There's no doubt in my mind that David Allen built a multi-million dollar company selling a book about a system that most people never actually use. That doesn't mean the system doesn't work, though. Those that follow GTD can actually become more relaxed and feel more in control of their life. Most people will get nothing out of it, though. It's just like diet books. Fat people buy a lot of diet books.
All the books on creativity, from King's On Writing to Tharp's Creative Habit, state that success comes from hard consistent work. Even if you don't become a thin person with a clear action list, maybe reading those books was better than surfing Youtube. We might not ever institute our own Evil Plan, but sometimes its nice to dream.
That doesn't mean I need to keep spreading this crap, though. Maybe it's time I shut up and offer help only when it's asked for.
I can't say exactly where it started but probably somewhere around the time I got into Getting Things Done, I started to really enjoy books on personal organization, writing, creativity, lifestyle engineering, and better business books. I've read Godin and Gladwell and Collins and Tharp and Fried and MacLeod. I eat these books up. I find myself quoting them all the time, recommending them to friends, using them as examples when situations come up in my own life. And I think people notice it. It's like bad BO. If I can start to smell it myself, that must mean it's really bad. It's probably driving my wife insane and my friends probably dread a conversation about the Flywheel and the Doomloop.
I am writing this mainly to get my own hands around this addiction, to see if all these self-help books really help me or if I'm just wasting my time, filling me with false hope, and alienating my friends. As Merlin Mann puts it (another self help pontificator whether he wants to be called that or not), there comes a point where productivity porn is just wasting the time you should be spending doing things.
Fat people buy a lot of books about dieting yet dieting still has an extremely low success rate in actually making people healthy. The rest of the self help book industry, I would expect, follows much of the same path.
Did Jonathan Coulton read Seth Godin's books before becoming one of the biggest independent internet musicians? Did he study anything at all about this or did he just do it on his own? Did Steve Jobs read a bunch of books about how to manage a tech company or was his leadership built into his intellectual DNA? One of the things that often bothers me about self help books are the examples. How many self help books reference Tiger Woods? How many self help books did Tiger Woods actually read? I'd guess not many.
Successful people don't read books about success, they're successful because they succeed. They do stuff. They write a lot. They play a lot of golf. They do whatever it is that makes them successful a lot.
I doubt many big success stories follow the advice of any book but that doesn't mean it hurts to read them, does it?
Where self help books can get dangerous are when they actively get in the way from actually doing things. There has to be some sort of irony in referencing a self help book on the topic but in Stephen Pressfield's The War of Art, he speaks of the Resistance or anything that gets in the way of you actually making whatever sort of art you want to make. His very book (and maybe this very article) might be counted in the resistance if someone ever used it to say "you know, I should read this book before I start writing my novel." That's resistance. I think it was this very idea, that a productivity site might get in the way of productivity that transformed Merlin Mann from the nerdy Hipster PDA guy into the much more silent "get out there and do shit" guy that he has become.
I like to think that I gain some valuable insights from all these books I read. Sometimes they are huge life-changing things like getting better control over all of my projects with Getting Things Done or just picking up a single idea from a book like the War of Art. I have to wonder, however, if I'm blind to the fact that they aren't really helping or if they just make me more and more intolerable in conversations with friends and loved-ones. Has this become my evangelical religion?
I try to think these tips and ideas actually help but how would I tell if I'm simply being tricked into thinking they do?
Sometimes, however, we can read these books just for fun. I like Seth Godin's stuff. I think it helped me guide Sly Flourish into a site and a "brand" that I'm really proud of. I like what he says and I repeat it often when talking to people about it. Yeah, you might waste a lot of time and money reading his stuff if you think it's going to teach you how to be Jonathan Coulton but what the hell else are you going to do with your time, play Farmville?
I read the War of Art and I hated about 60% of it read little I hadn't already known in the other 40% but there was one thing that got me thinking, that The Resistance isn't always something easy to see. Sometimes the thing that keeps you from making something is perfectly reasonable, perfectly rational, and very difficult to argue against. You might be going through a horrible divorce or have a job that demands 60 hours a week or have five kids or have pancreatic cancer but you can still make stuff if you really want to. The resistance isn't always a clear dysfunction that keeps you from making something. Sometimes it's as rational and reasonable as everything else in your life. That was the only thing I got out of reading the book but it was enough. I wasn't surfing Slashdot for the five hours it took me to read that book. I still got a lot done when I was reading it. That book wasn't my resistance, it just gave me an idea about what the resistance really is.
I don't know where this leaves me. I guess reading a book can never hurt. Learning how to do something a little differently to make your life enjoyable can't be that bad. Preaching it might need to stop. Coaching might be the better path (there's lots of self help books on coaching - jesus, I can't stop myself!).
In the end, who can really say, but happiness is always a good goal so why not focus on that?
A good "Getting Things Done" system, like a good user interface, can only get better when there is less of it. Getting Things Done captures so many people because it is a relatively easy system to incorporate once you get going but it's up to us to customize it around our corner of the world. GTD has aspects that are really required: inbox, next action lists, project lists, and the weekly review. Other components like tickler folders, project support folders, the massive file reference, and even the beloved Someday Maybe list can often be eliminated to keep our personal project management system nice and clean. In each of your weekly reviews (you're doing weekly reviews, right?) ask yourself what elements of the system you can simplify or eliminate to make the whole thing just a little bit smaller.
There are some aspects of GTD that can never be eliminated. You always need a place to capture random stuff that enters your life, stuff you can't yet fully process into next actions, projects, calendar items, or trash.
After spending almost five years with Getting Things Done, I can safely say that the following elements are absolutely required in my own system:
Inbox: I absolutely need a little notebook to jot stuff down, regardless of what it is. I tend to find I can skip the inbox for a lot of items and immediately turn them into either projects or next actions. Still, I always need a place to just throw down some random stuff and my plain pocket Moleskine notebook does this very well.
Project Lists: Still the primary DNA of my system, project lists include everything I want to do in my life over the next year. Getting a little more morbidly zen about it, if I'm not doing it over the next year, than it's not important enough for me to do it in my life. If it's something I really want to do in my life, I should already be working on it.
Contextual Action Lists: @home, @work are pretty much the only two that I need. I might whip one out for a grocery store visit or if I'm traveling somewhere, but mostly I only need to do stuff in those two locations. I've simplified a little bit by putting errands on the action list I'll read before I'll be leaving to run the errand. Having seven contextual action lists is just madness. I bet most people can get away with two or three.
Calendar: We all have appointments so we all need a calendar. The calendar is also a great place to put actions you don't need to do right away. This way your calendar becomes your tickler file. Want to sign up for that drawing class but it doesn't allow sign ups until may? Stick it on your calendar. It's an easy trick.
The Weekly Review: The weekly review went from a process I dread to one I look forward to every week. It takes me about 15 to 30 minutes to complete now, down from an hour, and it helps me clear out all the stuff I no longer care about, reset myself for the next week, and ensure I'm focused on something I really want to focus on. Make it part of your weekly habit and you'll be a lot happier for it.
Over the past five years there are a few things I no longer really need. Some of these might be considered crutches, important to have early in when using GTD but no longer required once you feel like you have a handle on your life. Here are a few of mine:
Someday maybe list: This is probably the most shocking elimination in my system and one I have only recently gotten rid of. What I found is that my someday maybe list items never really bothered me when I didn't keep track of them and rarely became real projects. If they were important, I'd have made them projects. If I was just putting them off, I can stick them on my calendar. What I don't need is a list of all the things I'm procrastinating on that I have to review every week. Either decide you're not going to do it or do it. There isn't a need for some purgatory to just make you feel better.
Tickler Folders: I got rid of this almost right away. The whole 43 folder system was just too complicated and helped me very little. Using the calendar as a way to store reminders for things works just as well.
Paper: It's pretty clear to me that the whole GTD system was built around paper. David Allen loves his giant file cabinet and his file folders and stapler and shit. I've managed to get rid of nearly all of the paper in my life. It's a lot easier to keep your things together when it's all bits on a system with a good search engine. Tools like Evernote, TadaList, and DropBox make it very easy to manage your stuff across multiple devices. One easy way to simplify your system is to, as much as you can, eliminate paper. Of course, the Moleskine I use for my GTD system itself is paper but that gets a free pass. For personal organization, no electronic system has been as fast or as easy to use as paper for me.
Waiting For Lists: Waiting for lists are another list I got rid of a long time ago. If I really care, I make it a project and track it that way. If I don't than I don't track it. Sometimes it gets me into trouble to not track someone else's actions but I would rather like to assume they have their life together instead of tracking it for them.
Simplifying my life is a constant drive for me. I'm always looking to remove elements of my life that don't make me happy. I'm always looking for ways to get rid of physical stuff. I'm always looking to use one less application than I need. My GTD system is no different. Anything I can do to make my system more efficient, smaller, and faster is a goal worth seeking. So, what element of your own system is generating more work than it's worth?
Each version of D&D has a different key villain in my mind when I think about it. For me, 4th edition’s key villain is Kalarel, the Scion of Orcus that first appeared in Keep on the Shadowfell before the core 4e books had even been released. In my own campaign, Kalarel was a serial killer hunting down young girls in his twisted attempt to appease his dark lord. He was a campaign-wide villain, lasting until level 17 when the party killed him near the end of Demon Queen’s Enclave.
A reader recently sent me a note asking how I would rebuild Kalarel today. Given the big changes to monsters since the release of the Monster Manual 3, it is a good time to look at this villain.
I’m lazy, however. I’m not going to be giving you stat blocks of this arch villain. Instead, we’re going to use the great arts of reskinning and level modification to help you get a head start on the Kalarel you need for your own campaign. We’ll look at building four versions of our favorite antagonist, one at level 8, one at level 18, and one at level 25.
Rebuilding the 8th level Kalarel
Even with reduced damage, the original Kalarel was a powerful force. As written in the module, Kalarel faced PCs nearly five levels lower than him. This made him particularly lethal. If you’re running the adventure as written, you probably don’t need to beef up Kalarel’s stat block to keep him as a threat.
If you want to turn on the nightmare mode, however, there’s a simple trick. Use the damage per level charts in the updated Dungeon Master’s Kit or the updated Dungeon Master’s Screen to upgrade his damage. In short, at level 8, Kalarel’s Rod of Ruin and Decaying Ray attacks should do 2d8+7 damage. You might also drop his attack scores by one to put him more in line with other level 8 monsters.
Oh divine art of reskinning
For our level 18 and level 26 versions of Kalarel, we’re going to fall back to my favorite monster building technique, reskinning. I’ve written about reskinning before and showed how you can turn a white dragon into a cyborg assassin, but it is worth looking at again. Reskinning lets you fill out nearly any battle with monsters that fit your story and run as smoothly as you can hope with very little preparation. For our two higher level versions of Kalarel, we’re going to look for appropriately leveled elite controllers in the Monster Manual 3, the Monster Vault, and the Dark Sun Creature Catalog.
Level 18, Kalarel the …. Catoblepas?
Perhaps after his defeat in the Keep on the Shadowfell, our villain found himself in the Shadowfell. After years of brutality and worship to Orcus, Kalarel finds himself once again in charge of Orcus’s dark plans, now taking place in the Shadowfell itself. At level 18, the Catoblepas Tragedian from the Monster Manual 3 is a great creature to reskin into the scion of Orcus. All we have to do is rename some of his powers and hand-wave some other statistical anomalies such as size and we’re all set.
Instead of the Raven Queen’s Presence, it is now the Presence of the Prince of Undeath with the same effect. Instead of Gore, it is a smash with Kalarel’s new magical skull-tipped rod. The poison breath you can turn into Kalarel’s poisonous cloud spell and the withering gaze turns into Kalarel’s Finger of Death. Final Glance becomes Orcus’s Shadow Bond. All of the defenses, all of the effects, all the rest of the stat block should work fine.
Level 25 Kalarel the … Sorcerer King?
Drawn back to Orcus’s citadel, Everlost, deep in the pits of Thanatos, our villain finds himself torn apart by Orcus’s most powerful sorcerers and rebuilt into a shadowy apparition of far greater power.
For our epic-tier Kalarel, we can dig into the wonders of the Dark Sun Creature Catalog into the forbidden pages of the Sorcerer Kings. Andropinis the 25th level elite controller will do very well for us. Again, we merely have to reflavor the attacks to turn this sorcerer king into Orcus’s favorite Exarch. I won’t go through power by power but generally Kalarel’s powers should be those of shadow and necrotic. Andropinis’s psionic attacks can either be converted by keyword or left as-is. The summoning of Legionaire Vestiges also works well in our vision of Kalarel.
What’e left is a Kalarel that your party is sure to remember. Just don’t forget to Protect your Elite Villains!
Re-level to fit using the laws of Perkins
These rebuilds might not be the perfect level for your campaign. This leaves you with a couple of different choices. First, you can find other elite controllers in our three favorite monster books (MM3, Dark Sun Creature Catalog, and Monster Vault) or you can use Chris Perkins’s Instant Monsters to level your monsters up or down. The technique is fairly simple. Add or subtract 1 from each defense, attack, damage score, and 10 hit points (20 for elites) for each level you move your monster up or down. There’s probably better math you can do, but that will work well enough.
What? No Stat Blocks?
I’m hoping to give you something better than a stat block in this article. I’m hoping to give you the ability to relax and free up a lot of your time by using all the stat blocks Wizards has produced to build your own villains in about 30 seconds. Give it a try.
If you liked this article, take a look at Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Master Tips and Running Epic Tier D&D Games. Need a good Kalarel mini and having a hard time finding the official D&D ones? Try this Star Wars Praetorite Vong Priest from Troll and Toad, an official Sly Flourish sponsor.