Getting Things (sort of) Done

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Ironically, this post has taken a while.

Ironic, since it’s about GTD – Getting Things Done®. But then I take heart that no-one has said that GTD is about getting things done fast! But, I have realised I have a lot I want to say on this topic – and it ain’t all going to be today.

GTD is a productivity methodology espoused by David Allen – indeed, it’s probably fair to say ‘created’ by David Allen. I don’t think there is anything new in GTD, but (I think) Mr Allen was the first person to put it all together in one methodology. GTD has global reach – a quick Google search on the term would show you that there is a huge community out there. Huge.

I’m not going to spend words here explaining what GTD is in detail – for that you can check out some of the links in my sidebar, or perhaps read this one or this one for an outline of what it is and how it works. There are plenty of posts explaining it, so I don’t feel the need to here.

Of course, the best place find out more is the book by Mr Allen. Oh, and I just found this video (shorter than two minutes) where David Allen talks about the core of GTD – a good intro if you have the time:

GTD & Me

I find GTD fascinating, useful and not a little obsessive. I also find it frustrating (but I’ll leave that for other posts, I think)

These are the reasons I like GTD

  • You can use tech to do it – and there are loads of software products out there to help you in this (I use Omnifocus and Evernote), and of course I have another reason to use my ubiquitous iPhone. This appeals to my inner geek.
  • When I get it right, I feel calm – everything is out of my head into a trusted system that works for me.
  • I regularly, and I mean at least once every couple of days, have an empty email Inbox (this does not mean that I have no emails to deal with, just that they are in the right place for me to deal with them).
  • It’s revolutionised the way I approach filing – I’ve reduced paper filing from two four-drawer cabinets to one two-drawer cabinet and a bunch of digital folders. So far, I haven’t missed anything I threw away.
  • I feel (and I hope I am) more productive than I used to feel about 2 years ago. I am actually getting things done.
  • Basically, this just works for me in a way that no other time-management/workflow management thing has ever done.
  • Oh, and you’re allowed to be a bit anal about stationery, too. I can now come out as a Staples freak.
Why GTD?

I’ve used to-do lists for ages. And I bet you’ve done what I used to do: the first item I would put on my list was ‘make to-do list’ – just so that I could tick that off when I had done it. Utterly nutty – I was basically creating an item that didn’t need noting just so that I could feel good about crossing it off.

Do you know the old joke about the guy hitting his head against the wall? When asked why he was doing it, he replied, ‘ Because it feels soooo good when I stop.’ That’s what that sort of to-do list management is all about. Mad as a sack of cats.

But, I said to myself, if I make lists I’m probably doing it because I think it helps. And it does, if it’s done properly. Ah, there’s the rub: what sort of list would actually help?

Allen talks about lists a lot. Basically, he says (and I think he’s right), your mind is like RAM in a computer: it’s limited and in itself it has no way of discerning what’s important to you at the moment, where you are. In short, when it’s full things drop out of your psychic RAM, and even when it isn’t full (mine is most of the time) everything in it is clamouring for your attention. With equal volume. It must be like the floor of the London Stock Exchange in there.

But let’s go back to my first sort of ‘to-do’ list experiences. What was I trying to do? I wanted to get stuff out of my head so that I could stop it shouting at me, and I wanted to be able to look at it so I could decide what to do with it. Good. Works. But only so far.

The problem is that other stuff stayed in my head – and that was still shouting. The problem was that I kept thinking of other stuff that needed to be done and, having got into my head, that stayed there too.

I had conceded that making a list was a good thing to do, but I wasn’t listing everything. And I do mean everything.

If you’re not willing to keep everything out of your head, why keep anything out of your head? …If you’ve ever made a list and felt better, why haven’t you figured out why that works and instilled that practice to ensure that you feel better all the time? (source: Wired UK Magazine, December 2009, How to make to-do lists work)

A list of everything? Are you serious?

Yep. I am.

But I’m going to gloss over this point – the post would be too long (sorry, I meant ‘even longer’). If there’s sufficient interest, I might start a series of posts on how I implement GTD in more detail. Let me know.

To Do Lists or Not To Do Lists? That is the question

The next important thing about lists is to realise that what we call ‘to do’ lists are more properly ‘project’ lists. Let me explain that a bit.

A project is anything that would take more than two steps to complete. A classic example of this would be, in my work context, ‘write up report’. What’s the ‘to do’ here? ‘Write’? Sure it is. But can I do it now? Can I write up the report and tick the box next to that ‘to do’ item and mark it done. Er…Nope.

Why? Because I don’t have the notes in front of me, or I don’t have the report planned, or I don’t have my computer with me or… or…

In fact, that ‘to do’ is a project. It becomes irritating the longer it stays on the list (because I can’t shift it), it becomes repulsive because I procrastinate and start to feel guilty about it (because I don’t know where to start). The reason is that I haven’t defined what the next step is. The next step.

Allen talks a lot about ‘next actions’ (NA). These are the real ‘to dos’. In a way they answer the key question: what is the very next thing I can do to move this project closer to completion?

In my example above, and this is actually taken from my work life, the very next action could be: ‘find notes from trip’ then ‘read notes to capture headings for report’ then ‘use mindmap to plan report’ then … then (and so on until)… ‘write up report’. When I am planning projects (anything more than two steps) that’s how I do it now.

Once the NAs are in place, I can then separate them into contexts – this one answers the question: what can I do now given the tools I have, the place I’m in and the energy I have? My next actions are divided into ‘context’ lists. I have contexts like ‘online’ (I need to be at a computer that is connected), ‘Errands-Oxford’ (actions to take next time I am in town), ‘Calls’ (I have some time and I have my phone, who can I call?) etc.

So in the end, two lists: a project list that has the project, the desired outcome, and some (or all) of the NAs on it. And a context list that groups those NAs by context.

Now that’s a to-do list. And it helps me in getting things done.

Sort of. I’m only human.


16 thoughts on “Getting Things (sort of) Done

    • Yes, really. You should have seen the paper files I inherited. Revolution is not an understatement.

      I know it sounds sad, but I like filing now. I get to use another gadget (my labeller) and I can find things quickly. If that isn’t a revolution in a small way, then I don’t know what is.

      Maybe ‘freedom found in filing’ should be another post I write.

      Oh. god.

      I have to get out more.


  1. Thank you, Carl, for this post! It’s exactly what I need! Working two quite different jobs, one of them being quite varied in itself, and about to add another into the mix, my brain just hasn’t been functioning as it should. I do, it has to be said, blame Twitter for some of this inefficiency. But anyway, I’m going to explore this further and I’m looking forward to my own filing revolution!! Although I’m not entirely sure I’m ready for a labeller yet…

    • My pleasure Carol –

      I recommend getting hold of the book or doing a search on YouTube to find out more – I think there is a video of David Allen talking to Google somewhere.

      I really have found this useful, but it has taken me a good while to feel that it really is working. Takes some getting used to.

      And labellers are cool (oh, I really need to stop now….)

  2. I’ve been getting email to zero for over a year now, so feel like I’ve mastered that. But I haven’t got the time to read Allen’s book, so would appreciate more work-related tips, as I feel like my head is about to explode from the overload of information.
    Good post, by the way!

    • Hi Atena,

      Thanks for the compliment. I’m happy to keep doling out work tips – but they will always only ever be the things that work for me. I do urge you to find time to read the book – in many ways GTD is only a set of principles that people have to find their own way to implement. Failing that, have a look on YouTube to get tasters. I know how much you like surfing the web, so that should suit.

      Have a good weekend!

  3. By the way, everyone, this has been my most popular post so far – if the stats are anything to go by. I’m taking this as a signal to write more about GTD in future!

  4. Wow – this is really useful.

    I came back here actually to comment on my welcome comment, I’d said something about rummaging around for a piece of paper but after writing that bought myself a very special jewelled notebook – designated only for blog ideas and although it’s only a week, I wanted to thank you -working like a charm.

    And now this great advice up above: you know, I used to be an uber organized person until I entered the web2.0 and these days feel so often like this world has been completely taking over my whole normal life!

    Time to go file I reckon as I so hate when I can’t find things and will add buying this book/ watching the videos to today’s to-do list 🙂 LOL – so that I can free myself of to-do lists of course.


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  6. Hey Carl
    Stumbled across this somehow. Very interested in hearing more about your GTD setup. From what it sounds like, you’re using a combo digital + paper setup (file folders, labelers). How does it all integrate? And how’s your success been w/ Evernote? It completely failed on us after we ended up with over 1000 notes and 100’s of tags. We’re trying to program a better system so wondering how ppl are dealing currently.

    • Hi Loc,

      Sorry to take so long getting back to you – I’ve been off this blog for a little while (too many inputs which I am just now trying to control). I think the answer to your questions would take another post, but simply:

      – I use paper files because some things you just have to file
      – when/if I can I’ll get rid of as much paper as possible and store scans in Evernote
      – I’m still playing with Evernote and working out how best to use it, but I think I use notebooks in place of broad categories of filing (eg Health) and tags to specify what sub category it might be in (eg health insurance). I’m not sure that this is correct, but you are right to say it comes down to the tagging process – perhaps I’ll jot a post about how I use Evernote (to date) and show the odd screenshot.
      – I have always loved paper and pens and still love jotting, noting, doodling. I can rarely pass a stationery store by without spending silly money on pens and notebooks…however, I mostly use the paper for thinking through my pen. Most of my action categories etc are held electronically…

      Hmm, I definitely think there’s a post here. I’ll drop back with a link to it when I have written it!

      Thanks – and good luck – do share how you’re getting on with your system.


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