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My first reading of Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen was back around 2007. I was inspired by Merlin Mann to pickup the book and give it a try and while I never did finish that first full read through it changed how I thought of task management. For years and years i’d been a mess when it came to fulfilling my commitments, like the examples in GTD everything was stored in my memory in a perpetual vortex of uncertainty and stress about what I had to complete next. At the age of 23 I decided to grab a hold of what I had and make changes for the better, and GTD seemed like the key to solve my problems.
Fifteen years later and i’m swiftly approaching my 39th birthday, time to pickup the book again and refresh myself. This time its with the 2015 Edition of the book, the fundamentals are still there but its had small updates for the ever moving state of technology.
In a nutshell, for newcomers
The idea of Getting Things Done is better living through lists, getting all those pesky tasks out of your head and into a trusted system. By trusted system that could mean one of many things, your pocket notebook, a to-do list app, back of a napkin, or post-it notes on your monitor. The system doesn’t have to be something tried and tested, it only has to be something that you can trust to keep your lists. Once everything is out of your head you can start doing rather than worrying about what you’re forgetting.
Another element is the “Inbox”, a method to store items for review later and potentially add to your task list, a reference file system to keep important information filed away and easily accessible, and how to manage projects from start to finish.
By combining these techniques David hopes that you can attain “Mind Like Water”, in that you can react quickly and efficiently to new issues that arise without having that drowning feeling of hundreds of to-do list items building up on you.
Now, back to my reading.
After my second reading it became obvious I have been doing projects wrong, very wrong. I’m not sure where my initial misunderstandings came from, maybe it was worded differently in an older revision, but this time it clicked. The biggest takeaway was if you look at a next action and it needs more than one step to complete that action then it probably should be a project. It sounds stupid, but take these examples:
- Buy new household contents insurance.
- Pack my suitcase for holiday.
- Clean the house
I can hear you saying “Wait a minute, they’re next actions!”, let me show why they’re projects:
Buy new household contents insurance.
- Create a contents inventory and valuation for the house
- Research which providers have the required cover
- Use a price comparison website to find the cheapest
- Purchase insurance
Pack my suitcase for holiday
- Create a packing list of items
- Wash any clothing that is needed
- Pack items into packing cubes
- Pack toiletries
- Pack suitcase
Clean the house
- Buy replacement bleach
- Vacuum Living Room
- Dust Shelves
- Empty Trash from bathroom bins
While its much easier to bulk all these items into a single next item, you’re not really breaking it down to atomic tasks that can be done individually in a short amount of time, when grouped together “Clean the house” is a two hour job, where as “Dust Shelves” is a ten minute task that can be done in isolation. By breaking up the tasks you start reducing the amount of time required to complete the task, people generally have a few hours of spare time to get things done, and these types of a projects could be chipped away in ten minute chunks through out the week.
The power of the ‘Someday/Maybe’
Another sticking point I had was the use of the Someday Maybe lists.
Make an Inventory of Your Creative Imaginings What are the things you really might want to do someday if you have the time, money, and inclination? Write them on your Someday/Maybe list.
After reading this in the book, I suddenly look over at my to-do list of hobby projects and realise i’ve been creating another Someday Maybe list away from my main list. As for why, I have no idea. My main list seemed to be reserved for the big picture goals, retire, progress my career, complete my bucket list.
Having a separate list is by no means a bad thing, even David recommends it, but for me it had a mental distinction away from a Someday Maybe list, when in reality its exactly the same thing.
The ‘Horizons of Focus’
This was another topic that confused me, maybe it was due to my age, or maybe that i’ve never had “horizon 0” under control, but I never did really see the point of the exercise.
What are your key goals and objectives in your work? What should you have in place a year or three years from now? How is your career going? Is this the lifestyle that is most fulfilling to you? Are you doing what you really want or need to do, from a deeper and longer-term perspective?
The higher levels are not really about day to day work, rather keeping a list of what will drive your future projects, plans, and your someday list. Introducing “horizon 3” or “Areas of Responsibility” has been a key driver for a lot of new actions and projects in my system. it may feel obvious to collect next actions into logical groups, and you may already do this by using contexts, but by having those groupings outside of your system you just have another thing in your mind to keep hold of. My current list of areas are:
- Job 1
- Job 2
- Hobby 1
- Hobby 2
Much like a trigger list, those areas drive my mind in the right direction and usually make it easier to identify new actions and items for my inbox.
Don’t be strict with contexts
Before I go on a long trip, I will create “Before Trip” as a temporary category into which I will move everything from any of my action lists that must be handled before I leave. That becomes the only list I need to review, until they’re all done.
Contexts are a tool, I used to have them as a fixed list in my Nirvana; Calls, Internet, Office, and spent time tagging all actions for only that list. That quote from David changed my thinking of this, your context list should be adaptable to what is coming up in the near future, if you come across a task that would work better in a new context, why not?
I thought of a prime example for this, a few years ago I went to a wood turning symposium and I have a specific list of items I wanted to achieve while I was there; buy this, buy that, meet x, pickup a copy of y. I was building a shopping list of actions to complete at the hotel it was based at, when that could of just been a single context I could create and solely focus on for the weekend I was there.
For most people who have read Getting Things Done i’m sure my point are nothing outstanding, but its always good to grow and learn from previous mistakes. GTD is by no means a perfect system, or is it a set of fixed rules to follow, everyone has their own implementations and quirks. Its always useful to re-read the source material from time to time, as looking at it from your current perspective could bring new insights, and maybe fix an issue or two you’re currently having. I can safely say I have a lot to re-implement as my personal system has drifted, for the worse, from the ideal.