via Lisa Haneberg ...

I like her writing as well, though I haven't had the pleasure of connecting yet. I'll definitely check out FastCompany's Company of Friends

Thanks again!

February 25, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell
[old comment that didn't import]

[Joe McCarthy]

Great post!

I recently read GTD, having read about it on http://www.43folders.com/2004/09/08/getting-started-with-getting-things-done/ , but haven't implemented it yet. I'm on the verge of yet another self reinvention, so the time may be ripe.

Your notes reminded me of a few quotes I wanted to share.

> When you create your PowerPoint slides that is often the first time you actually think about your project.

http://richgoldmemorial.onomy.com/, one of the most creative men I ever met, started out one of his talks this way. I think this maps on to GTD insofar as you only really start thinking about your project once you write /something/ down about it.

Another riff I want to take off this is a quote from [ http://www.swami-center.org/en/text/Juan_Matus.html | Don Juan] in [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carlos_Castaneda 's book [Tales of Power | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0671732528/ref=ase_gumption-20 ], in which there are no problems, only challenges (another way of framing projects):

/Only as a [spiritual] warrior can one withstand the path of knowledge. A warrior cannot complain or regret anything. His life is an endless challenge and challenges cannot possibly be good or bad. Challenges are simply challenges. The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or a curse.

Anyhow, it's great to reconnect with you throught the blogosphere -- saw a note from you on http://www.lisahaneberg.com/ about [ http://managementcraft.typepad.com/2weeks2abreakthrough/2006/01/do_you_really_h.html | Do you really hear what you take in?] (which I in turn visited due to her post about an upcoming event on [ http://www.goalfree.com/ | Goal Free Living] and wondered whether the comment was from the same Matt Cornell I went to UMass with.

I wish you all the best in your own reinvention, and your networking goals. I've found the blogosphere to be an amazingly rich source of meeting -- and/or reconnecting with -- great people!
October 10, 2010 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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