This is a blog post which is in the pipelines for several years now. But since I got asked now directly, I decided to finally write down what my take on Getting Things Done, in short GTD is. I read the book by the same name by David Allen in 2005 or 2006 after it got recommended to me with the comment “Since I use this system my desk is always tidy”.
I never took the book as a ruleset but with the words of Captain Barbossa from the first Pirates of the Carribean-movie: “the code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules”. So, I created my own “system” to get things done. And I have to be honest, it doesn’t always work and from time to time I succumb to slacking but this is probably some part of my nature and hard to fight. But I give my best.
The system had several iterations and began its life on paper with the Hipster PDA and a hacked Moleskine but needed actually computer programs to really work. What it needs is something you have always with you like a smartphone that syncs its data to your computer.
Trust and Outsourcing
The most important parts of what I learned from the book are essentially the following two:
- Have a trusted system.
- Write everything down.
Without a trusted system, everything I am writing here about isn’t a solution at all. When you don’t trust your system, you might even create more workload for your brain. After all you have to remember then what you have written down and what not and maybe even care about wether nothing gets lost in your system.
The second one only works, when you have a trusted system. Write everything down. Move stuff out of your brain into your system. Essentially outsource task management from your brain to your todo-system. The good thing is that in contrast to an economy, there will be no hollowing-out, since no one looses his or her job and will have problems to find a new one. No, you make ressources free, to be able to focus on the tasks, you have to do right now. The more you write down, the lesser the chance that your brain will pop right into an important task with a modal reminder dialogue that you shouldn’t forget to get salt at the super market, so your dinner won’t taste bland.
But number two works only if you have a trusted system. So create one and then write everything down.
First get your inboxes in order. In my case it is a pile situated on my desk of loose papers, my mail inbox and the inbox of the current app of choice on my smartphone and its equivalent on my computer. And in general I try to follow the principle that fewer inboxes are better because that means that I have to trust less things to work. In my experience the pile of paper is the most untrustworthy one. But hey, there is still so much paper floating around.
I prefer using some todo-apps on my Mac and their iOS-clients. But at work I have only Windows available, so I am using there a plain-text-system and sync it to an iOS-client via Dropbox. Makes more inboxes but the Mac-clients are worth it.
Areas of Responsibility
The next thing I need for getting order into my tasks are larger groups, that are defined by areas in my life. In Things I am using “Areas of Responsibility”. In OmniFocus I used folders, in plain-text solutions I usually use one text-file per area. Depending on the system I have more areas. In Things or a text-file system I have some “projects” converted to “Areas of Responsibility” or would have in a text-file-system in its own file.
I have defined for myself six areas:
- Blogging / Podcasting
Home: Everything I have to do privately or are family matters. Cleaning the apartment, repairing toys from my child, getting something new for the apartment, water the flowers etc.
University: This one is for everything related to my studies. Texts that I have to read, questions I have to research, extending the dates when I have to return books to the library and so on.
Work: Since I am a student who has to pay rent, has to eat something and wants from time to time just buy stuff, I have to work. Everyting work-related comes into this area. Usually I have a secondary system just for work, since I have to work with Windows at work but prefer actually a Todo-app that is only available for OS X.
Administration: This is the area for paperwork and paying bills.
Blogging/Podcasting: Well, I have a blog and am part of two podcasts. I could fit those also into the Hobby-area but I prefer to keep them separate. Henceforth ideas and everything I have to do for those get into this area.
Hobby: A child, work, studying, blogging and podcasting still can leave a bit of free time that wishes to be filled. So, I have a few hobbies, like a monthly pen&paper-role playing session, dancing and karate classes. From time to time I have to do something for them, too like advancing my character or just getting new equipment like laces for my dancing shoes or a new belt when I was succesful in a belt trial.
Not every task needs a projects. Therefore I have in OmniFocus some projects with the name “miscellaneous” and Things and text-file-approaches support those tasks easily out of the box. And not every task that can be broken down into single steps needs a project. The task “pay electric bill” is enough for me to know that I have to get the bill and make the wire transfer.
Otherwise I use projects for the obvious: bigger tasks that have to be broken down to get an outcome.
I have two special projects that will never be closed. In Things I created Areas of Responsibility for them because of the way the side bar works. I just don’t want to see them right in the top of the projects.
Watch Later: For listening something later I use Huffduffer, for reading a text later I use Instapaper. For videos, web projects, software or other stuff I want to have a look at, when I am at my desktop I put a task into this project. So, when I have some free time, I just pull up this project and have a look here.
Shopping: I don’t need a special shopping list-app. After all, those are only lists and todo-apps are pretty good in maintaining lists. So, I use my todo-app for my shopping list. When we plan what we need from the supermarket, I am often at home and can input in on my computer which is faster than on the iPhone. It’s the best way for me to keep my shopping list up to date. Of course, when I want to get something from Amazon or the AppStore which I can’t or don’t want afford right now, it usually comes into this project, too.
There are some projects that I have to do again from time to time. The three most used templates by me are a template for paying doctor’s bills, since that takes several steps, a template for a new episode of the retrogaming-podcast I am part of and the last one is tidying up the apartment (which could also be recurring one). I just have an inactive project for those and have them in an are called templates. When I have to get one up and working, I duplicate it, move it to the appropriate area, make a bit of customization (bill number, episode name, things like that) and set them active if necessary depending of the GTD-tool I am using.
Getting Things Done
So, now everything is set up and I actually have to get things done. If I have an idea or in a discussion comes something up, I note it immediately down and excuse myself, that I have to do that for not forgetting it. After all, we don’t want to be rude and stare at our smartphones all day long ;)
I read on several blogs that a task name should look like “Verb object”. That’s fine for English, but try that with other languages. In German that works only well with an imperative and I don’t like to have a commanding voice in my head. In addition there are many verbs that get split up, so one part goes before the object, another one after the object. So that doesn’t usually work. “Object Verb” works most of the time but actually I don’t need all the time a verb. And for my Shopping-list the item name is more than enough as is a URL for my Watch Later-list.
Therefore I write my tasks down like bulletpoints:
* 1 lection Duolingo (that’s a very recommendable site for learning languages)
* Read 1 Pomodoro (more about that later)
* tooth paste
In combination with the area or even a project that already gives me enough context, that I know what to do.
Copy & Pasting
Quite often input comes from mails or social networks. When I have the possibility to use the OmniFocus Maildrop, I just forward the mail or the app.net-post to Maildrop and I am done. Usually I adjust the subject because that becomes the task.
When I am using a system that doesn’t have something available like Maildrop, I usually do the following:
- the mail-body gets copied and posted into the notes-field of a task and I add a short todo as the task
- I copy the text of an app.net/twitter-post and make that the task.
This works and is fast. And if it’s about mail, I usually have enough ways to find my mails in MailMate
Contexts and Tags
I think that contexts are an invention for people who have far more to do than they can handle. The clientele of David Allen which he is consulting. In OmniFocus I usually add a context because it is so fast and easy, in Things I feel like they discourage one from doing so the way input of tasks on the iPhone is set up. I have contexts that describe “locations”:
- online (so doable on a computer, smartphone whatever as long as I am online)
- waiting for
And only a tag like library has sub-contexts. I do not even have sub-contexts for Errands anymore except Amazon and AppStore to get an additional information for what device it is. But all in all it was too tedious to think about where I get something when entering the tasks. Also I am going for errands nearly every day, so I just go where I need to buy stuff. When I look at my errands, I usually know when I get some stuff at specific places. But for example tooth paste I get everywhere. It’s rare that I get something at only one place.
Waiting for is a special context which is reserved for the case that I have to wait onto some event to happen or on a person. Usually those tasks get also in the task-text a “Waiting for” and get either scheduled or a due date for following up, if nothing happened. I always set this context and never get sloppy with that one. The reason are that I can easier find them in my review and since I depend in that case on external factors, I have to be extra careful.
Tags are nice but in the end I am not using them. Things is so good in convincing me that I don’t need them, that I usually do not enter them and it still works.
I tried using those new contexts which are about energy levels and all but I never got them to work for me. They are a nice idea but looking at my today- and projects-list I usually know what I am capable to do and what not. And I actually don’t want to think about that beforehand when entering the task. For what reason? If the task is “solve complex math-problem”, I know that I am not able to do it at 10pm after I just had a training unit of karate that felt like two.
If my workload would suddenly quadruple, that would all change though I guess.
Start and Due times
Never set due dates or times when it is not absolutely necessary. But try to set start dates (or schedule tasks in Things) as often as possible. In my experience a lot of tasks can be done only starting from a certain date. When you set start dates, you can remove those tasks out of your sight until their time comes and you have to re-decide, if you can set another start date or if you really want to see those tasks every day. I even set start times because I know that I can’t do certain tasks before the afternoon because I am at work. That way they only pop up, when I am on my way home and check what I have to do after work.
Many people seem to set due dates because they expect that they do want to do a certain task at a certain date but in the end they won’t and just tons of tasks that are overdue pile up. Just set due dates when something bad happens when a task is not done latest on a certain date.
And then there are due times. Let’s say I want to do something to do, like getting something from the supermarket, I like to set me a due date for a certain time where I should be near one. The tasks becomes then overdue but I get reminded about it. I can remove the due date if necessary. There are apps that don’t support due times, only dates (I look at you Things). Then I have to use some other app to remind me. That adds a second inbox but it works somehow.
In the morning I go through my tasks and have a look what I want and have to do today. Then I flag/star everything and off I go. There Things shines by the way in contrast to OmniFocus. The Next-list works for me far better than all the perspectives I tried and having all scheduled tasks turning up for review in the beginning of the day, makes it easier as well.
I know that I need for some tasks concentration or that are ongoing and at least doing something for a certain time for a day brings me forward, even so I actually do not really want to do it. In those cases I use Pomodoros. If you have never heard of the concept, it is just a series of timers:
Do something for 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break, do something for 25 minutes etc. An interval of 25 minutes is called a pomodoro. After four pomodoros you get an extended break of 15 minutes. Sounds a bit strange but it works. Silence your phone and computer, switch off any instant messengers, mail programs or whatever, start your timer and begin doing it. Even if it is a long task, with those intervals you will fulfill them at some time, instead of never because you just procrastinate over it.
Reviews are an important part that you can trust your system. I do right now a weekly review sundays and monthly review on the beginning of a month, but when my workload is huge I do a daily one. My weekly review is taken from Creating Flow with OmniFocus from Kourosh Dini. Even when you are not an OmniFocus-user this book might be interesting for you because he has a lot of interesting ideas how to set up workflows.
My weekly recurring project has the following tasks:
- Get all inboxes to zero
- Collect loose papers and materials
- Empty your brain
- Do a review (look through all your active projects)
- Look at Someday (or look at all your inactive projects)
- Review the Waiting for-context
- Review previous calendar data (one week back for the weekly review, one month for the monthly)
- Review future calendar data (again one week or one month)
- Be creative (come up with new stuff, you want to do)
The monthly review is actually just an addition for setting up and reviewing my budgets and setting goals for the month, so what do I want to achieve this month.
A daily review just looks at a few projects, creates the above mentioned today-list on the evening before instead of the morning and has an additional look on future calendar data and waiting for-tasks to stay on top of everything.
As stated above: Reviews are important and in my opinion actually the most important part to keep your system a trusted system. Even if you are sloppy with entering your and checking off your tasks, the review still keeps the system trusted. OmniFocus helps with reviewing since you can tell it that you want to review projects at certain times like weekly, biweekly or even more seldom.
Now I wrote a lot about how I set up my system and how I enter and work through my tasks. In the end a short round up is in order.
- Trust your system
- Write everything down
- Rarely use due dates, often use start dates
- Create Pomodoros for large tasks you likely procrastinate on
- Do your reviews to keep on top
I guess that’s it. I hope this helps and gives you some inspiration. I am happy to answer questions in the comments.