GTD—or “Getting Things Done”—is a framework for organizing and tracking your tasks and projects.
By Jim Pate
One of the basic assumptions of GTD is that your subconsciousness is quite dumb when it comes to thinking about things you should have done. For example knowing you need to fix your bike before next week, but instead of reminding you when you actually drive by the bicycle shop, it implants an incessant feeling of “I need to remember… something” in your brain.
What GTD gives you— when understood and implemented properly—is a foolproof system for keeping track of what you need to do, should do, or should consider to do. When your system and your trust in your system is in place, your subconsciousness will stop keeping track of all the things you need to do and stop constantly reminding you. This reduces stress and frees up precious
brain time to more productive.
GTD works by simply maintaining lists, which every kid with paper and a pencil can do. These lists will be reviewed regularly and form the backbone of the GTD system. In addition to the lists you will need a calendar,which lets you write down date and time sensitive tasks and events.
The “In” List
The in list is where you capture ideas and tasks as they occur to you. This can be your boss telling you to bake her a carrot cake or seeing a poster for a circus you want to see. The barrier for adding something to your “in” list should be as low as possible—jot it down in a notebook or press the right buttons on your smartphone.
When you first start to use GTD you should take an hour to write down all things you want to—or have to—do. These so-called open loops include all things that aren’t as they should be, where they should be and so on. Do you need to replace your toothbrush? Should you repaint your bed? All these things should go on your in list.
Processing the In List
The items on your “in” list should be processed one by one in the order they appear on your list. When processing an item in your in list the first question you need to ask is: is it actionable?—in other words, do you need to do something? If the answer is NO, you either throw it away if you no longer need it, keep it as reference material (“I will probably need this article again some day…”), add it to a “some day/maybe list” (for things like “learn Indonesian”) or incubate it, if it is something you want to remind yourself of later.
Now, if the item you’re currently processing is actionable— in other words: something should be done about it—you should ask the question “what is the next action?” The next action needs to be a physical and visible action. In other words, not “plan cake lottery”, but “e-mail Arthur and Camille and remind them to bake their cakes”.
This very thing—that a next action should be the next physical, visible action to move the project closer to its goal— is perhaps the most important “rule” in GTD. By using a few extra seconds to come up with what physically needs to be done, you make sure that your “next action” lists will only contain the things you can choose to do at any moment. The “pre-processing” has already been done (the actions themselves may very well be planning tasks, though) and this greatly lowers the resistance to do the things.
When you have determined the next action, you should consider if it takes less than two minutes to do it. If this is the case, do it. Right away. (Things like “e-mail funny cat video to grandma”.) The reason for this is simple: if the action takes two minutes or less, the overhead of tracking it will be large compared to how long it takes to just do it. If it takes more than two minutes you should delegate it if appropriate—noting what was delegated and when—on a waiting for list or add it to your own next actions list of things you want to do as soon as you have the time. Next actions is
probably where most things will end up. If the open loop will take more than one action to close, the overall goal should also be noted on a projects list.
The Next Action List
So, what’s the next actions list? Well, a list of your next actions, obviously. Another name for these actions is “as-soon-as-possible actions”—it is simply those things, from which, you will pick out what to work on.
The Waiting For List
When you delegate work to others, send an e-mail you expect (or need) a reply to, order something, or have a task which is “blocked” because you are waiting for someone else to do something it should be written down on your waiting for list. These items should always be marked with the current date so that you’ll be able to e-mail your co-worker Marvin and say “I’m still waiting for the report you said you’d finish within a month. That was 32 days ago!”
GTD’s definition of a project is very broad. It defines any objective that requires more than one action as a project. These projects should go on your projects list. This list is simply a list of project titles and—if you like— descriptions and intended outcomes of the projects. When reviewing the projects list, you will make sure that there is always at least one action on your next actions list for each project, thus making sure that your projects aren’t forgotten.
Contexts are “tags” you put on the items on your next actions lists saying where the action can be done or what equipment you need to perform it. An action can be “tagged” with a context in several ways; the easiest is probably to simply have different next actions lists—one for each context. It is common to prefix contexts with an ‘@’ which makes sense when the context is a location, but should just be thought of as a notation in other cases. Examples of contexts are @ home, @ computer, and @ office.
The Someday/ Maybe List
You don’t want to lose your million dollar idea of making a “jump to conclusions” mat, but since this is a project you want to realize when you have more time, you don’t want to have it “pollute” your next actions lists or your list of projects either. (Remember that the next actions only contains the things that should be done as soon as possible and that your projects list will be reviewed regularly to make sure that all projects have at least one next action.) This is where the some day/maybe list comes it. This list simply contains ideas and projects you might want to realize at some
time in the future. This list should be reviewed weekly along with the rest of the system during the weekly review.
The calendar is for things you have to do on a certain date or at a certain time—and nothing else! That’s right; no putting “install Bonzibudddy” on your calendar for next Wednesday if you just think you want to have it done then. But… why? By only having items that really are time and date sensitive on your calendar it will be more useful, since it will actually tell you the things you have to do a certain day without being “diluted” with other items. The thing you want to do, but that doesn’t need to be done at a certain time will be on your next actions list anyway, so you will be reminded about it.
David Allen’s book on “GTD” calls the weekly review a “critical factor for success” and he is not joking. If you start using the GTD framework and you are not a robot, things will start to slip. You will complete the next action of a project and forget to add a new “next action” for that project. You will forget to remove next actions that you—if you really thought about it—know that you won’t do in the near future because more important things have shown up, and so on.
The weekly review should be done—you guessed it—once per week. It will take a while, so you should ideally set off some time (probably at least 30 minutes) in advance. When doing the weekly review you should at least do the following: Make sure each project has at least one next action. Make sure that each action on your next actions list is actually something you want or need to do if you have the time during the coming week. If not, move it (and/or the project it belongs to) to your someday/maybe list or—if you don’t think you will ever do it—remove it completely. (Be honest with yourself.) Look through your someday/maybe list and see if some projects/actions should be moved to the list of current projects/the next actions list. If creating a new project on your projects list, make sure to figure out its next physical, visible action and put it on the next actions list as well.
When doing the weekly review it can be a good idea to work through a “trigger list” a list of key words to “trigger” your brain to remember any open loops you still haven’t captured in your system. When working through your trigger list, put anything that you remember in your in list to be processed.
Getting it to Work
As you start getting comfortable with using GTD you can be a bit more lenient if you believe that it would be better.
It is important that you have hard edges between your lists, and between your next actions lists.
Your tools should be fun to use—but not too fun! If you have a slow and complicated tool for managing your lists, you will subconsciously resist collecting small tasks and if your tool is too fun to use, you will end up over-using it and spend time playing with its amazing features.
If you want a complete overview of GTD you would be wise to read David Allen’s book which formalized the method he developed: “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.”
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