The James Boswell GTD

Mischa Willett
Dec 1, 2013 · 9 min read

What is GTD?

Getting Things Done is one part meme and one part movement, comprised of people from numerous professions and levels of expertise who are trying to lead more productive lives. Stephen Covey’s business books and Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders and Pomodoro Technique are the big ones, but this thing extends widely to intricate systems of Moleskine Hacks, Hipster PDA, software programs, and a plethora of websites dedicated to time management.

Though it may sound counterintuitive, the process of planning one’s time is terrific fun, and looking through GTD systems is so distracting for some that the term “productivity pr0n” (porn/prone) has been coined to describe those who get nothing done because they spend so much time lusting for better ways to get things done.

GTD systems seem to me particularly useful for academics. Most people, I think, have jobs that give them more structure than we knowledge-workers tend to have. When I painted houses in college, I always knew what I should be doing: painting the house. I knew that my job tomorrow would be to paint the house as well. After a week or so, I’d have to paint a different house. It was hard work, but the planning part was easy.

I’ve been teaching in universities for ten years now, and while I’m getting better at time management, thanks in part to GTD, it is still a pretty dizzying enterprise. Every term, my classes begin and end at different times and are located in different buildings. In some seasons, I’m terribly busy externally, and in others I’ve no external demands on my time and attention whatever. What’s more, there are always loads of tasks beyond teaching which are up to me to plan, motivate, and execute, with no one who will care particularly whether I do them or not.

How is one to know, for instance, how much time he should allot to reading incoming journal articles? In planning next term’s courses? How much to applying for national grants? To looking for interesting new CFP’s? To department service? Mentoring students? Writing book pitches for academic presses? And mailing those out? You see what I mean.

Not only do we have constantly to decide which of these (and it’s just a representative sample) deserve our attention, but in what order: how to prioritize it all, and how to measure progress when a dutiful practitioner might spend a year pacing diligently through all of them and have nothing but a journal article rejection slip to show for the effort.

Strangely, there’s almost nothing out there to help. A few books make useful attempts at prodding more effective writing schedules, and some software like Scrivener, or Evernote can help organize research projects, but that’s not the same as organizing a career, which is what GTD aims to do. Search for “Example Academic Workflow,” and almost nothing turns up.

Jas. Boswell

James Boswell (1740-1795) was among the most prodigious fellows ever to wear a pink frock coat and a powdered wig. His output was epic: not only the gargantuan Life of Johnson (1791), but the London Journals 1762-1763 (1950) as well as innumerable letters and years of reading. He kept all this up while also pursuing a heavy diet of celebrity parties, church-going, play attendance, drinking, hiking, and whoring: a profligate perhaps, but a productive one.

When he came to London in 1762 (for the second time, which detail I like, as though this time he was going to do it right) at the age of 22, Boswell began keeping a system of journals and memoranda that kept him on his proverbial toes; kept him writing anyway, and making a kind of artwork out of his life. It has surprising affinity with modern GTD systems, but a number of idiosyncratic touches that rendered it workable for him, and from which we might learn.

The System


  • Pen
  • Paper

This is the first evidence of genius in Boswell’s system. Mann’s 43 Folders requires you to buy…you know…43 folders. It’s a great system, but it means that now I have 43 folders to keep track of, and a file box, and a label-maker. I drafted the present essay in a Moleskine, which I love writing in, but which is one of 14 on my shelf: 10 full and the 4 I’m working on now (one daybook, this one for miscellaneous notes and essay drafts, a full-size one for literature reviews, and the one I keep for my classes full of lesson plans). The defects of that system should be obvious, but chief among them is that I never seem to have the one I need to hand.

Boswell’s system is smart because, though he plans everything in advance, he doesn’t plan too far out, and always has his GTD tools available. He can add to his journal anytime he likes, even expanding a previous entry, simply by adding a new sheet of paper. He’s writing on a folded-up sheet of quarto, which we might choose to do as well, though I don’t think it’s necessary. Here’s how it works.

The system is broken into two parts: the Memorandum and the Journal.

We have, incidentally, bits of both, the journals having been edited by Frederick A. Pottle and pages of memorandum usually printed alongside, or featured in the footnotes. Consult at leisure.

Part 1: Memorandum

Every evening, Boswell sits at his writing desk and plans out the next day. He plans it to a precise level, as this excerpt from December 4, 1762 shows: “Breakfast first at home. Then in Bath [coat] and old grey [suit] and stick, sally to the City. Send off North Britain to Digges…Go to Child’s, take dish coffee, read Auditor, Monitor, Briton” (Pottle 67). What he will eat, where he will go, what shoes to wear, and how he’ll spent his time are all featured in the memo. He’s unsparing in detail, planning even his romantic conquests, as in this entry, from December 31:

dress; then breakfast and be denied. Then journal and Hume, busy till three. Then Louisa; be warm and press home, and talk gently and Digges-like. Acquire an easy dignity and black liveliness of behavior. Learn as Sheridan said, to speak slow and softly (Pottle 113).

What’s particularly delightful about Boswell is his candor in these exchanges. He never imagined anyone would be reading them 160 years after his death, of course, but then, neither should you imagine such a provenance, if you want to get to work.

You’ll have noticed one of the system’s idiosyncrasies I mentioned from the material above: he speaks to himself in the second person. Some modern GTD systems have suggested similar things: that you should write your day as a narrative to help remember things. Tomorrow, go to the store, stay on the left, walk by the beer aisle and pick up the milk, then pay, etc.; that sort of thing, but Boswell’s has more charm and immediacy than that because it’s structured like a letter from someone who knows him very well, which is true, in a delightful sense, of all notes to self.

Even his attitude at any given time is prescribed. This bit mattered more in the hyper-mannered world of c18 London, when the turn of a sentence or the depth of a bow was suitable basis for granting or denying a line of credit, but it can be useful for us as well. Boswell writes, “At six, [go to] Sheridan’s. Be like Sir Richard Steele…study calm and deliberate” (113). Imagine if, instead of acting out of our every emotional, conflicted, protein-drop whim, people walked around with intentions like, when you see the secretary, say something nice about her; or in class today, be commanding, but funny, at least once.

The trick is to carry this folded memo sheet with you all day, which is again what’s nice about a sheet of paper over a journal of any kind. On the reverse side of the sheet, you keep notes throughout the day. Boswell wrote names of people with whom he was to meet, their rank and places of employ, and so could sound winning and knowledgeable in any company, seeming never to forget anything because of his copious notes, which then come in handy when one sits to write an account of the day.

Part 2: Journal

The second major component of the Boswell GTD system is the Journal. You can easily read Boswell’s London Journal yourself to get the exact flavor and focus, but basically, as is common in a journal, he recounts the events of the day after the fact. Even here though, there are a few notable additions to the usual practice.

Boswell spends almost no time on conjecture, for instance. He sets out deliberately to record his feelings and his actions, which keeps the prose lean since he doesn’t spend much time on opinions or on imagining what others are thinking. Heavy on quotations, specific place names, and “portraits” of people he meets, Boswell’s journals provide us with the most complete look we have of life in mid-century London. It was also an enormous help to him. Not only did he train his mind to remember details, since they would later be marshaled for record in the journal, he improved his writing as well through constant practice and striving after clarity.

Think too about the edge such a record gives him in any future interaction (again, more useful then perhaps, but helpful still for us). Imagine running into him in the coffeehouse. He’d say “ah, you’re Mr. So and So, we met a Grub Street in October with your friend Ms. Burney and talked about the demerits of Mr. Garrick’s Shakespeare performance the night previous.”

Imagine yourself. None of this what did we talk about at the staff meeting? Was I supposed to do something? It’s like keeping running minutes of everything that occurs and having them constantly available for reference, but better than reference, since the important things would have passed through the hand twice, once in the memo and once in the journal: he’d have them by heart.

Two more aspects of the Boswell GTD system warrant mentioning. One, sometimes Boswell is drunk or sleeping elsewhere. What happens to the journal then? And what if he doesn’t feel like writing some nights? What kind of person has an hour to plan his tomorrow and to journal every night? (A: an organized one, but let’s not be pedantic).

The system accounts for this too. Boswell kept notes toward his journal—the reverse of the day’s memo sheet would be the natural place to do this—which he would then write up when he had the time. Sometimes he gets two weeks behind and has to spend a Saturday filling in the missing bits. In nearly every case though, he makes up for the missed days, if only by a short entry regarding his whereabouts. In such sections, the editorial hand is stronger, since only the most memorable (or noteworthy) occurrences would rise.

The last aspect I want to mention may sound strange at first, but I think it may be effective no less for it. I said earlier that Boswell hadn’t a thought for posterity as he wrote, but that isn’t entirely true. Every two weeks or so, Boswell folded up his journal entries—also a good reason to keep them on papers instead of in a book—and mailed them to his friend Johnson (not Dr. Samuel).

There are a few benefits to his having done so. Firstly, he keeps his closest friend abreast about the goings-on in his days. By extension, this accountability encourages, with mixed success in Boswell’s case, clean and intentional living. Secondly, it keeps him committed to the journal. I don’t know about you, but I can forgive myself anything. Didn’t work on that chapter? That’s okay; you didn’t sleep well last night. Didn’t plan tomorrow’s work? No problem; it was a stupid system anyway.

The will is a tyrant as much as the heart is a fool. But a friend’s expectation of delivered goods raises the investment, for me at least. It makes the process more real. If you start questioning the worth of the organizational enterprise, you can always tell yourself, “I’m doing this for X; she loves reading these.” And she probably will.

    Mischa Willett

    Written by

    Teacher of writing and literature.

    Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
    Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
    Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade