I gave a lecture yesterday, and as I was starting to speak I looked out and saw faces consumed with fatigue and stress. It’s finals time, and the students are suffering. So, rather than talk about what I had planned, I switched gears and gave an impromptu lesson on Getting Things Done, which I’ve covered here at 9GS frequently.
I was shooting from the hip, and was afraid I’d dumb it down too much, but I think that by taking this quick approach it may have resulted in people actually attempting to take the information and apply it to their lives.
So, I thought I’d try to record it here so that others who might be feeling stressed, and don’t have the time to read David Allen’s wonderful book, could still start taking control. I, of course, hope it results in people buying the book.
If you’ve got 10 minutes, I promise that by going through the following steps, you will feel like your life is much more manageable!
Step 1: Purge
Get out a clean piece of paper. Take 3-5 minutes and do a brain dump of all the things you have to do; all the things on your mind that require some action from you. These could be things as small as returning an email to as large as getting your new CD recorded. Don’t filter, just write.
Step 2: 5 minute rule
Put a check by all the items that – were you in the right context – you could do in 5 minutes or less. So, for instance, if you have an electricity bill to pay, if you were in front of your computer, you could log on and pay via your electronic banking method of choice in 5 minutes or less.
These small tasks that take 5 minutes or less to accomplish are often the ones that keep us from ever getting to our larger more important tasks. By getting them out of the way every day, you will clear a path to really knocking out some big projects.
Step 3: Give yourself permission to NOT get certain things done
Take a look at your list. Are there certain things that you know realistically just ain’t gonna happen? If so, cross them off, and allow yourself to forget about them.
We all have calls from three weeks ago that need to be returned that likely aren’t ever going to be returned. Forget them, and feel OK about it. If you forgot to send Grandma a birthday card, and her birthday was four months ago, forget it! Make it up to her next year, or give her a call – which should be done in 5 minutes or less.
These dead letter items really clog things up. Giving yourself permission to let go of them will help you get to your bigger items, and will assuage some of your guilt.
Step 4: Someday/Maybe
There are likely some items on your list that are ideas you have that don’t really have a context, and that you’re not sure when or if you want to do them, but are reluctant to let go of them. Writing a book would be a good example of this.
Denote these large, uncertain projects as “Someday/Maybe” items on your list. You’ve now gotten them out of your head, and into a more tangible form (on paper), and so you don’t risk forgetting about them, but you also don’t have to act on them until you’re ready (if ever).
Step 5: Contextualize
On the items you have left, beside each list the place where you need to be to accomplish this task. If, for instance, you have a bunch of phone calls to make, and you have a commute each day, you may want to contextualize your phone calls as “in the car.”
Sample contexts include: home, office, errands, computer, library.
The thinking here is that if you organize by context, you will always have the things you need when you’re ready to get down to work.
Additionally, it helps you maximize your time by getting things done in whatever context you find yourself; e.g. the phone call in the car example above.
As mentioned, the Someday/Maybe projects don’t need a context, and you might want to create a context for recurring small things (answer emails, etc). I use the context Zen for this, because, I know when I complete all these little things, I’m closer to my Zen state.
Step 6: Next Actions
This (and the context) is the step that really separates the GTD system from just being a to-do list. You must make your items actionable. What this means is that for every item that you can’t accomplish in five minutes or list, you need to assign the very nextphysical action you will take to getting one step closer to completion.
If this is a small item, like sending a thank you card, the next action might be to buy the thank you card. If it’s a big item like selling 20,000 records, your next action might be to start your strategic plan.
Be careful here to make sure that your next action is something that is realistically done. If your next action is too broad, it won’t be actionable, it will be sort of a sub-task.
Be specific, focus on the very next physical thing that you can focus on to get one (and only one) step closer to completing the task.
Step 7: Projects
By now you should have eliminated quite a few items from your original list. There should be quite a few things you can accomplish in five minutes or less that are (or will soon be) gone; there should be a couple of things that you have forgiven yourself from ever doing, and are now gone; there might be one or two items that get moved off the list into the “Someday/Maybe” category; there should be a handful of things that will be done as soon as you complete the next action; i.e. these are tasks that while they will take more than 5 minutes to complete, only have one action to complete.
What’s left are items that will take more than one next action to complete. These are projects.
These projects will have a series of actions that will need to be completed. You should thus contextualize them, and add the next action. Once this next action is complete, you generate the subsequent action, and so on until you have completed the entire project.
These projects can and should appear each time you do a brain dump of the things you need to do, but they should be moving gradually to completion as the next action should be changing.
Step 8: Choose a GTD System
Your piece of paper is likely a mess. You’ll want to create a way to repeat the above steps so that you know what to do for whatever context you find yourself in, and so that you can update the next actions on your way to completion of a project.
There are a ton of GTD systems. From the low tech, like Merlin Mann’s Hipster PDA which is a series of color-coded note cards. To the fairly high-concept kGTD, which requires the purchase of OmniOutliner Pro. Everyone is sort of holding their breath for the release of Omni’s GTD system.
There is a great new GTD program called iGTD that works really well, and is free.
You could, of course, just use a notebook.
Step 9: Weekly Review
Essential to the process is the idea of a weekly review. Now that you have everything contextualized and sorted into projects, you must make certain that your next actions are moving you in the direction of completion.
Therefore, you should, once a week or so (I’d suggest doing this in the morning), review the status of your projects.
Please don’t confuse this review with the daily purging and filtering you should be doing. Rather, this is a broader view of your progress that allows you to measure and track progress.
Thanks to 9GS commenter Jim for this addition.
The key is to try this system, and take the parts that work for you. I think many people will be content to just make a list and knock off the things you can do in five minutes or less; that alone will massively increase your productivity.
As I told my students, don’t get locked into trying to adhere to a system for the sake of the system, and end up doing even less. Find the elements that work for you, and customize it.