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Understanding GTD

If you’ve thought of getting seriously organized, you’ve heard of GTD. Here are some of the key concepts for understanding what it’s all about.

First, why be efficient? Either (1) you think something is important or intrinsically worthwhile and you should want to get as much as you can from it or (2) you would rather get something over as fast as possible. Won’t that just make you a busier worker bee? It is central to GTD to not only be properly productive (or efficient), but also to properly relax. Gettings things off your mind helps you really relax. Hence the subtitle, “The Art of Stress-Free Productivity”.

Is the system very complicated? (How can that help you relax?!) It’s my goal to distill some of the most basic ideas and show it’s not that bad. But one of the first principles to learn is that your system must be complete, starting with getting everything out of your head. Then, Allen claims–when you have set up a system that you trust–then you’ll be able to truly relax.

Okay… what do I get “out of my head?” Anything that pops into your head! Anything incomplete. (Probably something in-progress, pending, or prefaced with “should” or “I’m going to”.) Why are things on your mind? Because you haven’t (1) figured out what’s unfinished, (2) clarified what your commitment is, (3) decided on a next action, and (4) put reminders in a system you trust. Incidentally, putting those 4 reasons in present-tense gives you the 4 steps of managing commitments. By the way, you should write everything down without processing any of it yet–principle: keep the stages separate.

What stages?–there are five. Collect – Process – Organize – Review – Do. This is a central concept; more on these stages soon. Allen proposes an interesting–and I think useful–way of thinking about work. There are three kinds of work: “defining” work (collecting, processing, organizing, and reviewing), pre-defined work, and work that comes up. You want to maximize pre-defined work, minimize work that comes up, and not give short shrift to “defining” work (though it becomes faster with time).

An overarching principle is to give things “hard edges“. Close “open loops”. Know what you need to take care of. Decide what doing looks like, and what done looks like. From this you get…

Key Principle: collect everything, make it a habit. Know all your projects and obligations.

Key Principle: focus on outcomes. What does done look like? You figure out what your commitments are; what your projects are. A “project” is defined by Allen as  “any desired result that requires more than one action step”.

Key Principle: focus on next actions. What does doing look like? Envision the next action to get there. A “next action” is literally that: a physical, visible action. The key concept here is that you don’t leave anything to be decided later. e.g. Should I call, or email someone? Who exactly do I contact? How do I submit this? You find out these answers beforehand; principle: separate work from thinking about work.

So what is it “about”, really? There are many ways to answer that, as there often are. Here’s one answer: It’s about making some changes in your habits of dealing with your stuff, changes in clarifying and organizing that stuff.

Does GTD take an initial effort to get started? Yes.

What are the benefits? Allen’s promises are that (1) you’ll undertake larger projects, because you’ll know that you can handle them; (2) you’ll raise your standards and realize how much better you can make things; (3) you’ll be more easily motivated; and (4) you’ll more easily be able to assume “productive states” (a feeling of being in control and focused and of making noticeable progress). One executive told Allen “when I faithfully applied them [the principles and habits], it changed my life“. Be optimistic! (You will be happier if you are.) It’s possible to have a shitload of stuff to do and still function, not only productively, but positively and with a clear head. Furthermore, you already know what you need to do: you just need to apply some basic ideas in a more timely, complete, and systematic way.

Let’s break that up: you need to apply a few ideas in a more (a) timely, (b) complete, and (c) systematic way. Timely? Yes, the habit of deciding what to do about something right away needs to become a habit. Or at least the habit of collecting everything that comes across your mind. Complete? Yup, the full benefits only come when it’s complete. The more complete the system is, the more you trust it. And the more you trust it, the more you’ll be motivated to keep doing it.Systematic? Yeah; next, I’ll clarify the essential system of GTD.

How To Do GTD

Conceptually speaking, that is (the nitty-gritty is for another day).

First, collect everything, all your incompletes (already covered). Then “process” what things mean and what to do about them on a basic level, followed by organizing into specific bins. Then “review” to see your options about what to do right now (and choose something) and–of course!–do.

GTD has a diagram printed four times–so you know it’s important–which is the processing+organizing part (the two kind of go together and in fact I fail to see why Allen separates them). This is after you’ve collected everything on your mind (it might be a good idea to give this a week, thinking of new things each day). First, decide whether something is actionable or not. If yes, to process it, decide what the next action is. If it will only take a few minutes, do it now. If it will take longer, delegate or defer it.

“Organization” is putting deferred items on a calendar or next actions list and delegated items on a waiting-for list; it’s also coming up with a projects list and project plans; and if a thing is not actionable, organizing it is either trashing it, putting it on a someday or maybe list or as reference information. That’s what it means for something to be “non-actionable”: something you honestly can’t do or don’t have time for (trash or someday/maybe) or information that has a good chance of being valuable later, but not now (reference).

What you need, then, are the following: (1) a calendar, (2) a next actions list, (3) a waiting-for list, (4) a someday or maybe list, (5) a projects list, (6) a project-plans folder, and (7) a reference folder (plus trash). That’s it. I like his metaphors for the projects list (“compilation of finish lines”) and someday/maybe list (a “parking lot” for projects).

Some notes on this process. On the calendar (stage 3), you put day-specific actions, time-specific actions (like appointments), and day-specific information (information you need to review on a certain day–clever, don’t you think?).

What about actually choosing what to do? (stage 5) Choosing now is different from deciding what needs to be done, ahead of time. According to one of various models, by examining actions with these four factors in mind: context (does it need to be in a certain context, e.g. “at home”?), time available, energy available, and priority.

Collection success factors. (stage 1) There are three: (1) everything must be collected, into (2) as few buckets as you can get by with, buckets that are (3) emptied regularly. (Not reviewed; emptied. Turned into actions.) Often people think that “at least they know that somewhere in there [in email, notes on your desktop, whatever] is a reminder of something they still have to do”, but that doesn’t decrease stress! It’s still a mess! Minimize. Collection. Buckets.

The projects list. Allen doesn’t differentiate between large and small projects, and perhaps there’s no need to. Examples, like “get a publicist”, “install lights”, “finalize policy” remind me of the sort of thing that people usually put on their “to-do list” (they’re still vague ‘open loops’). Allen focuses less on project planning, but there are two dimensions of action management, horizontal and vertical. Horizontal focus is clearly defined outcomes and next actions, along with reminders in a trusted system reviewed regularly. Vertical focus on the other hand is project planning. I like his idea of thinking about projects in terms of priorities, components, and sequences of actions.

The next section steps away from thinking about what GTD looks like to return to some of the guiding principles and goals of using the system.

Some Principles of GTD

In addition to the key principles (and also habits!) of collecting everything, focusing on outcomes, and deciding on next actions….

Give things the proper amount of attention (not too little or too much). This reminds me of doing a VoI (value-of-information) calculation, wherein you spend a few minutes considering how much time you should spend seeking information about something. I like this quote (p. 16) “It’s a waste of time and energy to keep thinking about something that you make no progress on.” And this one (p. 22) “There is no reason ever to have the same thought twice, unless you like having that thought.”

Have reminders of actions that you review regularly (or it’s worthless). And review your lists every week. Allen calls a weekly review a “critical success factor”, a great time to review someday, waiting, project, and other lists, as well as a great time to catch up on GTD collecting, processing and organizing.

Do not neglect any of the steps (collect, process, organize, review, do). The weakest area is like the weakest link in a chain.

Collection tools need to become a part of you. Keep them close and make a habit of using them. One good idea, I think, that I’ll be doing, is to use a little notebook I carry around with me as the main collection bucket.

Next actions must not contain any uncertainty. See my earlier description; it’s worth repeating. Do not use “to-do” lists! I like this quote (p. 17): “Most of the to-do lists I have seen over the years… were merely … partial reminders of a  lot of things that were unresolved and as yet untranslated into outcomes and actions….” And on the same page: someone said to Allen at the end of a seminar reflecting on their to-do list ” ”Boy, that was an amorphous blob of undo ability!’ ”

You must keep the boundaries pristine in order to trust your system. If a next action is not something you’re going to do as soon as you can, it doesn’t belong there. Likewise for calendarized items that don’t strictly need to be done by a certain point.

Most projects don’t require a lot of planning. Plan just enough to get it off your mind. Follow what Allen calls the “natural planning model”: define goals (which sometimes don’t have to be decided but are just implicit), envision the outcome sensorily, brainstorm plans, organize plans, identify next actions. A caution! Often people will try to organize or brainstorm without identifying the goals first or what they actually want to see when it’s “done”.

Combining Other Things With GTD

It will be an interesting challenge to combine the principles and habits of GTD with the principles and habits of other books. Success for setting the right goals. Willpower and especially The Procrastination Equation for not resisting anything out of procrastination (what good is knowing what to do if you can’t get yourself to do it?). The Power of Full Engagement for energy management. And Scott H Young’s ebook, The Little Book of Productivity, for all manner of productivity topics.

And not just books. Using implementation intentions for remembering to do things when they need to be done (it will be fun to summarize some of the research on it!) Tiny Habits to begin building habits of all kinds. Adding the concept of mental contrasting to step 2 (outcome visioning) in ‘the natural planning model’ and mind-mapping to the organizing and brainstorming phases. And so on.

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