Handling Books to Read in GTD
I’ve mentioned here before that GTD needs to be tweaked a bit. I don’t think these tweaks are contrary to the approach itself, but they are modifications of “out of the box” GTD.
One way that I came to see the need to tweak GTD came from handling books to read. Basically, I could not find a good way to handle books to read within the standard GTD approach. For example, is a book a project? It takes more than one step to read a book, so technically it is. But it just doesn’t fit well to put books on your project list. Further, I will often have 5 or more books going at once and a few dozen more that I want to get to soon — and so putting the books I am reading on my project list would really start to get unwieldy.
Another issue with putting books you are reading on your project list is that — for me, at least — it creates pressure to read them at strange times. For example, if you just have one undifferentiated project list, then when you start work at 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning and look at your project list, one of the first things you’ll see is “Read Atlas Shrugged” or “Read Basic Economics” or “Read Switch.” But that’s not my reading time, and so I don’t want to see those then. Having books on your project list just gets in the way and creates a form of cognitive dissonance that interferes with your focus when you are in a different time zone — you want to identify the most important projects to work on in your current zone (in this case, work), and yet you keep seeing certain things that aren’t relevant to that time frame.
Someone could say “but you’re supposed to work from your next action list, not project list.” That is standard GTD orthodoxy, but I find that I have to refer to my project list so frequently in order to keep my next action list accurate that this doesn’t really solve the problem. Beyond that, I’ve never really found it helpful to put “read such and such” on any next action list. It just doesn’t work for me. But what other kind of list is there? There is Someday/Maybe, but the books I’m reading are current tasks, not someday or maybe tasks. In standard GTD, there really isn’t really a decent place to keep a simple list of the books you are reading right now.
Now, maybe such a list isn’t necessary. But the point of GTD is that it is supposed to be an approach for keeping track of everything you have to do. So if you can’t find a decent way to integrate something as basic as books you are reading into the GTD approach, it is an indication that there is a bigger issue going on here and that the approach needs to be tweaked.
The solution is to recognize that a list like “Books to Read” is operational support. Reading is one type of thing that you do, and usually you have a specific time when you default to it (for example, after the kids are in bed). Hence, books that you are reading shouldn’t go on your main project list. Instead, “Books to Read” is a type of specialized project list (or, we could call it an operational list) that you pull out during your reading time when it’s time to decide what to read next. That way, it doesn’t clutter your main project list, but you still have a place to keep in mind all the books you are reading now and the books you want to most consider reading next.
Now, you don’t even have to have this as a physical list. Simply putting the books you are currently reading in a stack together serves the purpose well (and then another stack for what you want to read next). But if you want to get more sophisticated and create reading projects (as Al Mohler recommends), you now have a place for that.
The key to making all of this work, however, is having a defined time when you generally read. The existence of this list is not going to trigger the action to read (and it shouldn’t — if you read the biographies of high-impact people like George Washington and other individuals in history, you’ll see that they managed their lives more from a default schedule and routine rather than lists). Rather, the list is support material for your reading time. The trigger to read is that you’ve determined a time when you generally read. The list just helps you organize and prioritize so you can make the best use of your time.
Which leads to the whole idea of managing everything we have to do through the concept of time zones rather than action lists as they are traditionally conceived of in GTD (you know, the “@calls” and “@computer” and “@errands” action lists that have never completely felt right, since we always have a phone and computer and etc. with us). But that is for another time.