A Quick Guide to ‘Getting Things Done’
I recently set the BrightWork blog team a challenge: pick a productivity method, try it for one month, and document your experiences. I decided to start the challenge in January with David Allen’s five-step approach to ‘Getting Things Done’ (GTD).
So am I now a productivity guru who gets stuff done or a novice stuck figuring out what ‘stuff’ really is?
Getting Things Done: An Overview
First published in 2001, GTD helps to reduce time wasted wondering what to do next and boosts your engagement with the task-at-hand. This engagement, dubbed ‘appropriate engagement’ by Allen is core to this method; it’s not about creating time to do more.
As argued by Allen in the below TED Talk, shortage of time is not really a problem for most people. The challenge is not having room to think or ‘psyche bandwidth’ for more creative, meaningful work. With so much information at our fingertips and multiple commitments, it’s easy to become overwhelmed or stressed and waste energy just doing things on auto-pilot.
For Allen, our mind is for having ideas, not accumulating plans, so we need a process for documenting and clarifying our thoughts. This process also allows us to have the right response to a situation, a state called ‘mind like water’.
5 Steps to Getting Things Done
At it’s simplest, GTD involves five steps:
Using a notebook, email, a list app, voicemail or whatever works for you, collect anything that has your attention. This includes personal and professional tasks or worries.
As our life changes, so too do our priorities so you will constantly add to this list.
Next, process what each item really means.
Is it actionable? Can you defer the action? If not, what will you do? When will you do it?
If the action has one-step and will take less than two minutes to complete, do it now.
Any actions with more than one-step are classified as ‘projects’.
Group your tasks into meaningful categories. Here are five to start with:
- Projects (something with more than one action you must complete)
- Calendar (actions that must happen on a specific day)
- Next Actions (tasks for completion soon)
- Waiting for (tasks you need some help with)
- Someday/Maybe (a list of big, long-term ideas).
GTD is very flexible so you can pick your own categories or break the groupings down even further, for example, Next Actions for completion at work or at home.
Review your calendar and Next Actions list daily if possible.
Conduct a Weekly Review to ‘get clear, get current, and get creative’. In short, every week:
- Clear your mind by noting any ideas or tasks in a list, and clear your inbox and ‘to-do’ list.
- Update your calendar and tasks for the upcoming week and evaluate the status of your projects.
- Take some time to get creative by looking at your Someday/Maybe list.
Opt to do tasks as defined in your weekly review or as work arises. Your choice should be informed by what you can do in the allotted time, how much energy you have, and your priorities.
If you are not sure what to do next, some questions to help your decision include:
- Why is this task needed?
- What is the best possible outcome for this task?
- How will I know if I’m successful or not?
- What do I know and not know about this task?
- Do I need to plan this task further?
There are additional elements to this method including a tickler filing system (43 folders – 12 for each month and 31 for the days of the month), and the ‘Horizons of Focus’, ranging from projects we can complete in less than a year to major life goals.
There are also numerous online resources and tools to help you implement the system as best works for you. For an excellent summary of these resources, refer to Zen Habits’ list.
The GTD website offers a 14-day free trial of GTD Connect, a subscription-based online learning center. Resources include webinars, training guides, and a forum for users to discuss their GTD experience.
Getting Things Done: Getting Started
I like to think of myself as quite organized and efficient, especially at work. However, I will admit my system – a daily to-do list jotted down in a notebook, Outlook calendar, and emailing reminders to myself – was a little messy. I also wasn’t consistent when it came to personal projects; ideas just flitted in and out of my mind at random.
With a focus on getting everything out of your head and into an actionable list, GTD was very appealing.
- Victim/Responder: No control or focus; often just responds to the latest or loudest idea
- Crazymaker/Visionary: Highly focused but not organized
- Micro-manager/Implementer: High control with no focus
- Captain and Commander: The right level of focus and control; engaged with life; creative; able to respond to change.
I fell into the Victim/Responder quadrant, caught somewhere between ‘a major storm and a major hurricane’. I was likely to feel distracted by the loudest or latest requirement and was not at my optimal control levels. On the positive side, as a Responder, I was described as willing to try new things to focus on delivering in the short-term.
Needless to say, I wasn’t too happy with my results.
GTD has been around since 2001 with thousands of devoted users and websites. There is no right or wrong way to implement this method so you can make it as complex or simple as you like.
Rather than become too concerned with every detail or possible implementation, I opted for a simple process:
- Microsoft Planner (which I also used on my phone) to capture, clarify, and organize my thoughts using seven lists:
- Inbox to track everything
- Next Actions for a detailed breakdown of each project
- Weekly tasks to record daily obligations
- Waiting For
- Next month
- Outlook calendar and task list to manage my weekly schedule, and let others know my availability.
- Daily check to update any completed items or add more tasks to projects.
- Weekly review to reflect on the previous week, plan the upcoming week, and refine new items in my Inbox.
- With the exception of meetings, eliminate my usage of paper notebooks as much as possible.
Getting Things Done: Making It Work
Having trialed GTD for just four weeks, I’m far from an expert in this method. However, I did learn a few things along the way.
- Whilst you do need to take some time to research and understand the method, don’t get too bogged down by the detail. The book is very useful as is the free trial for GTD Connect.
- Start small with your lists, using the five recommended lists initially. Once you understand how the method fits into your routine, you can add or rename the lists as you need to. I did waste some time figuring out my lists instead of just capturing tasks for clarification and organization.
- An app like Microsoft Planner is essential. The ability to quickly note items on my phone, especially at home or at the weekend, saved time transferring notes from an email to a notebook or list. It really was a case of ‘note and forget’. Microsoft Planner offers useful features like color-coded labels, drag and drop lists, a checklist for each card, and an overview chart to track your progress.
- The Weekly Review is a key component of this method so don’t skip or rush it! Knowing this time was set aside spared me the effort of working on each task as I added it to my inbox; in turn, I was more focused on my scheduled work.
- Translating the Weekly Review into my calendar was also very helpful. Whilst I was already using Outlook’s calendar, my approach is now more structured and refined. I know exactly what I need to do and when. This forces me to be more realistic when allocating a calendar slot to a task, and I jump less between tasks during the day.
- Waiting For is a handy way to remember who is doing what and when for you. Treat Waiting For like any project; break down every step, when it’s due, and who is doing it.
My short experience with GTD has been very instructive and I will keep using the method in the coming months. I have a process for clearing my mind so I can focus on the work at hand, and a system for planning each week. I worry less about unexpected items that pop up, and feel my overall productivity has improved.
So how did I fare with the self-assessment quiz four weeks later?
I’ve now moved into the ‘Captain and Commander’ quadrant. This indicates a healthy mix of perspective and control needed to get things done to a high standard. My challenge is to maintain this level of balance and spend more time figuring out what really has my attention.