“A truly good man does nothing, yet leaves nothing undone. A foolish man is always doing, yet much remains to be done.”
– Lao Tse, from Tao Te Ching, Chapter 38, trans. Gia-fu Feng and Jane English
I read a lot of books. To keep track of where I left off, I use a bookmark. This simple piece of technology is profoundly effective in helping me to manage my reading list.
As long as I can remember, I have also been a “completion addict”. So much so, that I still often won’t start a new book until I have either finished the previous one, or decided that it isn’t worth continuing. When I turned my hand to writing, I fast began to understand the quip of former American Poet Laureate Robert Hass: “It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.”
Widening the scope, I used to half-joke that my favourite project was “the one I just finished.” How, then, to deal effectively with this “intolerable” state of incompletion? One answer from the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tse was, of course, to “do nothing”. Given all that I wanted to experience in my life, I didn’t like this answer very much.
Enter the humble bookmark. It records exactly where I left off. The back cover implicitly defines the finish. Therefore the distance between bookmark and back cover tells me how much more is available to me to read. Every time I glance at a bookmarked book, I know exactly what it means as an option.
In this way, it is not complete, but it does not necessarily “remain to be done” in a manner that would promote me frantically reading it all in one sitting at the expense of all other activity. It is the next-best-thing to done – it is accurately bookmarked, held in suspended animation and ready to pick up with zero practical effort on my part to resume.
To me, the Getting Things Done methodology is every bit as simple and profound as the bookmark. It allows me to build a complete, current inventory of next actions (bookmarks) and desired outcomes (back covers) that free me from the “foolish” state of “always doing”.
The paradox is this: who I am as a person is much more than the sum total of my various “bookmarks”; yet the only way I can be free enough, and present enough, to fully enjoy being me is by keeping an accurate, up-to-date set of bookmarks on the things that matter in my world.
This allows me to get stuff done, but also ensures that I don’t leave a wake of distracting, undone mess in the process. In each moment, what I’m doing is well-represented in my system and, in this sense, complete (even if not fully “done”).
I bookmark it all so that I can be free of it all.
Now if I could just figure out how to perpetually “have written”. I guess I’ll have to settle for the fact that, by the time I punctuate the end of this sentence, this will be (at least momentarily) true.