Saturday, April 11, 2009

Overload versus Overwhelm Smackdown

Drinking from the firehose? In this episode, the GTD Virtual Study Group takes on overwhelm versus overload in a GTD smackdown. Want to know how we cope with everything that we have coming at us? Listen in and find out. Download the podcast here.

A couple of notes:
  • The episode on social networking recorded on March 26 was lost to the technology gremlins. Both GarageBand and the backup recordings failed.
  • The next meeting of the VSG will be May 14. There is NO meeting on April 23. Thanks.


Dan said...

Lots to comment on here, but, Augusto, I'm very curious about a statement you made: "I've learned to live with overload. I will be overloaded, probably, always."

Is this really acceptable to you?

It seems to me that, apart from the explicit promise that GTD makes to help you "get control of your stuff," there's an implicit principle that drives an interest in "time management," which is that feeling overwhelmed and overloaded doesn't feel good and isn't desireable, and that one practices these techniques in order to stop feeling that way and stop BEING that way -- to stop BEING overwhelmed and to stop BEING overloaded.

I think this is why David Allen frames the choices that are available to us regarding our commitments in terms of “agreements.” It’s great to have a toolbox full of tools for working productively, getting more done in less time, feeling in control of the work we’ve taken on and the process of doing our work, and so on, but ultimately, the work we do is the work we choose to do, the work we “agree” to do. These agreements we make, with ourselves and others, are the engine of overload or the engine of satisfaction.

It sounds like you've made the following agreement with yourself: "I am comfortable being overloaded. Feeling overloaded is acceptable to me, and reducing my load is not something I want to devote my energy to."

I like very much Tara’s confession that she’s afraid that “if I turn down an opportunity that I won’t get another one.” This really gets to the heart of overload. (And, by the way, I have the same fear.) Overload isn’t at it’s root driven by too much information, too many bits, too much input: it’s driven by a choice we each make to turn down or not turn down an opportunity, and that choice is as much an emotional reaction as it is a rational calculation. We know from books like Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice that too much choice makes for poor decisions with unhappy outcomes (when it doesn’t make for outright paralysis), and that people tend to overestimate the pain of “wrong” decisions at the same time they overestimate the pleasure of “right” decisions. We’re bad at predicting the utility of the decisions we make, and we’re quite good at reconciling ourselves to the consequences of our choices. The hedging of bets that goes into loading your Kindle with 200 books just doesn’t pay off in the way we think it will.

For myself, I’m absolutely unwilling to live with overload. I'm moving in the other direction: I’m working on getting to “underload” and then adding things back. And I’m completely focused on conceptualizing my obligations as a basket of choices I get to make, rather than as a waterfall I need to get out from under. If my choices are a firehose, I start by rejecting the idea that my choice is to figure out how to drink from this thing; I want to put my energy into walking back to the hydrant and figuring out how to dial it down to a trickle that I can sip from comfortably. This is an exercise in how to think about things.

Great discussion. It has really helped me organize my thoughts about this.

apinaud said...


In reality I have two options, lower my standard and then commit to less or accept that I will always have more to do than the time I have available and will always be overloaded in terms of things to do.

GTD will not avoid that you get overwhelmed or overloaded, but will allow you to discover what are the things you are committing yourself to and allow you to choose how to say no and to what say no to, and then choose witch agreements you made, keep and renegotiate.

Also remember that overloaded is a relative term, I know people that can accomplish more things than me, that can put more balls on the air, and can handle way more stuff than me, for them, I am not overwhelmed or overload, but for me at this moment, their work load will be unbearable. Also, I have discover that when I reach the comfort zone and the amount of things I have to do, and the agreements in relation with those things, and therefore my overload gets to an uncomfortable level, I am less productive. (If I have 10 things to do I will finish a lot of them, if I have 2, maybe none)

Now let me clarify the following, I am overload, if I get no input for 3 months, I will not clean my lists, but I am not stressed, I sleep at night, I continue achieving my dreams, I am just harder on myself.
Before GTD, I was a directionless overachiever in the pass, stress out, sleepless, and exhausted; now I probably have more things to do that those days, but it is only one widget and then the next one, my system requires that I pay close and lots of attention to avoid a collapse, and I am overloaded, but my mind is in peace, my energy gets full at night and depleted by the next day, I am happy with the decisions I take, and the sacrifices I have decide to make in order to keep this level of overload in my life and systems.
You mention a firehouse, and I love the idea that came to my mind, I think you are visualizing me in the fire-truck all day running like crazy. I instead visualize myself as the Fire Prevention Specialist, that can’t loose attention of the city and the events around to avoid sending that fire-truck out, it is harder to keep the trucks in house than to send them to extinguish the different fires around.

I am glad you are making a different choice, I am glad you can use a laser focus in your life, instead of a waterfall, but remember, not all waterfalls are without function, thing on a river dam, the water that came to the waterfall pass trough a carefully created and design system, generate a different result and continue to the next set of capable hands.

I do not want to drink the water from the waterfall, I want my system to process it, and provide the resources to a different process provide me filter and cold water and home; in those lines I always be overloaded, there is always going to be more water than my system can take, but my system has allow me to process that and get home to electricity and a cold glass of water.
Good luck in your journey!



Dan said...

I like your "dam" analogy. The purpose of a dam is to generate electricity: the bigger the dam, the more electricity you get. Dams protect themselves against over-capacity, too: if there's too much water going over the dam, water gets diverted to a sluiceway, and the turbines disengage and stop producing power. The system has a design capacity, and can process only so much electricity.

I suppose if you live next to a river, you're always overloaded with potential energy depending on how you choose to tap the power of the river. Having 200 eBooks in your Kindle is a lot of potential energy: feeling obligated to read them may not be a happy way to live.

I like the idea of engaging with the flow of inputs to a point that you can benefit, but limiting inputs when they begin to overwhelm your ability to process them.

I think a key part of your response for me is this: "my system requires that I pay close and lots of attention to avoid a collapse ... and I am happy with the decisions I take, and the sacrifices I have decide to make in order to keep this level of overload in my life and systems." Part of the power of GTD for me is the way it forces us to review the agreements we make with ourselves and others. By laying out the entire universe of agreements we've made, passively or actively, it brings us face-to-face with the sacrifices we're making either implicitly or explicitly by saying "yes" or "no" to another input. This is powerful.

Recently, appropos of something I heard or read somewhere, I wrote on my Someday/Maybe list: "read all of the National Book Award winners." With one stroke of the pen, I obligated myself to thousands of hours of "work," and displaced thousands of hours from other "obligations." It triggered a long discussion with myself about the feelings and desires and fears and concerns and dreams that were driving that impulse, and turned up an entirely different set of priorities, tasks, goals, and projects than I had in mind when I wrote down "read the NBA winners." It turns out that what I really wanted wasn't to read those books at all (or at least not all of them). I got back that time, clarified my focus, and am moving on an entirely different set of actions that, by the way, should have the outcome of freeing up some time for reading some NBA winners, along with a bunch of other outcomes.

Very powerful.

Your "keep the fire trucks out in the street, not in the fire house" is material for an entirely different, fantastic, discussion. I'm going to file it under "personal crowdsourcing and GTD!"

apinaud said...

Dear Dan,

Thanks for this fantastic discussion, I just want to clarify that the 200 ebooks I believe is Oogiem not me, even that I use the kindle the number of books is limited, total documents is maybe 200, but that contain PDFs, Articles and many short reading, in a way is my read and review file.

I love your example of your reading commitment, and how you discover how specific some commitments need to be, otherwise you set yourself to trouble.

Looking forward to continue in this interesting conversations and to talking on the GTD VSG.

Good luck in your journey!