How “Getting Things Done” helped me manage stress and changed my life

Category: Writing            Client: IABC London

Feature article written for IABC London e-newsletter about my mental health recovery journey.
March, 2019

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Want to talk about stress?

Imagine, you’ve accepted a promising new job in a glimmering city like Montreal and you have every excitement ahead for your life and career. But… you have less than three weeks to get there: to sell your house, wrap up everything with your current job, pack your belongings into storage, and most importantly, fit in time to say goodbye to all your friends and family in London.

Stressful?

For me, this rapid life change was enough to trigger my at-the-time undiagnosed bi-polar disorder. Three sleepless weeks, acute stress and sudden changes caused me to feel like my life was being moved around me; rather than having any active control of it. There I was, in Montreal, nearly catatonic. I didn’t have a support network of friends or family there.

I went expecting I’d land in my new city; but instead I was deep in mental crisis.

I remember standing alone in an aisle at the pharmacy looking for a toothbrush – standing there for nearly 40 minutes in confusion.

I returned home to London, to the support network that cares deeply about me, and began a long road to recovery and learning to live with mental illness. One of the most important things I learned as I put my life back together, interestingly, was a prescription I got from my family physician not for a particular medication; but for a book: “Getting Things Done – The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” by David Allen.

Don’t get me wrong, there have been many complementary elements to the puzzle of my mental health recovery, including medication and therapy; but what the philosophy of “Getting Things Done” empowered was an active change in the way I think about how I live my life. I realized that stress like I experienced was extreme and debilitating, yes; but stress is a part of everyday life, and to thrive I needed to learn how to live with it – to master it.

Getting Things Done, In a Nutshell

In my early days of university, I started to feel like I was never on top of life: I was bewildered as to how adults could go to work and manage kids, laundry, groceries, and still have hobbies and fun. I thought I could only find enjoyment and relaxation once I got my work done, my music playlist organized, my photos sorted from my phone and my social media accounts organized.

I could never did get to that point of being done and ready for relaxation. I could not catch up; something always came up. Constantly feeling overwhelmed is not a good way to live life and causes ongoing stress. Adding acute stress, such a life change, on top of everyday stress, it can be damaging.

Getting Things Done unravels this spiral

One of my useful tactics I call the “unending to-do-list,” which is ironically a positive coping mechanism. Instead of thinking that everything must be done before I move on and relax, I shift to a state of realizing that there’s always going to be to-do’s. They just need a space to live in my life, and some structure and organization around them.

The primary tenant of getting-things-done philosophy is getting the to-dos out of your head where they cause you stress and worry and preoccupation, and into some organized way of tracking them. It could be Reminders, Trello or a good notebook or post-its. That’s where you can start prioritizing, organizing, and doing instead of thinking.

When your to-dos are outside of your head, they are living somewhere you don’t have to think about them all the time. You then have room to live your life and prioritize quality things – like sleep.

Slowly, I started to organize my life more, through simplification and prioritization. I pared down my social media involvement and the volume of things I was doing. I gained the strength to say no when I was overloading my life. I instead made more room for self-care and enjoyment of everyday life.

Oh and guess what just happens to be done today? My music library is impeccably organized and my photos are all sorted. They just got done… because I learned the art of “Getting Things Done.” That’s the beautiful gift that’s uncovered when you live a life of “getting things done” rather than waiting for things to “be done” – you ultimately start learning how to get more of what you really want out of life, and live it a little bit better.

You learn how to live in a stressful world, with less stress.

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