Focus on habits rather than projects to avoid distraction

GTD was great for breaking the cycle of disorganization that I’d allowed myself to fall into. But now that I’ve practiced it for a few years, I’m finding another approach to organizing my time is more effective: habits and routines.

Putting together a comprehensive system that allowed me to keep track of all of the commitments I’d made to myself and others—that was revolutionary for me. GTD instilled great habits like capturing important items as they come to my attention, or “writing things down,” as they used to call it. I developed the habit of keeping a calendar and referring to it daily. And spending some time performing regular reviews of the things that matter to you is an extremely valuable practice.

I still like GTD in theory, but I’ve realized over time that I’m not really interested in increasing my productivity in the GTD sense of the word. I’m less and less interested in getting more done in less time. Instead, I’m looking to streamline my life, eliminating as much as possible so I can focus on a few core things that really enrich my life.

GTD itself doesn’t encourage you to continue to perform meaningless work, but it’s an easy trap to fall into if you’re just working the GTD system every day. GTD is a bottom up system designed for people who are completely overwhelmed and crushed by a nonstop flood of new information and tasks. It grew out of David Allen’s coaching practice, and he worked mostly with executive types.

Once you have achieved a level of control through GTD practices, though, it’s easy to get addicted to the feeling of checking off items on your list.

And that list will never, never be empty. I’m a creative, motivated person, and I can invent more items in a few hours than I can ever hope to complete. GTD demands that each of these items should be captured and processed.

I just don’t have the time to keep up with the vast mountain of ideas my brain generates. I could easily spend several hours per week on maintaining a GTD system and still feel like it was leaky and incomplete.

Lately I’ve shifted gears. Instead of maintaining an ever-shifting, ever-growing list of projects and next actions, I’ve tried to automate as much of my day as possible. If I want to achieve a goal, I look to see what habits I can build that, practiced daily, will move me closer to that goal.

One of my major goals for the next year is this: Become a prolific writer.

In GTD terms, that’s a project. I could define a vision for that goal, then break it down into smaller sub-projects, then next actions. And I could start cranking away on those actions.

So I might decide that the first project I want to tackle is publishing a book. So I get to work and start hacking out sections and chapters. But a book needs to be marketed, so I create next actions for marketing: Start a Twitter account on the topic. Create a landing page to collect email addresses. Write blog posts about the topic.

See what’s happened? By focusing on the project, I’ve already drifted away from focusing on my goal, which is to become a prolific writer. Focusing too intensely on projects will make ancillary tasks grow in importance. And now I’m spending more like 80 percent of my time knocking out clearly defined next actions related to marketing, and neglecting the more nebulous “write a book” that is really more tightly aligned with my long-term goal.

This is exactly what happened on my first book project. Which I still haven’t finished, by the way.

Here’s how my new, habits-first approach played out when I decided to tackle my goal of becoming a prolific writer. I started by looking at my goal and thought about what I could do every single day that would help me achieve it over time.

I looked at successful writers and saw that they espoused a “write every day” philosophy. So I realized that I needed to cultivate a habit of daily writing.

I decided that dedicating time every day to writing was more important than any single project. Instead of focusing on writing a blog post or launching a book, I’ve put my mental energy into showing up at my keyboard every morning at 6:30 a.m., coffee in hand, and putting in some writing time. I spend the first 30 minutes or so writing about any topic that’s on my mind that day, just to clear the decks a bit and get the words flowing. Then I spend three pomodoros writing my next book. Not marketing, not tweaking my workflow. I’m either researching the book, outlining it or writing it.

This focus on keeping an appointment with myself has prevented me from getting sidetracked on tasks that seem related to the project I’m working on but don’t help me as I pursue my ultimate goal.