The Someday/Maybe list is a guilt factory (and how to change that)

One of the features of GTD is the Someday/Maybe List. According to David Allen (I’m paraphrasing), you ought to capture the projects you’d like to complete in the future, lest they continue to nag you. Additionally (critically, even), those items should be a part of your weekly review. Every seven days, ask yourself, “Is it time to move on any of these things?”

My problem is, the answer is always “No,” and that fantastical trip to Japan remains untouched, poised to emphasize my inaction for another week. Here’s what’s worse: noticing the pattern, I add items that I know I won’t act on, consciously or not.

It’s my personal waiting room.

I’ve no doubt that it’s important to have long-term goals, even those whose only benefit is dining in an out-of-the-way Tokyo noodle house. However, there must be a better way to keep track of them.

The Culling

When I saw Merlin at Macworld Expo 1, he suggested taking a good, hard look at the items on that list. Ask yourself, “Will I ever do this?” If the answer is no, ditch it. Will I ever become fluent in Japanese? It’s highly unlikely. Off it goes.

While understandable, culling the unlikely has a “crush your dreams” vibe that bothers many people. “Spend a month in Tokyo” is a huge project. Fortunately, there’s hope in breaking it down.

Baby Steps

Before ditching that trip all together, let’s consider how it can remain on the list of things I’d like to do without any of the guilt.

Years ago I worked as a special needs teacher in a residential school for children with Autism and other developmental delays. I taught in a classroom and eventually supervised a group home with 8 students and a staff of 12 teachers. We practiced the Ivar Lovaas method of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). I’ll do Dr. Lovaas (and by extension, B. F. Skinner) a great disservice here and offer too brief an explanation of his life’s work.

ABA uses positive and negative reinforcement 2 to change behavior. One method is called chaining, or breaking a complex task into several simple ones that can be taught in succession and, when successfully performed sequentially, comprise the original task. I never guessed that training would be so influential in my everyday life.

In GTD, “visit Tokyo” is not a task, it’s a project. Fortunately, my old job helped me get good and breaking complex behaviors (or in this case, projects) down into very small, observable, concrete actions. Perhaps “discuss life in Japan with uncle who used to live there” is a doable first step. Maybe “research seasonal weather in Japan” or “find a well-written book on Japanese customs or food.” In doing so, two things happen.

First, I feel like I’m making progress on this huge task, rather than letting it stagnate. Second, I’ll get a true measure of my willingness to go through with completing the project in the first place. If my interest wanes, I can safely remove it from the list as Merlin suggests. An increase in interest suggests motivation, and I’ll continue to devise small steps that move me closer to completing the project.

The Research List

What’s really happening here is research. Therefore, I’ll suggest changing the name from Someday/Maybe to Research. It sounds more pro-active and suggests something to do other than sit and wait until I get around to it “someday.”

Now get moving and do something!

  1. Here’s a picture of me fawning like a pubescent girl at a Justin Bieber concert. Restraint and decorum are my super powers. Photo by Docrock.
  2. Pet peeve: Negative reinforcement is NOT punishment. For a full explanation of the difference, look here.