I usually try to talk about unique content on this blog, i.e. things originating from the space between my ears. Today is going to be an exception: I’ll give you a quick and dirty summary of “Getting Things Done,” a book by David Allen, which details his productivity system. This system is considered to be, by many, the best productivity system out there.
It’s also one of the driest, most boring self-help books ever written. I’ve read it about 4-5 times over the years, and on occasion it has taken me as long as a whole year just to re-read it one more time… That’s how non-exciting it is. And that’s not David Allen’s fault by any means, he really is a very cool guy; it just comes with the subject.
The material is gold though. Therefore, I will now give you a bare-bones summary of the Getting Things Done system, so you can start using it right away after finishing this article. It will give you 95% of the benefits without you having to torture yourself reading the book – keep it simple stupid.
Let’s get into it, shall we?
Step 1: empty your head
The first thing David Allen wants you to understand: you cannot abuse your head as your personal productivity planner; your brain is simply not made for it. It will constantly keep reminding you of things that you still need to do, in circumstances where you can do nothing about them. Ever thought of “I still need to buy tomatoes” while under the shower? There you go.
What you need to do instead is dump all the “stuff” in your brain in some place outside of it, so you free up your mental RAM and allow your brain to do what is does best: be creative. And this brain dump needs to happen preferably in the same place, not in 20 different places. It’s great if you note down things on a Post-It, type a few reminders into your cell, look at your e-mail inbox for e-mails still to answer and have a whiteboard at work to jot down ideas. The problem though is that being so all over the place, literally, will make it impossible for you to get a complete inventory of your life, your projects and the things you still need to do. You might have reminders outside your brain everywhere, but they will just confuse the heck out of you, since you lack an overview.
So here is your first action step: choose a primary container for your brain dump. If you are old school, you could just get a piece of paper and start jotting down everything that your head keeps reminding you of. If you are more technology driven, I recommend a program like Evernote. You can download Evernote for free here. I will keep refering back to Evernote throughout this article, but you can easily adapt the strategies to similar programs. In any case, the next step is to note down EVERYTHING that keeps popping up in your head; remember, we want your mental RAM to be completely free. The main danger here is not writing everything down due to lazyness. “Oh, I’ll just remember that I still need to buy tomatos, no need to get out of the shower now.” But these little things add up in your mental RAM, weigh you down and lead you to feel stressed. Until everything is just a big mess again. So note everything down, every tiny little thing.
- Choose an external container for your brain; I like Evernote.
- If something occurs to you, note it down, always; and preferably straight into your main container, e.g. the Evernote app on your cell phone that syncs with your desktop.
- Once a day, do an inventory phase: Collect your notes from all the different places where you keep them, e.g. Post-Its, e-mails, Facebook messages, separate lists, memos, etc. and bring them together in your main container by writing a placeholder note for each and every item, like an Evernote note that says “Reply to Jimmy’s e-mail” (for that unanswered e-mail still in your Gmail account).
- The final result should be that you have a complete list in front of you, of everything that keeps popping up in your head and of all other current outside reminders; all there in one central place in front of you. GTD people call this magical place “the Inbox,” and you will so too by naming your first Evernote notebook likewise.
Evernote Inbox (click to enlarge)
There you have it, step 1, empty your head. I just saved you 30-40 pages of reading in two paragraphs…
Step 2: actionable or not or maybe?
Now we have to go through that list, our inbox, look at each item in turn and ask ourselves: Is there an action tied to this item or not? There are three different scenarios: Actionable, non-actionable and, number 3, non-actionable right now but maybe in the future. An e-mail you got from your boss asking about your opinion of the last staff meeting obviously has an action tied to it: he wants you to reply to his e-mail. A pizza menu flyer you got by mail about the new pizza parlor around the corner does not have an action tied to it, but you might still wanna keep it for future reference, e.g. when your cheat day comes around. And then there is the third category of items, that you might want to act on in the future, but not right now, like “learn Spanish”. All of these scenarios require a different kind of approach on your part; we’ll look at them in turn.
Scenario 1: actionable
So you identified that the first item in your inbox, an e-mail by your boss, has an action tied to it: Your boss wants you to tell him about the last staff meeting. Sounds easy, right? The problem though is, that you would first like to look at the notes you took during the meeting, and those notes are still in your paper notebook at your office. So the next thing to do is not to actually reply to the e-mail right away, but to go to your office first and check out your notes and THEN reply to the e-mail. This may seem like pedantry, but this is one of the main reasons why people fail at productivity in real life: they are either unable or too lazy to clearly define the true next action step. The result is that they get an amorphous list of action pending items that in their quantity confuses the heck out of them, because there are no clearly defined next action steps. With actionable items, you ALWAYS have to define the next concrete action step.
The next action step also leads you to the proper context, i.e. the right work environment, in which to take care of that action: With our example above the right context is NOT being at a computer to reply to the email from your boss, at least not right away – it’s being at your office, so you can check out the notes about the staff meeting. Always assigning the right context to an actionable item is so important because it allows you to batch tasks: of course you are not just going to check out your notes at the office, but there is whole bunch of other things you can take care of while being at the office as well. By assigning a context tag to every actionable item, you can then filter for all the items by that context in a program like Evernote, and voila, you get a complete list of things to do while being at the office. I can tell you from experience that “batching” is one of the most effective productivity and time management techniques out there; every time I’m on the run and can just look at my complete list of things to do by filtering for the “@on the go” tag on my Evernote cell phone app, I want to hug David Allen and not let go…
- Ask yourself: Is this item in front of me actionable or not?
- If yes, what this the concrete next action step? What do I need to do next to get this thing moving? Write that action step down below your original item in the same Evernote note!
- Now assign the proper context / work environment: WHERE do I need to be to carry out that next action? At my computer? At the store? At my office? At home? Assign a context tag to each and every actionable Evernote note. This way, you can filter for the tags later by a single click.
- Finally, move your actionable item from your inbox notebook in Evernote to a new notebook called “Action Pending”.
Action Pending Item (click to enlarge)
Scenario 2: not actionable
Next item in your inbox: a flyer from “Barney’s Crunchy Pizza,” a new pizza parlor that just opened around the corner. You are doing a Paleo diet right now, so pizza is out of the question, but your kids love pizza, and you might want to have a slice (okay, the whole damned thing) when your next cheat day comes around. So there is no immediate action tied to the item, but you still feel like keeping the flyer. Accordingly, you should file it in your “general reference” system. GTD makes a big fuss about that and talks about it for ages. Here is my shortcut: Get 1-3 file folders, get an alphabetical index and file the flyer under “P”, like Pizza. That’s your general reference system right there for paper-based reference material. For digital reference material, you just put up an Evernote notebook called “General Reference.” Me personally, I dump all digital reference materials in there, not bothering with any further sorting. That’s what the Evernote search function is for.
The other common result of encountering a non-actionable item: You decide that you probably won’t need it in the future, and just toss it. Done.
Scenario 3: not actionable right now but maybe in the future
Third item in your inbox: “Learn Spanish.” There is obviously myriad next actions tied to this one, like “check out course schedule of the local community college” or “buy language tapes online.” But you also know that you don’t want to learn Spanish right now – you are way too busy at work with this new project, so maybe afterwards. At the same time, you don’t want to forget about all these things you might want to do in the future. There is a reason why they keep popping up in your head: you realize they further your knowledge or they simply seem plain-fun to you; in any case, there is a certain level of importance attached to them and you don’t want to forget about them. The solution: you keep an inventory of these ideas by starting a new Evernote notebook, called “Someday-Maybe” and move “Learn Spanish” to that new notebook. Every once in a while, you then look through your someday-maybe list, e.g. to get inspired for new projects to take up. And it also gives you the comfortable knowlegde that all of your collected someday-maybe ideas are right there, just one click away; nothing falling through the cracks because you didn’t record it. It feels good…
Someday-Maybe Item (click to enlarge)
There is another type of not-actionable-right-now item: things that are a little bit more urgent than a regular someday-maybe item – things you can do nothing about right now but whose time for acting upon will definitly come around. An example task would be: set up a doctor’s appointment for your regular check-up in January in a year from now. How do you go about this? You start a new Evernote notebook called “Tickler,” and then write a note, starting with the year, then the month then the day on which you want to be reminded of setting up that appointment. So your note would look something like this:
“160115 Set up appointment with Dr. Miller for check-up.”
By putting the date first, you can then sort all your items in your tickler list by date. You do that once every day to check which time sensitive items you should be looking at today, to not miss anything. Genius, I know.
Tickler Item (click to enlarge)
So far, we have separated items from our inbox into the following notebooks:
- Action Pending
- General Reference
- Someday / Maybe
If you want to get a little bit more fancy, you could also assign a project tag to every single item in your system. For example “Reply to my bosses e-mail” would get a tag “work”; or if you want to differentiate further between the areas of your work, you could give it a tag “work communication” or “staff meeting.” To get the most out of this, you should assign a project tag to every single item, not just actionable ones, but also to items that go into General Reference, Someday / Maybe or Tickler. This way, if you want more of a project centered outlook on your stuff, you can easily filter for a certain topic. For example, if you would filter for the project tag “finances” in Evernote, it would show you all money-related items in your system, action-pending, someday / maybe and so on. It’s very nice to have this option, as it provides more clarity, especially if you have a several hundred or thousand items in your GTD system.
Project Tags (click to enlarge)
Optional: waiting for
Oftentimes, when an item is actionable, it means contacting someone else about it and waiting for their response. For example, the item “get a quote for car repair” requires a call to your local car mechanic as your next action, but if he can’t give you a quote right away, you’ll have to wait for him to call you back about the final quote. These kinds of open loops should also be recorded in your productivity system. Remember: we don’t want anything taking up your mental RAM and getting you stressed out. So you could start a new notebook in Evernote called “Waiting For” and just write a placeholder item for every open loop. Every once in a while, you go through it and decide if you need to follow up on anything.
Waiting For Item (click to enlarge)
Alternatively, you can also note down your open loop items in your tickler notebook; that’s what I do. I just assign an appropriate amount of time to every open loop item, after which I will contact the person I handed the task off to. In the example of the car mechanic, I would write a tickler note saying “WF quote by car mechanic” and assign it a date two days from the date I originally called. My tickler system will then remind me of the open loop two days later. What I like about this is, it saves you another notebook; I like my GTD system to be as sleek as possible.
What your GTD day should look like
Okay, now that you understand the theory, here is what you should do on a daily basis to stay up to date with your GTD system and in order to have a stress-free day:
- Do an inventory phase: Check your Evernote inbox and think about any items that are still swirling around in your head; add them to the inbox. Look at any e-mails, Facebook messages, text messages on your phone and so on and add placeholder notes for every item to your inbox. Don’t forget about good old paper-based material! What letters did you receive yesterday, what printed out memos and so on. Add placeholder items for all of these in your inbox as well.
- Work through your inbox: Look at every item in turn and separate it into the right notebook: action pending, general reference, someday / maybe, tickler. For all actionable items, add a next action step and a context tag. Optionally, you can also assign a project tag to every single item in your inbox, no matter if actionable or not.
- Check your tickler: Sort your tickler notebook in Evernote by date, then go through the items for today. Usually you want to move these from the tickler notebook to the action-pending notebook and assign a context tag as well.
- Go through your action pending items: If you are a busy person like me, you will have a plethora of action-pending items, which can be pretty overwhelming. What I like to do, is to go through all my action-pending items and add a “Today” tag to all items that I definitly want to take care of today. This way, I reduce the mass of all the things I COULD be doing (and eventually need to do) to the few essential ones that I either absolutely need to or want to take care of today. For the rest of the day, I will then be looking to a very manageable list of maybe about ten items, i.e. all the items that go on my “Today” tag. Just filter for it in Evernote and you get the ultimate short and simple to-do list, which covers all ground.
I realize that the way of getting to this ultimate simple to-do list for the day in front of you requires a pretty boring, long-winded process. Plus, GTD has quite a bit of a learning curve initially. But it just comes with the territory: modern life is complex, and there are no quick, easy fixes for that. You need a system that is not overly complicated, yes, but also one that is “complicated enough” so it can take care of the complexities life will throw at you! GTD is not sexy, but then, most things worth a damn rarely are. But you know what’s sexy? Being in control over what is going on in your life. Not being stressed out. Realizing your dreams and ambitions consistently, because you actually have a system of dealing with the world. GTD, as boring as it is, beats “common sense” productivity any time: for most people “being productive” equals jumping back and forth between different tasks randomly like a chicken with its head cut off.
Mind you, GTD is by no means perfect: It leaves out or ignores a whole host of issues that, in my opinion, are at least equally important. What about Energy Management, for example? Many people are so overworked and burned out in the first place, because of lack of sleep, bad nutrition and no strategies for dealing with stress in place, that they can’t be successful, no matter if they took a GTD seminar or not. These are just some of the other, more profound pre-requirements that have to be taken care of, before GTD can work its magic.
Another issue I have with GTD is that it doesn’t really talk about prioritizing tasks and the difference between urgent and important. All that David Allen has to say to that in the book basically amounts to “follow your intuition when choosing what task to do next.” I’m sorry, but that is crap. If you go about your tasks like this, you might be an efficient, but never an effective person. Effective people, people that make meaningful things happen more consistently than normal people, have additional strategies in place, like “timing of task execution,” “always prefer long-term benefits over quick wins”, “don’t work against pleasure” and so on. GTD doesn’t give you ANY of those.
But none of that de-values GTD as a system. The system is almost free of flaws in itself, and I’m saying that after years and years of applying it religiously. But it’s also just a piece of a puzzle, and you DO need to look at the whole picture, not just the single piece.
I realize this is not the most exciting article I’ve ever written. As I said, it kinda comes with the territory. But I can only really, really encourage you to give GTD a try. What I was hoping to do with this somewhat short article is to make the learning curve as easy as possible. And of course, if you are now intrigued, I still recommend reading the original book “Getting Things Done”, by the Master himself, David Allen. It’s a dry read, yes, but the material is gold.
Feel free to ask any questions you might still have in the comments! That might help me to further simplify the original article! Thank you so much.