Two Years Getting Things Done

by Mike Shea on 18 September 2008

I had lunch today with a friend who had recently gone through a formal Getting Things Done class. He's become my new "GTD Buddy", a concept I quite enjoy. He had some excellent questions I really enjoyed some of which I wanted to write down and share.

How Has Life Improved with GTD?

Not to get too David Allen Cult of the Traveler on anyone but if I had to narrow it down to as simple a statement as possible it would be thus:

There is more freeing than having all of the shit in your life in front of you at one time. It's a feeling of control; a feeling of clarity. You're able to store all of that shit behind you and KNOW that everything is there, that it's in the right place, and that nothing will get lost. Suddenly your mind can make sense of it all. Cut out the crap that doesn't matter. Bring forward those things most important to you. Clear out the mess and focus on the important parts. It's empowering and it's freeing.

There's a lot of little joys too. The joy of checking things off of your list, as stupid as it sounds, gives you just a little lift to let you sail to the next action. The larger joy of crossing off a project is even better. But it's that first time you cross off a huge project, one that you never thought you'd ever do or one that took you a huge amount of time to accomplish. That's when the feeling gets addictive.

This is the reason World of Warcraft makes so much money. It's not the social interaction or the graphics. The game is a series of thousands of small doable tasks. Every time you finish one you get that little surge and that surge brings you back again and again.

Before GTD, I worried about what I needed to do and what I was forgetting about. Now I always know what to do, where to do it, and what's next. Now I worry about why I'm doing it and where I should be going to make my life better. That's freedom.

Mike's Five Tips for GTD

  1. Build a trusted system and simplify it.

In the book "Getting Things Done" itself, the GTD system is quite extensive. Tickler file, labeler, massive filing cabinet, 1970s style desktop inboxes; its a lot to try to handle all at once. There are numerous functions of GTD and thousands of possible tools. Once you have your initial total project list in hand, experiment a little to find the system that works for you. Simplify out the parts that make the system harder and stick to the parts that succeed in making the system easy to use and complete. For example, I tossed my tickler file when I realized I could send myself calendar items to remind myself of items to do later. I got rid of "waiting for" lists because I catch items I'm waiting for when I go over my projects each week. Instead of carrying around a 12 month calendar, I only carry my current week. Everything else is on my Outlook calendar. Simplifying the system as much as possible can do a lot to customize a system around the way you live.

  1. Manage your inbox.

Inbox management is the core component of GTD. Know what your inboxes are, where they are, and clear them out daily. Get rid of inboxes that don't work right. Consolidate inboxes as much as you can so all the new stuff coming into your life gets funneled to the same place. For example, get rid of multiple email accounts or auto-forward one to another. Auto-respond on inboxes you don't check to point human beings to the one you do check. Do the same thing with multiple voicemail systems. Find new simplified ways to receive new tasks at work. Tell your best friend that you simply don't have the time to update his web page and maybe its better if he did it himself with Blogger.

  1. Don't skip over the weekly review.

Next to the ubiquitous capture of the inbox it is the most important part of the system. The first few times the Weekly Review can be pretty painful. It can take up to an hour, has a lot of complicated steps, and requires a lot of brainwork to build a good set of Next Actions. The further along you get, the easier the weekly review gets. Eventually you can carve it out in 30 minutes and even do 5 or 10 minute mini-reviews during the week to keep yourself fresh and empty of worry. Make a checklist of your Weekly Review items and follow it. Ensure it is uninterrupted and find a good time to do it. My favorite time is Friday mornings. This lets me get everything straight, complete a few tasks before the weekend, and know that I'm ready for Monday. It keeps my weekends free and relaxing instead of full of angst and worry for the troubles of Monday.

  1. Find the tools that work and forget about them.

Tweak too much and you'll build a system that just gets in the way instead of one that works as smoothly as it needs to. Merlin Mann once stated "geeks like anything that make them feel like a computer". GTD is such as streamlined system that its hard not to fall so in love with it that we don't stop playing with it. Gods know I write a whole lot about GTD but I haven't actually modified my system that much in the last year. I have it down to the simple system that fits well into my life. Tweaking a system too much may make it too complicated to actually use. Now new projects are falling on the floor, you have no idea what your next actions are, and you just missed two meetings. Keep your system streamlined and effective and get on with the things that matter.

  1. Eliminate.

Clean out projects that don't matter to you. Reduce your overall system and get rid of the parts that don't work. Get rid of the sources for new projects and actions that don't make your life better. While your at it, invoke my favorite zen simplification rule: One In, Two Out. For every item that enters your life, make sure two leave. This can be from your closet full of shoes to your fine collection of D&D Miniatures (oh shit, I just got 30 new ones yesterday). If you clear out two projects for every new one you take on, soon that insurmountable amount of stuff you have to do will thin out and leave room for the things of greatest importance to you.

Getting Things Done can be a complicated system and the path is fraught with pitfalls. Some will never get past the initial brain dump of every possible project in your life. Some may watch their system deteriorate as they miss one weekly review after another. Some may never have a system solid enough to gain their trust. Some may tweak it to the point where it no longer works at all.

I was very lucky to avoid most of this. Since first starting out, my GTD process has worked with few flaws for two years. I have an easy system that works very well for my life and lets me focus on the things of greatest importance to me. As cheesy as it sounds, GTD has made my life better and that is the reason I choose to share it.