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Simplicity is Freedom

Simplifying for Efficiency

I learned about Getting Things Done through a SXSW podcast near the end of my college career. Being obsessed with organization and eagered to begin the next chapter of my life, I quickly adopted the system and have used it ever since.

Getting Things Done, or GTD, is a task management methodology created by David Allen that helps people manage every piece of incoming information, thought, and idea in order to achieve whatever they want to achieve. Instead of requiring the use of a dedicated tool or software, GTD is a set of principles that can fit different people’s particular task-management style; it could be set up with just a pen and paper, or it could live exclusively in a virtual environment, or it can be a mixture of both.

I am practically evangelical about GTD, even though I have yet to fully master it, as I had gone through multiple reincarnations of the system. I usually start with high hopes and create a sophisticated system to ensure I am functioning as best as I could. Inevitably, managing the system becomes a chore, leading me to revert to my old ways, slowly becoming unproductive, and then motivating me to start the GTD system back up again. With each generation, though, I learn a little from my previous attempt and resist setting up more functionalities than I typically need, like filling out project templates for every medium-to-large project I do and manually recording my weekly progress that I rarely retrospectively review anyway. With every GTD reboot, I aimed to simplify my system a little more, learning from past mistakes and avoiding overcomplicating the process.

Simplifying for Productivity

One GTD principle I find valuable is to break an action item down to smaller items if I seemed to be stuck or hesitating to begin. A task usually stalls when the goal is unclear or if it involves multiple steps that I have yet to realize or define. So what I often do when I hear myself say, “I’m not ready to do this yet” or “I don’t want to do this”, I asked myself a series of consecutive “Why?” questions to get to the real reasons I have yet to start on the task. To some people, a task like “Replace an old pair of shoes” involves just going to a shoe store and try out shoes they like. But for me, I would need to answer a list of my own questions, like “Why do I need new shoes?”, “Do I just want the same pair or different?”, “How different?”, “In what occasions do I want to wear these?”. These questions would help break down the task, defining my goals for the new shoes, setting a budget, researching different stores online, reading reviews, generating a shortlist of shoes available in my area to check out, and mapping out an itinerary for a half-day where I can try on the shoes. And if after a half-day of shoe shopping I still come home empty-handed, the process semi-starts again with more research, reviews, etc.

This may seem excessive, but it’s valuable and actually fun to ask myself “Why” and in the process learn about my own motivations and desires towards certain things in my life. And practically speaking, breaking down into actionable subtasks lowers mental hurdles and allows me to make progress quicker. And if during the “Why” questioning process, I have a lot of difficulty answering meaningfully, most likely the thing I wanted to do came from a passing feeling and had low priority, in which case I should drop or ignore it, and move on.

Simplifying for Mobility

As I entered my late twenties, I realized I needed to travel more. It would’ve been nice to travel with friends, but I was also okay traveling by myself. I just had to be careful and watch my own back and my own things. For this reason, I wanted to travel light.

I traveled many times with just one carry-on, and each time presented different needs. For a surf trip I needed an extra swim suit, for a “New Year’s in New York” trip I needed extra boots and nice New Year’s outfit, for a Little Big Trip around the world, I need ultra-versatile, quick-drying, lightweight clothing that work for a wide range of climates and occasions. Regardless of the needs, they all lead to the same problem: I always want to bring more than I can fit in the luggage.

This is why traveling with only one carry-on is an excellent exercise in figuring out what is important, both on the practical, trip level and the philosophical, “life” level. A common advice I hear on the Internet is that if you’re bring something “just in case,” you can probably leave it at home instead, and buy it at the destination if I really needed it. After a couple of times doing this, I began to realize that there is actually little that I really need, both on the trip and in life; everything else is a “nice to have” or “comfort” item. Having only one luggage allows me to be flexible, move quickly, and change plans at a moment’s notice because for the duration of your trip, your entire life is on your back. It also gives me less items to worry about, especially during transit.

Simplifying is Complicated

Being simple is often difficult. I adopted Getting Things Done because I literally wanted to get things done (and faster). The flexibility of the system led me to, for better or worse, experiment with task management styles, figuring out what works and what I could do without, simplifying with each reincarnation. But it takes time, experience, and trial-and-error. Ideally, I would like technology to reach a point where my task management system would just be something implemented in my brain, and the most important, appropriate thing I should be doing at any given moment has already been automagically defined, processed and filtered, entering into my consciousness right when I need it. But until then, I will continue to find the most simple but still valuable version of GTD that I can sustain using.

When I get ready for a trip, my imagination takes over and I think of all the things I could and want to do and therefore may need to bring. But I realized with each trip I take that I usually ended up taking it easy and decided to do less, which means some of the gear I brought would go untouched. So with each new trip, I try to be strict about each item I bring and ask my future vacationing self if I would really use it.

I had to do that with my six-week world trip, when the things I originally wanted to bring was over the capacity of my carry-on by half or even by one. I had to systematically fill the bag with the essential items first, and then one by one select the “nice to have” or “comfort” items to add to my bag. I made some sacrifices with a few pieces of clothing, meaning I had to wash my clothes on the trip more often. In the end, it worked out pretty well; I practically used everything I brought. If i had brought all the things I wanted to bring, carrying two bags instead of one, it would’ve been harder for me to maneuver at certain parts of my trip, and i would’ve enjoyed it less. Simplifying my “life,” in the form of my luggage, definitely yielded me more freedom to experience as much of the world as it can offer.

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