Fourteen years in to my GTD practice, I am still making new discoveries. Last week I attended our new second day public seminar. One of the points we make in this follow-on course is that people often “compartmentalise” their use of GTD to their detriment–applying it only to work, for example, instead of giving themselves the opportunity to experience greater stress-free productivity in their personal lives as well. I had long since integrated personal and professional commitments in one place, yet I realised that there were still important areas of my life that felt under-represented in my system.
In a previous article, I wrote about how the Areas of Focus List helps me to advocate for and engage with all of the key areas of my life in a systematic and balanced way. The area in question for me that felt-under represented in this case was self-development. So many of the goals I have for myself in this area are not about some tangible outer result, but about an inner quality of experience I want to be having more consistently. Furthermore, nobody else is going to hold me to account on these outcomes (let alone necessarily see them), so it’s really down to me to make sure this happens. The good news is that the end state is something I will clearly recognise once I get there. But as any GTDer knows, for every end-state project outcome, I must also have a next action.
So what’s the next action when it comes to behaviour change over time?
The classic example for behaviour change is “lose weight”. The outcome is clear–so many pounds or kilograms will flash up one day on the bathroom scale. After a few tactical sub-projects with clear next actions (implement eating plan, sign up for gym) the success of the project really comes down to changing habits over time. Just as the GTD methodology is built on simple “common sense” first principles, there is an equally “common sense” approach to behaviour change that is highly compatible with GTD. In fact, it is something people have been doing for hundreds of years (if not more), and something you are probably doing in certain areas of your life already.
Two words: track it.
Long before spreadsheets, pious medieval Europeans used to record their religious self-improvement activities, like prayer and meditation, in specially-made books of days. The great American Enlightenment thinker Benjamin Franklin used to chart his various moral self-improvement activities on a daily basis. These days, most people have some form of budgeting and reconciliation process for their personal and professional finances–tracking an area of focus that matters to us all: money.
Simply tracking the behaviours I want to change, and reviewing them regularly in sight of the end goal, has helped me to gradually but consistently change a wide range of habits over time. The keys to making this work are to have a clearly-defined outcome captured as a project, and to integrate both the tracking activity and the reviewing activity into my trusted system.
Consolidation is a big factor in success. I set up one repeating daily reminder in my diary at the end of the day to fill in all of the tracking items for that day on my spreadsheet. Then I integrate my review of the tracking into my weekly review. It is easier to institute just a few regular habits, so setting up a simple daily routine and integrating the review into my weekly process ensures that I actually do the tracking, because I know I am going to do these two things anyway.
The simple act of reflecting on accurate information about what I want, and what I am actually doing, can be hugely powerful. I almost can’t help but make small adjustments over time once I bring awareness to a situation in this way.
The Quantified Self movement sees people keeping track of all kinds of things with an ever-more-sophisticated range of gadgets. In truth, you can start anywhere, with any little thing you want to improve, and track it with a simple spreadsheet or even tick marks on paper.
There is always a deeper cut to take with GTD. Have a think if there may be projects you could be subconsciously avoiding putting into your system because they involve not a clear single next action, but a habit change over time.
If so, I encourage you to get that project onto your list, and get cracking… er, tracking.