Over the years I have found variations of this “weekly review,” along with at least two planning retreats a year, to be tremendously helpful. When I have done them consistently, I have been happier and more productive, and when I have not done both consistently, it’s usually been a fairly expensive oversight in terms of losing/wasting considerable time and energy (and ofttimes, money).
It’s surprisingly easy though, as the proverbial saying goes, to climb a ladder, only to find it is leaning against the wrong wall.
My task management system right now is a bit more "in flux" than I would like – I am creating some software for managing tasks, and I am “eating my own dog food” as they say (i.e. using it myself). It’s currently far enough from being finished that its functionality is still pretty sketchy, and the net result of this is that there is a lot more bouncing around in my head right now than I would like.1
So, this morning, before I even got to looking at my master task list, I found myself internally asking four questions:
"What do I have to do?"
"What do I need to do?"
"What do I want to do?"
"What do I get to do?"
I think it’s advantageous to look at things from a number of different perspectives, because generally it elicits a depth of understanding which would otherwise not be there. The more of an “J” you are2, the more you will want to have all your tasks resolved, lined out, and clearly evaluated ahead of time as to their value. (I've seen task managers, for instance, even go so far as to give each task a "point value" to help prioritize them). There is something to be said though, for just exploring the tensions between different perspectives as well. (Note: Knowing where you are on the J <-> P spectrum can be very helpful to understanding your approach to planning).Here’s the insight that I noticed as I was asking these few questions: The tasks that came up when I asked each of them were very different – each question brought forth in my mind an entirely different kind of task set than the other questions did. Here’s what I noticed about each one:
"What do I have to do?"
This question brought up in my mind all the external obligations that I'm carrying around. The key distinction was that they were external – in other words, what was motivating me to do them was not something inside of me (my heart/mind/spirit), but rather concern or fear about consequences from outside of me, for not doing them."What do I need to do?"
The tasks that come up when you ask yourself this question are mostly about external obligations, some of which may be obligations you shouldn’t even be entertaining. Pay attention to this list, as I am noticing the more I ask it, the more I am finding heavy burdens I have committed myself to, which do not line up with what I want to be doing long-term, nor what I value personally.
Many people use the phrases “have to” and “need to” interchangeably, but I am noticing when I use them in speaking to myself, they have a subtly different meaning. “Have to” seems to link, for me at least, more to external obligations and consequences, whereas “need to” seems to link directly with my core values. I think of it as “What do I need to do to get where I want to go, or to live according to the values that I want to live by?”"What do I want to do?"
One can think of this one as a farmer might think of planting seed: If you want to have a crop, you need to plant it. You don’t have to – no one will put you in jail if you don’t – but you need to, if you’re going to get the outcome you're wanting.
For me, this brought about two (usually) very different kinds of “to-dos”:"What do I get to do?"
A) Tasks that line up with what I dream of doing, if money and “making a living” (which usually refers to external obligations) were no object.
B) Things I want to do just for pure fun – things that don’t necessarily have a “purpose,” or any kind of deep meaningful connection to what I want to trade my life for, but nonetheless provide small fountains of joy.
I think it’s worth paying attention to both of those. If you’re the kind of person who organizes your work like I do, odds are good that you are also the kind of person who is prone to working perhaps more hard than you should, or giving a greater percentage of your life to “work” than perhaps is best. Pure fun has a way of levying that a bit.
Pay attention to what you think is fun, but also pay attention to what produces that deeper sense of joy which has more to do with meaning than it does with entertainment. In the long haul, meaning will produce the greater joy. That said, some of the most meaningful events of all, are those where you’re simply having fun with people you love.
This one is a two-edged sword for me. On the one hand, my first reaction to it stems from years of learning to rephrase negative situations as positive ones; i.e. I “get” to do something that I don’t really want to do. At this point, the phrase almost has a kind of a wry smile attached to it for me... and internally I notice a voice inside cynically saying “yeah, yeah, yeah...,” laughing at my own attempt to reframe something to myself. Intentional self-delusion with a sense of humor, maybe.
The other side of that sword though, is a true and authentic one, which is rooted more in thankfulness and gratitude than in cynical reframing disguised as benign self-deception. What, literally, do I get to do?
For instance, right now I am typing this on my laptop computer (dictating a lot of it, actually), which is one of a number of computers that I own. I’m typing it in a warm comfortable office in my house, which I’m grateful for. I have an Internet connection that I get to use. I like programming, and if all goes well today, I will get to program later this afternoon. I get to write this article/blog post.
For those who are fairly ambitious by nature/driven/motivated, this “get to” question can have a way of settling them in for a bit, making oneself think about what all has gone right, and what is working well. It can be a way of celebrating victories.
The flip side of that is, the more ambitious among us will generally blow through this question too quickly, because it doesn’t “accomplish” as much of the others do. I’m still thinking about what I think about this question, because I just came up with this whole thing very recently, and I’m still trying to pay attention to my own reactions.
If you find some of your own thoughts, reactions, or question which line up with what I’ve typed here, or differ, I’d love to hear your comments.
1) One of the main advantages of using some sort of “trusted task management system,” like that recommended by GTD (and most other time management systems), is that it gives you a "satchel" of sorts to keep all of your tasks in, so they aren’t fluttering around in your mind all day. The key, of course, is actually getting it to the place that it’s a trusted enough system that your brain lets them go once you've put them in -- in other words, you actually put them out of your mind when you put them into your system.
2) I'm referring here to the Myers-Briggs/Keirsey temperament model. J stands for "judging," and P stands for "perceiving." The former prefer things settled, and the latter prefer to leave their options open. More info here, here, and here, and this is a great book if you find such things of interest.