The Organized Writer: GTD, Sorta, and Managing Focus Instead of Tasks

by Jeff Abbott on December 13, 2008

I wrote earlier about GTD, the uber-popular system for organizing your work. . .and I mentioned that while I thought it was brilliant in many ways, it didn’t quite work for me.
I’m going to assume you’ve looked here for a solid summary on GTD (I’m not going to summarize the whole GTD philosophy in this posting) before I explain why the system, as powerful as it is, did not meet my needs. Let me describe what didn’t work for me, and then what did.

What didn’t work: I couldn’t work well with two of the basic precepts of GTD: context and only using calendars for appointments.
The first problem for me was contexts. In GTD, every action you can take (a phone call, a meeting, a task) has a context. For instance, example contexts would be Phone Calls, Office, Home, Errands, and Online. You can even have contexts for people you deal with all the time: Spouse, Boss, Kid, etc. So let’s say you’ve got a dozen projects going on, then every phone call you need to make related to those projects lives in the Phone context (you would have a list of tasks, organized by context in GTD). This makes perfect sense if you’re on the move a fair amount: if you’re stuck in traffic or waiting at the dentist’s office, you can see what calls are in your Phone context (either personal or work-related) and work your way through the list. The idea being this is easier than looking at a general to-do list and having to pick out what you could do when you’re stuck at the dentist’s office (you could not do Home context items, for instance, such as cleaning out the garage or mowing the yard–but you could make phone calls.)
But, I work at home, alone, and I have very, very few contexts. Basically, I am at home, I am in my writing studio, I am online. That’s kind of it. And frankly, I tend to think in projects: eg, I need to write two thousand words for the new book, I need to research the hot new money laundering practices for the new book, I need to call and ask my editor a question about the new book. There is value to me in concentrating on the totality of the project over a block of time. if I work on a set of project-related tasks, I think I am much more likely to have better ideas about that project as I work through those tasks. Because I’m mentally immersed in the project, not worrying about which context I’m in.
To me, the project is much more important than the context. I don’t tend to think in terms of: I have nine phone calls of both a personal and professional nature I need to make, and I will make those calls since I’ve gotten to the dentist’s office fifteen minutes early. I tend to think for example, I’m not happy with this character’s motivation. How do I solve that problem–giving the character a stronger motivation? If I’m spending a solid block of time on the book project: writing, delving into research, talking about the book with my editor, then I think inspiration is much more likely to come for that character motivation problem. If I’m solely working in contexts, I’m thinking in terms of “do what I need to do on the phone” (whether this is calling to order Christmas gifts, or calling to set up a research interview for the book, or calling a friend on his birthday) and “do what I need to do online, now that I’m online”. I’m not thinking about the bigger problems I’m facing in my work.
Contexts killed it for me. Because with GTD, you tend to generate these very long lists of tasks, arranged by context, and then you have to decide, each day, what you’re going to do. Which context you’ll be in, or focus on. For me, GTD just turned into a series of long, seemingly endless lists. I would rather work from a project list than a context list. But that’s just me.
The other caveat of GTD that I really struggled with is David Allen’s dictum that the calendar is only for appointments and for things that absolutely must happen on that day (eg, it’s Thursday, your boss is going out of town tomorrow morning, so you must discuss the Pfeffenpfeff project with her at some point today). The idea is that not writing tasks on the calendar will keep you from having rewrite your tasks each day when you don’t get your list of tasks finished.
But I think about my time differently. I think it’s critical for writers, to get the most out of their time, to enter that state of flow, to give themselves uninterrupted blocks of time to write. And call me crazy, but I like to have that time made sacred on my calendar. THAT is my writing time, and if interruptions or obligations arise, I can say no to them or know that I will have time later to deal with them. But putting obligations like this on your calendar so goes against the GTD system. I just couldn’t reconcile Allen’s philosophy with how I like to use a calendar.
This is why I prefer Julie Morgenstern’s approach. There’s a fair amount of overlap (both Allen and Morgenstern are very, very smart about organizing) but Morgenstern advises one noticeable difference: you are encouraged to list all you need to do–dump out from your brain every task–but then think about how much time each task is going to take. Because, this is where organizational nirvana meets the real world: there are only so many hours in a day, in a week, in a month. Morgenstern’s brilliant and simple answer is a time map: blocking out specific parts of the day, based on your project load, your energy level, and your own preferences, to do certain work at certain times of the day. For a self-employed person with few contexts, this was the answer. Time maps help me be sure that I am devoting a correct amount of time to writing, to research, to promotion, and to my family. I know that everything has its time. I don’t worry, jumping from context to context, if things will get done. I have budgeted the time to get it done. Here’s an example of Time Maps and how to use them from Morgenstern (you may have to scroll down, sorry I can’t link more directly to the example).
Of course, interruptions and derailments to those blocks happen and you cannot map out your time to the minute. That’s fine, flexibility is healthy. I can make a decision, much more informed, about whether to deal with the interruption now or postpone it to later. But when I can see my week mapped out, I know I’m going to make serious progress on all my projects. Time maps are like a budget for your time. This helps me say no to things that I don’t need to do and say yes to the things that matter. This approach helps me keep my focus.
And I would much rather manage my focus than manage my tasks.
That is the key, I think, for a creative person. Managing focus.
What did work for me in GTD:
David Allen (like Morgenstern) encourages you to do a brain dump: to get everything that’s in your head that you need to do, every project, every task, and put it into a trusted system, such as a notebook or planner or software program. This isn’t that different from my trusted system for keeping track of writing thoughts, ideas, and notes. It’s a critical component to me, and it’s brilliant.
He suggests greatly simplifying your file systems and also buying a labelmaker for your files instead of handwriting the names of your files. For some reason, this simple (and frankly slightly anal-retentive) suggestion works tremendously. The filing system I got out of trying GTD was one of the great productive improvements. I had, like many people, a completely over-complicated file system before GTD. Now my system is clean, simple, and very easy to use.
GTD has been hugely popular with programmers, and I see why. It’s very much like a computer programming statement. Remember IF . . .THEN statements?
IF x, THEN y
That’s a gross oversimplification, and I”m sure some of the GTD fans will disagree with my characterization of the system, but there it is. And clearly the system works for many. So more power to them.
Here is a much more detailed critique of the GTD system: What’s Wrong with GTD.
Even if GTD’s not for you, I think it’s valuable to read Allen’s book, Getting Things Done. There are lots of useful tips and thoughts on time management, even if you don’t entirely adhere to his system. But I do think Julie Morgenstern’s book is easier to understand and her approach is frankly easier to implement. (One of the other cautions of GTD is that people seem to spend a great deal of time trying out new tools and tweaking their systems rather than actually doing things.)
JT Ellison, a terrific writer, is considering moving to GTD for her writing and is talking about it on her group blog, Murderati. JT posts once a week, on Fridays, and I’m sure her insights will be helpful to anyone considering GTD for their writing work.
Next up: paper systems vs. software products in terms of getting control of your time and focusing your creativity.

    { 9 comments… read them below or add one }

    Ann Victor December 13, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    Jeff, this is a great series, thanks.
    The most important thing I’ve learnt today is that I have to learn to say “no” to the distractions of daily life and treat my writing time as sacred.
    Did you find that before you were published it was more difficult to see your writing time as sacred, or were distractions not the issue then because you got up so early to write?

    Jeff Abbott December 13, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    Ann: Thanks, I’m glad this is helpful.
    I’ve always seen writing time as sacred (even when I wasted it or allowed it to be impinged upon). I just knew I was losing time and had to readjust.
    Sacred in this case is a relative term. Unless the house is on fire or the kid is bleeding, a lot of impingements on writing time can be dealt with by saying “no” (no, I can’t answer your email right now, or take your phone call) or by saying “later” (which means you’ll respond to the request for your time when you’re not writing).
    Turning off the phone and the Internet can do a lot to keep that time sacred, as well as blocking out the time on a calendar and letting others know that you are not available then.

    Ann Victor December 13, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    Okay I see the difference between sacred writing time that is properly utilized and sacred writing time that is wasted. I’m definitely guilty of the second.
    I now have two things to add to my New Year’s resolutions: 1. learn to say “no” and “later” and 2. assess and readjust where I’m not using my sacred writing time properly!
    Thanks again, Jeff, your generosity in offering your time and advice is much appreciated! :) :)

    Kristan December 13, 2008 at 8:53 pm

    I’m with Ann: saying “no” is what I have a hard time with. Honestly, I never really thought of “later” as a reasonable answer, OBVIOUS as that may seem. I may try to say that one more often. ;)
    And Ann, I think yes, for me, it will automatically be easier to say “no” and “later” after I’m published, because it will seem as if it’s more justified. Right now, a lot of people still think of this as a dream instead of a job, which makes it harder for me too.
    BUT I think Jeff’s right, we have to do it anyway. Thanks, Jeff!

    Ann Victor December 13, 2008 at 10:45 pm

    Hi Kristan, you’ve put it well: my problem with saying “no” is that, because I’m not published (yet!,) many people (perhaps even a tiny part of myself) don’t realise that my writing is more than just an interesting “hobby” to me.
    But, in fairness, it’s up to me to set those boundaries in a way that they respect.
    (Definitely a New Year’s resolution!) :) :)

    Jeff Abbott December 14, 2008 at 9:24 am

    Re saying no: it doesn’t not matter if you’re published or not. Your time is your own. If whoever’s treading on your writing time isn’t family, you don’t really owe them an explanation. Just say, “I’m sorry, I have plans.” I did this all the time before I was published if I needed to write, and with never a moment’s worry.
    You know, no one outside of family has to know you’re writing a book. I didn’t tell a lot of people I was getting up at 4 AM back when I was cranking out that first novel. Granted, I was single, no kids. But you have to find and defend that time, or your book will NEVER get written. It really is that simple. Of course, that’s partially why I chose 4 AM-7 AM as my writing time when I started. It was time that was ridiculously easy to defend.
    Your loved ones just have to understand that this is vitally important to you, it’s a career you’re trying to build from scratch, it’s not a hobby. They may not understand the first time you say this. Just be gently insistent, and help them understand the importance of this to you.

    Ann Victor December 14, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    Jeff…whew! You’re so right! My very close family (husband, parents) are very understanding, but this line is going into my motivation box: “If whoever’s treading on your writing time isn’t family, you don’t really owe them an explanation”. And I’m sticking it to my phone & laptop. This makes me feel much better! :) :)

    Janet December 14, 2008 at 9:37 pm

    You’re giving me good stuff to mull over and I’m glad I’m reading this before I tackle GTD. I always adapt systems anyway, and you’re giving me good ideas on the things to look for.

    Jeff Abbott December 15, 2008 at 3:51 pm

    I’m glad it’s helpful.

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