The best bits from GTD: my top 5 takes from David Allen’s book

This is the third in a short series of posts* about how I’m improving my productivity by applying the principles of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD).

To re-cap: Like everyone, I am too busy. And like many people, I reckon I’m an organised person. Before discovering GTD, I already had pretty efficient ways of tracking my work, as handwritten lists in (Muji) notebooks and using the tasks application on my phone. I arranged those to do’s by category (like management, strategy, evaluation) and priority (favouring the urgent-important matrix).

But there were problems.

  1. I rewrote my lists often, because priorities and categories change
  2. A handful of tasks kept being carried over from list to list
  3. Emails. Thaasands of them, knocking my day’s plans for six

Enter GTD, with these top five ideas which I hope will sort me out (and a whole load of waffle I chose to ignore).

1. Free your mind by emptying it somewhere safe

The idea: Constantly log every single thought about anything you have to do, want to do, or might one day want to do, at home or at work or anywhere, into a collection system you trust.

Why it’s good: If something’s on your mind, and you record it, it’s off your mind again. And with everything logged, you can make informed choices about the stuff you’re not doing. Then next time task X pops into your head you can think about how to do it not just how to remember to do it. It also means tasks arriving by email get processed alongside everything else.

How to do it: Great tips here on ubiquitous capture.

2. Distinguish between ‘next actions’ and ‘projects’

The idea: Anything that comprises two or more actions is a ‘project’. Keep a list of these. Then identify the single 5-10 minute ‘next action’ to move each project forwards. Work from this list of next actions.

Why it’s good: The simple pleasure of crossing things off. My lists used to be full of things like this: ‘Embed use of social media tools on the intranet’. That’s a project, so even though I was making progress on it, I was carrying it over from list to list. ‘Brainstorm ideas to promote intranet blogs’ is much better. It’s a next action that I can (and did) do in 5 minutes and cross off, keeping that project ticking over.

How to do it: Same way you’d eat an elephant. And by using the right verbs and following these tips.

3. Divide your next actions into ‘contexts’

The idea: Forget writing a list of things to do today, because today will throw unexpected things at you and make you fail. Forget priorities and categories, because re-prioritising and re-categorising is a waste of time. Instead, assign each task to a ‘context’ – the location, circumstances or tool needed to do that task.

Why it’s good: If you sort your actions into contexts, like @office, @home, @online then two wonderful things happen:

How to do it: Take Allen’s core set and modify them to suit you (and the 21st Century). But keep them simple.

4. Hide the things that are not yours, or not yet

The idea: De-clutter your project and action lists of those things that aren’t yours to do at all (but you’re waiting on) and those you’re not really going to do right now (but you might do someday/maybe).

Why it’s good: Like most great ideas, this seems so obvious. Why keep reading ‘Get model release form checked by lawyers’ when actually what I am doing is waiting on the lawyers’ reply?  And a someday/maybe (I prefer “maybe/later”) list beats the ‘low’ option in a prioritisation system because it’s possible for a task or project to be important and on your mind – but still not current activity.

How to do it: Merlin Mann has some great notes on waiting and GTD Marvelz has tips on keeping your someday list useful.

5. Review all your lists weekly

The idea: None of this is any good at all if you don’t review all the lists regularly, to process everything you’ve collected, remove the stuff that’s complete or no longer relevant, make sure each project has a next action, and check whether anything on your ‘waiting on’ or ‘someday/maybe’ lists needs a chase or an upgrade.

Why it’s good: The emphasis GTD puts on reviews is what counts here. I was reviewing my lists before, but not religiously (and GTD is a religion, let’s not forget). Previously reviews happened whenever I felt out of control (and would usually involve buying another Muji notebook). A GTD weekly review though, if done right and regularly, will mean you are always in control of your workload.

How to do it: Make an appointment with yourself, literally put it in your calendar. Stick to it. Use a checklist.

…That’s the theory anyway.

Next in this series I’ll look at the reality: first the contexts that I am using (and the problems I’m having with them), and finally the components of my GTD system.

*This is a short series of posts but not, it turns out – a series of short posts. There’s a lot more to say than I anticipated. Thanks for reading this far down, and if you liked this you’ll probably like these too.

Photo credit: Rintakumpu

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After reading this post it is great to see that I have naturally been doing a lot of what is said.

Will check out the book as well

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