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Reader question: Getting personal productivity changes to stick?

(Note: I came down with a cold a few days ago, so please forgive this post's rambling nature.)

As I grow my personal productivity consultancy (via workshops and one-on-one services) I've had to get my head around an issue I'm sure all teachers face - answering the question "When have I done enough?" In my work it manifests because I'm teaching a coherent and integrated approach to workflow, not simply a bag of tips and tricks [1]. Trouble is, it's not a silver bullet, and significant changes around how we self-manage are hard to make (many of our habits go back very far).

Currently I use the model for change that worked for me, the revolutionary approach espoused by many books, including Getting Things Done. In this "one big push" process you collect everything in your workspaces (mental as well as physical) that's not "stuff," process it into your action management system, and end up with no backlogs. It's both exhausting and invigorating, very satisfying, and (here's the problem) doesn't work for everyone.

For this (admittedly simple) analysis, I'll group people trying to adopt such a method into two groups: Those who fail due to lack of commitment or other systemic problems outside my control, and those who fail because making a big change is hard. As a teacher, I mourn the former group but have to draw the line at teaching them the best I can, ensuring they understand the system, and supporting them until it sticks. But at some point, I have to say my job is done, independent of whether they've adopted it or not. This is difficult, because I want everyone to succeed. But I've come to realize it's healthy to acknowledge externally-imposed limits.

For the second group, I'd like to develop a way to get them into a new set of more productive behaviors and maintain them over the long term. Do you have any suggestions? The only clue I currently have is from One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, which advises using very small steps to (ultimately) make big progress. The author argues that, due to how our brains work, big steps don't usually work. (Note: Does this mean most people writing about GTD are in the minority?)

Using these ideas, I can envision a more gradual approach in which users systematically adopt pieces of the method over time, habitualizing each one before moving forward. A good starting point might be my GTD Workflow Assessment/Tips Checklist. I see two problems, though. First, everyone has different needs, so would a fixed program ("this week we'll work on the filing system") work well? (I address this in my two day "intensives" by customizing on the fly as the client and I work together.)

Second, I think systems like Allen's [2] take time for people to get their heads around, even if the individual elements aren't complex. This leads me to wonder whether a spiral approach is best (see Creating Passionate Users: Spiral learning for example). I guess the latter would still apply to a more gradual evolutionary approach, though.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

"Small Steps" References

Reader Comments (23)


Not many people seem to realise this, but a great deal of GTD is in fact regurgitated 1950's Japanese manufacturing wisdom: 5S, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/5S) which I'm sure you would have found in your Kaizen book.

On my wall at work I have 7 pieces of paper pinned next to my screen:
- an A4 2007 calendar
- the GTD workflow diagram
- the gmail shortcut keys
- a different version of the GTD workflow diagram
- the names of the 6 Thinking Hats
- My company's current development plan
- last but certainly not least: the 5S. (In japanese they start with 's')


Honestly, it was reading about 5S from a manufacturing perspective (I'm a mechanical design engineer) that led to the biggest changes in my professional behaviour - second only to reading GTD. My office is now as neat as a pin, I know where EVERYTHING is, I regularly make mess then tidy it away in moments, I have only one pen available on my desk (but it's a good one) etc etc.

So, long story short: yeah, you're on the right track. My advice is to go to the source. Go to the place where GTD came from. Read up on Stockless Production, Lean Manufacturing, Kaizens, 6 Sigma, 5S... all that Japanese stuff. It's pure gold.

The Japanese INVENTED productivity. There's a reason why Toyota can make twice as many cars with half as many employees in half the time as GM - and it's not because they work twice as many hours.


June 18, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterbrent

ok. so. sorry. To actually talk more to your actual question: I think you're right.

The main problem for western manufacturers to take on Lean Manufacturing ideas is that our factories are not set up like that. We simply don't have the plant laid out in the properly balanced way, we historically have produced to increase efficiency rather than reduce bottlenecks and increase throughput - ie large batches leading to huge inventory which costs money and ties up machine capacity, as opposed to the LM way of have small batches and ZERO inventory, which allows machines to be freed up. This means quick tool changeover, but western machines aren't DESIGNED for quick tool changes - what might take 6 hours in a western plant to change a tool ideally happens in CYCLE TIME (ie, the time it takes for a press to stroke: 3-5 seconds).

We're talking quantum leaps - LM to ordinary manufacturing is a different creature.

Longest story just a little bit shorter: they problem you talk about; how to introduce BIG changes in a world where you can't afford to burn it all down and start from scratch; this problem is the key.

I'm reading Stockless Production at the moment (dunno author, can find out) and this is the reason why so much LM concepts can be introduced one step at a time. Quality Circles, Just In Time, Pull-Systems, Quick Tool Change, Design for Manufacturing, Standardisation... all these concepts work BY THEMSELVES.

Each concept has its own reason and logic. Each one, by itself, increases productivity.

I would suggest that the reason to adopt GTD in pieces isn't so much for geeky cognitive reasons. Rather that, by itsself, a tickler file is a good thing to maintain. A next-actions list is a good thing to maintain. A weekly review WILL make you more productive. etc etc etc.

Sorry for the long reply. "I lack the time to make this brief."

June 18, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterbrent

Brent - Thanks so much for your great comments. The 5S work keeps coming up on my radar, so clearly there's something there. Any book recommendations?

And I like your thought on implementing parts of GTD - I don't know why I see problems doing it that way...

Thanks for reading!

June 18, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

This is gonna be a bit of pop-psychology.

Old habits are held by what NLP calls 'anchors' (Think Pavlov's dog). You can use NLP or other techniques (I recommend Sedona Method) to break them.


June 18, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Thanks for the pointers, Anonymous. I've heard of the Sedona Method from others, including Mark Forster ( see [ A conversation with Mark Forster | http://www.matthewcornell.org/blog/2006/11/conversation-with-mark-forster.html ] and [ The Sedona Method: Your Key to Lasting Happiness, Success, Peace and Emotional Well-Being | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0971933413?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0971933413 ] ).

June 18, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell


Brent points out the connection between Lean manufacturing and office efficiency, and in particular, he highlights the relevance of 5S.

In fact, Lean teachers take a step-by-step approach to implementation. They recognize that neither people nor companies can make the enormous leap from traditional ways of work to new, Lean methods. As a result, they introduce concepts in pieces -- and they always start with 5S. That's the foundation of everything.

The value of 5S isn't just the obvious benefit of having an organized space in which to work. It's the discipline of evaluating and processing all the inputs that workers get during the day (whether that's machine tools, budget spreadsheets, memos, or knocks on the door from a colleague). I've written about this point on my blog here: http://tinyurl.com/2k3b59.

So, can you teach productivity in bite-sized pieces? I vote "yes." Intuition tells me so, and precedent from the world of Lean manufacturing supports that belief as well.

June 18, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDan Markovitz


I think it was Kevin Wilde who mentioned this in his connect-interview.

You got the skimmers and the deep divers. I like to think of myself as a deep diver. But I have been a skimmer for some time.
it's a bit weird, the tickler file was the thing that got me hooked. It took me 3 versions before it worked, but it was the thing that was needed for me at the moment.

I also think there is nice parallel between GTD and kaizen, lean.
I have been teaching GTD at my former department : worksimplification and have discussed about the likes between GTD and worksimplification

A quick tool changeover in GTd is how fast can you refocus on something new/else.

Lately I'm thinking of TOC (Theroy of constraint- Goldrath) in teaching and practising GTD.

You got the workflow process. It is a chain. And it's strength is defined by the weakest link.
Look at it as 5 different machine one after the other. How do I get more throughput. By increasing the throughput of the weakest machine/link.

At this moment I'm trying to teach that in order to become better in GTD, you have to look for the area in which you can improve the most.

If it's in the collecting step : I'll try to find the leaks in their system.

But most of the time I have the experience that people can use help in claryfing and organisation.

What is needed to decide upfront what to do with stuff that enters your world.
And then looking for the next action - the real next action. Boy that seems to be difficult.

Just today I got a book I ordered a couple weeks a go. It's by Lisa Haneberg.( I liked focus like a leaserbeam a lot and benefitted from it) : Two weeks to a Breakthrough. Sounds interesting isn't it. Subtitle : How to zoom toward your goal in 14 days or less.

I'll be reading this comments frequently cause I could use help with this topic.


June 18, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJohan DHaeseleer

Personally, I like to get the big picture and the whole program then start. I can see real value in covering everything in your class and then having a takeaway that has an area of focus each week (or some time period) and specific assignments for the next minimum of a month. They could be in a recommended order, or part of the class could be working out the best order for each individual. How much backlog to process at a time could be part of the individualization. Having something specific to do that's pre-defined and will reinforce what you learned as opposed to coming back with a notebook full of notes - wow! Of course I would imagine your attendees also come back with their NAs or a good start of them anyway.

June 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

Dan: Thanks for the comment, and your interesting article - good stuff! I like how much you're doing in the lean+personal productivity space. I'm looking forward to a book!

Johan: As always, deep, interesting insights - they're lucky to have you. I like your diagnostic approach - seems like it's better suited to 1:1 than workshops, though. I'll check out TOC. I found:
[ Theory of constraints | http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_constraints ], [ Thinking for a Change: Putting the TOC Thinking Processes to Use | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1574441019?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1574441019 ], and [ Goldratt Theory of Constraints: A Systems Approach to Continuous Improvement | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0873893700?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0873893700 ].

June 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Karen: Terrific suggestion - thanks a ton!

June 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I have been thinking about this also in terms of consulting with people. I made a draft listing all the different "pieces" of GTD with the intention of working out a logical order of progression. I like the idea of providing different options for different kinds of people. Some people are ready to "jump in" and some aren't. The trouble is, most of the pieces of GTD are very much interdependent or at least related. While I was able (in first thinking session with this issue) to break it into some pieces (Tickler/filing, inboxes/ubiquitious capture, Calendar/lists, etc., many of the pieces I think defy being broken down smaller. Any ideas on how to handle this? How do you explain projects without the prerequisite understanding of the lists and workflow? How workflow without lists, calendar and filing? How filing without projects? (if the client just started filing everything in the interim, there could be a lot of filing that wouldn't work ideally with the GTD idea of project folders, etc).
Obviously in a 48 hour session you just go through everything.
I see a lot of potential benefits on walking through in stages, especially with the "spiral" approach you referenced and discussed. Any thoughts?

June 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterYosef

Yosef, you've hit the nail on the head - Thanks for putting it so clearly. No answers yet, but I hope to synthesize something based on the suggestions in the comments here... I'm open to collaborating on this as well.

June 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I'm going to keep thinking about it, and I'll happy share anything I come up with. I had originally been considering the option doing it in weekly 1 to 2 hour meetings, but that is seeming less and less viable. Perhaps a smaller number of longer meetings, but still less than 2 days all at once is a better alternative. The idea of doing experiential learning one piece at a time, with enough time for the person to "take ownership" of that piece just seems so rewarding and like it would be the least intimidating approach for a client. It's definitely something I want to use however I end up breaking up the time, the idea was great food for thought.
Like I mentioned before, it seems like a great idea to have different formats to do the consulting in for different types of people. I'd love to hear your thoughts as they congeal :-). Your blog is an amazing resource by the way- thank you!

June 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterYosef

After rereading Karen's amazing comment, I thought I should clarify that I am currently analyzing this in terms of one on one consulting- classes would be somewhat different (Karen's idea sounds like a great place to start in that type of format)

June 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterYosef

whenever i've helped anyone to read GTD I've suggested that they clear 4 hours in their life, sit down and read the entire thing as fast as they can.

THEN go back and start implementing stuff.

my brother in law tried to start implementing things when he was 1/3 of the way through, had to undo it all for the 2nd 3rd, then never got around to the final 3rd. His conclusion: GTD is a bitsa, it's unworkable, unwieldy and annoying. The thing is, the way he did it, he's right.

June 20, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterbrent

Yosef: Thanks again for the additional thinking - great stuff. Let's keep sharing ideas. One thing that I think informs other consultants' choices about format is working locally vs. travel. For example, I can't see David Allen returning once a week for six weeks to do a one- or two-hour session...

I'd love to hear your thoughts as they congeal :-) Absolutely. I plan on developing them publicly, sharing via this blog, then rolling out some services.

Your blog is an amazing resource by the way- thank you! Thanks! Made my day. :-)

June 21, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Brent, I agree that it must be done with enough knowledge not to "spoil" someone on it.

Have you been coaching people through the process? I'd love to hear more about your experiences!

June 21, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell


First a thank you for all of the great thinking that you share.

I, myself, have often set out on my personal productivity revolutions (via GTD and Mark Forster's DIT), but sadly always flame out.

Reflecting on things and having just read Maurer's "One Small Step", I think you are on to something.

I believe often individuals face some huge fundamental blocks that we need to gently chip away at in order to create an environment where our personal productivity changes can stick.

Back to Maurer's book for simple questions that can help me with my revolution!


June 21, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTony Turk


I guess we all find out GTD is simple, but isn't easy. Teaching it in a group lays the foundation. Your value as a consultant will truly shine in one on one. Since each individual will interpret with bias, coaching is required to untangle and rewire. My experience uncovered the need to practice. Even the best athletes require coaching and/or a personal trainer. Personally, my implementation worked best with the establishment of milestones charted over time. How you roll that out to a client would be worked out between you and your client; depending on client expectation. As an idea, perhaps you could write some position papers on the phases of an implementation based on your consulting experience(your personal implementation methodology). Ultimately, value, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. Wishing you good luck and continued success.

June 22, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDavey Moyers

Tony, thanks for the positive words, and for your comment.

I believe often individuals face some huge fundamental blocks that we need to gently chip away at in order to create an environment where our personal productivity changes can stick. I suspect you're right, and I'd be particularly interested in any insights you have into what's held you back. One thing I do *not* do is an initial assessment of factors that might stand in the way of adopting new behaviors for self-management. Partly it's because I don't care for them, and partly because I haven't found a good set that would give adequate insight allowing customizing the work, or the client's doing preparation in anticipation of a change...

Asking a simple question is a great idea. "What's holding me back from getting more productive?" ?

June 22, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Davey - As usual, a fantastically valuable comment - thank you. I agree on many points, including looking at the role of sustained repeated practice, and the need for client-specific solutions for sustainability. I love your suggestion re: a position paper based on experiences. Much obliged!

June 22, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell


Thank you for the reply.

I have found two real stumbling blocks for me that I am constantly doing battle with in trying to get more productive.

First, I am a procrastinator. I have determined it comes out of a fear of failure. Many times, I have emptied my brain onto GTD-styled list, only to find myself organized but still paralyzed to act on the really important tasks.

Second, I work in a very chaotic profession and work environment. I often find myself trying to do everything for everybody. Therefore, I constantly battle to prioritize all the demands placed on me and to decide what is best next action for me to take.

I now realize that until I gain some control over these two obstacles, I will always struggle to be truly productive.

Anyhow, I imagine it would be good for you as you consult with clients to determine beforehand if they too have some major obstacles that may hinder them from applying all of the valuable knowledge you are about to share with them.

I will keeping asking myself the little question you suggested.

All the best!

June 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTony Turk

Hi Tony,

procrastination ... chaotic profession and work environment: Thanks for the detail - you're not alone in these, if that helps.

... determine beforehand if [clients] have major obstacles...: A nice idea. I balance a diagnostic approach up-front with a strictly process-oriented one. While addressing those issues is crucial, I don't want to get too personal right away. Hmmm...

June 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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