What a lovely warm summer we have had here in the UK. Too bad it seems to be over in August. As crisper weather returns, I recognise winter on the horizon. The cold, bleary days make me want to hibernate, and the lack of sun can start to get me down. Yet thanks to my GTD system, as Camus put it, “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer.”
To understand how GTD helps with motivation, it might help to look at a more serious example than just a bit of bad weather. The Royal College of Psychiatrists recently put forward a very effective model for treatment of depression called Behavioural Activation. In a nutshell, it involves getting patients to take steps toward their goals by scheduling these activities and then actually doing them, regardless of whether they feel like doing them or not when the time comes.
According to the article, “‘Just doing it’ leads to differences in the way the individual thinks and feels, which in turn increases motivation and changes the way others view them.” It may seem self-evident that doing good things for yourself (even when you don’t feel like it) can lead to good feelings about yourself. However, the article goes on to cite a randomised controlled trial wherein Behavioural Activation was found to be effective across all degrees of severity of depression, and in the case of severe depression it was found to be just as effective as an anti-depressant medication, and more effective than a leading treatment paradigm.
Scientifically speaking, doing works. Establishing clear goals and putting steps into a diary is one way to start doing. The complexities of most modern lifestyles, however, can’t be accurately represented and managed with a calendar alone. Here are some additional ways in which I have found that my trusted GTD system, including lists of projects and next actions, helps me to increase motivation and “just do it” even when I’m not at my best.
The fundamental thought process of GTD keeps me on track toward clarifying what I want. For example, when a problem emerges, rather than ruminating about it, I guide myself through the fundamental GTD thought process to clarify the outcome I want (project) and the very next action that will get me closer. I then write those two elements down on my project and next action lists.
As a result, my next action list is a pre-thought-out inventory of options–like a restaurant menu–that I can choose from to get into motion toward my goals. Having applied the fundamental thought process of GTD, I don’t have to re-think anything when I look at these lists; I can just pick something off the list and do.
Furthermore, breaking things down into the smallest possible step on my next action list helps to “tempt” me into motion with simple, self-evident activities that I can easily see myself accomplishing. No matter how difficult the problem may seem, or how overwhelming the goal, I can almost always motivate myself to make a single phone call, write an email, or do a bit of research online in service to moving those bigger outcomes along. When I do, I get to tick it off.
Externalising and acknowledging “wins” also helps a lot. With a complete, current inventory of all of the very next actions involved with moving forward on my goals, I get to tick off the things that I’ve done all day long. Seeing myself accomplish meaningful things motivates me. Suddenly, I am riding on momentum instead of being held in place by inertia.
Never losing sight of the ultimate goal is another big factor in motivation. My projects list represents things that I want to be true in my life. It all matters to me. So, as much as seeing a small, single next action helps me to get in motion, so too does knowing that it’s also tied to something that really matters to me. My brain has the simultaneous experience of, “I can do this” and also, “This really matters to me”.
In these ways, my GTD system has helped me to sustain motivation through fair weather and foul. As I pause from writing this to peer out the window, sure enough there is a gently falling rain.
Time to find that umbrella, and shore up my GTD lists.