GTD for the Modern Age
Part one of how to become more productive at work and home.
Written by: David Truong | iOS Developer The Mobile Company
In today’s office and personal environments we’re constantly being bombarded with information, requests, and questions via our devices and in person. Paradoxically, access to more data and communication tools means that people increasingly become less focused — and might feel they are losing control over their own productivity. This blog series explains how we can improve our prioritisation, planning, and execution, as well as how to increase the level of trust between us and the people we work with.
Getting Things Done (GTD) is a methodology and system developed by David Allen. Since it was first published, it has gained a somewhat cult-like status among followers and detractors. I learned about GTD many years ago and have been happily using the system for the past 8 years. The reason you should try it too is because the potential upside of the system is huge, while the potential downside is near zero. After all, if it doesn’t work for you there’s always the other option — to continue doing things the way you were previously.
Step 0 — Stuff goes into the inbox
Right now, what happens when someone comes to your desk and requests something? What happens when your boss asks you to do something via email? What happens when you’re in the shower and you remember about a thing that needs to get done next week? In GTD, all of these things (and more) go into an ‘inbox’. Think of it as a giant (digital) box where all of your raw thoughts, actions, and questions are collected. They can be specific like ‘Buy cake from bakery around corner for wife’s birthday next week’, or general like ‘clean garage’. At this step it doesn’t matter, as long as you understand what it means.
The reasons for including this step are:
- Create the habit of recording everything that requires some sort of action in one place (your ‘inbox’).
- Be present to what you’re actually doing, instead of having thousands of tasks in your head that you’re trying to remember. If you remember that something needs to get done, record it in your inbox, then continue doing what you were doing before you got distracted (a conversation, another task, spending time with your kids, and so on).
Step 1 — Processing
At certain points during the day and week, you’ll process all the things you’ve collected in your inbox (step 0). We’ll talk more about the timing of processing later.
For now, let’s imagine you have a bunch of things in your inbox and you’re ready to process them. The most important part about this step is to understand when you are ‘processing’ and when you are ‘actioning’. Processing includes scheduling, categorising, expanding with more detailed tasks, et cetera. Actioning is actually doing what the task needs. For example, if I had an action of ‘move house plant to backyard’, then processing it would be looking at my calendar, deciding on a good time to do it, then scheduling it for next Monday because that’s when I have time. Actioning would be physically moving the plant to the backyard.
Here’s the framework I use to process tasks:
What is it?
First, we ask ourselves what is this? Is it an action (i.e. do I only need to do 1 thing to complete the task)? Is it a project (i.e. do I need to do more than 1 action)? Do I need to keep this, or can I throw it away (i.e. spam, marketing emails, coupon offers, job contract, medical records)?
If I don’t need it and there are no actions for me, then I trash it.
If I do need it but there are no actions to take, then I will add it to my ‘References’ folder. In part two of the blog series, I will list some useful tools that should be used as part of your Reference.
If there is more than one action I need to take around this item, then I create a project for it. E.g. ‘clean the garage’ consists of many smaller tasks. Some examples: write down list of things in garage that can be thrown away, confirm with wife they can be thrown away, organise garbage collection for disposable items, create plan of how items will be organised in garage, execute plan / rearrange items in garage. Write down as many follow-up actions as you can. Once you’ve done that, we can process each individual action you just created in the same way we would process an action that is in your inbox.
If it is an action, the question we ask is: can I do it right now in less than 2 minutes? The action could be: send email requesting information about product X from Colleague A. If this email takes me less than 2 minutes to write and send, then I should just do it right away.
But if it’ll take more than 2 minutes, then we categorise or schedule it! If the action is already in a project, then we don’t need to categorise it. But if it isn’t in a project yet and should be, then we move it into the relevant project. E.g. maybe we have a project of ‘New vision and values created for company’ and our inbox has an action ‘company values questionnaire created’, then our action would be categorised (i.e. moved) to the Visions/Values project. Once we’ve categorised the item (if needed), we can schedule it. Not all actions need to be scheduled.
My recommendation is to have at least one action from every active project scheduled to keep all your projects moving forward consistently. If there are no scheduled actions for a project, then it shouldn’t be an active project. Since we’re in processing mode, we should have our calendar in front of us. At this point we can decide that this action should be scheduled for tomorrow or next Monday (more on this in the second part of the series).
For items (both actions and projects) that don’t need to be scheduled: you can either leave them in the category to keep them visible, or categorise them into the Someday/Maybe bucket. Items in the Someday/Maybe bucket are things that you would like to do or achieve, but aren’t immediately relevant to you now. E.g. redo the landscaping for the garden, learn how to skateboard, and so on.
In the next blog post, I’ll detail Step 2 and Step 3, and which steps you can take to get started immediately.
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