This week, we offer an general assessment of the book and its proposal to “achieve more by doing less.”
GTD for Essentialists
Hyatt’s overall proposal in Free to Focus is quite well rounded. It doesn’t have the specificity of something like David Allen’s Getting Things Done, but that’s part of the point.
Narrower Focus = More Brought Forth
Rather than getting as much as possible done, Hyatt wants you to get a few right things done. Peter Drucker’s sage advice continues to be appropriate: “there is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.” In this way, Free to Focus has a deeply essentialist core.
Reverberating in the back of my mind throughout my reading of Free to Focus was Greg McKeown’s observation that a nonessentialist “does more,” whereas an essentialist “brings forth more” (Essentialism, 188). Hyatt wants to help us “bring forth more” that is more in keeping with what is most important.
Freer Focus = Less Preoccupation
To be fair, Allen’s approach to “getting things done” (GTD) speaks to this as well. But as I’ve utilized GTD, the approach has felt like it contains a practical bias toward getting more done.
In a way, it does, and this is a good thing. And Allen rightly recognizes that some of the best things never (and perhaps shouldn’t) end up on a to-do list.
But what I noticed was that my mind was always in “to-do list building” or “to-do list reducing” mode. And for me, it was difficult not to succumb to a mindset of always trying to get more done faster.
Getting more done faster is all well and good. The trouble is that we humans have limits—limits on our time, our energy, our focus. In short, there are limits on how much we can get done and how quickly we can get it done.
Focus = The Way Forward for Those with Limits (i.e., All of Us)
Given these limits, it became clear that what would help me be more productive wasn’t to continue trying to do things faster. (Knowing email keyboard shortcuts is good, but it will only buy you so many seconds.) Instead, the key would be to focus more deeply on whatever passed the test of being worth attention in the first place.
As knowledge workers, we tend to be most productive when we’re “in flow.” And flow is largely a function of focused attention, being deliberately “inside” one experience (whether that’s writing or running after a soccer ball with your kids) rather than being haphazardly bounced from one point of focus to another.2
It was this conviction that originally drew my attention to Hyatt’s reflections on productivity. I still find the basic principles of Allen’s GTD methodology immensely helpful. But what Hyatt has been proposing and what has now taken form in Free to Focus has been indispensable.
It’s helped significantly clarify what I didn’t get with sufficiently from GTD directly—namely, how to track and execute what I have to do in ways that serve what’s most important, rather than what’s most urgent or enticing in the moment.3 In particular, the core of Hyatt’s “ideal week” proposal is the time blocking that I’ve mentioned before as being so helpful.
In sum, the proposal Hyatt articulates in Free to Focus makes a meaningful contribution to the space. It provides immensely practical advice on clearing the decks so you can focus on what’s essential.
Whether that’s writing that dissertation, preparing that lecture, or spending time with those closest to you, surely this is something we can all profit from as we strive to live and work well in biblical studies.
For clarity’s sake, my aim here certainly isn’t to fault GTD itself. My understanding of GTD may be insufficiently nuanced. But beyond what I got from Allen’s classic approach alone, Free to Focus has supplied something truly meaningful and essential. ↩