Up until about three years ago, and since the mid-1990s, I had been a die-hard Steven Covey disciple. I read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People over and over, and attempted to practice them as best I could. The Seven Habits were very helpful to me in early adulthood and, although I was never perfect in my practice, Covey’s work made a lasting impact on me and my life was better for it.
I still hold Covey’s ideas in high regard, but a few years ago I began to feel increasingly uneasy, as though the Seven Habits, which were conceived prior to the advent of the World Wide Web, were written for a time and place that no longer existed. Covey’s principles remain rock solid, but the manner of their implementation in the book began to seem inadequate to the present time.
So much has changed in such a short period. Email, the World Wide Web, cloud-based workflows, and an ever-increasing rate of growth and change in the workplace have all conspired to alter the very nature of work. The Seven Habits remain valid, but their application in this new era needs some fresh thought. As the late Peter Drucker observed, “knowledge work” has witnessed the disintegration of boundaries. In previous eras, work was more easily defined. The cornfield was either plowed or it was not. The steering column was either installed or it was not, and more often than not the work day was determined by the immutable rising and setting of the sun.
Those jobs still exist, and the sun still rises and sets, but with the increase in knowledge-based work, and all of the attendant technologies that allow information to flow more rapidly, the boundaries of work have eroded. The boss can now send messages at 3:00am. The physical inbox that could only fill up during the day at the brick-and-mortar office now fills up overnight so that one arrives at work in the morning only to be greeted by an avalanche of to-dos that came in while one slept. As insightful as the Seven Habits had been, something was wrong. I had more to-dos than I could manage and, habits or not, I wasn’t feeling very effective.
I began to look into other solutions. I still wanted to hang on to the Seven Habits, but I needed some strategies for managing the day-to-day inputs of life that were spiraling out of control. Enter David Allen and Getting Things Done.
What struck me most upon reading Getting Things Done for the first time was how I had misdiagnosed my problem. As Allen points out, Getting Things Done is not about getting things done. Rather, it is about getting everything out of your head and into a trusted system that one reviews regularly so that one’s mind is free to focus and engage appropriately with the needs of the moment.
There was my first big GTD breakthrough: I did not have a to-do problem. I had a focus problem. My practice of the Seven Habits had begun to suffer because I did not have an adequate system for filing away the detritus of my mind in such a way as to access and engage with it at the appropriate time. Getting Things Done set me down a path, not necessarily of increased productivity (though that certainly was a huge benefit) but rather it gave me the freedom to stop worrying about what I might be forgetting and instead focus on the needs of the moment, letting a trusted and scalable system do all the work of “remembering.”