One Year Getting Things Done

by Mike Shea on 25 July 2007

One year ago over a six month period I bought a house, moved out of an apartment, helped my girlfriend move out of her house, got married, went on a honeymoon, and began leading a twelve staff-year effort at my job. I never had so much to do in so short a time. I knew there was no way I could keep up with everything I had to do. Earlier that year I had also gone through a management training course that clearly identified me as someone who couldn't keep a can of pencils organized, much less a complicated set of projects. Something had to be done.

I had been reading about Getting Things Done for a while. I owned the book but had never gotten around to reading it. I frequented Lifehacker and 43 Folders regularly. After reading the first five chapters of Getting Things Done I spent the two days getting my crap organized. I wrote out giant lists of projects. I carefully scribed Action Lists. I even set up the 43 folder tickler file.

Since then I have gone through four major revisions to my own personal GTD system, but the core has always remained. I went from all but completely disorganized to so organized that it annoys those around me. I continually find new simple ways to eliminate what isn't needed from my life be it subscriptions to magazines to keeping as few keys on my key ring. I'm not perfect. Meetings still sometimes slip past and, no matter how hard I try, I just can't seem to keep all of my three calendars up to date. Still, I'm miles above where I was a year ago.

Most importantly, and to answer the most common question I receive when I talk about Getting Things Done, I get a lot more done than I used to. I am more relaxed. I have more free time. I worry little. I am confident in my work. When I do worry or I don't feel relaxed or confident, I have a system that gets me back there.

What have I learned over the past year? What have I done well and where have I failed? Let's take a look.

Collecting and processing of new stuff comes naturally to me now. I very rarely go anywhere without a pen and a Moleskine. My Moleskine plain pocket notebook is my primary inbox and contains my project lists. It is always on me even if the other two pieces of my pocket GTD system, my Levenger pocket briefcase with my 3x5 Action lists and my Moleskine pocket weekly planner, are not. Any new stuff that comes at me, whether it's an idea out of the blue, something my wife mentions, or a new task at my job; it all goes in the Moleskine and gets processed.

Processing has also become second nature. I process during dead time at work, which is usually during meetings, two or three times a day. New stuff gets checked off in the Moleskine inbox and added to either my project lists or to my contextual Action lists on the list corresponding to the location where I can get that item done. I have four such context lists: @Home, @Work, @Email, and @Site. Any new scheduled item gets put into my weekly planner.

My handling of projects has simplified greatly. I don't overanalyze projects. I keep only three things in mind with any project I'm doing or tracking: 1. What is the goal? What is the noun? What are we delivering? What will end this project successfully? 2. When will this project be done? 3. What is the very next step that gets us closer to the goal? These are the key criteria I pay attention to for all of my projects. I can't answer these for all my projects. Some of them are rather fuzzy, but they are specific enough for me to be comfortable and that's what GTD is all about; getting yourself comfortable.

After using a variety of different systems, the three-piece pocket system works best for me. It is relatively easy to carry, has all of the components of a full GTD system, is fast to use, and is reliable. There are simpler solutions that can cut down on the bulk of carrying two Moleskines and a leather 3x5 carrier. A Moleskine Cahier and a binder clip for 3x5 cards can do just as well for 1/4 the size, but I love the regular Moleskine so much that I can't bear to strip it out of my system.

I used the 43 folder tickler system for a while but found that I used it far less than the maintenance effort justified. It took me too long to flip the folders only to find them empty most of the time. Instead I just write reminders on my calendar. Need to return a library book? Add it to your calendar. The calendar works like a pocket ticker system as well as a schedule of daily activities. Elimination and simplification of the core GTD system without losing something valuable is hard, but possible.

I still have piles of paper but they are greatly reduced. All three of my working desks are clear and clean. I don't stack up paper and I throw stuff away often. I have a file at home, a legal accordion file that sits under my desk. It is very easy to file receipts and other paperwork in very little time. Each year at tax time I will clean it out.

For the past year I have had four email accounts with empty inboxes. Email doesn't sit in my inbox for very long. I have a fast and rigid process for processing email and I have only three folders. My inbox folder contains only new unread email. It doesn't old to-do emails and it isn't an archive of older mail. My inbox WANTS to be empty and I make it so daily. My Action Support folder contains any reference emails. Each reference corresponds to an action on one of my action lists. Every so often I have orphaned emails in my Action Support folder but they are rare and quickly archived. Last, my Archive folder contains all old email. I rely on good full-text searching of my archived email to find old legacy emails but generally I don't go back to the archive.

Building a proper system for handling email transformed my ability to work. I went from someone who missed new email all the time to someone who has read and processed anything sent to him by anyone. I read everything that comes in, process it, and act upon the ones requiring action. I do this faster and with less effort than it took me to deal with an inbox full of mixed processed and unprocessed junk.

One of David Allen's funny comments at his daily seminar is "If you want to get more done, do less". Instead of working your way up to the highest bar of productivity, move the bar lower. Eliminate wherever you can eliminate. After moving out of my apartment and into my house, this became a mantra and doctrine for me. I throw stuff away all the time. I sell things on Ebay. I keep my Google Reader RSS list trim. I unsubscribe from lists I never read. I try to remove things from my life either physically or mentally every day. This might be as small as using up pocket change instead of bringing more home to cleaning out a closet full of boxes on the weekend. Simplification and elimination is very Zen and very GTD. I love it.

One thing I've noticed the more I work with GTD is that mundane things get done just as often as critical things. Because everything we have to do is in front of us every day, the desire to check off items becomes so strong that we end up doing those things we were most likely to bury down in our minds before. Things like "look up a new dentist in the area", an item I sure didn't want to do and didn't feel was high on my critical list finally got done. Smaller side projects at work, the projects that almost immediately get buried under critical tasks, now get done faster than anyone expects. It is easier to do them and check them off than it is to process them each week so it becomes natural to simply do it.

The two minute rule is now hardwired in me. Whether it's mailing a bill or sending a couple of emails, anything that can be done in two minutes gets done almost immediately.

I'm good about the weekly reviews too. I would have figured this part would hurt but I've missed it only twice over the year. My habit of disappearing to an abandoned office for 30 minute on Friday afternoon has become lore around the office. People know I do it and they respect it. They know it helps me keep my shit straight and they leave me alone to do it. The 30 minute Weekly Review is a critical component of GTD and cannot be eliminated without hurting the system. The more I do them, the less painful they are.

I've been doing GTD long enough now that it's impossible for me to break the habits. Some aspects, like the Weekly Review, can be a little painful but the alternatives are so far worse that it shatters any thoughts of procrastination. It is harder for me to fall off of GTD than it is for me to stay on it. I like doing it. It is easy for me to do. It makes me more productive and gives me more free time. Extra time in life is priceless.