Productivity and the Space-Time Continuum - Next Action Associates

“Be steady and well-ordered in your life, so that you may be fierce and original in your work.”

-Gustave Flaubert

Robert PeakeAs a poet and technologist, I admire elegance.

One of the great allures of the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology has been the degree to which it has enabled me to not only produce elegant outcomes in my work, but to live a more elegant lifestyle overall. In fact, I can think of no better example of elegant living than my karate-black-belt, bonsai-loving ex-boss, David Allen, the inventor of GTD. What I didn’t realise is that his Zen-like relationship to the the outer environment was actually the result of much careful chopping and pruning.

David Allen posited what remains the most succinct definition of “organisation” that I have heard: “What it means maps to where it is.” Far beyond the chirpy but abstract “a place for everything and everything in its place,” this definition gives me a clear guide for setting up those organisational “places”–focus on what they mean. Given my love of mental pursuits, it makes sense that I have largely applied this mapping to managing time spent in front of a computer, creating clear contexts for different work environments and arranging my activities to map to those contexts.

But planning and executing a relocation from California to London with my English wife taught me a lot about managing space as well. For every article of furniture, we made a corresponding entry on a spreadsheet for its successful outcome–stored, sold or donated. And next action by next action, we finally made our way (much lighter) across the pond.

It was our subsequent move to the English countryside, however, that really brought the importance of space management into crisp focus. As you can imagine, when living in a tiny Victorian cottage, the “un-mapped” stuff in a small space quickly makes itself known, and known, and known–wearing on the psyche as “clutter”. So there is both meaning as a context for how I spend my time, and meaning as a function of where something lives in space, and this simple principle spans them both.

Recognising the effectiveness of GTD, and applying it, hardly requires a degree in quantum physics. However, borrowing a page from that discipline makes for an interesting analogy. The principle of a “space-time continuum” has helped physicists to understand that space and time are far more interrelated than originally thought.

Representing space and time as a continuum, rather than separate elements, has helped explain phenomena that are very small, very large and very fast in ways that are more compatible with the “normal” scopes and scales with which we are familiar. In this way, thinking about space and time as linked has helped physicists to create a more elegant and encompassing model of reality.

What I am discovering in close quarters is that space management and time management are likewise not separate disciplines in the realm of productivity, but rather that they too represent a continuum. GTD addresses this continuum directly and well.

There are some obvious interrelationships between space and time when it comes to productivity. For example, just as projects with unclear successful outcomes often expand to fill the time allotted, physical stuff often expands to fill the space provided as well.

Also, if you have lots of space, you have greater potential to accumulate lots of stuff. But then, when you do, you often spend more time managing what is around you than focusing on what is within you.

Finally, as I know all too well from weekends spent unpacking, space management takes time. But lack of space management leads to clutter, which impinges on the psyche. This is why GTD coaching sessions often begin with a “roundup” of the physical environment before processing all the physical “stuff”.

Even beyond this, GTD itself is an activity that addresses the continuum between space and time.

For example, when I take a physical item out of my inbox, process it, and then complete the resulting projects and next actions, I am moving through a continuum from spatial reminder to temporal activity. In between, I store a highly refined and carefully contextualised version of the “reminder” about that time-based activity in my trusted system.

For example, a scribbled note that says “mum” is little more than a vague object taking up space in my inbox. Processing it into the project “Great gift for Mothers’ Day delivered” and the next action “email Dad for ideas,” which I contextualise in the “@Office/Email” category of my task list, refines things considerably.

But it is ultimately how well I make that translation–from thing, to outcome, to actions, to completion–that determines my degree of relaxed focus, and therefore affects the overall elegance of both my inner and outer life.

Practicing this approach for many years has changed the way I relate to the space around me. With the exception of my inbox and trusted system, everything around me is essentially either “decoration”, “reference” or “tools”. The flowers on the windowsill are obviously decoration. My books are reference material. Even my bed is just a “tool” for rest.

In this sense, a well-organised physical environment represents a catalogue of potential options that could play out in time–that is, everything around me represents something to enjoy, refer to or use along the way. Switching caps from physics to literature, it could be said that, in a GTD-friendly environment, every noun becomes a possible verb.

It took an international relocation and double-downsizing to point out to me just how well GTD works, not only to manage my time and psychic space, but to manage my physical space as well.

In fact, it turns out that space and time are so closely linked as to be two different representations of the same thing–potential.

Personal productivity is all about maximising this potential. And where other systems focus on one or the other polarity, GTD addresses the continuum, making that contented sense of freedom that I call “elegance” possible, any time, anywhere.

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