1. Academics Tend to Overestimate One-Step Actionables

Those who live and breathe and move in an academic environment are so used to doing the things they have to do everyday (e.g., writing papers, reading books, finding articles, studying in workgroups, etc.) that they often misjudge one-step actionables. Thus an academic is more likely to think of “Find a topic” as a one-step actionable with its next action as “@ Library: Next action to find a topic”; but the actionable is actually a more-than-one-step action (i.e., a project). There is more than one step and quite a bit more thinking that needs to go into this task which makes it a Project and not a one-step actionable. Hence there are many supposedly one-step actionables on an academic’s next actions list that actually need to go to their Projects list for further brainstorming, outcome visioning, and breaking down into further actionables. I call them “actionable chunks.” We can’t do actionable chunks; we have to do actionable bits. And so the chunks have to be broken down into smaller bits in order for them to get done. So one way academics can move more efficiently in their GTD® workflows is to reassess their action lists to see if they have overestimated items on that list. There may be some seemingly one-step actionables there that are really Projects that need to be broken down further. But because academics are so used to stumbling through actionable chunks–like writing a research paper by forcing themselves headlong through the process–it becomes really hard for them to break the bad habit of overestimating one-step actions.

2. Academics Have More “Look into…” Projects

David Allen speaks about these quite a bit. A “Look into…” project is something that involves a first step that you know is going to lead to another set of steps but there is no way to know the contours of the project in their entirety before beginning the project. Thus “Look into caretaking facilities for my aging parents” is the first step of a look into project one can’t know the entire contours of in advance before looking into it. The project needs more concretes that provide the ‘teeth’ or ‘hooks’ to pull you into the project–sort of like what a thesis begins to provide the ‘look into…” project that is a research paper or dissertation. Once the thesis is honed and refined enough; once one has ‘looked into’ enough things, eventually the thesis provides enough of a ‘hook’ to provide the contours of the project that give the final vision of what is needed to see it through to completion. But academics tend to have a lot more of these “look into…” projects; and hence, lots of their work everyday is heading into these unexplored frontiers which they know is going to pile on a lot more stuff for them to have to define and do. That regular experience can create a lot of anxiety and aversion that makes so many of us academics the chief of procrastinators. Why do we procrastinate? Because, as academics, we are so used to “look into…” actions that throw on the piles of new work and research we have to do. We then become frequently accustomed to the fear that whatever “look into…” action we complete is going to lead us to a bunch more stuff we have to do.

3. Academics Have More High Energy Tasks to Complete

This is true for anybody and not just academics; but it is true for academics in the sense that most of what they do everyday involves research, writing, editing, revising, reading, etc. And the “intensity” that is often required in terms of concentration is very high for most of this work they have to do everyday. Academics read books and articles with jargon and technical terminology in their area of specialization; and this ‘dense’ content requires a proportional ‘density of intensity’ with respect to any task related to it, whether it be reading it, writing it, editing it, or researching it. So when an academic looks at their action list, there is not the same sort of proportionality with respect to high versus low levels of energy required to complete their tasks. David Allen’s “time –> energy –> priority” comes into play here. Of course an academic only has so much time and so much energy to complete the tasks they need to get done every day, but part of what makes it so complicated is that when that caffeine buzz wears off at about 3pm in the afternoon and they really only have the energy for low-level tasks, they are staring at a list of actions that require a lot more energy to complete. GTD® can’t really fix this problem, but it does at least diagnose it. GTD® can’t circumvent the human limitations–and the academic limitations–of energy-level and time needed to complete any given task. The problem is that most academics just seem to have a lot more of them.

4. Academics Have to Wade Through More Information Before They Know What Something Is

Another issue for academics has to do with getting tripped up with the very first question in processing stuff in their Inboxes: “What is it?” The reason for this is that much of what academics have to do is read, and reading tends to come in “piles”. Thus even though David Allen recommends processing items one item at-a-time, much of what the academic has to contend with in her inbox everyday consists of more than one-page things to do. Thus when someone drops a 50-page article in the inbox that the academic needs to read, when the academic picks it up to ask “What is it?” they may have to read through beyond just the title and sub-title to figure that out. That takes longer than 2 minutes but is often necessary to eliminate reading one really doesn’t need (or want) to do. And I bet that there is a tendency among many academics to process reading by not really defining much of it in advance and just dumping it into a “read whenever” folder/pile (which really just equates to a “stuff in here will never get read” folder). Reading, even if it is stapled together, binder-clipped together, or paper-clipped together, it still mentally “feels” like a pile. And piles don’t process as easily or as well as pieces of paper. And this may be why so many academics find themselves with growing piles of ‘stuff’ on the floors and shelves of their offices.

5. Academics Have More Reading to Do

Academics have a lot more reading to do. And the amount and difficulty of the reading academics have to do make that reading mentally feel like something that is somewhere between a one-step action and a full-blown project. It feels like a project because of how much reading is involved and how difficult it is to read. One feels overwhelmed by this in the way that one feels overwhelmed by the ambiguity of a large project that has yet to have all of its components defined. But it is not a project; it’s reading. It’s outcome vision is just simply “I’ve completed reading this book for Project X” with not a lot more that needs to be said about it than that; and not a lot more to be done about it than to just read it. But stepping up to a task like this generally involves stepping up to something that overwhelms. And if there is one thing that GTD® teaches it is that overwhelming things need to be broken down further. This gets back to the earlier points made about academics overestimating one-step actionables; and this one is no different. It needs to be broken down into more manageable, bite-sized elements like “Read chapter 1 of book in order to further refine your thesis for the dissertation.” While I am still wading through more reading than I will finish in my lifetime, the three things that have helped me out the most with getting more reading done is to list just the first, minimal action needed to get into the reading (e.g., “Read chapter 1” instead of “read this whenever you get time”); the second is to specify the estimated time it will take me to complete some reading along with the next action (e.g., Read-Review(<60min): Read this…), and finally to always specify the purpose for the reading (e.g., in order to discover new ways to improve my writing, in order to find out why…, because Joe sent you this email to read, etc.). Without a purpose, a time, and a manageable action step I’ve found that reading just piles up and I never get to it. But if these things are already defined up-front I am way more likely to be able to pull out my Read-Review folder when I’ve got some time and easily step toward a (<30min) reading item I know I’ve got that amount of time to complete.

6. Academics Often Lose Space & Rarely Purge

Finally, academics also have the added difficulty of having lots of books, articles, etc.–they’ve essentially collected their own private mega-library of these things–and they are rewarded tenure with an office the size of a prison cell. They either need to build a new addition to their home with the pittance they are paid for their work and teaching so they can house all of those rare gems of books and articles they’ve collected during their lifetime, or they have to split it up between home and office; or they have to cull through it all and throw it out into a pile outside of their office and call out for their understudies and graduates to come by and have their pick. But academics often have a really difficult time purging their shelf space of books they haven’t read in over five years or articles they once used in some project. They never know when they’re going to need it again to teach a particular class, use it in a book, or need to cite it in some future work; and so they have great hesitation in getting rid of books, purging files, etc.; and yet to be true to the GTD® workflow and maintain “mind like water” they simply must develop the habit of regularly purging their files and book shelves.

Discovering these things has not necessarily improved my GTD® workflow in academia–perhaps a bit here or there–but it has helped to at least diagnose some of the bottlenecks that are unique to the academic who has connected with the principles of GTD® but still finds implementing them in an academic setting to come with some unique difficulties.