There have been times throughout my life when this deficiency has been cast in very stark and unflattering light; usually those times when circumstances overwhelm my ability to compensate for it. And there are, in all those periods, events that send me scurrying for some sort of time management information (TMI, for short), the way a man aboard a sinking ship looks for something, anything, with which to bail out the water that’s rushing in. (A bucket would be great, but a teaspoon will do if that’s all I can find. When my first job in D.C. was going down faster than the Titanic, and happened to be riding down in the elevator with the Executive Director, she asked me how I was it was going. I said “Like I’m bailing water on the Titanic with a teaspoon.”) Never mind looking for a lifejacket. That’s somewhere under all the water.
Now — when I’m facing the intersection of work and (a growing) family and blogging and any number of other activities that I might want to engage in — is one of those times. So I find myself reaching for another bucket to bail with, and some trepidation given my track record with this sort of thing (more below). But at this point might worship as a demigod the person who can show me how to get organized and stay organized — to find time to do all the stuff I have to do, and maybe a fair amount of the stuff I want to do — if it will loosen or even completely banish the knot of tension that tightly winds itself between my shoulder blades on a daily basis now.
So, here I go again. Earlier this week, I finally got desperate enough to go out and pick up a copy of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. I’m hoping to get though it during the long weekend.
It’s not like I haven’t heard of David Allen already. I’ve heard at least one of my coworkers extolling the virtues of Getting Things Done (GTD, for short), as early as a year ago, but I never bothered looking it up or buying the book. I resisted. Why? Because I know myself. That’s why. My path is littered with time management systems and devices that I adopted, used enthusiastically, even religiously, but that eventually fell by the wayside. In other words, failure.
It started when I was in school. Every year, when the time came to buy school supplies, I began to search for just the right notebook. When the Trapper Keeper from Mead came out, I bought one every year. And every year I swore that this would be the year I got organized and stayed organized. I would be one of those students who never forgot a project or assignment, never waited until the last minute to get started, and always finished on time or even ahead of time.
You can imagine how that went. I might make it until the holiday break, but usually by then it was a lost cause. Notes were scattered everywhere, if they were written down at all. The calendar would have maybe a few weeks worth of assignments on it, and the rest would be blank. The pockets for storing paper would be empty, or would contain a few lonely papers from the first week or two of class, and little more than that.
For the latter half of the year, the Trapper Keeper pretty much stayed shut.
In college, I kept a daytimer that got the same enthusiastic use in the beginning. But eventually the same thing happened. I’d enter all the phone numbers I thought I needed to start with, but new ones never quite made it. Dates? I’d write down the ones I thought were really important when I got the thing, and maybe a few more that were given in class, like exam dates. But by the end of the year it was rarely, if ever, opened.
Then I started working, still clutching my daytimer like a semi-rotted life-jacket. I knew it didn’t work all that well for me, but I hoped it would hold together well enough to keep me afloat. Because I was going into deep water when I moved to D.C. for my first real job post-college.
Not long after I started working, I found myself sitting in the middle of a day-long, mandatory, all-staff training in Total Quality Management. All. Day. At the end of the day, I didn’t know any more about it than when I started. (I even said as much in front of the new executive director. One of the great things about ADD and social skills is that you have no filter during times when you desperately need one, which manifests itself as a knack for saying precisely the wrong thing to precisely the wrong person at precisely the wrong time. This will be the only thing you do with any degree of precision.)
Towards the end of that job, desperate for something, anything, that might help, I heard a couple of co-workers recommend The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, I bought it, read it. even tried my hand a writing a mission statement, etc., and tried to understand the philosophy behind it quickly, so could get to the organization part. (I didn’t understand it then, don’t I think I fully understand it out, and can’t remember any of it anyway.)
And this time I really tried. I went out and bought a Frankly Covey planner. I faithfully bought the refills, too, for a few years; even though my “daily compass” hadn’t been updated in months by the time the year ended and it was time to recycle the old and stick the new into the the binder. Much like the beginning of the school year, the beginning of the year was a time to start afresh and swear that this time would be different.
Again, I tried. I really tried. I even got a Palm Pilot with the Franklin Covey planning software included. That’s now sitting somewhere in the bottom of the front pocket of my backpack, unused in at least a year, after a few years of habitual use.
What I know is this. I think these systems work well, or can work well, for people who have reasonably normal brains, because in order for them to work you have to remember to use them, and then use them every day. For that to work you have to have a memory. Prior to treatment, I used to repeat myself in conversation because I literally could not remember what I’d said five minutes ago to the very same person(s). My short term memory is slightly better now, but not by much. So once the novelty (we like novelty) of a new planning system wears off, the likelihood that I’ll use it decreases significantly.
Speaking of remembering, there’s the likelihood that while setting up a new system, I’ll forget some project or some task that will then come back to haunt me, landing on me like a ton of bricks and bringing to a screeching halt my nascent attempt at getting my shit together. I’ve learned to live with a certain level of low-grade stress from wondering “what have I left out/forgotten?”, because it’s not a matter of if I’ve forgotten something, but what, and how important it is. To date, I’ve never forgotten anything that wasn’t important. That’s an impending crisis that will, when it arrives, derail any attempts at time management and organization, and it’s much less likely that I’ll be able to recover and get back with “the program,” whatever the program of the moment happens to be.
Just that alone is enough to bring up a cardinal rule I learned as an adult living with untreated ADD: If I don’t do anything, I can’t do anything wrong, and then no one can blame me for it. The whole in that theory is that I’ll probably end up in a lot of trouble if “it” doesn’t get done, but that’s completely overshadowed by my bone-deep experiential knowledge that doing anything means there a good chance I’ll do something wrong. And my experience has been that the price for getting something wrong is just as high, and higher in some cases, then the price for not getting it done at all.
But there’s still stuff that needs to get done.
And that’s where a little bit of fear comes into play. If I actually sit down and take stock of everything I have to get done, what happens if there’s so much of it that I don’t have time to do anything else? Even the stuff I want to do? From work to home, what if i get it all down and realize that when all is said and done I’ve got maybe an hour a day, or less, to fit in the rest? What am I going to have to give up?
Right now, sometimes it seems like doing what I want to do requires stealing time away from what I have to do. Right now, if I’m in the middle of a task and I think of something that I want to look up, or write, I do it (if it’s something I want to write, I at least make a start or get down what’s in my head) mainly because noting it for later doesn’t work. I won’t remember if (back to the short term memory), or if I do I’ll remember it when I’m in the middle of another task. (That tendency, by the way, also makes it rather difficult to track my time, re: what I’m working on from one minute to the next.
And if I can’t do it then, I think about it until I can do it, at the expense of whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing. Because otherwise, even if I stop to take note of it for later, I won’t remember to look at the note. And just because I don’t remember it doesn’t mean it’s not important. In fact, it’s the important stuff I’m likely to forget; including the stuff that needs to get done.
Which brings me to where I am now. Tied up in a knot, clutching another book on how to untangle myself and everything else, and hoping once again “this time will be different.”
Maybe. But based on my experience, I know this much. The best time management system in the world is only as good as the operator using it. And it’s as deficient as the operator, too.