Alex Stockwell

UX, DevOps, Fatherhood, Miscellany. Not in that order.

The Gap between To-Do and Done

New Phoenix Children's Hospital

Frequently over the past year, I’ve driven by the construction site of the new Phoenix Children’s Hospital.  It’s a sight to behold, but seems to progress at a snail’s pace.  Building a hospital isn’t like building an office complex - there are exponentially more complications to the construction process; countless specialized features to accommodate the building’s unique role.  But despite the impossible complexities, the steel beams continue go up, and concrete is poured. Before you know it, the last of the details are being polished, and the workers are gone.  Work will begin shortly behind those walls, filling the building’s husk with life-saving furnishings.  But the hard work is done, the lights turn on, and the rain is shut out.

My sense is that most of us who seek a means to be productive, to complete our endless to-do list, would like to see our tasks like this building.  Hoping that if we define them well enough, with enough detail and enough next steps in our GTD application, that they will just happen.  As though we can do the planning, and then we can just drive by them each day, and watch them complete themselves.

We’re missing the other piece of the puzzle.

Seth Godin talks at length about the concept of Emotional Labor.  This element is fundamental to the accomplishment of our goals, and yet is fundamentally absent from most of our project management toolboxes.  Seth describes it in the context of doing one’s work to the best of one’s ability, and I think that’s applicable to all of us as we tenaciously chase the dream of an empty task list.

Years back, when I first started looking around for a way to better organize all of the projects and tasks and workstreams in my life, I thought that was the hard part of the battle.  I figured once I could define which code snippet to write and which people I had to call, that I would be good to go - and the tasks would just melt away.

But defining the task didn’t make the task itself any easier, or any more comfortable.

Calling people is an intrinsically uncomfortable thing for me.  I’m not sure why, and I’ve gotten better since I’ve jumped on the corporate cruise ship, but it’s never come easy.  So once I had a list of six people who needed call-backs, what did I do? Everything, except what needed to be done.

Seth’s concept of Emotional Labor has a close cousin embodied in the notion of Doing the Uncomfortable.  As Tim Ferriss notes, discomfort and the fear of the “worst case scenario” must be overcome in order to achieve success. Sadly, this truth is ignored completely by most GTD pundits, which is a travesty on par with teaching a doctor which medication to administer without showing them how to administer it.

We all have the chance to reach our goals, but making a plan, a list, or a map, is not enough.  Having the courage to do the uncomfortable -the deeply seated emotional labor that any worthwhile goal deserves- is what will really carry us to victory.  Our lives will not build themselves, no matter how many times we revise the blueprints.