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The Buddha at Work - "Stop Getting Things Done"

“I think the core obstacle we face in modern... 21st century in most of the developed countries, especially in the west, is... busyness.... and lack of having the wisdom to prioritize.... I think that's one of the obstacles we face. We do so many things, we keep ourselves busy with so many things happening in our life, but if you really look at them, some of those things are really not necessary...."

- Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, from a recent ID Project podcast interview by Ethan Nichtern

I used to be a big fan of David Allen's mega-selling productivity book and system, Getting Things Done. GTD is a powerful system that can truly make a difference in managing one's “to do” lists. The website claims that the system “transforms personal overwhelm and overload into an integrated system of stress-free productivity.” I personally face a lot of clients and friends in various states of overwhelm. Too much to do, not enough hours in the day, I often hear. But over the past few years I've begun to question the assumption that the solution is to be really, really organized.

How busy are you? Everyone seems to be busy nowadays. Work keeps us busy, our families keep us busy. We've all got things to do, and we're constantly reminded of them by whatever electronic devices we choose to carry with us. We're so used to being busy that when we do have a moment of quiet or stillness, we find ourselves needing to fill it. 

It's not just a battle for the electronic age. Most of us are managing a rolling “to do” list a mile long. But as well-organized as our systems may be, as we check off boxes, new ones pop up. When I ask friends how they're doing, the response I often get is busy And we're led to accept that being busy is a good thing, that the alternative is indolence, that without being busy we can't be successful or productive. That busyness is an indication of our value as human beings.

I'm often asked for help with time management. Clients desire balance in their lives, balance between work and family, between fulfilling on their dreams and keeping their lives afloat, between the demands of the day and taking care of themselves. Our bodies tell us they can't handle it and we find short term band-aids. We're short on sleep, so we drink more coffee. Then we find ourselves too jittery to sleep at night and so we get up the next morning unrefreshed and unready to take on another day. More caffeine. We get headaches and take pills, we go on much-needed vacations and fill our time with activity. Sometimes we even bring our work with us on vacation, believing deep in our hearts that there's no alternative to doing so. We squeeze a yoga class into our tight schedule, believing that owning our own yoga mats and the right pants will prove we're serious about relaxation.

But even the yoga class becomes something to get done. Yoga––checkcheck! If we're well-organized and find gaps in our schedules, new tasks arise to fill them. And so we're looking at our lives as long lists of things to get done and we're not actually experiencing our lives as they are. 

Consider this: we, as human beings, have an endless variety of strategies we employ to help us avoid reality. We choose to take our minds off of our lives rather than face them. We admit to some of it: I just want to watch some mindless entertainment and take my mind off of my day. I want to go see a movie and escape for a little while. What we're saying is, our lives are unbearable, and we need to avoid them for a little while to catch our breath.

Other strategies are a little more subtle. Even when we're dealing with what we think is profound, we manage to use our strategies to avoid what's really happening. We might have deep concern about the environment, for example, but our concern transforms into a battle against those who are not as concerned as we are. We cover our heartache with anger and aggression, and our actions become reactions instead of coming from conscious choice.

Busyness is simply another form of avoidance. When we're busy, we're unable to actually stop and experience the present moment. We're overwhelmed, and the conversation becomes one about overwhelm rather than about what's actually going on right now. We are so habituated to this kind of existence that we create busyness without even knowing it. Every moment needs to be filled. Otherwise we would be forced to notice things we'd rather avoid––the state of the world and the suffering that goes on around us, the fact that our lives are short and death comes without warning, and the responsibility we have for our own happiness and fulfillment. It's much easier to be busy and to say, I can't really do anything about that, I don't have time.

Busyness also prevents us from noticing, for example, our love for others, the suffering we ourselves cause through our actions, or the pain we feel when we see others suffer. We might feel it for a brief moment, but for the most part we're inclined to avoid it except when it's encased in a suitable narrative. Massive tragedies happen regularly worldwide, and we can mostly skip past them during their brief mention on the evening news.  Good time for a bathroom break.  If we do notice them, we look at them with resignation and then shrug our shoulders, knowing there's little we can do. We might write a check, or take some small action. But usually we're too busy to let ourselves truly experience the weight of what's happening in the world and the urgency of taking action.

In fact, much of what's on our “to do” lists is busywork we've invented that allows us to maintain the status quo. In the GTD model, we read about “open loops.” From the book:

"An Open Loop is anything pulling at your attention that doesn't belong where it is, the way it is.”

Simple enough, right? The idea is that by handling all our open loops, by organizing them into a system, they'll lose their power over us. But here's the problem:

We don't actually want the open loops to lose their power over us. We prefer to be overwhelmed. This is why we created them in the first place.

I know, I know. That's just not true. You don't like being overwhelmed. You'd rather be completely relaxed and in the flow. Except if that's true, then why do you put yourself into situations that cause you to be overwhelmed? It's this simple: you wouldn't do it if there wasn't some payoff for you. And when we're overwhelmed, we get a big juicy payoff. Here's a big one: We get to be important. And being important means we don't have time to stop, we've gotta go, go, go. Being important takes precedence over almost anything else in our lives, because it fights against how we really feel: insignificant. When we're busy, we're superior, and we can judge others and point to them as inferior. Anyone who's not as busy as I am is clearly not as important as I am. I have so much to do!

What else do we get from being busy? As we just discussed, we get to avoid reality. We get to avoid the soft spot in our hearts telling us to live our lives with inspiration and passion, telling us to be of service to others. We get to avoid the awareness of suffering all around the world. We get to avoid the real and true fact that we are going to die and death is going to come without warning. There is no avoiding it, no matter how busy you are. Knowing our lives are finite and the lives of everyone we love are finite, we'd rather not face facts––we'd rather keep ourselves busy! And we get to pretend we're powerless, that we're too busy to do anything that would make a difference, and even if we did have the time there's very little we could do. But that just ain't so.

Take a look at your "open loops." Really notice what's truly necessary, and what's designed to keep you feeling important, or to keep you from simply being aware of the present moment. I do this frequently, and am constantly amazed at how habit energy constantly brings new "to do" items to the fore. I often marvel at my own creativity, the way that I am able to generate new distractions that simply must be done.

This doesn't mean we simply blow these items off of ours lists -- though that's certainly one option. But noticing how they got there in the first place gives us the ability to choose how we respond to them: are we consciously choosing our actions, or are we on automatic pilot? When we find ourselves in overwhelm, we're almost certainly on automatic.

And by simply noticing this, we have the ability to bring ourselves back to the present moment, with whatever comes with it. And we slowly start to regain our ability to prioritize -- to get in touch with what truly matters to us, and to start "getting things done" that truly need to get done.

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Is it wise to "Get Things Done?"

Hello ID Projecters,
I am new here! I appreciate this thoughtful article about work, psychology, and our collective busyness project. I am pondering some better system for work and life organization, (i.e. better than whatever I can remember or find on lists crammed into the back of my calendar book!) I have stumbled onto Allen's Getting Things Done, and thence onto this page. Some thoughts and questions:

- Your insight about what we get from busyness is excellent. We need "overwhelm" as an ego project and as a distraction from difficult existential questions.

- Allen's system COULD be used to totally optimize every second and eliminate every bit of spontaneity and mindfulness in our lives.

- But couldn't it alternatively be used to clear the mind and schedule enough to allow a person to be more present in each moment? Couldn't it help us make real decisions about how we spend our time? That seems to be the promise and intention of an organizing system - to open up mental space and capacity by reducing anxiety and "overwhelm."

- In that sense SOME kind of effective organizational system is an important adjunct to spiritual practice - and many people I know lack such a system. I know that for me it is hard to simply "let go" in meditation, or to be truly present with a friend or in nature, when my mind is straining to remember myriad practically important plans and lists.

- I am sure there are common pitfalls on this organizational path, and it sounds like you may have experienced some? I'd love to hear about experiences of using Allen's organizational system (or others) in a mindful way, with the goal of making clear decisions and opening mental space for spiritual practice.


Excellent advise for this holiday season

I find it very easy to lose track of myself during this time of year. Practicing mindfulness is essential yet, I let it slide to the back burner. The results are much as you indicated, an open loop.
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