Burnout, Stress, and GTD

Posted on January 11, 2008

With the new year comes new hope. While Dec 31st and January 1st are really no different, something changes in the mind… the past and the future, clearly delineated in a unique way.

I’ve struggled with what I can only call “burnout” for some time now. More simply put, its that unceasing need to “take a holiday”, but, even with some time off here and there the need is unceasing. Work, of any kind, whether completing a company project, personal open source project, or just taking out the trash, just seems burdensome. The time spent thinking about a task exceeds the time it would take to complete the task in exponential quantities.

This thinking is better clarified in conventional marketing acronym: FUD. FUD is used in non-obvious context such as “Thats FUD,” but the acronym in fact stands for those old standby emotions that destroy anything good and pure: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. The fear that you’ll fail, the uncertainty on whether you can deliver, and the doubt that you have any real ability or usefulness at all, or that there is even any point. Christians would pinpoint these as the great weapons of Satan, whereas the secular would disregard it as simple depression.

FUD can result from both success and failure. You do something well and fear the inability to repeat the performance or you do something poorly and doubt your own ability. A quote that has always haunted me came from Henry Ford, a seemingly limitless fountain of wisdom, that goes like this: “You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.” With a great deal of shame I admit that the first time I heard this my internal voice admitted: “It’s worked pretty well for me.”

Proverbs 12:18 say “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Churchill said, “To build may have to be the slow and laborious task of years. To destroy can be the thoughtless act of a single day.” It only takes a couple reckless words, commonly wrapped in meaningless disclaimers like “constructive criticism” or “just kidding” to open the flood gates of personal FUD.

All this really comes down to is a sense of ambiguity and confusion. What lies around the next corner? Where is all this leading? Will the result justify the effort? Will I ever get any better? A thousand questions with no foreseeable answer that conspire to keep you from even making the attempt.

The result is stress, your bodies reaction to imminent danger, real or imagined. More commonly in this day and age, the latter.

This truly is the information age. While I once looked at it as a catchy phrase for journalists, I sure many thought the same of the “industrial revolution”. The tipping point between a “phenomenon” and an “age” is mass acceptance by the culture with permanent integration. My favorite descriptive blurb is “when grandma does it.” While telecommunications have for decades carried our voices around the world, in this information age we now get all the information delivered, literally, to our pockets. And that reality is catching up to me.

This is not an uncommon thing really… while many of us have prided ourselves on brandishing gadgets like wireless PDA’s, iPhones, laptops, BlackBerry’s and all manner of cell phone, the strain is starting to wear thin. Being constantly connected and accessible was once of great novelty… now its a lurking menace.

In the last couple weeks several things have occurred to me that I find disturbing and I’ve tried to be honest to them. For instance, I’ve noticed that frequently my pulse is too high. Maybe thats part of getting older, an awareness of your own beating heart, but so be it. Over time I came to realize that there are several identifiable triggers that raise my heart rate, a symptom of acute stress:

  • If my BlackBerry vibrates. I get 2 vibrations for a message, and I get 2 vibrations followed by a ring for a phone call. The first vibration spikes my heart rate commonly, and then again waiting for the ring which commonly, “thankfully” I think, doesn’t come.
  • When I look at my Inbox. Mailing lists are a godsend and a satanic curse. Even the most restrained mailing lists consists of perhaps 5% material you care about, the rest gets quickly scanned and ignored. As a SA I get automated reports and monitoring alerts which make it all the worse. And, of course, there is both personal and business mail boxes.
  • When instant messages come in for an unexpected source. What am I going to be asked to do? What didn’t I yet do? They probly aren’t just saying hello and IM’s take longer than phone conversations.

All these stresses come from what some call “information overload”. Too many inputs from too many directions.

Information overload is helped along by the ease in which people can create and communicate in the information age. I once saw a great PBS documentary on the tools of writing, wherein someone noted that in centuries gone by writing with quill and ink was a slow and arduous task. Only a few works could be put to paper before the ink ran out and you had to stop, this added to the speed at which a quill scrapes over paper. The result, he argued, was a time when thoughts could be thought and re-thought, formed and re-formed, even during the writing process itself, leading to more thoughtful and concise writing that we’ve seen since the invention of the typewriter. I combine this with the ability to communicate in seconds via email or IM; not only can you input ideas quickly, perhaps more quickly than you can convince them, but you can direct them at others without a thought. The result is a maelstrom of requests and comments that are totally unnecessary given a little thought.

All this plays into a solution: GTD. David Allen’s Getting Things Done is a wonderful way of framing all this together into a system by which we can attack the underlying problems.

I realized, quite by chance, the other day that my elevated stress levels are symptoms of a total loss of “control”. What I’ve needed to do is execute the GTD work flow of Collect, Process, Organize, Review, and Do. There are a million little things, all around me, all the time, that need doing, and the noise in my head is so loud from all these personal reminders that I’ve just tuned them out completely and gone into panic mode.

I came to this conclusion indirectly trying to attack a small part of the problem actually. As part of my “information age” breakdown, I’ve suddenly become aware that I’ve transitioned from a person who’s created to little into a person who’s created too much. Code, scripts, notes, configs, scattered everywhere. I’ve transitioned from older more trustworthy SCM’s for management (Subversion) to newer more “hip” solutions (Mercurial) and paid the penalty, in particular because distributed SCM’s are lousy if you want to manage a golden archive of growing data in a (duh) centralized place.

Added to this is a realization of my own digital mismanagement. I’ve never in my life taken pictures with film, it has always been digital. My first Sony Mavica used floppy disks, a necessity at the time due to the absence of digital camera drivers for UNIX systems, with the added advantage of utilizing a cheap medium that could be archived (“tossed in a box”). But when I upgraded to a Canon PowerShot I suddenly had to download my pictures. The unique thing about pictures, for me, is that in the short term they seem insignificant… but months and years later they are invaluable. There are years of pictures that I’m simply uncertain of where they are, somewhere in a pile of hard drives, I hope.

And even my domains. I bought “clanrockwood.com” when Nova was born to provide updates to family without disturbing us during the first few months. I thought I’d continued to renew the domain, but a recent “What is going on with that domain anyway?” check made me realize that its been snatched away and I need to spend time auditing my records to see at what point I missed a renewal or allowed someone else to park it.

I’ve created a small empire of digital artifacts and, frankly, I don’t know where half of them are. A sad statement for a professional who views storage as his specialty. I only take comfort in statements such as “Who has the worst cars? Mechanics.” True or not, it dulls the pain a bit. Frankly, I need to take a week off work just to become a full time data archaeologist, seeking out and collecting all my scattered bits and calculating the damage.

While watching a presentation by Linus Torvalds at Google about ‘Git’, I noticed another Google Talk by David Allen on GTD. This served as a much needed wake up call: I’d fallen off the wagon. I was still using my planner, but I wasn’t “collecting” what I needed to do but rather recording what I’d done. Those millions of little items seemed too insignificant to collect and the few that I did put in my planner just got pushed from day to day.

I’m happy to say, however, that I’m turning it around! I added additional pages to my planner that very day and just started writing down everything, not matter how insignificant. “Pickup shoe in front yard”, “Clean trash out of truck”, nothing omited. Then I immediately took all those “single step” items and ran around the house in a blaze doing them. Anytime I saw something, anything, that “bugged” me or gave me the slightest hint of “needs doing” I immediately attended to it. In particular David says in the video (above) “Anything thats on your desk thats not equipment, reference, or decoration is something that needs doing.” That struck a cord. I cleaned off my desktop (physical and virtual) and removed anything that didn’t need to be there. And, by the end of the day, I felt significantly better. I was on the path to having control again.

I should also credit Sun Blogger David Pickens. In an attempt to troubleshoot the symptoms I began relying on an RSS reader to cut down on my excess information input, its less stressful to get it all delivered than to hop sites looking for it. Since I started actively reading the feeds I saw several GTD posts from David and those served as the nudges I needed to push me in the right direction, which finally converged when I watch David Allen’s Google talk.

So I’m on that path. I’m going to rely increasingly on RSS feeds, adopt “Inbox Zero” concepts with earnest, remove myself from any mailing list in which read less than 50% of by volume, and continually seek out new ways to acknowledge and handle “the little things” that add up. One simple change I’m making is changing the ring styles of my phones, using audible only tones that inform my brain before my hip. Vanity Vanity, all is Vanity, there is nothing new under the sun…. as always, the joy of rediscovering life’s little realities: ignore the insignificant and soon enough it won’t be.

Here are my take away bullet points that I’m going to try to incorporate more into my personal day-to-day operations:

  • Consolidate information inputs as much as possible.
  • Use applications with simplistic interfaces that limit the quantity of information present to you. This can be accomplished with folders or by view mail 10 at a time rather than a never-ending list.
  • Switch ring tones from time-to-time to keep your mind from anticipating.
  • Always collect items that require action beyond the thought or that aren’t handled on the spot.
  • Don’t stop collection just because you hit the end of the page… insert another one and keep going.
  • Don’t slip into collecting only work items.
  • Don’t consider anything insignificant.
  • If you feel any form of stress symptom, stop and analyze the situation to determine the trigger and record it then and there.
  • Spent time doing “non-productive” tasks outside of the routine. Read a history book, philosophy, fiction… supply your brain with non-routine inputs.
  • Play games more.
  • Take commitments seriously… if there is doubt about the ability to deliver don’t commit, or at the least hedge the commitment “I’ll try, but don’t make me a blocker.”
  • Compliment others, lift people up frequently, only criticize them when positive connentation is crystal clear.
  • Let the “shoulda, coulda, woulda” crap go. ‘Do, or do not. There is no try.’

One final thought. What surprised me the most in this thought experiment was that its easy to mis-interpret stress. Commonly the desire for a vacation is to get away from work… but sometimes, in my case, work wasn’t expressly the problem, its was the way in which I was managing both my work and personal life. If I was to take a vacation the real purpose would have to be to switch focus to non-work tasks that need completion, taking a trip to Hawaii wouldn’t actually solve anything. Like David Allen says, just as in martial arts, its about clearing the area and returning to calm so you can be ready for the next input.