Tuning Up Your Commitments

As part of the GTD with ADD series, I have been asked to help explain how to use a Tickler File when your ADD keeps you from remembering to check it. Creating a new Commitment like this is a big step for the ADD person. Filing your important and time-sensitive information in a Tickler File so that you have it when you need it is a powerful tool for anyone. Used properly it can be a great boon to the person with an ADD mind, preventing another failed attempt at taking on new commitments or responsibilities.

The first step is to keep the Tickler File where you will see it, and use it. The Tickler itself does not need to be in a file cabinet, or even be composed of file folders. I use two different systems myself, one @Home and one @Work. If you do not have a lot of papers that need to go into the Tickler File, or if you are just starting to use this system, a 3-ring binder may be the best solution for you.

One of the benefits of the 3-ring binder as a Tickler File is the compact nature of the binder. You can keep it nearly anywhere, with the operative point being that you can keep it where you will see it every day, and create a habit of referring to it as you prepare to start your day. As David Allen writes in “Ready for Anything“:

“If you don’t know the total current inventory of your work, you won’t be fully aware of what you can’t do. Your integrity will lead you into an infinite amount of new to-dos. When you conciously track all your commitments, that same integrity will force you to discriminate and say no, because you’ll be more aware of your capabilities…[put everything] in one place, and you’ll handle many with a two-minute glance.”

Knowing when to say “No” can be one of the biggest stumbling blocks for the ADD person, yet it is one that can be overcome with a little discipline and a little cleverness. Taking on new commitments and starting new projects are fun and exciting for the ADD mind, but the shine quickly wears off and the follow-through is often neglected. By preparing your environment, a new tool is easier to remember than you might think. Taking a few minutes to create the Tickler File, then placing it where you will see and use it every morning, is a wonderful investment that will pay big dividends in productivity and peace-of-mind.

How I use my system

My own ADD varies in its intensity, with some weeks being worse than others. In order to counter-act the negative effects I write in my planner “load Tickler” at the end of each work day. My established routine is to check my planner before I leave, so this Action causes me to take stock of my situation: I clear off my desk, put the appropriate papers into the Tickler, file away the rest, and jot any notes on 3″x5″ cards. Then I leave the binder in the middle of my desk with the notes on top, ready for the next day’s activities. The trick is preparing the environment: I cannot start my day without physically picking up and moving the binder, so I may as well open it and see what I need to handle!

If you are just starting to use a Tickler File, I would recommend only employing one of them at first. Once you have incorporated its use into one context (i.e. @Work), it will be easier to add it to your @Home routine (or vice versa). Keep in mind that it generally takes a full 21 days of repeating a behavior on a daily basis to create a new habit.

[Editor's Note: there is some controversy over this thesis regarding Habits and the time frame for formation. Please stay tuned while Rob and I attempt to sort this out.]

This is not something that you can rush, it needs to be approached methodically. Once you have mastered the use of your @Work Tickler, you can use the same approach toward creating your @Home version. It may even be easier, since you have established mental pathways and you will be eager to carry the benefits of your new workspace system into your daily homelife. Investing in this process serves the larger goal of creating a “global” system where you can track everything that you need to be aware of, overcoming your ADD tendency to forget about important information and fail to fulfill your commitments. Soon you will be able to track and monitor the progress of everything, from the time it shows up in your in-box to the moment you check it off your Next Action list.

Remember, persistance and preparation are the keys to success with the ADD mind. Use them to create an environment that sets you up for success.

As always, Comments are welcome!

8 thoughts on “Tuning Up Your Commitments

  1. Enjoyed the article. I’ve seen the 21 days to establish a habit mentioned in a few articles, but never seen any reference to the original research which proved this. I’d be interested if you have any evidence for this specific time frame.

  2. Google is our friend:
    From the research of Dr. Maxwell Maltz:

    “Dr Maxwell Maltz wrote the bestseller Psycho-Cybernetics.
    Originally a Plastic Surgeon, Maltz noticed that it took
    21 days for amputees to cease feeling phantom sensations
    in the amputated limb. From further observations he found
    it took 21 days to create a new habit. Since then the ’21
    Day Habit Theory’ has become an accepted part of self-help
    programs.

    Brain circuits take engrams (memory traces), and produce
    neuroconnections and neuropathways only if they are
    bombarded for 21 days in a row. This means that our brain
    does not accept ‘new’ data for a change of habit unless
    it is repeated each day for 21 days (without missing a day).”

  3. While I totally agree with the premise of repetition to develop goals I am still not convinced of the 21 day time frame. If this is based on phantom limb pain lasting for 21 days I just don’t but it as phantom limb pain lasts a lot longer. For example this study Phantom limb pain — Nikolajsen and S. Jensen 87 (1): 107 — British Journal of Anaesthesia, reports that “At least three prospective studies have examined the duration of phantom pain. Parkes found that 85% of 46 amputees experienced phantom pain immediately post-amputation. One year later, 61% still had some pain”.
    If we are trying to improve ouselves we really do need to look for proper supporting evidence – I can’t see any references to Maltz original studies anywhere other than second hand reports. It reminds me of the study of the Yale Graduates who had written goals having greater success in life – a much quoted study in self help literature but unfortunately one which did not exist! See http://www.fastcompany.com/online/06/cdu.html and http://www.realscienceofsuccess.com/YaleStudy.htm

  4. Hmmm. Now you have me wondering. I used the “21 days” time frame, as that is the conventional wisdom. A cursory Google search has turned up links that reference other second-hand sources that refer back to Maltz. It may be possible that his (scientific?) study is the origin of the “21-days-to-a-new-habit” thesis.

    Rob, your homework assignment is to help me find more source material on this topic, so that we may qualify or debunk it, whatever the case may be. I will amend the post appropriately right away.

  5. Pingback: Can You Change Your Habits in 21 Days?

  6. Pingback: 21-re új nap | Andalodó

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