From a car service to the meaning of life in five easy steps

By Martin Vogel


This week I’ve been refreshing my GTD system: reviewing my horizons of focus, tidying up my project lists, and emptying my collection baskets.

If that doesn’t mean anything to you, perhaps it’s time you were inculcated to the cult of Getting Things Done – a book on how to organise yourself and manage all the stuff in your life with the minimum of stress.

Getting Things Done, by David Allen, must be one of the most blogged about of books so I hesitate to add to the cacophony. But, since I find myself recommending it to clients with increasing frequency, I feel a need to explain its particular appeal to me.

David Allen’s great achievement in my opinion was to notice the kind of things we tend to do all the time, when trying to process and get through the cascade of responsibilities that we all face, and order them into a set of routines which, if adhered to, remove much of the friction around being productive. Instead of prescribing a time management system which tries to slot your work into rigid structures of prioritisation, GTD – as it’s known to its friends – offers a more natural, fluid process of keeping track of your commitments and following your energy in deciding what needs to be done.

It’s difficult to do justice to the elegance of the approach in a single blog post so let me confine myself to some of the elements that I find particularly helpful.

A trusted system for collecting your commitments. Instead of relying on your memory, and writing things down in diverse places, GTD encourages you to have a single system that you can use wherever you are for capturing your thoughts, action points, to-dos and so on. This can be as simple as a notebook or a pile of index cards which you can toss into an in-tray, or it can be more sophisticated like an app on your phone that syncs to the web or your computer. The key is to have always on hand the tools which will enable you to note down something you need to do and get the note to a single, consistent destination. Typically, we carry a lot this stuff around in our heads. But there’s only so much that your mind can hold at any one time and the things we have to do recede from grasp. If you can trust that all the stuff that you accumulate through the course of a day will end up in a place where you can later work out what to do with it, you free your mind from having to remember everything and your ‘psychic RAM’, as Allen describes it, can be put to better use.

Workflow for keeping your inbox clear. Don’t treat your inbox as a to-do list in which things that need your attention accumulate. If you do, you will constantly have to filter through stuff that has been sitting there for some time and new items that need your attention. So your mind will be constantly processing what to do with each item. David Allen offers a process for clearing your inbox methodically. You go through each item and give it your attention only once – deciding whether to delete it, file it or take action. If the item is actionable, your options boil down to three choices: deal with it straight away, if it can be done in two minutes; delegate it; or defer it.

Organise your stuff into projects and next actions. Having processed your inbox, you end up with a pile of stuff that is actionable. You need to turn this from a bunch of stuff that demands your attention in some vague way into defined projects and actions which make it clear what you need to do next. David Allen is refreshingly uncomplicated about this. An action is the next thing you need to do on a task to move it forward and a project is any task that requires more than one action to complete it. The important thing about an action is to write it as an instruction that makes clear what you have to do so that, when it comes to the doing, you don’t have to think about what the task requires of you – e.g. Call the garage to arrange a car service (and for this to be a next action, you’ll need to know the number of the garage, otherwise the next action is: Find the phone number for the garage). Often we fail to make progress with a task because we haven’t recognised that it’s a project and not an action. The solution is to think about the outcome you want to achieve and then work back to what is the very next thing you need to do to move you towards that outcome.

Weekly review. To my mind, this is one of the most valuable aspects of GTD and the one that can feel the hardest to justify in the heat of the moment. This is about making a weekly commitment to yourself to go through your lists of projects and actions so as to review progress and anticipate what needs to be done in the week ahead. This can take a good two hours to do well and there’s a great temptation to skip it. But time spent up front getting on top of your workload and ensuring that you understand what to do is more than repaid in the effectiveness by which you operate subsequently. If you don’t carve out a weekly period to review your commitments, you’ll end up doing this iteratively on the fly anyway.

Mindful approach to doing. David Allen recommends that you organise all your actions into lists for different contexts – phone calls to make, things you have to do on the computer, errands for when you’re out and about, and so on. You then refer to these to work out what you need to do depending on the context in which you find yourself. I have to say that I don’t gain a great deal by filtering my actions by context, perhaps because my contexts are not very varied. I tend to focus much more on what I want to get done today across a variety of contexts. The bigger point though is to be guided by where your energy lies. At some point in the day, you may not feel like doing a lot of thinking work but may be attracted to rattling through a few phone calls. You need to be able to use your system quickly to find the tasks that correspond to what you have the energy, will and resources to accomplish in the moment.

Distilled down, Getting Things Done is about doing in a disciplined way the things you need to do in any event to keep on top of your workload. If you don’t acquire the disciplines, you still end up having to go through the same thought processes about how to approach your work but you’ll do this in a piecemeal way that absorbs more of your mental capacity.

The great thing is that it’s not an all-or-nothing edifice that is hard to integrate into your life. You can make a difference to your effectiveness by adopting any one of these practices. As you embed it, it begins to free you up to achieve more; then you can build on this by taking on another aspect of the GTD approach. Ultimately, as you get more competent at dealing with your immediate commitments and responsibilities, you find your mind begins to shift to the bigger, more long-term questions about what you’re doing with your life.

Beware, this thing has existential implications.


Getting Things Done by David Allen. Available from Amazon

Image courtesy koalazymonkey