In most fields of human endeavour, there is no one accepted definitive correct paradigm. Instead we see a range of alternatives, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Individuals must pick an option after assessing the available options against their own criteria.
GTD is the only great task management method
This is not the case with respect to task management, where David Allen’s Getting Things Done method (GTD) is the peerless, unrivalled, accepted definitive correct model. It has the #1 spot on Amazon’s ‘Best Sellers in Personal Time Management’. It also has the #2 spot because, hey, why settle for just first place? It drops off after that, although the #22 spot is also a book about GTD. (correct as of time of writing)
So if you would like to have a better account of your tasks and responsibilities and a clearer sense of what you should be doing at any point, you thankfully don’t need to choose between a bewildering array of options. Just choose the best.
Benefits of the Getting Things Done method
Why do I like GTD?
Firstly, it facilitates better relaxation. With GTD, every single ‘open loop’ – outstanding task or responsibility – is documented in a trusted system. This means that I can choose not to work, being very confident that I have no urgent work to do. My mind can be at peace because there is no worry that there is something important I’ve forgotten about. Says David Allen: “You can only feel good about what you’re not doing when you know everything you’re not doing.” Ahhh.
Secondly, it facilitates better working. GTD results in a complete overview of all my current projects and the immediate ‘next actions’ for each. This gives me the opportunity to look over the next actions and make a choice – meanwhile knowing exactly what I’m putting off by making this choice. It provides better flexibility to deal with unexpected work as it comes up, as I can readily compare unexpected work to my existing priorities, and either chuck it into my system, or deal with it immediately.
Overall, the aim of GTD is to attain what Allen describes as “mind like water”. Ideally, you should respond to inputs the way a still pond would: reacting in perfect proportion to the disturbance, before returning to a state of calm, ready to react (or act) as next required. He paraphrases this as: “nothing on your mind except what’s present in the moment” – a blissful-sounding state indeed!
The four best takeaways from Getting Things Done
GTD is a whole system. It is really worth reading the eponymous book and getting into the whole thing. But, as David Allen himself acknowledges, even some of the small ideas on their own can yield vast benefits. Here are the four most valuable ideas:
“If the next action can be done in two minutes or less, do it when you first pick the item up.”
The 2-minute rule. Whenever you come across a task that can be completed in less than 2 minutes, do it then and there. If you glance at an email and it asks you to send them a copy of the public liability insurance (which is about 80% of my own correspondence), just get it done. Boom. This benefits you because, for a task this small, it isn’t really worth the effort of adding it to your system and then later getting back and doing it. It’s preferable to just take care of business. And it sure makes the other person’s life/work easier.
“I suggest that you use your mind to think about things, rather than think of them.”
Capture everything that needs to get done. Allen makes a good point: your brain should be used for analysing, not remembering. Anything that needs to get done, get out of your brain, and into a “collection tool”. Every commitment you make, every action someone expects of you, also every action you expect of someone else – have it all captured in the same place. This gives your brain a break – once you put everything in the same place, you have better oversight of your work, and your brain can finally relax. (After much experimentation, for this capturing I recommend Wunderlist.)
“…there are three different kinds of activities you can be engaged in: doing predefined work, doing work as it shows up, [or] defining your work.”
Treat ‘defining work’ and ‘doing work’ as two distinct steps. This is fundamental to the Getting Things Done method, but a great rule in general. Sometimes you should be reviewing inputs (emails, SMS, notes from meetings) to turn them into actions so you can see all the things you should do. At other times, you should be doing work that you’ve previously defined. Avoid mindlessly switching between the two (except mindfully when the two minute rule applies!). When you think about it, this makes sense: until you’ve reviewed all the inputs and defined your work, you can’t possibly know what is the most important thing for you to do. When you choose to review inputs (say, by opening your email inbox), commit to going through every input and turning it into an action, before reviewing the actions to decide which work to do.
“When a culture adopts “What’s the next action?” as a standard operating query, there’s an automatic increase in energy, productivity, clarity, and focus.”
Use the ‘next action’ rule. Anytime you capture something, ask yourself – ‘what is the next action required?’ – and use this to turn things into tasks. You can also use this to move projects forward – ‘what is the next action required?’. Your task list should be a list of tasks, ideally with very concrete verbs at the start of each one: ‘call’, ‘write’, ‘bring’, ‘tell’. This makes it easier to do things, because each thing is in a form ready to be done. It also brings clarity and focus to knowing what a project requires.
Get it done
David Allen’s Getting Things Done kills it, as the kids say. It just totally 100% solidly identifies everything that’s wrong with how people work, and explains what people should do instead.
“It’s possible for a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control.”
This is important and valuable. GTD can enable you both to work more effectively and to not-work more dedicatedly. When you’re working, you should be able to feel like you are on top – that you know all the things you could be doing, and you know you are doing the right one, right now. GTD can give you this. When you’re not working, you should be able to feel at rest – that you know all the things you could be doing, and you can safely not work right now. GTD can give you this.
Remember, this isn’t a Half Life 2 vs. Doom 3 style question in which there are two strong contenders with different qualities, and you need to make a subjective assessment. It’s more like GTD is The Sims and there’s simply no comparable experience. So go apply the four tips above and if they change things for the better, read the book, and if they don’t, then, well, you should have read the book.