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A GTD-er's perspective on Mission Control's "Productivity and Accomplishment" workshop

I had the privilege of attending the two-day Mission Control workshop on Productivity & Accomplishment, which was facilitated by Rosemary Meehan Tator, who did a fantastic job. I met Rosemary via one of the davidco GTD forum members when perusing the thread Bridging GTD with other works outside of Franklin-Covey. In this post I'll share what the workshop was like, and analyze some of its strengths as compared with David Allen's Getting Things Done methodology, which I've been practicing for about a year (!)

Note: I was very pleased to attend this workshop for a number of reasons. First, as a self-taught student of personal productivity (I say I'm creating my own a "Master's Degree" in it), I really enjoy learning these systems, and looking for common aspects and great ideas, esp. ones I can apply to my own life. Second, I'm exploring a second career and I'm trusting that becoming an expert in the field ("owning" your subject, as Ethan puts it in Knocking Down Walls: GTD Ownership vs Orthodoxy) will make me valuable to potential employers/partners. Third, I'd love to synthesize something new from these aspects, and I'm hoping that pouring these ideas in will keep me going! And finally, Watching Rosemary in action was great modeling for developing my own presentation skills and style.

The workshop

The workshop was held over two days, and (surprisingly to me) spent about 2/3 of that time on concepts (not tools or practices). I had some personal resistance to this (more below), but at the end I think the balance made sense. As Eric Mack puts it in Methodology + Technology = Productivity, tools without a method are useless (or worse).

Some of the topics covered included:
  • Habits (existing ones don't serve us these days);
  • Communication/work (the workplace has changed);
  • Getting your hands around all of your commitments;
  • Incompletes (cause stress, must be managed);
  • Purpose (what drives each action);
  • Time (only way to get something done is at a specific time in our future);
  • Creating attractive actions, and looking at them as accomplishments;
  • Having a capture tool (similar to GTD);
  • Setting up your personal system;
  • Calendar-centric scheduling (putting everything you're really committed to doing on your calendar);
  • "Not doing" lists (things you're not willing to commit to, but don't want to put back into mind - go way beyond GTD);
  • Managing supporting information (similar to GTD's general reference system); and
  • Email and Meeting practices.

As you can see, a lot was covered. The facilitators were extremely respectful, knowledgeable, and passionate (and likable), and strongly supported questions (and questioning). The organizers also made an effort to address varied learning styles, with well over a dozen exercises, experiences, and discussions to help cement the ideas.

That said, there were hundreds of PowerPoint slides, and a good bit of sitting and listening while people read to us. Also, some of the language (which I found strangely ceremonious) got in my way, at least at the beginning. However, overall I thought the format definitely got the ideas across.

Finally, my fellow participants (there were eight of us) were intelligent, honest, willing to learn, and full of wisdom. A hell of a bunch! I don't know where Rosemary got us all...

Some concepts in common with GTD

Again, some of the fundamentals will be familiar to GTD-ers. Here are some that came to mind:
  • Our minds are occupied by commitments (to selves or others) we've made.
  • Getting all commitments out of our heads frees up focus, creativity, and energy.
  • We must have a grip on 100% of our commitments, or our minds will be distracted.
  • We need systems to help with managing all this, and tools to implement the methods.
  • We must regularly capture commitments and ideas that come to us, and transform them into "work," i.e., put them into our systems.
  • Regularly reviewing our choices allows us to work on what's important in the moment.
  • Regularly emptying stuff that comes into our lives is crucial to minimizing distraction.
  • In our modern world we can't do it all; we have to make choices.
  • Modern "work" is hard due to changes in the amount of information entering our lives, and old systems/ideas don't scale.
  • It is difficult to adopt a new system, even if helpful (habits fight it).
  • It works best to get control of the mundane day-to-day aspects of life (actions and projects) before tackling the higher-level ones (goals, purpose). -- updated
Great stuff! And I hope you get a flavor for the overlap with Allen's work.

Mission Control strengths

That said, there are some major differences between the two, with one of the biggest being Mission Control has you schedule every single action that you're ready to commit to in your calendar on a specific date and time. This differs from GTD, in which you schedule only those things that must happen on a specific day or time. In a way this is a philosophical difference, and it's been discussed quite a bit on the davidco forums (see below), but I can certainly see the advantages. For example, it's not uncommon for GTD practitioners to have actions that slip by. With Mission Control I think that's much less likely. Also, I suspect it's harder to procrastinate when you're staring at an item in your calendar.

Another big difference is the way Mission Control looks at time (as a sequence of "Nows"), and that a thing you care about doing can only take place at a certain day and time. GTD agrees, but leaves it up to you to dynamically decide which to do in the moment (possibly simplified by "context"). To that end, they have you phrase everything in future tense, so that life looks like a series of accomplishments. Neat!

Finally, I believe Mission Control better ties in the purpose for doing things (you actually try to say why in your action), which they claim makes them more compelling. I think this is one area that GTD doesn't address strongly (I talk about it a bit in It's not about productivity...), and can lead to the feeling of "having" to do actions, rather than being drawn to do them.

Here are a few more Mission Control strengths I noticed:
  • Directly addresses interruptions & distractions;
  • Strong support for effective meetings - guidelines, integrating w/schedule;
  • Teases apart the notion of incompletions in much more detail;
  • Talks a lot about habits and how they resist change;
  • Breaks "completion" down into more specific types, rather than GTD's 'next actions' and 'someday/maybe';
  • Fixes the disconnect of agenda items and action: you only have agendas if they're connected to a scheduled meeting;
  • It is natural to put all activities in the calendar, e.g., daily routines, morning prep, exercise, maintenance of system itself (!), etc. This completeness appeals to the geek in me.
  • Related to above: Makes it natural to schedule time for interruptions, and for checking email, RSS feeds, etc. This is big!

GTD's relative strengths

To be fair, GTD has its share of pluses and minuses relative to Mission Control. Here are a few strengths I've noticed:
  • Relatively simple: e.g., no scheduling, two categories of action (next actions & Someday/Maybe);
  • "Open" idea - book available, free support groups, lots of free articles;
  • Very large and supportive user community (thanks folks!);
  • Wide range of implementation tools (from paper through digital);
  • Strong handling of WorkFlow concepts, "stuff" definition, and the five phases;
  • Simpler (and more fun!?) general reference filing system;
  • Very strong processing and organizing thinking (i.e., details on emptying the inbox, and deciding next actions)
  • Simple but powerful view of "projects." (NB: I believe Mission Control has a corresponding perspective, but unfortunately we didn't cover it in the workshop.) -- updated

Let me also list some of GTD's challenges, which I suspect Mission Control might address:
  • Lack of commitment to next actions - some slip through or aren't compelling (see for example "Stale" NAs or Cleaning out the Proverbial Fridge);
  • Difficult with recurring tasks, and the "drip drip" method - e.g., scholarly writing;
  • Making progress on difficult/unpleasant tasks (procrastination) and distraction (e.g., web surfing and habitual RSS reading);
  • Squandering the day (see for example Killing Time-Wasting Impulsive Pleasures);
  • Getting good at estimating, which can hamper planning;
Again, these are my take on GTD; YYMV.

Conclusion & Next steps

In conclusion, I was really glad to learn about Mission Control. It offers a different perspective from GTD on managing ourselves, one that has a lot of merits. I hope I've presented their work fairly and positively! Thanks go to Rosemary, Mary, Alesia, and my fellow students.

Of course the real test is to try it myself, and I'm going to commit to integrating the two. I'm not yet willing to drop my paper calendar, but I think there's a relatively straightforward method: Schedule every one of my next actions. I'm definitely hesitant to do so, but I'll give it a shot, partly because I've experienced some of the minuses listed above, and Mission Control has some compelling answers. More later!

As always, questions and comments are quite welcome.

Learning more

I'm told there are free webinars available through Microsoft. From Frank Buck's comment: Go to Microsoft Events Home and type "Mission Control" in the "keyword" field.

Here are a few other resources:
Related threads on davidco's GTD forum

Here are a few of the davidco GTD forum threads that talk about Mission Control:
  • Steve Hultquist has a great summary in Mission Control and GTD:
    Both recognize the fundamental truth that you can't get everything done (shown by the use of "someday/maybe" in GTD and "Not doing now/Never doing now" in Mission Control). In MC, this is the foundational idea, while it sits in the background for GTD.

    They both rely on the concept of "why would I do this", although, again, it's a bit more up-front with MC. In MC, the description of activities (Next Actions in GTD) are written in past tense describing the outcome purpose for the activities (Projects in GTD).

    Both GTD and MC focus a lot on capture, although I found that GTD was a bit more rigorous in making sure that the brain dump happened and everything was put into the system. This was discussed with MC, but wasn't as critical (from my perspective). MC uses the concept of "now" a bit differently, as in "there is a now when I will be doing this activity". So, in order for the activity to get done, I need to define the "now" in which it will get done, which turns out to be a slot on the calendar at some time. I didn't find this practicable. I find the GTD approach of prioritization in the moment to be far more appropriate for the way my life tends to flow.
  • Frank Buck says:
    In a nutshell, my interpretation is that you have a list of stuff you are "Not Doing Now" and a list of "Never Doing Now." My take is "Never Doing Now" is "Someday/Maybe" and that you look at the "Not Doing Now" list to pick things to put on your calendar. The big philosophy difference is that everything is put on the calendar. The way things are put on the calendar, is that you block of time slots for certain activities (such as checking e-mail). I just don't see it as handling the details.

    Also, I called them one day to ask for a description of the model. Whereas you go to David Allen's website and you get a great deal of the methodology up front for free, these folks were pretty secretive. For example, when I asked what the "Not Doing Now" and "Never Doing Now" was all about, I couldn't even get a description of them.
  • chinarut has a brief comparative analysis, including thoughts on community, resources, references, origins, online support, engagements, accessibility, and distinctions.

Reader Comments (15)

Matt - Thanks for the write up! I hadn't heard of Mission Control before I read this. It sounds interesting.

I wish they had more materials available. The 1.5 day seminar near me is $599 (plus the two vacation days I would have to take to attend it).The online courses are $299 and I would need to take more than one to get the total picture so one might as well attend a live seminar.

I think that they could learn from DavidCo and Franklin-Covey that if they would give people more information they would get more people to their seminars because they had whet their appetites.

So, in your opinion, is it worth the cost? What type of person would really benefit from this over the GTD methodologies?

July 6, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterRicky Spears

Hi Ricky. I'm glad the post was of use to you.

I wish they had more materials available. Yes, that's one of their "challenges" - more closed than GTD.

The 1.5 day seminar near me is $599 (plus the two vacation days I would have to take to attend it). I agree re: taking the live seminar over the online one - being able to ask questions real-time was crucial for me.

Regarding the cost, is it possible for you to get your work (if you aren't self-employed) to pay for it? Maybe either the fee, your time to take it, or some combination.

I think that they could learn from DavidCo and Franklin-Covey ... give people more information ... whet their appetites. Agreed.

So, in your opinion, is it worth the cost? I can't say for others; I think it depends on the person, and whether she has a working system. For me it was quite worth it, but I'm in a strange category. One thing that could be helpful: Rosemary (the facilitator) generously spent some time with me before the seminar answer my questions. You might try contacting the person putting on the one in your area.

What type of person would really benefit from this over the GTD methodologies? Great question, and I'm still integrating an answer for myself. Again, if GTD is working for you (and it's been great for me) I'd save your money. But the Mission Control workshop has smaller classes (as opposed to the RoadMap), and is much more hands-on. I believe with davidco you have to hire them specially for your company - they don't do small regular seminars, IIRC.

Thanks for reading!

July 6, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

This is probably your best post ever.

I was wondering on Monday and again yesterday why your weekly delivery was late, but I now understand why.

I am preparing a post of my own on some of the crucial issues you have written about.

July 8, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterPascal Venier

Hey Pascal, thanks very much for your kinds words - I really appreciate it! I was also interested to hear that you noticed the delay - it was exactly as you surmised.

I'm looking forward to reading your comments on your [ blog | http://venier.blogspot.com/ ].

July 8, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

just saw your [ reply | http://www.davidco.com/forum/showthread.php?p=38579#post38579 ] on the GTD forums and wow! this is a very intense and jam-packed post! thanks for the cross-reference - it was good to read the original analysis in retrospect and look forward to putting the puzzle pieces together and helping you create what sounds like a holistic coaching practice!

are you considering breaking apart the different concepts in your post and organizing them in a wiki of some sort by chance?

July 10, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterChinarut

Thanks for the encouragement, Chinarut.

> are you considering breaking apart the different concepts in your post and
> organizing them in a wiki of some sort by chance?

Hmmm. Not at this time, no. Of course I'd be glad to work with anyone who is so inclined.

Right now I want to integrate the ideas, possibly moving to an open source "GTD 2.0".

Thanks for reading!

July 10, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

> moving to an open source "GTD 2.0"

whoa - we need to talk my friend! I want to follow up on our conversation around [ IT Redux | http://www.itredux.com ]. Quite a few possibilities here. let's look out for each other on Skype.

I just got a RSS reader back up and putting you in my blog roll.

I want to track this thread - do you use s/w to track blog entry threads?

I am trying [ coComment | http://www.cocomment.com/comments/Chin ] but it's just okay...not as integrated as I'd like...

July 14, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterchinarut

Hey Chinarut - let's talk next week when I'm feeling better. I'd love to discuss everything you mention.

I'm sorry about the lack of comment tracking support on blogger. Any suggestions are welcome.

And thanks for adding me to your blogroll - it's an honor.

July 14, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

you bring up a really good point - how different paradigms and methodologies deal with communication - esp in the face of a rapidly evolving infrastructure! (as ack by "the workplace has changed")

be to hear you comment on how you envision various communication technologies coming together esp amongst new world folks clearly pushing against email.

I agree, only along the lines that our "method" of using email is to be reinvented. Leave this as an inquiry...

July 15, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterChinarut

so you are successfully scheduling time for reading email and RSS feeds?

July 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDancin Forever

Hi Dancin Forever: I confess I have not start scheduling blocks yet. My two excuses are 1) I was under medical care, and 2) I'm was planning on waiting until I did some research into scheduling best practices. (I have a dozen books ready to be read.) In other words, I have no excuse!

Thanks for reading - I'll do a post on it soon.

July 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Excellent post! I'm always delighted by how lifehackers take the time to share information and ideas.

December 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

Thanks, Jennifer.

December 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

FYI There's a related discussion over at the The Omni Group Forums: [ anyone out there done Mission Control? | http://forums.omnigroup.com/showthread.php?p=39516#post39516 ] (that links to my reply).

July 7, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

(Here's the body for reference.)

Hi Folks,

I wrote the article brianogilvie linked to comparing Mission Control and GTD (thanks!), and I wanted to chime in on the discussion.

> whether you think the courses are worth the US $150-300 that the online courses cost?

I'd ask what's currently holding you back in your practice that makes you want to take some training. Have you been practicing GTD? What parts aren't working well for you? What have you tried to fix them? (If you have specific questions, please email me at info@matthewcornell.org so I don't miss them here.)

> whether there is a limit to one's ability to process your context lists on the fly and only schedule day-specific next actions

I definitely think there's a limit. In fact, I identified that as one of the [ 10 GTD holes | http://matthewcornell.org/2008/04/10-gtd-holes-and-how-plug-them.html%5C ].

After some further study and self-experimentation I'm now teaching all clients a daily planning variation that's compatible with GTD and the like. This gets around the problem (and overwhelm) of looking through long action lists multiple times throughout the day. I find it's a nice tool for making solid progress, and helps gain a bit of the perspective David Allen is shooting for with his idea of a weekly review.

More here if you're interested: [ A Daily Planning Experiment: Two Weeks Of Accountable Rigorous Action | http://matthewcornell.org/2008/05/a-daily-planning-experiment-two-weeks-accountable-rigorous-action.html ].

> schedule specific time to clear out those sets of actions that I discover I've avoided during weekly review

I think this is a terrific idea. Julie Morgenstern calls these "Time Maps," and they're a good practice. My clients use them for making time for types of activities like planning, reading, and MBWA ( e.g., [ here | http://www.nenh.com/articles/20040908-03.html ] ).

> I can vouch for the language of "accomplishment"

For me this *really* got in the way of adopting the work. It had a strong cultish flavor to it (again, this is my reaction to it) which I'm told comes from its Landmark Forum connections. Bugged the hell out of me, though the facilitators thought that was fine - good, in fact. Language *is* important, though...

> schedule every single action

Since my writing, I've not gone all the way and tried this extreme step. Up until this step, MC and GTD have a very high degree of overlap. As mentioned above, they diverge here - MC says schedule it all, and GTD says keep the list. My daily list approach is a compromise that works for me.

Hope that helps!

(Sidebar: I *tried* to adopt OF - really hard, in fact. But I simply couldn't wrap my head around it. Yes, I gave it time, but it wasn't a good mental fit. This is ironic since I teach this stuff. Very cool tool, though. I have clients who are really productivity with it.)

July 7, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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