- Posted by Nigel Edelshain
- On January 30, 2017
“Getting Things Done,” known as “GTD,” is a methodology for being more productive. It was developed by productivity consultant called David Allen. David’s book by the same name is a best seller.
GTD takes a systematic approach to productivity. It’s not a book of time management tips, rather a process that you follow.
The GTD system is not inspirational or a book about establishing your goals. The book touches on goals but does not spend much time on this topic. Where the system really shines is dealing with all the hundreds of little things we need to get done every week, month and year. It’s a guide to operating “in the trenches.”
Some benefits of GTD
Some of the benefits of using GTD include (and I have experienced many of these as a user the system over the last couple of decades):
- Reducing your stress. David Allen says your brain will make you just a little bit more stressed for every to-do item you try to commit to memory. GTD tells you to let go of these to-do’s by writing everything down. (I can’t find scientific evidence to back this up but I can say it seems true from my experience.)
- Not missing commitments. One of the best elements of GTD is the “weekly review.” During this review you check if there any items that you have not yet done. If there are any “loose ends” you put in reminders to do these items next week.
- Being more organized. The GTD system actually teaches you a way to file. Using this approach you can seriously de-clutter your workspace. It turns out clutter makes you more stressed too.
- Getting your inbox to zero. Many would think this impossible but GTD shows you how to get your email inbox to empty and keep it that way. (Mine has been empty for years now.) Also less stressful!
How it works
The core of the Getting things done system is a workflow (a work process). The process has 5 steps as outlined below.
The first step in the GTD process is collecting everything into one place so you can process it. When you first start out with GTD this can be a big job as you may have relevant items stuffed away all over the place. You may have actionable items hidden in hanging files in your desk. You may have paper piled up on your desk or receipts hidden in your bag etc.
The first part of the approach then is to find everything that might be useful and bring it into one spot. When you start out with GTD this can be a very big pile!
Once you have everything you think may be relevant in one place it’s time to “process” all this stuff.
The big distinction when processing anything is asking “is this thing actionable”, i.e. do I need to take an action on this thing? There are only two answers, “yes” and “no.”
Non-actionable stuff is either trashed, filed or added to your calendar as a reminder to check if it’s actionable later.
Actionable stuff is either done now (if it takes less than 2 minutes), delegated to someone or deferred. Deferred means coming back to the action as it will take longer than 2 minutes and should be tackled when you are focused on it. Deferred items are very common and are generally added to a list for you to come back to and work on later.
All your stuff is organized into appropriate places so nothing gets lost. Reference material is put in reference files. Deferred items are added to lists, typically under their respective projects. Other items are added to your calendar to remind you when to look at them again.
During your weekly review you check if there are any items that you have not done yet. If there are you put them on one of your lists for next week. This way virtually nothing “slips through the holes in your system” and you will (nearly) always deliver to customers and colleagues everything they ask for (that can really help you sleep better!)
Finally after all this organizing, you actually do the actions you need to do. This is of course where you spend the vast majority of your time but the other steps in the GTD process mean that the time you spend “doing” is with a clear purpose.
My extra tips
You may have picked up that I’m a fan of GTD. You’d be right. I’ve been using it for a couple of decades and I do think it has made me more productive and less stressed (at the same time).
Here are a few tips from personal experience to add to what is in the book:
- Don’t bite off too much at once: If you’re starting out with GTD don’t try to do everything in the book at once. I recommend implementing a basic system first and then adding to that over time.
- Don’t over-engineer: Engineers like me are probably most guilty of this one. We tend to fantasize about having every step in a system like GTD programmed into a productivity app, like Evernote, but trying to do something like this from the start will probably tie you up in knots for weeks and you probably won’t get any real work benefit.
- Customize as you go: Everyone is different. The basic principles of GTD work for anyone but there’s no doubt you need to make it your own. I’ve added many things over the years to my approach only to throw them away later. You really should test elements and see which ones feel right for you.
- It takes years, like Kung Fu: GTD does not seem complex but in reality there are so many details. Don’t worry about being the best GTD expert just add to your skills as you go. Perfecting your personal approach to this can take years (or decades), “Grasshopper”!