Systems & Tips

“Getting Things Done” – System Overview

Getting Things Done by David Allen sparked a worldwide phenomenon. In his best-selling book, Allen introduces a personal productivity system (abbreviated “GTD”) which has become the most popular and talked about time management strategy in modern times – especially on the internet.

Many people may be very familiar with GTD (or even totally sold-out devotees), but I wanted to briefly summarize GTD principles for the benefit of those who are wondering what this thing called GTD is.

I’m not going to tell you that you should use this system or any other system. In fact, I’m passionate about each person finding solutions that work for their unique situations.

To that end, here’s an overview of the Getting Things Done system. I would encourage you to mull over GTD and evaluate it yourself. You may fall in love with the entire thing, you may hate it all, or you may find one or two tricks that you can incorporate into your own personal approach.

The Core Concepts

GTD consists of two foundational principles.

1. Get things off of your mind.

Your mental checklist for that project you’re dealing with at work, your little reminders of that appointment coming up on Thursday, your internal list of the things you want to buy next time you go to the grocery store – get them all off of your mind.

Instead, put those lists into a system that you can trust to be adequate to handle the storage of all those ins and outs from your personal and business life: a system that will remind you at the proper time of what you need to do and when.

Once you have this system in place, not only will you feel less stressed, but you’ll free up mental energy which you can then use to focus on whatever task you are dealing with at the moment. This is a major point of the author’s: you will experience much greater productivity when you can devote your mental faculties entirely to the task at hand instead of unconsciously taking up your mental energy with all of these other tasks and open loops swimming around in the back of your mind.

2. Boil everything down to the next action.

Rather than vague to-do list items like hire accountant, think of what the very next physical action would be in that project. You’d want to talk over the options you’re your business partners – which you’d have to research by getting recommendations from your friend – so your next physical action would be to call or Email your friend to ask their advice.

Instead of hire accountant on your list, you’d put Call Jim re: accountant recommendations.

The GTD Workflow Model

Those two core principles form the backbone of GTD Implementation. The actual day-to-day GTD worflow is merely getting things off your mind, dividing them up into next actions, keeping track of those next actions, and doing those next actions. Here are the five steps.

1. Collect.

Use a tool like a pad and paper, a word processor, an iPhone, or a voice recorder to capture anything that’s running around in your mind. Anything. Work projects, home projects, to-do lists, goals you have, events coming up, books you want to read, things you need to file: anything.

As soon as anything pops into your brain, use one of these capture tools to get it off your mind and into your inbox.

2. Process

At some appropriate point, process your inbox. Take these things that you’ve collected and decide what to do with them. Is action needed on the item at this time? If not, then you can trash it, file it away for reference, or put it in a “tickler” file or  “Someday/maybe” list for later action.

If action is needed at this time, decide what the desired outcome of this item is. Then, decide what the very next physical action would be to move towards completion. If the next action would take less then 2 minutes, just go ahead and do it. Otherwise move on to organization.

3. Organize

Group all your next actions by the context in which they’ll be performed, such as “calls” or “errands” or “at computer.” This way, when you’re at your computer, you have a list of next actions to take for all your various projects.

Also setup a system of filing for reference material, a tickler file to store date specific reminders, and a calendar for appointments.

4. Review

To ensure that the system is sustainable and accurate, review the system at least once a week.

5. Do

Now that you have a list of next actions, get to work on them!

The Six Horizons of Focus:

But hmmm…of all these actions, how do you know which ones are best to do right now?

David Allen recommends to “go with your gut,” and he recommends considering the following “horizons of focus” as you contemplate what action would be best to do next.

Runway – What are my next physical actions?
10,000 ft. view – What projects am I working on?
20,000 ft. view – What areas of focus and responsibility, such as job descriptions, do I have?
30,000 ft. view – What goals and objectives do I have for the next year or two?
40,000 ft. view – What are the longterm vision of what I’m working on?
50,000 ft. view – What is the purpose and core values of what I’m working on?

Now that we have a foundational overview, we can begin looking at specific advantages/disadvantages of GTD – and you can evaluate whether this system would be good to utilize in your own personal time management.

Remember: this isn’t the type of thing where you have to do GTD 100% or nothing at all. You can pick and choose from the concepts and principles, adapt them to your liking, and use what you find to be effective for your own situation.

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