Ten Years Getting Things Done

by Mike Shea on 15 August 2016

For the past ten years I've used Getting Things Done to help me keep my life together. I've already written a number of articles on the topic, a list of which you can find at the bottom of this article, and I wanted to add to it by writing out a few observations based on spending ten years with a single personal organization system.

First of all, remember that advice is bullshit. This isn't advice, this is a shared experience. This is a single point of data in a sea of information from which you might get something useful.

A 90 Second Summary of Getting Things Done

I'm going to begin with a 300 word description that, I believe, covers almost all of my customized GTD process. It's written in the declarative for brevity, so forgive the sharp tone. Think of it as a mantra to myself more than advice to you.

Getting Things Done helps us relax and free our minds, knowing that the random incoming "stuff" gets captured in a trusted system. Our goal is not to get more done, our goal is to feel good about what we're doing.

My custom GTD workflow consists of the following steps.

Capture to-dos, tasks, ideas, or other random stuff in a single trusted "inbox" like a pocket notebook that you always carry. As stuff comes in, write it down. Don't worry about what it is or how big it is. Get things out of your head and into the "inbox".

Process and organize these notes, to-dos, emails, and other stuff at least daily, thus emptying your inbox. Process this stuff into actions, projects, or events. Record specific focused physical actions on location-based action lists like @home and @work. Record projects with multiple steps on project lists focusing only on the project's next action. Record events, meetings, appointments, reoccurring actions, or delayed actions in a single trusted calendar. File emails connected to any action or project in an "action support" email folder. Archive or throw away anything else. Do any action that takes 2 minutes or less right away.

Review your whole system once a week. Empty all inboxes. Process all notes. Review next week's calendar. Review the previous week's calendar. Move unfinished actions to fresh action lists. Clean out action support email folders. Review your project lists. Take five minutes to ask "what is on my mind?"

Do the things on your action lists based on your location, your available time, and your available energy. If something isn't getting done, break it down into smaller actions, renegotiate it, or throw it away. Relax and get to work.

Observations on Ten Years of GTD

Using GTD over ten years let me quit worrying about the constant stream of little shit and instead spend time thinking about what an ideal day looks like. I am much more able to consider whether I spend my time each day on the things I love and the things I want to do instead of worrying about the tire pressure on my car. See my life analyses of 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.

Over ten years, much of my life has switched from big hairy projects into a focus on daily habits. I have many regular projects like writing for Sly Flourish and running my two weekly D&D games that I don't ever plan on completing. They're just regular activities and I have quite a few of them.

Between GTD and my Lifetracker app I have a good system to track what I need to do and what I have already done. Because I track what my days look like, I have a good idea what my next days are going to look like. I know what I can fit in. I know what I can't fit in. The easiest way to see what my life will be like in the near future is to look at what it has been like in the past.

Because I have the quick checklist for an ideal day in the life of Mike Shea (read, write, walk, eat, see, touch, play, love), I can quickly visualize later in the day which of these I have done and which I still need to do, sort of like a daily review. Many days I can do all of them.

Sometimes our jobs can be more complicated than we like for a streamlined GTD system. I have four different email inboxes and three calendars with no good way to simplify them. As hard as I try, there's no good way to consolidate all of the inboxes we have or all of the bosses we work with, but we can simplify where we can.

As a highly practiced user of GTD I still feel anxiety when new projects come my way but I feel that anxiety up-front instead of at the end of a project. I'm much more likely to meet my deadlines but I still feel the stress of having to do it. That said, I have less stress because I don't double down on the stress of needing to complete a project by adding the stress of being late. I think of projects as draining energy from the moment we accept them to the moment we complete them. They drain energy whether we're working on them or not, like a spell continually draining our mana bar. So, if we can get them done early, we end up draining less energy overall. It is actually lazier to do something early than it is to delay and do it late.

I've tried numerous systems. My two favorites are Omnifocus if you have the opportunity to use it everywhere or a Moleskine GTD system if pen and paper is easier to manage. GTD is system agnostic but it's good to pick one trusted system and stick to it for years rather than keep trying new ones all the time. A digital calendar is critical and it's best to have a single trusted calendar. That's not always possible, though, if we have separate work and home calendars.

Simplifying and customizing GTD to fit my life helped considerably. Getting rid of parts that aren't useful and focusing on the parts that are gave me a well-working system. I got rid of both "waiting for" lists and "someday maybe" lists and don't miss them.

GTD doesn't handle periodic events well. Reoccurring actions are best handled with a calendar or a system like Omnifocus that lets us defer actions until a specific time. Digital systems are superior to paper systems for stuff like this. Deferring actions until specific times is also a great way to not overburden my action lists with too many things right after a weekly review.

GTD probably has a 99% (or higher) failure rate. I've never met anyone else who does it well. The worst thing we GTD people can do is assume other people should do it. Advice is bullshit. GTD works for me but that doesn't mean it will work for anyone else. Its rude and smug and egotistical of me to even assume anyone else should. The truth is, in my experience, that most people do not have their shit together and yet we still all manage to live our lives.

Because most people don't have their shit together, we can sometimes get screwed because we're the first out of the gate. We might be on a project with four people and end up carrying most of the work because we're on top of it while others are procrastinating. We're the ones who end up inadvertently beta-testing whatever project we're on because no one else has bothered to try yet. Because of this, there is value in putting things off to see if they end up coming back or if they just die. We can put things off within the GTD system by sticking a calendar reminder out in the future rather than get started with it right away.

Advanced GTD systems have a way to balance out work rather than pile everything up front. I know that I work best when I have three to five actions to do. Any more and I need to push some stuff out. Any less and I start dividing by zero in my head and go crazy. Again, a system like Omnifocus that can delay actions is critical for this. I haven't found a reasonable paper-based system that can delay actions until a particular day.

When our GTD system is clean and works well, it feels really great. Weekly reviews feel refreshing. Looking at a clean action list that isn't overburdened feels great. Capturing, processing, organizing, reviewing, all feels good. Deleting shit feels REALLY good. Oh yeah, doing things feels good too.

A well-working GTD system helps me know what I can handle and what I can't. I know what the boundaries are. I know how many things we can handle. I know when I'm maxed out. It helps me not over-commit when I know what I'm able to handle and what I'm not.

The longer I've used GTD, the easier its become to process new shit on the way in. A lot of stuff hits the wall and never even lands in my notebook or inbox. I can look at something right away and say "nope" much easier than before. I know what I can handle and I know what I can't handle. That's a useful place to be.

I really can't talk to people about Getting Things Done. I just end up looking like an asshole, a cultist, or both. It's best to just silently do my thing. If it works for me, great, but that doesn't mean it will work for anyone else or that they should use it. There are a lot of systems out there but talking about them is largely a waste of time. I wish I'd learned that before writing 20,000 words on the subject and driving my friends and loved ones crazy.

GTD doesn't help me get more done. It helps me feel good about where I am at any given moment. It helps me feel like I have my shit together. It gives me a place to put worry and anxiety instead of keeping it in my head. It lets me handle small stuff so I can focus on what's really important to me.

After ten years, I am still a huge fan of Getting Things Done.

Further Reading