Disclosure: some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen is a massively influential “self help” book that seemed to kick off a mini productivity frenzy back in 2005 when it was published. David outlines a system to manage your to-do list in a way that gets them out of your head and into a trusted system so you can concentrate on doing rather than worrying.
Your brain is terrible at remembering things, do not trust it. Create a system to get “things” out of your head and into a system of note taking you can trust, be it a notepad or a task management system. Once you have everything out of your head you’ll be able to make better decisions about what to do next, and also be more responsive to the forever changing world.
You are better off starting with real information you want to keep, deciding the best place to put it so it’s retrievable, and crafting that from the ground up than trying to choose or design a system theoretically. You will definitely hone your reference libraries into a larger, more sensible framework as time goes on, but that will best be built from upgrading how you’re managing your day-to-day realities. Tolerate some ambiguity here, in terms of figuring out the best way to do it all. The key will be some regular overviewing and reassessment of your system, and dynamically course-correcting as needed.
Frankly, if your calendar is trustworthy and your action lists are current, they may be the only things in the system you’ll need to refer to more than every couple of days. There have been many days when I didn’t need to look at any of my lists, in fact, because it was clear from the front end—my calendar—what I wouldn’t be able to do.
…if your system is out of date, your brain will be forced to fully engage again at the lower level of remembering.
Trying to create goals before you have confidence that you can keep your everyday world under control will often undermine your motivation and energy rather than enhance them.
As I’ve said, it’s often helpful to organize your action reminders by context—Calls, At Home, At Computer, Errands, Agenda for Joe, Agenda for Staff Meeting, and so on.
There is no “right” way to structure your Next Actions lists—only what works best for you, and that part of your system will likely change as your life does.*
I have learned over the years that the most important thing to deal with is whatever is most on your mind. The fact that you think it shouldn’t be on your mind is irrelevant. It’s there, and it’s there for a reason. “Buy cat food” may certainly not rank high on some theoretical prioritizing inventory, but if that’s what’s pulling on you the most, in the moment, then handling it in some way would be Job One.
You probably have somewhere between four and seven key areas of responsibility in your work, and a similar number personally.
Don’t lose any ideas about projects that could potentially be useful. Many times you’ll think of something you don’t want to forget when you’re in a place that has nothing to do with the project. You’re driving to the store, for example, and you think of a great way to start off the next staff meeting. Or you’re stirring the spaghetti sauce in the kitchen and it occurs to you that you might want to give out nice tote bags to participants in the upcoming conference. Or you’re watching the evening news when you suddenly remember another key person you may want to include in the advisory council you’re putting together.
The sense of anxiety and guilt doesn’t come from having too much to do; it’s the automatic result of breaking agreements with yourself.
David Allen discusses a method of task management that can free your mental energy to work on the tasks at hand, rather than worrying about what you’ve forgotten. Additionally, he has some tools for long-term planning and how to manage those situations that appear from nowhere and disrupt your life.