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GTD is like GPS for Time Management

(I'm back from a week off, and still a bit in Relaxation Mode. So, a light post this week. -- matt)

I took off last week for family vacation, which we were fortunate to spend on the "outer Cape" of Cape Code. Thanks to my wife's suggestion, navigation this year was a snap because we finally got a GPS unit [1]. I expected the thing to be somewhat useful, but I was surprised - it absolutely blew me away. Just for fun I thought I'd play with the title's high concept pitch and share a few analogies to time management that came to mind.

Why did it have such a positive impact on me? It removed nearly all of the stress of navigating to somewhere new, leaving me free to simply drive. The analogy to work is that a productivity system like the one I teach (GTD is the closest thing) structures everything coming into your life, along with what you've decided to do, so that you can fully focus on your work. Both do this by making informed decisions prior to execution, i.e., by removing the unknowns, and simplifying and clarifying the process. In the GPS case, it knows navigation (where I'm going) and breaks the project (getting from here to there) down into tasks - drive straight, turn right, etc. I simply execute the plan it made with 100% of my attention. For productivity, when you process incoming stuff into tasks, you break bigger projects into small, executable steps that you can jump right into when you're ready for them.

Stepping up a level, I suppose the summation of all upcoming trips you've planned is the equivalent of your master projects list (multi-step objectives) - the many things that you've invited into your world that give direction to your life, based on your goals. The individual steps (turns, in GPS, and action steps, in GTD) are what actually get you there. I tell clients that you can't do a project, you can only do its individual actions. Can we look at a trip this way - you can't "do" a trip, you can only drive the segments? Hmm...

What's really worth the money is the trust I have in the thing. Before, navigation was extremely stressful for me due to the large number of unknowns, the difficulty of matching maps to reality, and the pressure of needing to get somewhere on time. I worked around these by adding analysis and time: Print maps, determine route based on advice from Google Maps (or better yet, someone whose been there), study the route, reverse-plan the arrival time based on estimate from the route, then start driving. To plan for the unplanned (anti-knowledge?) I had to allocate plenty of extra time for mistakes to learn.

The lesson? No, it's not an ad for Garmin :-) It's more the value of having a trusted system, the relief it brings, and the empowerment of your attention. What do you think? Is there another analogy for a productivity system you want to share? I'd love to hear it!


Reader Comments (9)

Funny thing - We have the same GPS. I'm frequently asked what GPS to buy. The short answer is, "Buy a Garmin."

For me discovering GTD was like the definition of neatness. "A place for everything, and everything in its place." To me this goes to the heart of a trusted system. As I read GTD I realized that I didn't have a "place" for all my inputs; therefore it was impossible for everything to be in its place.

As an experiment I've been doing "day blocking". My time is very fluid and I rarely have more than 1 appointment per week. I have tons of tasks to do, but I often sit down and think what should I do today. So I assigned a theme to each day, Monday: accounting, Tuesday: communication, Wednesday: development, Thursday: review/catch-up, Friday: office. I left them vague on purpose. This gives me a general direction for what tasks to tackle that day, and I know that I'm going to get back to something within a week. So far it's working. We'll see how it goes under more stress in a few weeks.

Guess I'd better get back to my expense report.

July 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBirch

Garmin, neatness

Hi Birch,

> Funny thing - We have the same GPS. I'm frequently asked what GPS to buy. The short answer is, "Buy a Garmin."


> "A place for everything, and everything in its place."

A classic. I have an "Is it all about..." series I'm planning, and the line you mention is one of them.

> "day blocking" .. assigned a theme to each day, Monday: accounting, Tuesday: communication, Wednesday: development, Thursday: review/catch-up, Friday: office

Great experiment! I'll put it into my database. Thanks for sharing it.

July 13, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

In the line of your thinking, this is what I came up with recently: my productivity system is my GPS: Goals - Plans - Steps

just my 2 cents

July 15, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterlud

Hi Birch,

Your day blocking experiment is great. I like that it gives you a chance to check in with the big areas of your life and give them dedicated time. I will give it a try and share my findings.


July 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLiza

I want to ditto your experience. We've been traveling up and down CA since my mother got ill, and we need to check in on her frequently. The GPS made our lives better, and I mean that emphatically. Even when --for example-- it (I refer to it as "she" and "her" because its a female voice we are listening to) has put us on a road with too much traffic, we get off the road, veer on to another road, and she pipes up "Recalibrating, recalibrating" and then she directs us via another route. We never realized how much stress traveling, being in a different city, different place, put upon us, until we started using the GPS.


July 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

That's a nice one, lud. Very top-down, very clean. Goals (Why), Plans (How), Steps (What)? I'm tracking summaries like this - much obliged.

July 16, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

At first I didn't know how to tell it to pick a different route. Then we figured out just to *drive it* and the unit would recalculate. Pretty good UI design...

July 16, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



August 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret


August 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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