Getting Things Done
Over the years I’ve read many books on self-organisation and productivity. The best and most sustainable method I’ve found (most systems are hard to stick to beyond a week or two) is David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. The good news is that you don’t need to read the entire book to start adopting the system at a basic level. In this post I’m going to break it down and explain how I use it.
The original book was written in the pre-Internet age and refers to keeping scraps of paper and use paper files. As no-one works like that today, I recreated the system in Trello and adapted it slightly based on my needs. You can find a copy of my template here.
How it Works
GTD is based on the premise the productivity is directly tied to our ability to relax, and the best way to avoiding feeling overloaded is by having a clear overview of all the different tasks, topics , and moving parts in our lives.
Whenever a new topic or task comes in I try and sort it using this process* (don’t worry, I’ll explain all this):
*This system is slightly different to the original GTD methodology and has been tweaked based on the needs of someone working in a creative or tech business.
Stuff covers anything that‘s a potential source of stress. Tasks, projects, things to read up on, etc. In GTD these are referred to as “open loops”.
Can we do anything with this “open loop” at this moment in time?
If not we can do any of the following:
- Trash: Decide we’re not going to deal with it and forget about it — this is the most undervalued option in the whole framework! Every time we say “yes” to a task we’re automatically saying “no” to anything else we could be doing, some fires should be allowed to burn.
- Someday/Maybe: This list covers all the open tasks and projects we may want to pick up at a later date. Everything from putting together a proposal in a few days, to learning Mandarin at some unspecified point in the future. It all goes here.
- Reference Materials: Useful notes, links, etc.
- KiV: “Keep in View” is where we park all the items we need to monitor. These don’t have specific actions required, but usually I will be responsible should they go wrong, hence I need to keep an eye on them. Example of this could be an important email thread that you’re on CC for.
- Ideas: A place to capture simple one-line ideas when they come so that they can be actioned later.
If the “open loop” is actionable we move on to the next part of the flow-chart:
- Projects: If the “open loop” is a project (something that requires two or more steps to complete) it goes here. When the time comes to work on the project it should be gradually broken down into individual Action Items.
- Can the task be completed in under 2 minutes? Just do it.
- Should it be delegated? If so, send it off and add it to the “Waiting for/Blocked” pile. I also use this pile to keep an eye on things I’m waiting on in order to carry out one of my own tasks (Blocked). Example of a “Blocked” task could be finishing a report which someone else is making graphs and content for — like the KiV pile, it’s a great reminder to create Action Items to chase people for specific things.
- Add to Calendar: Is it something to be done at a specific date and time or something that has to happen by a specific deadline? If so, it will go in the calendar. There are Trello plugins (they call them “Power-Ups”) such as Cronofy which will help you sync your tasks with your calendar.
- Action Items: Individual tasks to be completed.
- Once a task is completed it goes in the “Completed” pile.
Setting up GTD
Before you embark on your GTD journey it’s advisable to try and capture everything that’s in your mind and your various different lists into one place. In GTD Allen recommends doing this by going through your different levels of perspective one at a time and breaking these down.
The six levels of perspective are:
- Horizon 5: Life
What do you want to do with your life? What are your goals? Are your actions and your job consistent with what you want to achieve? No matter how organised you are, it’s possible you may not be spending enough time on things you really value (family, hobbies, etc).
- Horizon 4: Long-term visions (3–5 year goals)
Where do you see your working life going in the next 3–5 years and how does that align with your long-term professional objectives? Which external factors are likely to impact this? What do you need to be planning for or changing in your life?
- Horizon 3: Medium-term visions (1–2 year goals)
What’s your role likely to look like in the next 1–2 years? Is there anything that needs to change? Working life changes at an incredible pace in today’s world. No-one I know is doing exactly what they were doing 2 years ago, or even what was in their original description. Similarly, you may have personal goals you need to be working on and priorities which have changed.
Working through these three highest levels of perspective is a great way to populate the “Someday/Maybe” and “Projects” lists, though if you’re lucky you may be able to identify immediate Action Items to start on.
- Horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountability
These are the top 4–7 areas which you are directly responsible and accountable for. The idea is to clearly identify these areas and what you should be doing about them. At this level we often end up removing old projects (which are no longer relevant) and creating new ones.
- Horizon 1: Projects
This is a list of all your open commitments which take more than one step to finish. These could be anything from arranging a night out, to completing a round of company financing. Most of your Action Items will come from these, and if you take the time to map out all your current projects it will generate many more actions than those which you’ve identified. This can be great (because now you have a better overview of all the moving parts in your life) and terrifying!
- Ground: Action Items
I keep around a week’s worth of Action Items in the pile at any given time (more on this below). This is a list of all the individual tasks (writing an email, booking cinema tickets, etc.) which I need to get done.
I would say everyone should cover the 6 levels of perspective when starting out, but if you’re really pressed for time you should map out the bottom 4 (Horizon 3 down to Ground) at the very least.
I have a quarterly calendar reminder to go through the six levels of perspective and make sure I’ve captured everything which needs to be done.
Start of the day
Before I start on any tasks I do a quick scan of my open Action Items and prioritise them. I‘ll also do a quick scan of the other piles (Someday/Maybe, KIV, and Waiting For/Blocked) to make sure nothing is missing from the day’s Action Items.
For my own sanity I added a divider into the Action Items that separates what needs to be done *that day* vs. what needs to be done before the end of the week. There’s nothing more demoralising than seeing a huge pile of tasks and not feeling you’re making any progress. You feel a sense of accomplishment and motivation if you’ve smashed the day’s tasks and you’re already getting a head start on tomorrow.
Once a week (usually on a Friday afternoon) I go through my notes and make sure that no “open loops” have been missed and that everything in the GTD board is up to date. At this point, I archive the week’s Completed list (it’s good to have a permanent record of what was done when) and create a fresh Completed bucket for the next week’s tasks to go into.
It may look scary and sound a little bit complicated, but once you get going it all becomes second nature. I’ve found the methodology invaluable for getting everything out of my brain and written down (lightening the cognitive load), being more effective and being able to tell at a glance how on top of things I am.
Hope you find this useful, feel free to leave claps if you do and don’t be afraid to ask questions in the comments!