Whenever I talk to someone who knows anything about Lifehacker, whether it's a reader or a journalist, this question is inevitable: "Do you follow Getting Things Done?" My answer is always a whole-hearted "Sorta." I've read David Allen's productivity bible a few times, and The David is onto something with his methodology. But as far as I'm concerned, full-on GTD is too complicated and slippery for simple-minded civilians like myself. That's why I've whittled GTD down to its barest bones: picked away the jargon, acronyms, and extras and installed one single habit into my work life that's made all the difference. In short, I can describe my GTD system in eight words.
Make three lists. Revise them daily and weekly.
Those eight words are what I got out of three years of reading and writing about Getting Things Done. In addition to my usual email inbox and calendar, which I used pre-GTD, I added three lists to my work life, that I look at, edit and re-edit every day and every week.
The Three Lists
These are my three lists:
- To-do list. The equivalent of David Allen's "Next Actions" list, my to-do list is about 20 small, highly doable things I'm committed to doing in the near future (like the next month.) My to-do list is how I assign things to myself, so I'm really careful about what I put on it and how. Here's more on the art of writing a doable to-do list.
- Projects list. Allen defines projects as undertakings that have several sub-actions associated with them. (Like, "Clean out the hall closet" is a project because it involves many sub-actions: "Sort books into library drive boxes." "Empty unlabeled boxes." Etc.) While Allen says most people have about 100 projects (!), I've got less than 10 going on at one time. Perhaps I lack ambition. Maybe I'm commitment-phobic. But for me, a short projects list keeps me feeling light and nimble. A long project list, on the other hand, becomes a heavy laundry list of crap I need to do before I die, and when I look at it, I want to crawl in a hole and suck my thumb instead of live because I think things like "I'll never get this done." And that's not the point.
- Someday/Maybe list. The name of this list is pretty self-explanatory. This is the stuff I haven't committed to doing yet, and may never. Things like "Learn Italian" and "Build BSG fan web site" and "Run a marathon" go here. Here's where I let my imagination go wild, and add every and any kind of possible goal and task I might want to complete someday. Someday/maybe is for dreaming big without committing.
Note: WHERE you keep these lists is up to you. I love text files and my favourite text editors, so I just keep these in three .txt files. You might use Remember the Milk or Outlook or Tada-Lists. It's up to you: just make sure the tool you use isn't too distracting and that you enjoy using it.
Once you've got your lists, they only serve you if you actually look at them.
Daily and Weekly Revisions
Each day I work from my to-do list, adding items and marking off tasks that are complete at about the same rate, if things are going well. This is the list that I look at and change the most. I keep my to-do list pinned to my computer desktop, so every day, when I sit at my computer, it's staring me down, telling me what to do next. If the things I need to work on aren't on the list? I put them on the list before I start, just to give myself the satisfaction of checking stuff off as done for the day.
Once a week, on Friday afternoons, I open up my three lists and look them over. Generally, this is the only time I open and revise the projects and someday/maybe lists. It takes about 20 minutes to update, prune, re-shuffle, and add to the lists. This weekly meeting with myself is what Allen calls the Weekly Review. You can see more details about how I do my Weekly Review here.
Email as Inbox (and the Importance of Emptying It)
In Getting Things Done, Allen recommends setting up a physical inbox: a paper tray where stuff you need to deal with gets dropped. I'm to the point where 90% of my incoming "stuff" is email, not pieces of paper. So my email inbox is my virtual paper tray. When Allen talks about processing the items in your inbox, he's referring to emptying my email inbox. Using my three-folder "Trusted Trio" system outlined way back when, I do empty my inbox about three times a workweek, if not every afternoon. I won't start my weekly review until my email inbox is empty.
Not everything comes to me via email, but since I know I'm emptying my inbox on a regular basis, I funnel whatever incoming bits I can there. For example, my GrandCentral voicemail comes in via email. Any to-do that is due in the future, and I don't have to think about until then, goes on my Google Calendar with an email reminder. When it's due? I get an email saying "Hey, put this on the to-do list." If I'm out and about and have an idea, I send an email to myself from my cell phone, and know that I'll do something with it next time I process the old inbox.
The times I do fall behind on processing my email inbox to empty, the whole system falls to pieces because there's "stuff" I haven't decided what to do with yet. Even though Allen barely talks about email in his book, the reality is that anyone who gets tasks, projects, and reminders via email, consistently processing incoming messages is an essential part of working the system.
Dealing with Paper
The little paper that does come into my workday is usually via snail mail, and it gets entered into my system as soon as possible. Reminder postcard from the dentist? "Call Dr. M to schedule cleaning" goes on my to-do list. Bank statement? "Balance accounts in Quicken" is a monthly recurring calendar item that shoots off an reminder email to me on the 15th of each month.
Most of my work is digital, but I haven't quite moved to an entirely paper-less existence. I still keep a filing cabinet, and even stow away things like receipts in little yellow envelopes.
This Way—or Any Way—Won't Work for You All the Time
There's no perfect productivity system. This is a fact one must accept before taking on any new habits. Even when I stick to it like glue, this method only works about 95% of the time. There are still holes, and I'll make small adjustments to patch them when I can. You should do the same.
David Allen's complete GTD methodology, as he writes it, is still an elusive ideal for me. I regard it kind of like I do Buddhism: a big, mysterious, and wondrous way of living and thinking that you really want to get, because the people that have seem so bright and fulfilled. But you keep falling on your arse no matter how many inboxes you set up or mind dumps you do. The perfect is the enemy of the good, as the saying goes, so instead of giving up on GTD completely, take the parts that work for you and work them.
Are you working a modified version of GTD in your life? Tell us about it in the comments.