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GTD Tips: On Your Weekly Review, Do One Thing At A Time

Post Series: GTD Tips

Another interesting thing (among a plethora of other useful gtd tips) I picked up from the David Allen book on Getting Things Done. This is the second one after the successful never have the same thought twice, unless you like that thought. This time it’s about time :-). Or how not to lose it. Or lose your brains out during your weekly review.

We act by habit. Most of the time. And one of the worst habits we all have is: “do as much as you can in as little time as you can afford”. This behavior makes you “scan” your list of to do’s, instead of linearly processing it. When you have your carefully crafted to do list in front of you, instead of taking each item at a time, you jump to the one that seems more “appropriate”. Well, that’s bad.

It’s the same behavior that makes you try to “intelligently pick” the best option for your holidays out of 20 offers on your desk, with no method at all. Or to get self-hypnotized in a super market by trying to chose a damn fine shirt out of one hundred twenty two different models.

It makes you skip things, by making you believe you’ll win some time. 10 seconds, a minute, 3 minutes… It makes you get out of your natural flow, in the hope you’ll find quickly something doable. Or enjoyable. It makes you a very badly organized person, at the end of the day.

Why do we do that? Why do we act like that? Well, most of all because (almost) everybody acts like that. We learned by example. Of course we can learn to do it the other way around, and this is where GTD comes to the rescue. But until now, we’ve been tricked to think that we can “pleasurably” pick tasks that are more appealing than others. Instead of processing the list one by one, item after item.

The first big disadvantage of chaotically processing our to do list is that we will develop a strange emotional link towards our stuff. We will tend to pick some other things to do over the others. And the last ones will become, slowly, unpleasurable. We won’t like to do them anymore. Because we know we will find others that we do like.

Well, that is so wrong. Stuff is just stuff. Don’t mistake the “stuff” with your passion. You get most of life when you act with passion, but those things that you have to do out of passion, are equal. Are just things. Don’t become the prisoner of things, remain the master of your passion.

The second disadvantage is that it weakens your focus. Your focus is your primary source of energy. It puts you there with all your being. If you jump over the next item, in the hope that something else more interesting – or maybe urgent – will be there, well, your focus is already at half the power. And when you start rambling, you can bet your focus is just taking a rest, leaving you exhausting yourself with a random choice of to do’s.

And the third one is related to the fact that you can actually do only one thing at a time. Your brain is designed in such a way that it can only process one single action at a time. Of course it triggers a lot of other subconscious links and it feeds your memories and logical triggers, but when you act consciously you can only seriously process one item at a time. An average person can perceive no more than 5-7 different things in a normal state. Your brain is actually perceiving millions of pieces of information, but again, consciously, you will only have access to 5-7 of them. And a simple to do solving situation requires an average of 4-5 different pieces of information that you can put together. Now you get it?

If you are doing “more” you are just escaping your normal reality, your natural flow, and you create another one, far more complicated and difficult, that will eventually hijack your focus. I guess that’s the reason why the weekly review is one of the most difficult exercises in GTD.

Having this type of processing requires a lot of will – I will not say discipline, only will – but it will install order in the chaos.

And you’ll notice a very subtle result, after several successful “one item a time” reviews: more clarity, more focus. It’s a direct consequence of the fact that you actually preserve, produce, and, eventually, have more energy, in a linear activity.

Ever had the same feelings about “one item a time” processing? Feel free to comment on that.


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This Post Has 4 Comments
  1. The stuff is virtually infinite. It’s not the stuff that weakens us, but the attention we give to it. The stuff won’t exists if we won’t pay attention to it, we are actually creating it by letting our attention to be distracted.

    So, if we keep the focus centered, other stuff will actually won’t have the energy to emerge from.

    It’s an inside matter, not an outside one…

  2. Never under estimate how much “stuff” distracts you and slows you down. Been doing some interesting experiments with ‘single window’ computer use – even a window visible open in the background slows you down by distracting the eyes. Imagine what all that background “stuff” in our lives is doing. Trash it :). Focus has an amazing effect, but it is hard to do!

  3. Thanks, and good luck with your Ready Set Do application! It was one of the first GTD softwares that I tried, and although I didn’t used it further, I learned a tremendous amount out of it. Thanks again 🙂

  4. This is an excellent post!! When I decided to create my own digital approach to GTD on the Mac, the Ready-Set-Do! program, I made the one-at-a-time principle its core. I absolutely LOVE the extra focus this one-at-a-time approach affords me on my weekly review. And I know of no other GTD program or online system that understands this. Most GTD programs and implementations are simply list managers; and as you point out, lists tend to encourage the bad habit of only doing the things you want rather than just processing them one at-a-time. Again, thanks for this post. Very well done, and right on-the-mark!!

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