Doing work as it shows up

I have been using Getting Things Done (GTD) for a long time. One of GTD's mental models is that you can be doing one of three things at a given moment:

  • Defining your work
  • Doing pre-defined work
  • Doing work as it shows up

One of my core beliefs has been that "doing work as it shows up" is the worst option of the three. It's certainly framed that way in GTD: if you don't make a plan, whatever shows up is by default the most important work. Much of GTD is about breaking the pattern of responding to work so that you can have more control.

I've been experimenting with a new tool for getting things done, org-mode. As part of that experiment I've been reducing my level of visibility for the banal maintenance tasks that had taken over my previous system.

Experimenting with lots of reactive time

For example, right now I have one task "high-priority inboxes" instead of the 5-10 separate tasks I used to have. In that one task I have checkboxes for checking email, OneNote, Google Keep, etc. This one task is helping me do all the inbox-sweeping at once, which in turn helps me stay focused. And I'm not following the GTD rule of "if you can't do it in two minutes, defer it"–in many cases I'm spending 5-10 minutes just to deal with the work rather than adding it to my system.

And I think there's a case that what I am doing is much closer to a "flow state," or a pull system along the lines of Lean, than what I've been doing. When I defer work I'm just batching it for later, often slowing down the value stream because it's taken me three days to reply to an email rather than one.

When I track how much time I'm spending on this one "high-priority inboxes" task, it's ninety minutes or more a day–a huge amount of time.

Reacting is OK

Before the last week or two, while trying to react I'd be thinking uh oh, I'm not doing pre-defined work right now and I'd be stressed out. I was thinking that doing work as it showed up was a negative. Or, I'd be thinking, "I'm spending too much time doing this when I should be doing my job." While in fact, this reactive work is most of my job.

However, now I'm realizing how much overhead I was adding by not doing the work as it showed up. There's a reasonable GTD argument that I could be deferring this work instead, but GTD isn't that great at deciding whether or not to do the work at all–I think that's the key filter that is missing either way. If I add work to the deferred list, now I'm both stressed out about my reacting time and also I'm stressed out about how much is in the queue to do later.

Successes due to reacting

Partly to cope with the amount of things going on, between my weekly review and my other recurring tasks I have been spending a lot of time double-checking meeting notes, deferred e-mails, and other work logs to make sure all my work had been identified properly. (For example, I might go through the Google Docs notes from a meeting to make sure there weren't any other action items called out for me.) By doing the work as it shows up, I feel less like I need to do this checking.

I have actually been clearing out my inboxes regularly, and only deferring larger units of work–so my GTD system is less cluttered up by quick tasks.

I have been trying to spend a bit more time on unplanned work that I identify, too–little things like exploring a manual for a tool I'm probably going to use, or spending a couple of minutes testing out some elisp code. I used to think that this work was wasted time, but now I'm realizing this unplanned work may be an important part of the creative process.