How do you feel productive when you’re not doing anything at all?

This notion of feeling accomplished, of wanting to do things, has always haunted me.  Even as a young child, I would talk about things I was going to do “someday.”  I had this idea that I would make movie props, that I would assemble the perfect room (from a photo on a Christmas card I got from my grandmother once), and made lists of things that I wanted to do (and, for some reason, never got done).  I remember, vividly, a list of 100 things I wanted to do before I died.  The list is gone; the impulse has not.

In High School and just after, this manifested itself in a creative impulse, to write and make ‘zines.  I arbitrarily picked “writer” out of thin air one day when asked about what I wanted to be, and have since pursued it in a manner that could best be described using “haphazard” and “slipshod.”  But the only way I knew to do this was to keep trying, and each new scheme seemed to materialize in the real world when I would say, “I can’t, I have stuff to do,” when my friends would ask if I wanted to do something that evening, also a habit I keep to this day.  Either by habit or by some innate feeling from earlier, I now carry with me this feeling of needing to be doing something else, somewhere else, at most times during the day.  I have trained myself so completely that sitting down I am often paralyzed by six other things I should be doing instead of sitting, and in some cases, ways to do those tasks while seated.  Even lying in bed feels like something that I should try and multi-task.

Put another way: even when I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing – or, the void forfend, what I want to be doing – I still feel like I need to be doing something else.  While my Honeymoon was amazing, and I did some of the greatest things of my life with the person I wanted to be with the most, the whole time a nagging sense of what I was not doing seemed omni-present, as if I could easily get up and do that thing at any given moment.  But these “things” I want to do, this “stuff” that I feel such a compulsion toward.  “Clean Basement,” “Sort old files,” and “delete cruft” all seem a little hard to do at The Grand Canyon.  And yet, they nag, the persist, and the overwhelm.

Part of what makes self-help appealing is the notion that you can change yourself by reading a book.  And, you can; just not the way we want it to.  When we read a book, we incorporate the ideas and thoughts into our daily narrative, at least during the period we spend reading the book.  When we finish, we either forget the story or remember it fondly, and how often we remember it becomes how important the book was to us.  But when it comes to the idea of self-help, we want the book to have a less subtle effect.  We are hoping that the mechanical act of reading is like inputing ourselves into the machine of the book, and that when it spits us out the other side, we will somehow be changed into the kind of person the book wants us to be.  No self-help book – not even Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – is that good.

I spent my teen years booking at a bookstore, spent six years working in a Barnes & Noble, and then six additional years at college, getting my degree.  I have grown up around books, and my family has always been avid readers.  (Or, at least, were; computers have sort of changed all of us.)  So I have seen the power that these books can have on someone.  But when I have read these kinds of books, I have found them to be incredibly lacking.  I usually feel as if my problems are not being addressed, that there is letting room for my kind of thinking in their view, or worse, that the steps to get from my kind of thinking to theirs were not clearly outlined.  How was I to have the same kind of epiphany as they did?  It seemed as impossible as climbing Kilimanjaro.  How?  Where do you begin?

Trying to implement Getting Things Done is interesting, because at the core is not a lot of mumbo jumbo, and even the system is almost secondary to the idea at the center: you need to be very honest with yourself about what you will actually end up doing, and discard the rest.  And in this case, being “honest” is the hardest part; you need to be brutally honest.  Case in point: I have had to look at my daily reminders, and ask myself why I have each of them, and even worse, why I consistently ignore them, or mark them completed when I haven’t.  I have daily reminders for things I do three times a week, on a good week.  At what point do I look at myself and say, “I need to re-think this; clearly something is wrong.”

And, to make matters worse, even the system – something that David Allen encourages you to change to fit your needs – contains something to learn from.  Each section of it creates a mini-metaphor about reflection and revisiting assumptions you haven’t questioned, to the point that you begin to wonder about what parts to skim and what parts to digest.  While not strictly a Self-Help book, GTD is very much presenting as one in many ways.  But, like all self-help books, it will not change you unless you want to be changed.

I have boxes in my basement, left over from my childhood.  Stuff taking up space, cluttering my life.  Every year I say I’m going to get rid of them, and I don’t.  GTD will never solve this problem for me until I really want to get rid of them, and it is that problem, that concern, that is really at the heart of my frustration with the book.  Because, again, the book isn’t the problem; I am.

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