By Gideon Strauss

“You should really write about this for Fieldnotes Magazine.”

My colleague Stephanie Struck shakes her head as she looks at the two big boxes of my papers that we’re sorting through. There are important notes and documents in these boxes, and I’ve been trying to get to sorting through all this paper for months, in the midst of our office move and all the other urgent and important tasks that constitute my work days. In desperation, I’ve asked Stephanie to work through the boxes with me for an hour at a time. We’re making progress … but for a productivity geek, this is not a happy situation.

Gideon's work desk on July 18, 2007

Gideon’s work desk on July 18, 2007

The picture above is from my (now less frequently used) Flickr account, and documents my “Getting Things Done” (GTD) setup, during the summer of 2007. If you scroll over the original Flickr picture, notes pop up identifying the various elements of my GTD setup. The subscript to the picture reads, “After months, the interaction between my schedule for the year, hipsterPDA system, Outlook, and physical inboxes now runs smoothly, and I am happily Getting Things Done. Although my version of GTD is very much simplified and non-neurotic …”

If only this were still true. (The “runs smoothly” part.) The setup wasn’t a bad one at all (I note someone pinned my picture of it to Pinterest). And the process worked pretty well for me for several years. I came close to the Holy Grail of workflow management, inbox zero. I regularly did my weekly review. My hipsterPDA helped me keep track of daily next actions and other lists (and made it into The Times Online). I planned my time in terms of an ideal week template.

But sometime during the past year or so of pushing without much pause, I fell off the workflow management wagon, and reverted to something close to crisis management. Were it not for the help of my colleagues, especially three successive rockstar executive assistants, things would have veered even further out of control. But as it is, far too many opportunities fall through my fingers, far to many relationships go poorly tended, far too much information becomes difficult to retrieve.

It’s time to get back to proximate flow. Not with the over-optimistic trust in tools and techniques of my worst GTD geek days, but with a tempered resolve to hem in the chaotic volume of tasks that has flooded over the boundaries of my available work time, so that I will once again be able to prioritize well, keep my promises, respond to people who contact me, store information where I can easily retrieve it as needed to aid my memory, and practice rhythms and rituals that enable me to push when I need to push and pause when I need to pause. Today’s “purge, purge, purge” was a good step in the right direction. In addition to continuing to purge my boxes of papers, Stephanie and I are working on a fresh ideal week template to better align my weekly calendar with my most important priorities. And I am contemplating other ways to recapture responsible control of my work hours.

I wonder what you do when you find yourself in a situation similar to mine. What do you do when you lose your hold on good habits that had helped you for a long time? How do you recover practices and processes that you have found to be beneficial, but that somehow you have not been able to sustain? What has helped you when you have found necessary things difficult – too difficult?

Gideon Strauss is the executive director at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and also editor of Fieldnotes Magazine.

Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email The Editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.


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