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On (Not) Getting Things Done

The last thing I feel like I am during this pandemic is productive. As one of my friends with small children said, "I feel like I have minus time." Between doing our day jobs, watching our son and all the cooking and housework, there's not time for much else. And when we do have down time, the Hub and I are either keeping in touch with friends and family or watching one episode of a T.V. series (we've finally made it through the Sopranos, so can maybe move into this decade now).

Thing is, my friends without kids tell me they don't necessarily feel like they are being productive either. I've made peace with the fact that this isn't a normal time -- there is a lot of stress and worry for everyone -- and just getting our work done, taking care of our son, and keeping everything ticking along without any major meltdowns is actually being productive. I've also lowered my standards -- on everything.

There are projects and things I would ideally like to do - especially with all this time in the house - but most of them are just going into the bucket of: to do when I have child care again. Case closed.

However, I thought this might be a good time to finally post my thoughts on the classic David Allen trademarked methodology: Getting Things Done. I resisted reading this book for so long - it just seemed so complicated and systematic - which I guess is what an organizational system should be! It helped me finally read it when he released a new version of the classic text last year, and I had listened to some interviews with him around that time.

I've been test driving the methodology for the past six months and I have to say that even though there are times where I find myself drifting away from it, abandoning the discipline it creates, I always come back. Particularly right now, when I need to get things done, and have so little time.

If you have ever considered giving it a try, here are the reasons why I think it works:

It focuses on decision making. We are constantly bombarded with demands coming into our lives through various "inboxes". Emails, texts, phone calls, to-do items from meetings, ideas you come up with, assignments given to you, and even sometimes physical mail. One of the main tenets of Allen's system is that it forces you to make decisions about all these inputs. What is it that you actually want or need to do? You practice making decisions, over and over again. My Dad likes to remind me that one of the things that gets harder as you get older is making decisions. So I figure if I practice this more often I might not lose the skill quite as easily.

The system is tailored to you and is fully adaptable to how you live and work. There is no one app or computer program, there is no special journal you are advised to use. You have to figure out the best way for you to use this process. This means, however, that it is not a quick fix. But I am always, always skeptical of quick fixes. In fact, Allen suggests that it takes two years to get the full benefits of GTD. I like being given two years to get used to something.

It gets rid of what Allen calls the "open loop" - that nagging feeling that you just have so much to do you don't even know where to begin. Instead of just a random to-do list, GTD helps you put everything you need to do in the right place so that nothing falls through the cracks. Allen explains that all the things that one person has to do are "open loops", meaning that your brain keeps trying to deal with these things until you have correctly classified them somewhere. And it's true - once you put something you need to do into the system, even if it's on a "someday/maybe" list where, let's face it, it might never get done, you can let go of it.

GTD allows for the unpredictability of life. It's a very nimble system which makes you able to drop whatever you are doing if something really urgent comes up, but allows you to be able to find your way back. So many time management systems or lists are just too rigid -- such as trying to block out time on your calendar or making a "today" to-do list. How annoying is it to plan to do something at a particular time or day and to see it just not get done?

Next-action steps helps combat procrastination. Everyone says having kids helps eliminate procrastination and that may be true to some extent, because you realize that kid-free concentration time is precious. But I'm pretty sure this wears off eventually as (pre-pandemic) I had already figured out ways to claw back a bit more time and the procrastination was creeping back in. But because "next-action steps" as Allen defines them, are very clear cut, it's a lot easier to avoid procrastination as doing things takes much less thought and energy (you've already done the decision-making, as per above, you see).

There's no way I can explain his methodology in one blog post -- besides, there are so many other zealots out there that do this -- but I just wanted to give readers a window into why I think it's something worth checking out if they're interested. It is still early days for me of experimenting with it, but I do feel like Allen's system addresses all the problems I had encountered with all my attempts to organize myself prior. I honestly wish I had read it years ago. And when life goes back to being a little bit more normal (someday!), I am hoping it may actually help me get those draft books finished!

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

My Child, The Zen Master

It's hard at the moment to know what to say from lock down in the middle of a pandemic. The Hub and I have now been in our house -- apart from daily walks with the Little Guy for exercise and to buy groceries -- for nearly four weeks. We are spending our time working a lot, watching a nearly-18-month-old child and cooking and cleaning. It's surreal and exhausting.

But we are lucky. We -- and our friends and families -- are healthy (for now). We still have jobs. The wifi is strong. We have enough food and coffee and chocolate and booze. Six seasons of the Sopranos may be a little retro, but it is taking our minds off of things. Our marriage still seems intact and we are getting to see the Little Guy grow and develop at a magical age where he is suddenly wanting to be a little autonomous adult.

There are so many people out there who are really suffering right now and I wish they weren't. Whether it's the kind of tragedy we see in the news, or the kind that only that individual knows behind closed doors, I think with life as it was turned upside down, every person has their own personal cross to bear.

I suppose like with all crises, whether you are directly affected or not, you're basically just trying to get through the day in one piece, and will figure everything else out when you're out the other side. And although I am finding that having a very young child in this situation is tough, it is actually also a big blessing.

Because having a child is like living with a sometimes irritating pint-sized zen master.

Children live in the present moment. Just like they don't understand the idea of having to get out of the bath in five minutes, they also don't worry about what isn't happening now to them. The Little Guy isn't worried about running out of loo roll (although he doesn't use the stuff to be fair), or pasta or rice. He isn't worried about much, in fact, other than where his next rich tea biscuit is coming from, or where that ball that he just threw ended up. 

One of my favorite things to do is just watch him play. Fascinated with the pull chain on a window blind or a coaster or whatever is new favorite toy -- sometimes just one of our remote controls. It is a little like time stands still if I can just relax and be with him in the moment. I say I haven't had time for meditation since he's been born, but I am getting some in when I'm with him -- and allow myself to be really with him.

I had a lot of plans for this year, especially as I felt like I was just emerging from the post-maternity leave haze. And now of course, the Universe is clearly laughing at me. In the meantime, I'm just going to try to slow down, do whatever I can to help others when it's possible, appreciate what I have, and stay in the moment with the Little Guy.

I hope all of you are doing O.K. in these difficult times. Write to me, tell me how you are. And for those of you who are key workers on the front lines -- or supporting them -- I have so much respect and gratitude for what you are doing. Thank you.

My Reading Year - 2019

In 2019, I read 12 books, which I think isn't too bad going for a year in which I spent most of my time taking care of a baby. Audio books were a godsend -- I did a lot of "reading" while pushing a pram around the mean streets of Streatham, on my way to swimming lessons and sensory classes.

This also explains why four of the 12 books were parenting ones -- two on weaning, one on talking to toddlers and the last on everything in-between from the Baby Whisperer. I'm not sure I read 100% of the latter as I skipped around so much, but I did read many sections more than once as I grasped for some way to get the Little Guy to sleep through the night or wake up later in the morning. So I'm definitely counting it.

It turned out to be a very non-fiction kind of year -- 10 of the 12 were from that category. Although I wouldn't say that meant that they were boring. In fact, quite the opposite. The Spy and the Traitor from Ben MacIntyre was riveting, Educated by Tara Westover was jaw-dropping, and Death at the Priory by James Ruddick made quite the impact on me as I walked nearby to where it all took place in Balham. A crime that was equivalent in popularity to the real-crime docudramas people binge watch today.

The only non-fiction read that I'm sure others might mock me for, was the classic self-help Getting Things Done, which I actually found extremely helpful. Enough to have written a full post on it, which I haven't published yet, so not sure if I can win the prize for getting things done. But watch this space.

I seemed to enjoy everything I read - my average rating for 2019 was 4.3 stars (out of five). I gave five of the books five stars, six of them four stars and only one three stars. Perhaps I was just ecstatic to be reading anything.

There were also quite a few unfinished books that littered my reading path. My treat of reading a Marian Keyes book by the pool was not very successful. I only read half of it when the Hub and I took turns sitting by the pool reading in 20 minute intervals during our holiday. Then I never picked it up again. I will now have to re-read the whole thing this year by the pool and not get to the second half again.

I also abandoned Kill Your Friends, which I was reading for a second time for book club. I forgot how violent and sexuality explicit it was -- now that I'm a mom I was shocked!

And Andre Agassi's autobiography: so long. I'd still like to finish it, but I think I started it back in 2018, so let's see. 

If you're interested in the detail, below is a full list of the books with a link to my (short) Goodreads reviews. Happy reading in 2020 everyone!

1. Death at the Priory: Love, Sex and Murder in Victorian England by James Ruddick

2. Educated by Tara Westover

3. Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter & Organize to Make More Room for Happiness by Gretchen Rubin

4. Baby-led Weaning: Helping Your Baby to Love Good Food by Gill Rapley 

5. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben MacIntyre

6. Weaning Made Easy Baby-Led and Purees Your Way by Rana Conway

7. The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems: Sleeping, Feeding and Behaviour -- Beyond the Basics, from Infancy to Toddlerhood by Tracey Hogg & Melinda Blau

8. Becoming Whole by Mindy Tsai

9. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

10. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

11. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen

12. How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7 by Joanna Faber & Julie King

Sharing Is Caring

In August I went back to work, nearly 10 months after the Little Guy was born. I felt very mixed about it as I was sad to leave my son, but also happy to get some of my old life back. But it was even more complicated than that, because I was giving up some of my legal maternity leave to my husband.

And this was harder for me than I thought it would be.

I spent the whole first nine months of my son's life being his primary caregiver. I ended up breastfeeding him (something I never ever expected). I was the one up in the middle of the night, the one spending the bare minimum of 12 to 13 hours a day taking care of him. So even though I often used the Hub as sounding board, and as a constant support, at the end of the day, he always deferred to me, letting me be the final decision maker on anything child care related.

But those days are over. We are exercising our right in the U.K. to what is called Shared Parental Leave (SPL). The idea is that parents can now share the 12-month legal maternity leave allowed by law. So I took nine months of leave from work and the Hub is taking three months.

Three months isn't that long, but I think it's huge step forward for women's rights, and even more importantly, for all parents' rights.

For a control freak like me, it's been hard to go back to work and let go of all the influence I had over the Little Guy's life. When we had a few weeks of overlap -- which we called "Baby Boot Camp" -- the Hub questioned my organization of the diaper bag(s) attached to the stroller (pram), and it drove me nuts. The Hub also didn't want the Little Guy to wear onesies (bodysuits) anymore -- too difficult to snap -- and would put clothes on him that I would have never chosen. He was right about the stroller, and the other things didn't matter.

I think we've done pretty well so far, with only one significant disagreement over child-rearing methods. But when we were discussing our views, there was a part of me that wanted to rescind my agreement to forfeit all my legal leave. After all, was I making a mistake? You can never get this time back.

But then, in order for something like SPL to really work, for it to become socially acceptable, for both men and women to become comfortable with it, we all have to give a little. There are men who have to take the plunge at work, to grit their teeth and deal with a snigger or the fear of what it could do to their career. And there are women who have to give up a little bit of their leave, and time with their kid, to be O.K. if their baby is breastfed a little less.

And then there's the positive impact on the child. I keep having to remind myself that the Little Guy is benefiting from having more people in his life to care for him. After all, when we spent 10 days in the U.S. over the summer and he had lots of family members around to take care of him and dote on him, I could see the positive benefits. He seemed more well-adjusted already.

Finally, sharing the care taking is having a great impact on both the Hub and me. He gets it now, in a way he never did before and I feel like more than ever we are partners. We are also so lucky to be able to take advantage of this -- not everyone can. So while I do get a twinge of jealousy when the Hub sends me photos of the Little Guy at music class or sleeping in his stroller during a walk, I have to remember it's all for the best for all three of us, and appreciate the small fact that at least I can drink a hot beverage at my desk without being interrupted.
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