Beyond Task Management

I try to be a keen observer of the world around me. Not only is it a good exercise in mindfulness, but learning how to observe myself and the way I interact with my environment has led to a wide array of improvements in my life. For example, realizing that my energy waxed and waned throughout the day allowed me to restructure the way I work to utilize my time more efficiently. Another result of learning how to observe has been developing a new way to think about the way values impact my life. Recently, a new observation has fought its way to the forefront of my attention: installing a task management system and adopting a lifelong learning approach appear to be inextricably linked.

For me, that has manifested itself as the Getting Things Done (GTD) system popularized by David Allen in the book of the same name. While that is my specific example, I don't think my overall point is reliant on this specific system. Instead, the overall principles that installing a task management system require seem to be the same principles that predict a life full of learning.

A task management system, at it's simplest, is a way for us to keep track of the commitments, requirements, responsibilities, and various tasks that make up our lives. Our jobs, lives, hobbies, families, friends, and interests constantly serve as impetuses for things we have to do and remember. Usually, sometime during high school a teacher hands you some sort of agenda or day planner and for many people that's as close as they ever get to adopting a true task management system. I distinctly remember feverishly filling out my agenda with the previous day's to-dos before the teacher came around to check my diligence in tracking my tasks.  

In high school we can usually get by with just keeping track of everything in our heads with perhaps an occasional note written on our hands. It's not too difficult to keep everything straight when you visit the same set of classes everyday, have the same type of homework, and have people (e.g. teachers) constantly reminding you of everything you have to do. If the real world was like that, there'd be no need for anything more elaborate to keep track of everything. 

However, usually sometime in college, perhaps after the first nervous breakdown, we start to realize that our heads may not be the greatest place to keep everything. We sit down with a fresh piece of paper and crank out a massive list of everything on our mind. For a brief moment we feel better, relieved even, by seeing a clear list of all of our commitments and responsibilities. However, over time that list loses it's relevance and once again we have lapsed into a state of fogginess over what precisely we need to do.

This fogginess is where the connection to lifelong learning comes in. Operating in a fog means that we're always a little bit wary of taking on anything else. We realize that we've committed to a lot of tasks and many people are relying on us for various projects, but we're never quite sure what's on our plate. Instead of scanning the horizon for chances to take on new activities that align with our values, we scan the horizon in an effort to avoid additional requirements on our utterly taxed minds. This results in us staying in a narrow rut with our eyes down doing our best to get by. We're somewhat aware of the fact that we're missing out on excellent opportunities, but we're so caught in the fog that it doesn't seem important as merely staying the course and trying to stay afloat.

This is a problem of our own design and merely requires us snapping out of our teenage sensibilities and approach our work and our world with more than a seat-of-the-pants mindset. My experience is with GTD, so that's what I'll use to illustrate my points. In GTD, we create a system external of our own minds where we can place information about everything we've committed to on some level. Over time, we come to trust this system to hold everything so our minds are now free to do what they do best, think creatively and solve problems -- not remember things. 

The details of the system aren't important. If it allows us to place our commitments outside our own heads and to regularly see them in their entirety, then it will prove beneficial. It's only when we can see the boundaries around our work that we can make wise decisions about what else we undertake. Lifelong learning requires that we scan the horizon for opportunities to improve and grow. Knowing that we regularly analyze and assess our commitments allows us to know how much mental power and availability we have for new adventures, new ideas, and new projects.

Therein lies the greatest benefit I've received from seriously committing to a task management system. It has nothing to do with being able to get more done or being more efficient. While those are nice side effects of using GTD, what I'm most thankful for is the ability to always know, at a glance, what I need to do and whether I can commit to anything new. In the past I'd feel like I was drowning under the weight of everything I had to do. I eventually realized, however, that it wasn't because I really had that much to do -- it was because I hadn't clarified what I actually had to do. Once everything I'd committed to had been clarified and articulated, I actually had a lot more space in my life for new projects. Without GTD, or any other task management system, I'd still be slogging away on poorly defined projects, unclear tasks, and meaningless busywork.

I'm intrigued by the idea that task management systems or more than just a list of what you need to do. They seem to be the mature response to figuring out how to make the biggest impact in the world as possible. Gone are the days for most of us where tasks are laid out in front of us and someone else kept track of what you had to do. Knowledge work, creative work, whatever you want to call it, requires us to constantly determine what our jobs actually are. Our brains are pretty amazing organs, but asking them to simultaneously remember everything we need to do, decide if it's important, clarify what the actual task is, and search for new opportunities is a little ridiculous. Mindfully creating a system to alleviate some of that burden is the sign of someone who is serious about utilizing their abilities and opportunity.

My familiarity is with GTD, but it doesn't have to be the only way to keep track of your life. What is your task management system like? Have you noticed any changes in the way you interact with your environment since having implemented it? I'd love to hear your input in the comment section below.