Book Wisdom: Getting Things Done

I had a wave of clients this past year who came to see me because they were concerned about their procrastination and lack of internal motivation. Most of our jobs are becoming increasingly flexible and diverse which has meant a trend towards needing to be self-motivated, organized, and creative.

There is a lot of peace and power in having a clear mind. It won’t solve all of your procrastination problems, but as I’ve written before about procrastination, feeling unmotivated and overwhelmed leads to lack of productivity. Your brain is a complex machine that keeps track of many things at once at the expense of important thinking. Ever wonder why you get a song stuck in your head? It’s often because you heard only a piece of the song and your brain is trying to complete the picture. The brain cannot rest when it feels something is missing — or that you’re about to miss something.

There are things to discuss in therapy that go deeper into why someone has trouble staying focused on particular tasks or believing in their creative ideas enough to do something with them. But David Allen’s classic, Getting Things Done

The essence of how to get things done follows this chart

addresses an important concept that overlaps with a lot of cognitive therapy I teach.

This book is perfect for a book review, because it is full of more complicated ideas and can be overwhelming to get the gist of. I think that the best takeaway is the idea that if you have a method for capturing what’s in your head (to-dos, ideas, goals, etc) AND a trusted and regular time to review what you’ve captured, you will free up your brain to do the important work of succeeding at your job and getting things done.

Allen’s primary goal of better productivity is to free up your mind to enjoy life, relax, and pursue creativity.

What does this system look like? See the picture for reference…and keep in mind these ideas:

  1. Have the same place to capture every little thing that crosses your brain. This could be using your Reminders/To Do List app on a phone to create digital lists or a small notebook in your wallet like the one Allen uses. It must be the same method for all things, which is why I like a phone application. People usually have phones on them and can create different lists — Groceries, Do When At Computer, Someday/Maybe (an idea list for inactive projects).
  2. Have a time each week (Allen suggests early Friday afternoon) to review your list and take Next Actions. If your brain doesn’t trust that you will review the lists you’ve captured, it won’t stop feeling frazzled and will keep glancing at the things you wrote down.
  3. For every idea, going one step further and noting the Next Action as specifically as possible. So on your House Projects list, don’t put “fix squeaky door” and leave it at that. Add “bring WD-40 in from garage.”

Experiment with different capture methods and consider flipping through Getting Things Done or getting David Allen’s newsletter if you’re serious about productivity.

Two Favorite Qualities About Happy People

There are two qualities that I notice that clients master as their happiness increases. When I look at other people in my life, I notice that my happiest friends and family have these in abundance. They are adaptability and flexibility. Even though they sound similar, they have separate and important functions in mentally healthy people. Adaptability is often about things you cannot control, whereas flexibility is being able to welcome others’ preferences even when they are not your own.

nature's mantra: adapt and be flexible

Why Adaptability and Flexibility?

Let’s first look at a class of people who have a very hard time navigating life: those with personality disorders (Borderline, Narcissistic, Avoidant etc. — there are 10 types).

Personality disorders are pervasive and enduring character issues that are extremely difficult to treat. And they all share a common characteristic: these people have only one way to be. They might appear normal or relatively well-functioning in a few areas, but this is mainly because their “one way of being” is well suited for that area.  They cannot adapt to others’ needs, and they have rigid ways of seeing themselves and others. Because they experience the world in such a restricted way, they have a lot of trouble with relationships, problem-solving, and coping.

Therefore, it is not surprising on the flip side that people who demonstrate an increased ability to adapt and be flexible are happier and better adjusted. In session, I help clients see different ways to approach problems, and we come up with possible solutions that feel comfortable to them. But it is always an exercise in getting them to adopt a more flexible viewpoint of themselves and the people around them.

Increase Your Adaptability

I think of adaptability as a personality trait, but one that you can increase with focused effort. When approaching your life’s tasks, try considering how many possible outcomes would be satisfactory to you. For example, if you discover that your favorite restaurant isn’t open on your birthday, can you move on from that disappointment quickly? If you get assigned your second (or third or fourth) choice room in your sorority, task at a work event, part in a school play, daycare location for your child — can you adjust? How long does it take you to accept your new situation and do your best with it?

When things don’t go as planned, allow yourself some time to be disappointed, but then gather your perspective and try to focus on the positive. Adaptability is mind-over-matter arm wrestling of your brain.

These sound like small examples, but we are faced with needing to adapt many times throughout the day, and someone you know would truly lose their cool over a situation above. It’s not that we can’t allow disappointment or frustration over these situations, but the quicker we can adapt, the happier we will be.

Increase Your Flexibility

Flexibility in the moment is crucial to turning difficulties into minor blips throughout your day and is more action-oriented than adaptability. Flexibility is a great quality to have when dealing with others (provided you are still able to exert some framework — nobody likes to hear, “anything is fine with me” TOO much!) It is fun to eat out with flexible eaters who like many kinds of food. It is great to sit down for TV with a flexible partner who likes both baseball and reality shows. When we are running late, we are relieved to be meeting a flexible friend who says “no problem” because that friend is adaptable and flexible, too.

To increase your flexibility, think about some of your strongest preferences, how you exert them, and how you might try being more flexible on occasion. If you are always the one choosing the restaurant, the daycare, the home decor, the movie — ease up. Increasing flexibility often begins by asking questions, being curious about others’ preferences, and open-minded about their choices.

To increase your happiness and decrease stress, think about how you can become a more adaptable person AND use more flexibility with others and yourself.

The Magic Idea That Makes Resolutions Stick

While it’s a fun idea to begin new habits on the first day of a new year, take some time to think about why you intend to change. The best resolutions are carefully thought out and the ones that stick have a specific plan of implementation and this magic idea:

The resolution is based on a feeling that you want to feel.

What does that mean? If you think about resolutions, many of them focus on things like saving money, losing weight, being on time, and spending more time with people we care about. Or sometimes they are specific to activities: taking up a new sport or language, learning to cook, starting a business.

focus on the feeling you want from your resolution

But what these resolutions are really about are a specific feeling that we are after. A number on the scale might be good enough on its own for a few weeks worth of willpower, but to really make lasting changes that will get you past the first 5 pounds, you need to think about how you actually hope to feel once you are in shape.

Why is it important to you that you be on time, or, for that matter, spend more time with people you care about? These resolutions are about seeking a feeling (or avoiding one, perhaps, in the case of the chronically late). We want to feel less rushed. We want to feel the warmth of evenings spent laughing with our friends and family. We are seeking an experience.

When you can focus on the feeling you seek, it also makes it easier to acknowledge the accomplishments that you do make towards your goal. If you want to lose weight, you might be seeking a feeling of strength, health, or attractiveness. Having identified these, when you do complete a workout, or like the way you look in an item of clothing, you are more likely to notice this even if the scale does not yet accurately reflect your goal destination.

If you are taking up a new hobby or skill with this idea in mind, you will be on the lookout for the feeling of accomplishment, a thrill of something new that you have mastered — and this is available to you along the way as you master that language or sport.

You might say that focusing on the feeling behind your resolution is a way that you can enjoy the journey and as part of the reward toward your goals.