How To Get Things Done – GTD

[Lists are how we track what we need to do] (/2013/07/29/an-overview-of-getting-things-done-lists/) but this alone is not enough. Despite an abundance of technology available to help us keep track of tasks, many of us still keep these lists in our heads. We do this for a variety of reasons. They all have a common root. We don’t trust our system. We don’t actually believe that the list is the full list. We know that things have either been forgotten to be put on the list or were not important enough to track.

Since we can’t trust our system, we do what comes natural. We attempt to remember. We deal with issues as they come. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. That is until there is another louder squeak. This inevitably leads to stress and poor performance. The true genius of GTD are the procedures that help us manage lists. The integrity of our lists are what make the system trustworthy. To achieve this GTD is broken up into five different categories, Collect, Process, Organize, Review and Do.

With GTD this is a daily process. The instinct is to leave anything that we’re not ready to deal with in the inbox whether its an email or a physical piece of paper. Before you know it your inbox is unmanageable and the scenario above is triggered. With GTD this is how tasks get into our lists. Each task begins its life in the inbox. At least once a day, the inbox is emptied by either transferring its contents to a list, the trash or to be archived as reference material.  We accomplish this one task at a time.

Each task in the inbox item is put through a series of questions. It is very important to process one item at a time. An item should never be returned to the inbox. Don’t pick and choose which ones to process. Take them as they come. Processing starts with a question. Is the item actionable? Can something be done about it?

The next step is to determine the next action. What is the next thing to do to further or finish the project.

If the next action will take less than 2 minutes then just do it.

Otherwise it needs to be added to a list. Are you the best person to perform this task? If so add the task to your Next Actions list. Otherwise, delegate the task to the person that is. Add the task to your waiting list.

Some tasks don’t neatly fit into any of these lists. Some tasks can not be accomplished until some other condition is met first. It might be that a project can not be started until some other project is completed. On the other hand some tasks can not begin until a certain date or time. For these types of projects we have two different tools to ensure that when the time comes we are ready. These tools are the tickler file and the calendar.

The tickler file is essentially a reminder to deal with a task. You will be reminded of this task either during your weekly review or by checking your calendar. Here is an example. If you are a musician and you might think of a clever new trick you want to use in your next video. Since you are currently focusing on recording the song, it is not the appropriate time to act on it. You are not exactly sure when you will begin working on the video. The answer is to make a note of the idea and add it to the tickler file for the music video project.

Another method of ensuring that nothing falls through the cracks is your calendar. Anything that needs to be done on a specific date or at a specific time should be entered onto your calendar. It is recommend to use an online calendar with a good reminder system. Some tasks can not be completed until a certain date. For example, the tickets for the concert that you want to attend may not go on sale until a date in the future. Add a reminder to your calendar to purchase tickets on the correct date.

Another common reason for a task lingering on the Next Actions List is confusion over what the task actually is. Typically this happens when your task is actually a project. Ask yourself what the next action actually is and update the task accordingly.

Sometimes we have ideas that seem brilliant as we are having them. We may decide to put them on the back burner. Later on, we wonder what in the world we were thinking. We no longer have any interest in the project. These should obviously be deleted. On the other hand, when one project is completed it is time to begin another. Our Maybe / Someday list is the obvious place to look for more work.

There is another benefit to the review process. During this period, you will almost surely have new ideas. One project will remind you of another project that you want to undertake at some point. Occasionally, an idea from one project combines with an idea from another. When this happens a new idea is born, one that you may have never thought of otherwise. Although, you must be careful not to let your list get too big.

The longer your list of ideas, the less likely you will be to review them. When a project has spent too long in your Maybe / Someday list, it could be time to remove it. This is obviously a judgement call. At a certain point you need to be honest with yourself. If five years have gone by and you still haven’t planted that garden in the backyard, you might need to consider that you may never do it. The finality of removing an idea from your Maybe / Someday list can be hard. It will clear up time and effort for projects that you will actually work on. This is true even if it is only during the review cycle.

A tickler file is essentially a reminder with no specific date, time or task association. Without the review process a tickler file is useless. It might make sense to check the tickler file every day to keep this information as a constant reminder. The tickler file must be checked at least once a week to retain its value.

What’s Next

Preparation is a waste of time unless it is followed by the actual work. In a future article I will write about [using goals][1]. I will also offer some tips on actually doing the tasks that have been planned.