I recently came across a very good article on Getting Things Done for College Students. While I don’t agree with all of it, it tweaks the GTD process in some very helpful ways to meet the unique demands of college students.
For More Than Just College Students
You don’t have to be a college student to benefit from its advice — these tactics would be equally beneficial to those in seminary, grad school, or Ph.D programs.
In fact, you don’t even have to be a student at all to benefit from the article. In my opinion, some variation on the key tweak that it makes to the GTD system is critical and necessary for everyone.
The Key Tweak to GTD
The key tweak to the GTD system that it makes is as follows. This is a long quote, but it is very worthwhile:
This brings us to a more complicated problem: how to handle weekly assignments. Under the traditional GTD system, a class assignment would be handled as a project. This follows from the fact that most assignments take a few actions to complete (e.g., work on first half of problem set problems, meet with problem set group, type up answers nicely…) The project scope, however, is insufficient for the needs of a student, as, typically, the first action for the project gets put on the next action list and the project itself isn’t visited again for another week. This doesn’t fly when the work is dues within a few days. First, the action floating around in your large next actions list is not guaranteed to be addressed in time — leading you to keep track of it in your head (e.g., “start this assignment soon!”), which defeats the purpose of full capture. Second, one action per week is not enough, we need *all* of the actions relevant to an assignment to be handled in the small number days you have before the next class. This brings us to the following student-centric addition:
The “Weekly Assignments” Project:
Add “Weekly Assignments” as a standing project on your projects list. This is a stake in the ground to remind you each Sunday, when you do your weekly review, that you need to deal with the class assignments due during the upcoming week. Here is the procedure to follow:
- List out all of the work due for classes that week. This includes both traditional homework (e.g., reading assignments, problem sets), as well as studying for tests and writing papers.
- Break up each of these assignments into specific actions, each requiring no more than 1 to 2 hours.
- Assign arbitrary deadlines to each action for the upcoming week. Be smart about how you do this. If a day is already busy, don’t pile on too many assignment actions. Now that this work has become date-specific you must, following the GTD methodology, write the tasks on your calendar under the appropriate date.
By treating weekly assignment work as date-specific you rescue you it from your overwhelming next actions list and put it in a place where you are sure to execute. Furthermore, by planning the full week in advance you are able to spread out your work intelligably — avoiding work pile-ups when multiple deadlines coincide.
A final note: for long-term assignments, such as term papers, that require more than a week to complete, you should introduce them originally as a traditional project, allowing you to make progress on them in advance. When you enter the last week before their due date you can then treat the remaining work as a weekly assignment and schedule as above.
In Other Words…
That was a long quote. So let me restate the idea in a briefer form. The problem is this: When you have a project (assignment) due in a few days, having it on your project list and then a task on your next action list is not enough. For you are unlikely to revisit your next action list frequently enough to keep the project in motion and, beyond that, a next action list is often so full that the critical stuff gets lots.
The solution, then, is to create a list of all the specific projects and pieces of longer projects that has to be attended to this week. That list becomes your critical work for the week. Then, you slot the doing of that work into your calendar (or some special next action context for time-sensitive, most important actions) to ensure that it gets done.
This is Really Just a Form of Stephen Covey’s “Big Rocks” Concept
If You Don’t Do Something Like This, You Will Not Get the Right Things Done
There are several different variations on how to implement this practice. But if you don’t do this in some form, I find that it becomes impossible to get the right things done — which is the purpose of any productivity approach.
The reason is that, with so many things getting captured on project and next action lists via GTD, it becomes easy for the most important items to get clouded over. So you have to have an approach for keeping the focus on them so that you don’t waste your time on the “trivial many” versus the “vital few.”
An Objection — And a Critical Flaw in How Many People Implement GTD
Now, an objection. A comment on the Getting Things Done for College Students post asserts that the article is misrepresenting GTD when it says that, after putting the next action for a project on the next action list, “typically … the project itself isn’t visited again for another week.”
The article, in other words, implies that in the GTD approach, you only do “one action per week.” That is, that once you do a next action for a project, you don’t create a new one until the following weekly review — thus locking yourself into a horrible cycle of making only one forward step on a project per week.
The objector is correct that GTD does not advocate or require that you just do “one action per week” on each project. Very good point. But I don’t think the article was claiming that.
The article, instead, was pointing out that, even though the GTD approach does not advocate merely doing “one action per week,” this is very often the behavior that it inadvertently creates. It’s not intentional or part of the design of GTD, but it is in fact what often ends up happening.
I think this is because of the fact that GTD does not have any form of prioritization baked into it and the fact that the next actions are listed separately from projects. The idea is that you will intuitively know what is best to do next when you can see all of your actions.
But in reality, what often tends to happen is you get a bit overwhelmed by the size of your next action lists. Related to that, the fact that projects and next actions are on separate lists makes it easy to “forget” to create a new next action after you’ve completed one on a project.
Thus, once you’ve done a next action on a project, you tend to go on to another next action pertaining to something else because you hate having your list so long or because there is no cue in the next action list itself that creating another next action for the project is more important than doing anything else that is already on the list.
As a result, projects often do “stall” for a week (or more, if you don’t do a weekly review), when you finally revisit your project list again. Although this approach is not an intended part of the GTD process (there is no rule saying you can only look at your project list once a week), the fault is not entirely on the user. The prevalence of this behavior indicates that the system itself inclines people to do this. Systems create behaviors — often contrary to the best of intentions.
In Conclusion: The Importance of Integrating Covey and Allen
As explained above, the solution to this problem is a synthesize of Stephen Covey and David Allen. That is, the solution is to utilize project and next action lists (GTD) while governing them through the use of “big rocks” (see above) and other things such as roles, goals, and values (not talked about here).
The Getting Things Done for College Students article does a service for everyone, not just college students, by pointing out a central deficiency (intended or not) of how the GTD method is often applied and outlining a critical solution.