Getting Things Done to the Next Level
Below are the notes from a presentation I did a few years ago on my overall planning system. It also outlines some of the major kinks that GTD has (in my view, at least) and the ways I’ve sought to iron them out.
I do some things differently now and have simplified some things, but this has been my best attempt so far to outline a comprehensive, integrated approach to getting things done in a way that tries to minimize the kinks and rough spots in an “out of the box” GTD implementation.
I’m going to do three things: Give a really brief summary of GTD, identify some key things I’ve found to be lacking in it, and elaborate on how I think you build up the areas that are lacking into a total system.
Basic Principles of GTD
- Get everything off your head and into a trusted system that you review regularly.
- Make front-end decisions about the next action and intended outcomes for every input that you allow into your life.
- Organize reminders of projects and next actions in appropriate categories.
- Keep your system current, complete, and reviewed sufficiently.
- Trust your intuitive choices about what you’re doing (or not doing) at any time.
Things Lacking in GTD
- Weak on the higher altitudes—those above 10,000 feet.
- No valves and dams to keep you from overwhelming yourself with too many active projects. Most people I know who utilize GTD have 40, 60, or 100 projects. Nobody can execute that many at once, and it diffuses your efforts. You also get into the “ringing effect,” with projects bumping into each other, thus reducing efficiency.
- Insufficient detail given to how to handle time-sensitive and repeating tasks.
- It can feel like you are never done when you manage your life by pure next action lists with almost no due dates. I found that the next action list sometimes needs to be governed by “time zones.”
- The concept of “project plans” can really be built on.
- There is no corresponding type of plan for “operations,” which are just as important to our lives as projects.
- Consequently, there is no good place to put those “notes to self” like “eat less,” which are not so much beginning-and-end actions as they are standard operating principles.
- Insufficient attention is given to the need to be proactive. Why are these things on your list in the first place?
- When determining what to do next, my intuition tends to identify not just the next action I want to do, but the next ten. And it needs a place to document that in the next action lists themselves, so it doesn’t have to always “re-think” the determinations it made.
- This also happens with projects. When determining the next action on a project, I tend to think of ten next actions, not just one. I need a place to keep those. A more developed concept of project plans can really do something here.
- I don’t know what A-Z filing is. It seems to be the bad filing system I had before I even read David Allen.
- Little attention is given to how to best document ideas and insights you just want to keep for reference, but aren’t large enough to warrant a whole document.
- Tends to generate a lot of mosquito tasks. Mosquito tasks are killers. You need to know how to group them.
Building Upon GTD
Planning System Components
- Action and horizon lists
- Filing system
Beyond Projects: Creating Your Lists
The Six Lists
The six lists you need are:
- Next actions
- Mission statement
Where do you create these lists? Each list is a different task folder in whatever software program you use (such as Outlook or OmniFocus).
Key principle: You implement the higher levels by breaking them down into the lower levels.
The Next Action List
- Have the GTD contexts, and also have two categories for time-sensitive tasks: “Action calendar” for tasks you don’t want to do until the day they come up, and “daily” for planning specific things you want to do that day. “Action Calendar” is where repeating tasks go, and “Daily” is where you can prioritize and sequence specific things you need to do today, tomorrow, etc. Put a “@” in front of these categories so they go to the top; do not use the “@” in front of the other contexts.
- The next action does not always have to be super granular. If the next thing you need to do on a project is work on it for 3 hours, just put that. Trying to put the literal first action will not accurately represent what you have to do, so you won’t trust your list.
- Use your calendar to govern your list when needed. Create time zones.
- Some next actions need to be large. If you need to give 4 hours to a project, don’t just list the first action on it, like “call Fred.” On the other hand, don’t transfer to your next action list all 20 actions you think will be involved in that 4 hours. Instead, create a next action that represents what you will truly be doing—“work on project x for 4 hours.” Then, for specific details on what actions you’ll be doing, keep those in the project plan, and work from that.
- Have a distinct category for mosquito tasks. For example, “Home Computer: Mosquito.”
The Projects List
- Create a category between someday/maybe and projects. Divide your projects list into “current” and “upcoming.” Move as many as you can into upcoming, keeping the number of active projects as small as possible. Complete them as fast as possible, and move projects up from upcoming in your weekly review. This is really just a “10,000 foot tickler.”
- Use project plans by listing all tasks that come to mind for the project right in the Outlook note field for the item. Organize the list in sequence. Keep additional data in there that you might forget about, such as status updates, rationale, ideas to process, contact info, whatever you need. The principle is: List steps, keep details, review, translate to NAs.
- Use project plans to incubate next actions that you can’t move on yet in the project.
- Have a “monitoring” category for projects others are doing that you need to keep a watch on and toss input into. So your project categories are: Current, Monitoring, and Upcoming.
The Roles List
- Understand the difference between projects and operations. Roles contain your operations.
- Don’t limit yourself to seven roles, as Covey recommends. That’s not realistic. Put all of them in there. Then, group them into 6 areas: Personal, family, household, financial, social, professional.
- Create an action plan for each role, just like you do for projects. In that action plan, list the responsibilities for the role, and any strategies, principles, or operating principles.
The Goals List
- Understand goals as initiatives for change. Keep operational goals out of here, such as “to jog three times a week.” (Put that into your role plan for “exercise.”)
- Understand goals as groups of projects.
- Use goal plans, like you do project plans. Further, use them to incubate projects that you can’t move on until other projects pertaining to the goal are accomplished first.
The Mission Statement
- Have an ultimate objective, which is the mission sentence.
- Include in the mission statement other components as needed, such as vision, leading principles, values, and so forth.
- Categorize this list—don’t just have one catch-all. Categories can be thins like “Agenda Items to Maybe Discuss,” “Books to Read,” “Household Projects,” “Financial Projects,” “Skills to Learn,” “Movies to See,” “Next Time At…,” “Restaurants to Go To,” “Things to See and Do,” “Trips to Take,” etc.
- If you have a lot of items, it will be too much to review in a weekly review. So create another list that is just for items you want to review each week.
- Each higher level gets broken down into the lower levels.
- Keep dependencies in the plans for the outcome above. This way, each list is lean by only having what is current.
Being Proactive in the Weekly Review
- Don’t just mindlessly review and update and create actions for what is already on your lists. Ask why the items are there and whether they should be there at all.
- Pick 3-4 current projects that would make the biggest impact to things if you moved them forward. Schedule time to work on them.
- Review what you learned from the week before.
- Create a journal entry.
- Concept of big rocks.
Setting Up a Topical Filing System
- Have these major file categories: Pending, Projects, Operations, General Reference, Archive.
- Organize the project file by project name; I guess that here we have A-Z.
- Organize the operations file by department, and department by sub-functions. At home, organize your operation files by your roles.
- Organize general reference by major knowledge area. Always move from general to specific—don’t create a file called “California.” Create a file called “Travel: California.” Then it will be grouped with “Travel: New York,” and etc.
- Put small ideas you want to keep, but aren’t big enough for a full document, and things you want to make record of in journals.
- Have a journal for each topic and operational area that interests you.
Carrying out the Daily Workflow Processes
- Capture everything. Use a running journal. Process it like your in basket. Also keep paper pads and pens everywhere, and a pen in your wallet (for when your running journal isn’t with you). If your cell phone has a voice notes feature, use it to capture ideas quickly when you can’t write (like while driving), and process it like your in box.
- Plan daily.
Handle based on horizon it pertains to:
- Action (create next action, and make sure it really is an NA)
- Project or project support (create project, file, add to project plan as status update, task, etc.)
- Operations support (create operation, file, journal, add to support document)
- Reference (file, journal)
Summary of Updates
- Horizons. Set up the 10,000 – 50,000 foot levels.
- Dams. Build a dam in your project list to keep from overwhelming yourself. Divide the projects list into current and upcoming.
- Date-sensitive tasks. Set up an efficient way to handle day-specific tasks by creating a distinct context for them.
- Repeating tasks. Create a repeating task/tickler category in your next action list.
- Next action governors. Use your calendar to manage your next action lists when necessary.
- Operations plans. Become equipped to handle not just actions that can be completed, but operating principles that can’t be. Create action plans for your roles.
- Proactivity. Be proactive about what you do. Don’t prioritize your schedule; schedule your priorities. In the weekly review, pick 3-5 key projects to focus on that week and schedule time for them.
- Filing. Don’t simply have general reference. Have specialized reference divisions of: pending, projects, and operations. General reference is for everything else—just stuff of general interest. Don’t file A-Z, but by category. In operations, by department (at work) or role (at home). In general reference, by major topic.
- Journals. Use journals to keep track of short but significant thoughts. Have a journal for each major subject that thoughts occur to you on, and a regular life journal for events and general things.
- Set up certain recurring tasks to keep your system in motion. General examples are daily tasks to process in, process notes, process email. Area-specific ones might be pay bills, process financial data, review website, etc.
- Project plans. Implement project plans in the note field for the task in Outlook. When you seek to think of a next action on your project, and you think of five next actions rather than just one, use the project plan to list the other four, so that they aren’t cluttering up your next action list.
Appendix: Principles on Work
- People create work. For example, even if you go on vacation in order to do no work, the maid still needs to come to make the bed, take out the trash, and clean the room each day.
- Work creates work. Doing one task often triggers, leads to, uncovers, or requires another. And then another…
- Work takes work to manage.
- Greater efficiency does not necessarily mean less work, but rather usually means that more work will be attempted—which is greater in volume than the slice of time saved by the efficiency. This has been the case with increased energy efficiency through the twentieth century, and it is no different with increased time efficiency.
- The larger the number of dependencies among your tasks and in your life, the less lean you are and the more complicated your life is. Seek to minimize dependencies.
- You will never reach the end of your lists.