Combine GTD and Deep WorkSep 5, 2023 - 3 min read
Modern work life seems to be pushing knowledge workers more and more towards an endless streak of jumping between tasks, meetings, and emails. An always-available mentality and constant communication. All while busyness is mistaken for productivity and context switches prevent us from doing focused work. The Get Things Done methodology combined with Deep Work can be the key to being productive in a world full of distractions.
While the amount of knowledge workers in the modern world keeps raising the requirements, office, and work settings seem to make it impossible to create a good environment for the mind to thrive. The modern workplace often fosters an unhealthy culture of constant notifications, context switching, and multitasking.
In order to get the full benefit and potential out of these people, a paradigm shift is needed. We need to direct our attention toward the environment we work in and see if it actually promotes productivity. To me, it seems like a lot of responsibility is left to each individual to manage time and tasks to be efficient and productive.
How can we do hard things with our brain when it is constantly shifting focus and context? And is rarely set up to focus on a single task, but is always forced to multitask. And we even applaud it and celebrate this ability.
While Deep Work seems to be the key to handling the difficult single-focused deep tasks, we still need to handle the insane amount of small, lightweight, and shallow tasks where we are expected to have an opinion and make choices with little to no preparation. This alone can be a full-time job and more. And it gets even worse if you are part of a family, have friends, and even worse than that if you have kids.
I am using a very simple system heavily inspired by the Get Things Done methodology from David Allen's book by the same name. It had to be adjusted a little bit to fit my job, but that is also one of his key takeaways from the book. Make it your own.
This article is not supposed to give you a full and in-depth understanding of the idea and methodology, but just scratching the surface. If you are interested, I would suggest you read the book. You can purchase it here
The way I use GTD in my work life is very simple.
I have a range of to-do lists that are either for work or for personal things.
When a task is coming my way I quickly scan it and if it takes less than 5 minutes to do, I do it instantly, if I can. If it takes more than that, I either add it to my Deep Work to-do list or my shallow work to-do list.
I keep the lists in prioritized order, so I know the most important ones are always on top.
If there is a task with an important deadline, I add it to my calendar. I book a session to do this task. Booking this session takes less than 5 minutes.
By doing this I get everything out of my head and that enables me to focus on the single tasks that take more time and concentration.
Utilizing the system described above leaves me with lists divided into different types of work sessions, deep work, and shallow work.
I then use the shallow work list to add events of research and planning that will create the space needed for me to do deep work later. Usually, I defragment my calendar so I try to get a lot of the shallow work done before I do a deep work session.
Once I am ready for a deep work session, I start my routine and dive into the tasks on the list.
I wrote a short article about my routine that you can read here
The single biggest benefit for me using this system is it makes it a lot easier to deal with stress and free up space in my mind to do focused time.
I do not trust my brain to remember everything, and even if I do it will take up so much space that my very limited capacity will take a loss. I will not be able to do the same amount of deep work of the same quality and I will run out of stamina faster.
It also helps me not forget things, because my lists will work as my plan for the day, week, month, and so on. All the while I make sure to always work on the most important things first.
Unfinished or incomplete tasks take up a lot of space and a large chunk of our energy. They tend to remain in our consciousness. If we complete a task, it is erased from the memory. The brain is good at forgetting things it thinks we don't need anymore.
This is called the Zeigarnik effect.
It is not necessary to complete tasks to erase them from memory though. Simply adding them to a list to get them out of your consciousness will leave the mind at rest, if you trust your system.
Another benefit is the feeling of checking things off your to-do list. It makes you realize that you completed things, made progress, and moved forward. Finishing a day's work with a lot of completed tasks will also let you leave work with this satisfied feeling of productivity that is so important.
There is no flawless system of course, but this one helps me reduce a lot of stress and be extremely efficient.
My job does have many crucial shallow work tasks, but I also see a lot of value in availability, since I am in a managing position. Being available to spare, help, and fix unexpected problems is a top priority, but it is this constant availability that makes it so hard to have longer streaks of uninterrupted focus time.
I trust the system, which is key to really taking tasks out of the head and down to the paper or list. Without trusting it, they will linger in the mind, create disturbance, and take up space that could be used for something else. It takes a lot of energy, and the constant worry about forgetting something often leads to a fragmented focus and disturbance that can break concentration.
One issue is that I often feel fatigued when trying to reach the flow state, simply drained from the context switches during the day.
The cognitive cost of those can be a problem, but it is not always possible to do it differently, it is a part of a job and a part of being alive, social, and so on.
So therefore I accept that I do less deep work now than I did in my previous job. I then changed my focus to make sure people around me can do deep work. Then I block the team for a lot of shallow work and interruptions so they can have long streaks of focus time which is so crucial for developers. Both for their productivity and developer happiness.
I've written more about Deep Work at the workplace here.
This is not a system that works for everyone, but I highly encourage everyone to start investigating and experimenting with similar methods. The benefits and value is enormous and while I become extremely efficient and productive, it also relieves a lot of stress and pressure.
With that said, I am still fighting the ridiculous idea that everyone has to be available to anyone during the workday. In the department I manage, we praise deep work, encourage it, and create the space needed for each individual to get a productive and fulfilling working day, free from constant communication and distractions that do not create any value. It is not perfect, but it is a work in progress.
Honestly, it all comes down to: Don't read an email if you are not going to respond to it. It will take up space in your mind.