a weblog by Schuyler D. Erle
Fri, 24 Mar 2006
Around this time last year, like lots of other hackers, I came down with the Getting Things Done virus, probably though not exclusively through Jo, who caught a bad case of it herself. This was in and of itself not such a bad thing. The whole point of GTD is, well, getting things done, with a focus on generating and maintaining a detailed inventory of all the "open loops", or unfinished tasks that tend to occupy one's mind for fear of losing or forgetting them. The end result is supposed to be a comprehensive list of everything you want or need to do in every sphere of your life, and a clear head to do it with.
Of course, there's different ways of approaching the technique. The cult's founder, David Allen, has his suggestions, many of which deal with paper and fixed working places, and didn't really apply well to us. Jo decided to keep her to-do lists on 3"x5" index cards. I kept mine in good old todo.txt, for all the reasons Danny O'Brien posited, plus the fact that it's online, and I don't have to lug a paper reminder with me everywhere. My concession to the GTD regime was a customized folding outline configuration for vim, along with a corresponding entry in my .vimrc. I've been meaning to write an article about how this all works for O'Reilly Net. Needless to say, there's a heading for it in my TODO file, along with 21 corresponding Next Actions.
And this is where I started to get into trouble. Stuff just kind of accumlated in my TODO file, random things, and faster than I could finish the ones that were already there. (It didn't help that Jo and I were working out of the Limehouse Town Hall map room and more or less couchsurfing around London at that time.) Finally, it got to the point where I started to find the list depressing to look at, a persistent reflection of my own feelings of disorganization and lack of discipline, and I started opening my TODO file less and less. By this point, I had more or less failed at Getting Things Done, it had failed at me, and I couldn't find anything specific in Allen's recommendations to help me stick with it.
Fast-forward to last week. I was having a long catch-up phone call with Rich, who has been Getting Things Done again in a furious fashion, after a long hiatus, to the point of reducing his email inbox to zero messages for the first time in, well, as long as I've known him, I think."
"When you put a thing on your to-do list, you are making a committment to do it," he says to me. "Meaning you aren't going to do some other things." He pauses. "So you have to choose between those things. Now, why do you have to choose?"
I think about this for a second. "Because your time is limited?" I venture hopefully.
"BECAUSE YOU ARE GOING TO FUCKING DIE," he responds.
At this, the student was enlightened.
Rich went on to observe that one's to-do list, in whatever form, is ultimately a skull on the desk, a memento mori, a reminder that our time here really is limited and we ought to make the most of it, in as much as the list is also meant to be a tool for helping one actually do so.
"Just keep telling yourself 'I'm going to die, I'm going to die, I'm going to die,'" he later said on IRC.
Operationally, I interpret this as an imperative to keep moving lingering items out of the active to-do list and into the Someday / Maybe file with the ruthless efficiency of an oncology surgeon. Or to not even let them reach the to-do list in the first place.
You have these items, too, I bet. You don't have to get rid of them, just move them to Someday and forget about them for now. You're going to die, after all.
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