« Building a Personal Productivity practice from thin air: An update | Main | Personal productivity, IBMs (not the company), and NUTs: Some surprises about the brain »

Collection habit infection, routines, and the value of creating space

OK, I admit it: I've internalized the GTD collection habit, and it's spilled into other parts of my life. For example, when I move about the house or office, I find myself naturally keeping an eye out for something that doesn't belong. A dirty glass [1], dish, or piece of paper - it all gets automatically picked up and carried to the proper place [2]. If it requires a quick out-of-the-way trip to do this, so be it (a physical example of the two minute rule). My good friend and artist Matt Mitchell [3] calls this the "camping mentality" - getting your actions down to efficient routines, with minimal waste, so that you can set up and break down quickly.

Interestingly, I find that once I'm operating on this relatively automatic level, I'm more open to enjoying these simple activities more deeply, which makes sense - the work is amenable to being done a little at a time, and training myself to habitually do these means less time/brain power needs to be spent on them.

At a higher level, I think this all has to do with the concept of "creating space," a meta-idea that continues to crop up during much of my self-defined "Masters in Personal Productivity," and seems to be required to allow growth and change. Some examples:
  • Routines: As just described, routines make room for enjoyment, and for higher-level thinking [4].
  • Listening: By making conversational space, we get to hear the other person, and help our relationship with her deepen.
  • Clutter: I think it's hard for us to adopt new behaviors (especially around workflow) with reminders of old ones around. That's why I appreciate so much the value of starting out the GTD effort by clearing away old stuff [5] via collecting, processing, and organizing.
  • Assumptions: When we come into new situations (meeting a new person, taking on a new task) we are often encumbered with assumptions about how it will proceed. If we can let some of those assumptions go we can open ourselves to experiencing things differently, and possibly better.
  • Beliefs: I've found my beliefs often get in the way of hearing something that's different, or somebody whom I disagree with, which hampers communication and learning. The classic learning example is the "Zen master cup" story, such as found in Emptying Your Cup. Client myths around time management come under this topic too.
  • Productivity habits: Many people need a system like GTD in their lives, but aren't ready to let go of old habits to make room for new (and more effective) ones. However, making changes like these are very hard [6].
  • Body usage: In the Alexander Technique lessons I take, I'm learning to change how I perform some of the most basic activities humans do: sitting, standing, and walking. Because I've previously learned inefficient ways of doing these things, I've experienced pain (lower back, in my case), and re-learning how to do them in a more organized manner has resulted in tremendous improvements. However, this is really hard because to make space for new movement, I have to de-program old ones patterns, which go way back [7]. (Like GTD, it's not a silver bullet that can be done to me by someone else, which can make it a hard sell.)
How about you - any suggestions about how making space helps foster growth, or how to actually do it?

  • [1] You may find the article Waitress as Organizational Guru useful in this regard.
  • [2] This combines a number of habits from my post on What are the essential habits of GTD?, including APPROPRIATE_PLACEMENT, CONTROLLED_COLLECTION, and KEEPING_THINGS_CLEAR. Note: I'm still working on whittling the habits down.
  • [3] One of his current projects (in addition to portraiture) is his 100 Faces of war (the site is Flash-only).
  • [4] This reminds me of Time Management for System Administrators by Thomas Limoncelli, which encourages us to develop routines for things that occur regularly.
  • [5] David Allen defines "stuff" in (at least) two ways: 1) "anything you have allowed into your ... world that doesn't belong where it is, but for which you haven't yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step" and 2) as four categories of things that are OK being out in your workspace: Supplies, Reference material, Decoration, and Equipment.
  • [6] You might find the article James and James: SNAP Habit Training helpful in altering habits. Quick summary:
    1. S: Start Strong - Launch the new habit decisively.
    2. N: No exceptions - Never make an exception to the new habit.
    3. A: Act when prompted - Act "on every emotional prompting," i.e. whenever you want to act on the new habit, be sure to do so!
    4. P: Practice! - Do it every day. Exercise the new habit every day.

  • [7] Of course one advantage of being a beginner is that we come with built-in space. If we don't know how to do something (say, designing a workshop or coaching clients) we have less to unlearn. However, it can be scary, especially for adult learners used to being masters in one field, and switching to another!

Reader Comments (4)

Oh! You're doing the Alexander Technique! Maybe you could blog a bit more about it?

I've always been interested in that & the Feldenkrais method. I got turned on to it when a senior practitioner of my martial arts said it helps cut down the learning curve tremendously because it helps you learn how to use your body in an optimal way.

August 28, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAlvin

Hi Alvin. Alexander Technique & Feldenkrais: Yes, I've been studying AT for a year or so now, and it's helped a lot. I knew a Feldenkrais teacher when I was in massage school, but I didn't do much with it (I think we had a sample lesson or two).

I have some notes from a conversation I had with my AT teacher re: GTD and AT (she's attended my workshop, and read the book). I'll put them together for you.

Thanks for writing!

August 28, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I have also recently installed the habit of routinely moving things lying around back into their space as a collection habit. Before I was REALLY bad about letting stuff just accumulate wherever it fell out of my hands. And in addition I find that when I am overwhelmed by the enormity of some task like cleaning the garage or completing a project plan I begin by throwing things out to make a space for action as you suggest. Reading your stuff today reminded me of Japanese sword (kendo) approach in which when confronted by an adversary the combatant first takes a big step BACKWARD. This seems to be counter to their idea of always attacking but it allows the combatant to gather his wits and view the entire situation from a "distance" and then when he has seen the situation in its breadth, he makes an intuitive decision and moves forward to win in one stroke. Sometimes we need a space to begin our work in.

August 29, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterThomas A. ODonnell

Hi Thomas, thanks for writing - I love the kendo sword idea of backing up to take stock. Sometimes we need a space to begin our work in.: Exactly!

P.S. I read a review I believe you wrote on the book "Total Workday Control Using Microsoft Outlook". I'm definitely adding it to my list.

August 29, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.