Going back to Getting Things Done

I skimmed Getting Things Done by David Allen back in January in about two hours to get the gist of the system. At that point, the different contexts and lists seemed like overkill for my then-relatively simple life.

This is what I ended up implementing:

  • The concept of a physical “inbox” and the rules for processing the inbox (deal with top item, deal with one item at a time, don’t put anything back into the inbox).
  • The concept of concrete “next actions” for any to-do lists that I would make — instead of a vague note about “get car fixed,” think of the specific next action that you would need to do, such as “look up car mechanic phone numbers.”
  • I bought a filing cabinet with quality sliding action.
  • The concept of protecting the “calendar” part of my organizer to actual scheduled or day-specific events, instead of using it as a “to-do” list.

However, I didn’t implement what many would consider to be essential aspects of GTD:

  • Writing EVERYTHING down to get it out of your brain
  • Processing the “stuff” into context-based next-action lists (i.e., to-do lists that are specific to different parts of your life — such as a to-do list to look at while you’re at work, one for at home, one specifically for phone calls, one to look at if you’re out running errands, etc.)
  • Keeping a big-picture Projects list to help your weekly review
  • Having some form of what David Allen calls a “tickler file” (in the book, this refers to having a set of folders dedicated to the days of the month (31 folders) and each month of the year (+ 12 more folders) where you can keep pieces of paper, brochures, fliers, etc., that you want to deal with at a later date)

In other words, I took some of the tips and tricks from GTD without actually implementing GTD as a process.

No longer!

I checked Getting Things Done out from the library (it conveniently called out to me from the new book area, which I frequently browse) and am giving it a whole-hearted go, 43 folders and all! (Um, except that I’m not buying a label-making machine. I’m happy with my neat handwriting.)

When I initially checked the book out, I wasn’t really committing to the system, but was just going to read it again and see if I could pull out any more helpful tips. But since that time, I finished up the Huge Project I’ve been working on for two months. The day after I wrapped up the final to-do list (yesterday, to be precise), I felt very unmotivated. When I asked myself why I was feeling that way, I figured out that I was really feeling overwhelmed by all of the other projects that I’ve either been putting on hold or have been doing the bare minimum on during Huge Project season, as well as the various personal projects and obligations that have collected. My life had expanded past the point to where I could keep it all neatly in my head.

I’m glad I skimmed Getting Things Done a few months ago and had it ready in my library book box, because I think it’s going to be a great tool for this post-Big-Project season of life.

Progress and process

This next part is a description of how I’ve been implementing GTD so far. I think some of the sections will become separate blog posts with more details and specifics.

I had read the big picture overview section of Getting Things Done already (chapters 1-3), and took about another hour yesterday to read through the next few chapters about setting up and piling things into an inbox (chapters 4-5). I took about two hours yesterday afternoon to put together a 1-foot stack of the various papers and random objects in the office that needed to be processed and put away. Then I wrote out three half-sheet lists during my brain-dump time. I gave myself permission to not do any paid work today (except for one small time-critical project).

This morning (started early; Steve has to get up at 4 am for work, which meant that my day started at about 4:30 after he left), I read chapter 6 (about how to process the inbox stuff) and 7 (where to put the stuff from the inbox). Inspired, I started with my written lists first.

One of the things that got in the way of implementing GTD last time was that I found my moleskine-based written next-action lists annoying, particularly those one or two items that never seemed to “get done” on each page. Since then, I’ve discovered Remember the Milk and decided to try to use this for my next-action lists. I set up various tabs for my different contexts. As I worked through my brain-dump list, I entered next actions into Remember the Milk and wrote down the overarching “project” down on a separate scrap sheet of paper, or scheduled them into my calendar as appropriate, or “did it now.” Here’s a short sample of my brain dump and the subsequent actions I took:

  • Organize pantry > entered into RTM “Home” tab > jotted down as part of my “purge and organize home” project
  • Change air filters > entered “call apartment complex about air filters” into RTM “Call” tab
  • Clean CD player > “did it now” — got up and cleaned it (1 minute)
  • Harp music binder > entered “Office Max – photocopy harp music” into RTM “Bike errands” tab > entered “Harp music binder” into my overall project list
  • Pay estimated taxes > entered “budget – pay estimated taxes!!” into my daily calendar sheet’s must-do-today list

After successfully working through my brain dump list, I then went on to process the physical inbox. Most of it was just stuff that needed to be put away, which I was able to quickly do. Some things needed me to enter an action item into RTM, and the paper item filed into one of my clear plastic project folders that I keep on my desk for “current projects.” By 9 am, I had a completely empty inbox, 26 Projects defined, and 70 tasks entered into RTM (including 6 “someday” ideas). I’ll post a blog about how I have RTM set up later.

My scratch paper with my different projects listed on it looked pretty disorganized. I decided to divide the projects into “corriehaffly.com work,” “PixelMill work,” and “personal.” (Coincidentally, these are the same categories I already use for my color-coded compact project task cards.) Now for the fun part — I fired up Illustrator and designed forms for the three project lists (color coded to match my compact project task cards) and a fold-out form for individual projects. I’ll post another blog with printable forms later.

Now, I’m ready to read the rest of the book and figure out how to review all my stuff. I’m also going to have to think about whether or not I still need my compact project task cards, or if I’ll go only with Remember the Milk. It might take a few days of using my system to figure that part out!

2 thoughts on “Going back to Getting Things Done

  1. helpful post. Hope it works out well for you. Did you ever see Zenhabits.net? He’s got a lot of GTD info nearly everyday. I have some posts on my website too such as on all the online tools and on goal setting. I found your blog through a google alert I have for “getting things done.” Best regards.

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