Sunday, October 04, 2009

Getting Things Done

For the past few weeks, I've been deep in the process of fully adopting David Allen's Getting Things Done.

It was a bit of adjustment to leave behind (at least for now) a system that has served me well for decades, but I've moved everything over to Gmail Tasks, am reorganizing my office, and changed my daily work process. So far it's still working well and quite enjoyable, too.

Here are some details.

What is it?

GTD is another of those approaches to organizing your work, your life, and accomplishing tasks efficiently. This isn't something I thought I needed. In fact, I've been using Alan Lakein's approach for over 20 years and it has served me well. If you wonder whether I've always had control of my time and my life, the answer is certainly, No. But, I've always known what I needed to do when I wanted to have full control and needed to be maximally efficient.

However, GTD was highly touted by people around me so I finally watched one of David Allen's videos and became further intrigued. Then I read his book and decided to give it a try. Usually, IMHO, the only proper way to give something a try is to follow all of the instructions, completely.

Jumping in

With that idea, I've jumped headfirst into the new process.

There is one important and critical way that GTD differs from any other time management scheme that I've seen or heard. If it's not a difference, at least it's something that just escaped me before now. Mr. Allen claims that it's important to write down or record everything in your action-tracking system and keep nothing in your head. The reason is that, any action item in your head that is not recorded “in a system you trust” maintains a constant psychic drain on your mind, and adds a source of stress. It's not until you get everything out of your mind and into the system that your mind can totally relax and think freely. He claims you can never be free of mental stress (and thus physical stress, if they can be differentiated at all), until you reach this point.

That idea was new to me. I don't know if it's true or not, but it certainly seems plausible and seems worth giving a shot.

I drove over to the Borders and bought the book and read it over the next several days. Then a couple of weekends ago, I started my first collecting and processing effort at home. I also did one at work, but the effort for that was quite minimal since most of my information at work was already highly organized in my old system.

Todo list software and Tasks

A big change for me has been moving from the Lakein style of todo lists to the GTD style of next action lists. I've been maintaining todo lists in Lakein's format for over 20 years. For most of those years, I've used software that I wrote myself and that has been re-written a number of times. The first version was in C and used pointers to pointers to implement a list of strings. The most recent re-write was in object-oriented Python. I've also used a pad on my desk or a little steno book with dated pages. Anyway, leaving the old format and process behind (that was familiar, much loved and working!) has been a big step for me.

GTD isn't specific about what tool to use for tracking your next actions, projects, and such, though it makes a number of suggestions and provides good guidance. There are also many updated suggestions and tools on-line today. When I sat down to decide on a tool, I considered re-writing my todo list again to work in the GTD way of doing things. However, Tasks had been there in Gmail for a while and I'd played with it a bit, even used it a little. It seemed marginally adequate for tracking things then, but I took as second look and simply started using it. The gradual process of just trying it out more and more ended up being a full commitment to moving everything over.

Tasks Features

One nice feature of Tasks is that it's quite simple and somewhat flexible. You can easily drag tasks up and down in a list to reorder them. You can have multiple lists and it's easy to move tasks between them. Finally a task can have a due date (which automatically puts it on your calendar) and it can have a large set of textual notes and web links attached to it.

You check off completed items and you can clear all completed items so you don't see them any more. Then you can view a separate list of all your completed items on a list by list basis. You can also indent items under a leading item. That means you can move that whole indented group as a unit. You can have multiple levels of indentation and, thus, of structure. Finally, you can easily add an email message as a task from Gmail with one click.

So, with many of these added improvements, Tasks turned out to be quite powerful when I started using it in earnest.

How I'm using Tasks

Given all of those features, the path of my evolution of usage, and as I grok more of GTD, here's the way I'm currently using Gmail Tasks.

I keep a number of separate lists. These include all of my next action lists, a project list, and a calendar lists.

Any item that has a date assigned goes on the Calendar list. Since, from your Gmail calendar, you can only choose one list at a time, I always leave the Calendar list selected and that makes those items appear on my calendar. They are associated with a day but not specific times on that day, as GTD suggests.

GTD defines a project as any task with more than one action, so my Projects list has a project and indented under it are the actions. I always keep the next action at the top, by dragging tasks around if needed. I sometimes drag a whole project around to reorder them in the list.

Since my lists were rather long, I organized my next action lists into context-based lists. So I have an At Computer list, At Home list, an Agendas list for conversations with folks. My Read/Review list either has book or article titles to read, or frequently has links to on-line items to read.

One of the best parts of Tasks is that, because it's in the cloud and because it's accessible from my Android phone, I have access to my lists all of the time. (You can access tasks from a phone browser at This also makes it easy to add new tasks and ideas directly into the system.

If I'm driving, I call my Google Voice number and leave a message for myself. It gets automatically encoded into text and emailed to me so I can enter it later. (Granted, the voice-to-text doesn't work that well for me now).

There are two completely separate instances of Tasks for work and home, but it's easy to move items between them. Also I can enter actions into each whether I'm at work or at home, and have access to reviewing them as well.

When on an actual computer, it's important to pop out the Tasks list and make it into a larger window. That's the only way it really becomes usable.

Documents, check lists and filing

For some of the other check lists that GTD recommends, I've been using Google Documents so far. I created a GTD folder there to keep them all in.

Unfortunately I'm haven't quite reached the paperless state at home. Fortunately, Allen recommends a filing system for all of one's reference materials—that's stuff that doesn't require any actions but that you may need to refer to later. In a nutshell, he says to use simple file folders and a label maker, and to file everything alphabetically in one system. He also recommends not using Pendaflex hanging folders because they slow you down too much, and there's a strong emphasis on keeping it all simple and easy to do! So, I got a Brother P-Touch label maker on sale at Office Max, and I've been purging my old hanging files and re-processing everything into a new system. This even lead to emptying out and purging files form an old file cabinet I have at home and dedicating it to the new system.

Is it really faster and better to use the old manilla folders? For me, the jury is still out on this one. At least you don't have to worry about those little hooks that stick out of the hanging folders.

He also says, don't hesitate to file a single piece of paper in a folder with a label. The justification is that, if it's important enough to keep, it's important enough to file. Makes sense. So using the cheap folders definately makes that easier to do.

I've nearly made it through all of the paper in my office and now it's on to the many other boxes of stuff which is another level of purging and reorganizing, but I'm on a bit of a role.


So, I'm still settling into the process. It's been about three weeks since I migrated all of my Todo items to Tasks and about two weeks since I began the Big Collection process in my office at home. Though I've fully committed to giving GTD a spin, my experience with Lakein's (and other's) approach is still present as a source of insight and practical how-to skill. In fact, there is a lot of overlap between these two approaches, more than they are different.

I highly recommend Getting Things Done, and will post here later on how it's all going.