Lately, I’ve been snowed under, literally and figuratively. Almost every waking minute of every day is spent doing work, or for moments too brief, helping to tend to my six-month-old boy Conor. Relaxation is almost non-existent, and the stress (compounded by all-too-typical personal issues) has built up to rather exorbinant levels. My only time to relax seems to be in those fleeting moments that I read myself to sleep. Reading is good… it calms the mind, tires the eyes and body, and takes the tenseness out of the muscles in preparation for rest. Sometimes, though, the mind can get hooked on an idea from a book, or even an idea lacking from a book, and seize upon that for continuing hours of (often frustrating) wakefulness. I had such a night recently, and the book I was reading was (no surprise here) Getting Things Done. It finally occured to me what the methodology was missing, for me, and it lay at the roots of my elevated stress levels.
Back in my former life, when I did the “corporate thing”, I read Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and the follow-up First Things First. The ideas were good, but they got lost in all the other business-oriented winning-strategy style books I was plowing through on a weekly basis. I took a notion or two from him, but even those became twisted out of recognisability when processed with a hundred other competing methodologies. Eventually, they (and dozens of other books) were consigned to boxes or the back-of-shelf areas behind little-read technical books.
I’ve never been an overly-religious person, and at times far too logical for my own good. This is why Getting Things Done was initially a great fit for me: it’s great for geeks that want a 1-2-3 process that they can follow, much like a computer can follow a script language. But what’s missing is depth. By depth, I’m not referring to procedural depth, or the flexibility to handle multiple situations — GTD is quite able for such things. Instead, I’m referring to something that penetrates deeper down into what it means to be human.
[I can get a thousand people clicking their "back" buttons now....]
Covey is actually good for this sort of thing. For example, early on in Seven Habits, he differentiates between “character” and “personality” -driven methods and traits. “Personality” encompasses all those quick-fix methodologies that all the gurus are constantly touting in their one-day seminars. Let’s face it: we all know that –if these work at all– they don’t last long before other things fall apart. For example, take the whole idea of “smart negotiation” (something I didn’t get from Covey, but a good example, in my opinion). If you go into a conference room, you’re supposed to sit with your back to the window. Psychologically, this intimidates people: the light behind you makes you appear more powerful, looking into any glare is typically unsettling for everybody else, and the person opposite you cannot read your facial expressions very easily. But, although this is all well and good, effective negotiation skills require more than just simple psych-out parlour tricks. You need to have a strong presence, a good knowledge of the facts, a grounding in diplomacy, and a certain degree of wisdom that allows alternate viewpoints and compromise. And these would be the “character”-oriented traits that Covey is focussing on.
Covey preaches habits that work deep-down, that are a cumulative process in achieving effectiveness in both work and personal dealings. Habit three, “First things first”, is his take on organisational methods, but is only a small part of the big picture. (It is, however, the subject devoted to his follow-up book.) By contrast, GTD is far more shallow in this regard: it is something that can be digested in a week, and can be used very quickly and effectively because it is so procedural. Note that I’m puposely disregarding the “runway to 50K feet” bits, because I feel that these seem like quickly-written sections to address longer-term issues that GTD doesn’t really handle well — it works best as a short- to intermediate-term strategy, in my opinion. Whereas GTD concentrates on day-to-day processes, Covey proposes habits that must be acquired carefully and through thought and deed, and these will take months –if not years– to permeate your life and methods.
So, it is “depth” that I’m missing in GTD. You may argue that GTD is just a way of becoming more productive. That’s true, and fair enough. It’s the whole top-down vs. bottom-up debate all over again, and neither is more correct than the other: both are perfectly valid, and will appeal to certain individuals according to their own tastes and situations. For me, at this stage in my life, I’m at a crossroads. No doubt, I will continue to use GTD methods, but I will take another look at Covey and try to build up the life and character I need to possess, because I want to feel good about who I am, what I can do with the years ahead, and what sort of person I should be to lead a good example for my baby boy. Thanks to GTD, I have a map of my day and week, but now I need a map of my life.
Is Covey the answer? I don’t know, but it’s a good first step.