Readers Will Tweak Our Instructions — And That’s OK

Idea entrepreneurs sometimes labor for years to create step-based processes. These authors load their books with methods, tips, strategies, applications, and action plans. Yet the inevitable fact is that people will tweak our precious processes to fit their personal style.

Instead of berating our audiences for “corrupting” our content, let’s let go of our attachments and allow for individual differences.

As a case in point, consider David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.

Avoid an “us versus them” mindset

Like many best-sellers, GTD (the acronym for David’s book and the method it presents) inspires zealots and heretics.

Some people swear by GTD and describe it as the Bible for productivity.

Others berate the GTD community as a cult and dismiss the method as hopelessly complex.

(To see what they’re talking about, get a GTD overview.)

Such polarizing reactions are unnecessary. Underlying them is an all-or-nothing, love-it-or-leave-it mentality: either take an author’s ideas in toto as absolutes. Or, reject them entirely.

What’s most reasonable and realistic is a middle ground. I, for example, count myself as a GTD enthusiast. Yet there are many suggestions in David’s book that I don’t implement. They just don’t make a difference for me. I adhere to the spirit rather than the letter of his ideas.

Clarify core distinctions

Seth Godin notes that the core content in any business book — he calls it the “recipe” — can usually be reduced to 2 or 3 pages. The rest of the book is the “sell” — persuading you to actually do something differently.

The recipe often boils down to a small list of concepts that are truly original, uniquely presented, or especially useful. When it comes to GTD, for instance, here’s what I ultimately take away:

  • Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them. To keep your head clear, capture ideas as they occur to you and put them in writing, even when you’re on the run. Jot them down on index cards or “sticky notes” and toss them into your in basket. Another option is to open up a plain text file on your smart phone, tablet, or computer and make a quick note.
  • Use the “three D’s” to clear out your in basket. Take each item, one at a time, and choose wether to delete it, do it now, or defer it to a later time. Note deferred items on your calendar or a list. (Some people add a fourth “D” — delegate.)
  • Distinguish between projects and next actions. Projects are outcomes that require more than one action to achieve. Next actions are physical and visible — things that you can actually do today, such as making a phone call, running an errand, or sending an email.
  • Do a weekly review. Keep a list of all the active projects in your life and then ask: What is the very next action I will take to move each project forward? (David recommends that you keep many lists, but projects and next actions are the only ones I use.)

Your content has a center of gravity, an irreducible essence. What is it? Put that recipe in writing, and keep it short. Then do your readers a favor by placing it in prominently in your book — as an introduction, summary, or both.

Encourage readers to experiment

Four crucial words are missing from most instructions that I read — your mileage may vary (YMMV). The larger and more complex your method, the more these words apply.

The Tiny Habits program from BJ Fogg perfectly embodies this message while delivering a powerful and focused set of instructions. BJ offers a tested recipe for creating a new habit. He also cautions that you may go through several tries before settling on a behavior that actually sticks.

This is the kind of message that readers can run with. Our goal is a balance of rigor and permission. Achieving it is no small feat.