Getting Things Done - Some Discussion

An unnamed person who reads this blog asked in another forum for any opinions or comments on Getting Things Done. I mentioned it somewhat in this post, but I thought I'd go into more detail. But I don't like making long posts at the other place (and I'm being slightly vague on purpose) so I decided to write a post about here.

So I first heard about GTD from 43 Folders which is really just a productivity tips & tricks site - albeit one with a Mac-centric focus. But there's a fair amount of GTD conversation as well and I eventually picked up the book - right before I quit at Crystal and had a small period of chaos in my life :-) Ultimately Karin read it before I did, and she started using some of it and liking it. So I eventually got around to checking out the book, and I really recommend taking a look at it.

One funny thing is that there appears to be a bit of a "cult" around it on the web, but in many ways it's the least cult-like organization system I've ever seen. There's a lot of emphasis on simplicity and "whatever works for you". Compare to Franklin Day-Planners where you need to go to the seminar, buy the book, buy the Day-Planner, buy the pages for the Day-Planner, etc. etc. You can use your spiffy Palm PDA but you'll need the special Franklin software for it and so forth. GTD only really makes you buy a few things - probably some office/desk stuff. I bought a labeler, three stacking inboxes, a little basket for my "tickler file" (more on that in a minute), and a rack that sits on my night-stand and holds magazines. That's it really. 95% of my whole GTD "system" is just a single text file on my Mac and my iCal files that I already had.

There are two central tenets to GTD really. The first is that you are most productive if you flow quickly and easily to your next action. If you always know what your best next move is then you're in pretty good shape. The second is that it is impossible to keep everything in your head - and people waste a lot of psychic RAM on trying, and a lot of angst over worrying what they forgot. So if you have a system you trust to track things you can "dump" everything in it. No using RAM on remembering to call Aunt Bertha next Tuesday, no worrying over whether your forgetting something. As long as you have a system, your system works, and you TRUST your system then your system won't let you forget something. The rest of the book is really just good tips and tricks for building such a system and keeping it ticking over smoothly.

There's a lot of focus on Inboxes - both physical and email. The book is adamant about not keeping emails in your Inbox - I'll admit I personally still do that. This is all about capturing all your "stuff". If a bill comes in - it goes in the Inbox. If you remember something you need to do in four months - jot a quick note and throw it in your Inbox. If your system works then it's off your mind - you know it will be handled ultimately.

Now you have a bunch of things in your Inbox. Now what? Now you organize. Everything in your Inbox can't stay there - you pick up each thing (possibly metaphorically) and move it somewhere else. This is where the "Two Minute Rule" comes into play. You pick up a Foo. Can you resolve whatever you need to do with Foo in two minutes or less? If so, do it. Right now. Trying to keep track of Foo for later handling is more trouble than it's worth. That sounds stupidly simple, but man is it effective. Many things just need to be filed somewhere - it's a "one day I'll need this", or it's a receipt you need at tax time or whatever. (This is what the labeler is for BTW - you also are supposed to buy a file cabinet but I already had one.) Many things just need to be held until a particular date - these will go into the "tickler file". The rest of these things all need you to do something, and it's going to take more than two minutes or it needs something you don't have right now (net access, a Philips screwdriver, whatever). For these you determine what the "next action" is for that item and you write it down. You create a big list of next actions. Now do them. But you can do them with full concentration - you know you haven't forgotten anything because it all went in your Inbox and got processed.

I've mentioned the Tickler a few times - time to explain that. The tickler file has 43 folders in it - 31 folders with a date and 12 monthly folder. If you need to do something at some point in the future it goes in your calendar. If you need a physical bit that goes with it you put the bit in your tickler file instead. Let me give you a few practical examples. I went to my dentist in April and scheduled my next appointment for October. There's no paper for that - I just put the appointment on my calendar - no tickler involved. But back in February I got two pieces of mail - one was for some property tax that is due on July 31st and the other was Karin's car registration which we didn't need to pay until July 22nd. Historically I had to just push these sorts of things around my desk and hope I didn't lose them for six months. And I told some neuron in the back of my head "remember to find this in July" and probably told a few dozen neurons to worry about whether the first one was on the job. These are the things that ultimately keep me from sleeping at night. Instead they went in the tickler. I jotted a note on a Post-It saying "Pay this on 7/15" and threw the whole thing in the July folder. When July 1st rolled by I opened up the July folder, and moved them into the proper date folders. Each day I open that day's folder, take at whatever is in it and handle them. When the 15th came by I pulled them out and paid them. But I knew they were taken care of - I knew I had a system that would automatically remind me when I needed to pay them - and it kept the piece of paper I'd need (the bill and the envelope) right where I'd need them. You can go from the important to the trivial with this. I have concert tickets in my tickler, and I have a piece of paper that says "Take Trash to the curb". Every Wednesday I pull that out of the tickler and say "Oh yeah - gotta do that today." Once I've done it I stick it in next Wednesday's folder. It's stupid - but it means I don't have some mental subroutine saying "Is it Wednesday? Don't forget to take the trash out on Wednesday." My E3 pass went in my tickler file. I had it for a month and I just wanted it to do two things - 1) don't get lost and 2) be present when I needed to go to E3. So I threw it in the folder for the day when I would be packing. Brilliant. Mine takes a 4"x12" footprint on my desk and it's got bills, tax forms, concert tickets, whatever in it. It's got notes set a week before birthdays reminding me to buy presents.

Anyway - this entry is way too long so I'll sign off for now. I recommend the book. I don't do everything in the book, but it's well worth the cost and the time to read and consider.