What I Learned About Productivity from My Son's Kindergarten Class

When I walked into my son’s kindergarten class last fall, I had the same reaction that I recently blogged about with Taco Bell. My thinking was: “These folks are more productive than I am!”

At Taco Bell, it stood out to me that they weren’t getting over-granular (that is, overly specific) in defining their next actions. The work units for the cooks were “make combo meal 4,” not “grab some cheese out of the bin….” For many people using the GTD approach, it’s easy to fall into the trap of making your next actions too specific. The result is that your next action list no longer tells you what you actually need to do — instead of identifying your next work units, it is only identifying the first step of what you actually will get you started into a more involved task. The Taco Bell cooks show us not to do this. Put on your next action list your next work unit, not your next literal, super-specific step (unless that super-specific step is the extent of your work unit).

At my son’s kindergarten class, the issue related to another common error when it comes to managing next actions.

In the short time that I was there, the kids in the class learned about the days of the week, the alphabet, and all sorts of other stuff. I also got a feel for how things go throughout the rest of the day, and most days in general. It was amazing to see everything that they were able to do in a day. And, how they were able to do it “stress-free.”

Which created a contrast in my mind. Here were a bunch of kindergartners basically implementing “stress-free” productivity without even knowing it, whereas I sometimes find that the GTD system — which promises “stress-free” productivity — sometimes creates more stress. What did this kindergarten class know that I didn’t?

The answer wasn’t hard to see. It came down to one fundamental, core concept: There was a place in their schedule for everything that they needed to do.

That’s it. Very simple.

We “get” this idea when it comes to organizing space: if you are organizing a closet, for example, you know how much stuff you have to put in the closet and how big it is. The stuff that you want to keep in the closet gets a spot. The other stuff doesn’t. And to the extent that you have stuff in your closet that doesn’t have a spot, your closet is disorganized.

But when it comes to organizing our time, we forget this. And — I hate to say this — GTD sometimes fuels this problem.

GTD can easily create a project-based mindset. It teaches you to have a list of projects, which you create next actions for, and those next actions go on your next action list. But it doesn’t train you to connect those actions with your actual schedule. And it, in part, seems to do this intentionally, because of the failure of so many systems that rely on a “daily to-do list.”

The problem that results is that you have a long list of next actions and no defined time to do them. The result is that you feel like you should always be doing them. Which is stressful. You are “always ready,” but your list often sits as you are unable to get to it.

Now, this is not necessarily an intrinsic to the GTD system. I doubt, for example, that David Allen has this problem. He’d probably say “nothing about GTD is contrary to defining a time to do your next actions.” And he’d be right. I’m simply speaking from experience of what I see tending to happen with people (including myself). It is easy for many of us to forget the fact that if you want to get your next actions done, it won’t happen magically. You have to define a time in your day to work on them.

Being intentional in this way does not eliminate the fact that we will do many of our next actions spontaneously, when we find ourselves right by Target, for example, when we have some Target items on our errands list. But this spontaneous component will actually happen more often if you also have a scheduled time to work on your next actions.

The other issue here — which, in my opinion, is even more significant — is this: What about ongoing, non-project stuff you need to be doing?

GTD can create a very project-based mindset. Your focus can be to get your projects done. But what about the ongoing things you want to be doing and advancing at?

This is where the kindergarten room was so brilliant. They had a defined time each day to work on the days of the week and alphabet. They also had defined times for reading and some other things. The teacher didn’t just have those things on a next action list to do “when we get the chance.” She was intentional about them.

Here’s the lesson: Don’t just define a time to do your next actions in general, although that alone is helpful. You should also define about 2-5 key ongoing priorities to you and schedule slots of time each week in your calendar to work on them.

You don’t need to create next actions for these areas. That’s part of the point — if HR is one of your many responsibilities in your job, for example, there is a lot of value in saying “from 3-5 every Thursday afternoon I’m going to think about HR strategy.” You don’t want to have to rely only on HR-related projects to keep your HR responsibility in motion; define some operational time for giving focused thought to the area and then work on the most important things that come to mind then.

More can be said on this — lots more. Lots, lots, lots more. What I need to do is define the time to pull that set of posts together …

  • http://www.wieldingthesword.com Garrett Wishall

    Great post. This post discussed a book/system and every day life, which is a great function for blogs. You wouldn’t make a book out of this post — though I guess you could — but the thought is helpful and worth saying.

    First applications for me: Working Greek study into my schedule.

  • Tom Dodds

    This is great insight. It reminds me of the illustration of a pile of rocks (life’s priorities) and a jar. You put the big rocks (i.e. top priorities) in first to ensure they are addressed. I just wish it were easier to eliminate the minutia as a manager!