Getting Things Done (GTD) – an introduction
Say hello to Mr.David Allen. He is here to teach us something special – how to get things done efficiently.
“But I already get things done”, you chime in.
That’s true. But Mr.Allen helps us get things done efficiently. Today, we all face severe cognitive overload and prioritization issues. Our minds are continually whirring with the many unfinished tasks that demand our attention. David has a proven method that gets things done well and eases our stresses away. That’s a double gift.
But before we plow into his technique, let’s ask ourselves a fundamental question. Why do we feel so overwhelmed?
There are three (overlapping) reasons.
We are worried about what the next email will bring!
We have evolved in a world where we had to run away from tigers and use fire with caution. We realize they are dangerous and stay away. Luckily, there are very few predators and dangers lurking in nature. In the digital world, things are murkier. We don’t know the predators nor where danger lurks. Every time our email box chimes in a new email, we worry if it could be bad news. We suffer from meaning overload.
We are bombarded with too much information and have no time to get things done!.
Most of us have, in the past seventy-two hours, received more change-producing, project-creating, and priority-shifting inputs than our parents did in a month, maybe even in a year.
Allen, David. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity (p. 6). Little, Brown Book Group. Kindle Edition.
We flip from one email and task to another but never find time to finish any of them. All this input clutters our mind, and the unfinished tasks and thoughts leave us feeling perpetually anxious.
Priorities keep changing and we can’t get things done on time
We have a list of priorities, only to have them change almost immediately. Little things become more critical, and large things fade into unimportance. We experience decision-making fatigue constantly.
OK – point three sounds like jargon-ese! Let’s see if an example makes it easier. Imagine you are a young man who has some paperwork at the local bank. You mark up a ToDo, so you don’t forget. The Bank Manager is amiable. You both have much in common and enjoy each other’s company. Over the next couple of weeks, you look forward to meeting and spending time with her – it’s almost a loved project. Finally, the two of you decide to get married to each other. The happy day arrives, and you are man and wife. A new set of tasks open up. You share household chores, social responsibilities, and are building out a ground-breaking financial app. You are beginning a new phase of your life.
This “happily ever after” story also shows how dynamic ToDos are.
A To-do item (meet the Manager for tedious paperwork) got converted into a project (organize many meetings with the Manager for fun conversations!). Finally, the humble To-Do, which turned into a project transformed into a crucial area of your life (matrimony!).
While not as dramatic, each of us is faced with a plethora of activities that come, grow into something larger or fade into oblivion. We struggle to keep up with our shifting priorities and grow weary. It is this world that Allen helps us tame. Tame this beast, and our lives feel more in control, and we relax.
Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax.
Allen, David. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity (p. 12). Little, Brown Book Group. Kindle Edition.
How to get things done – The GTD approach
Following a well-trodden path is the quickest way to get to our destination. David Allen’s patented methodology, GTD, is intuitive and gives us an “aha” moment on the very first read. But it has a lot of nuances that allow it to be tailored for our specific needs. I’d encourage you to pick up his book and listen to this podcast – they will help you get the maximum benefit out of the system. It’s also super flexible – GTD can be implemented using your choice of tool – or indeed using paper templates.
Please note that I have added two apps, HEY and THINGS 3, to the diagram. These are not part of the original GTD picture.
The mind sweep – the secret to get things done!
Let us start with a quote from the master.
“You must use your mind to get things off your mind.”
Allen, David. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity (p. 14). Little, Brown Book Group. Kindle Edition.
Our mind can hold at most 2 things at a time. Add more, and we suffer from ambient anxiety. We need to find a way to take ToDos things off our mind and filed away somewhere. Enter the mind sweep.
The Mind Sweep gathers every single task on your mind, organizes it, and files it away. And then it provides a very intuitive way to track it to closure. As our jobs morph into mundane ToDos, our anxiety melts away, and the world seems rosier!. Indeed, we can even uncover the poet hiding in us!
The key to success in the Mind Sweep is making sure you list your entire list of ToDos. The ToDo could be as trivial as cutting your nails or something as large as finishing a draft for your board members – you’ve got to put them all in. Don’t worry about organizing them at this stage. Whatever comes to mind, bung it in. Remember, our goal is to get tasks off your mind onto this sheet – so feel free to shove everything in. It’s also worth integrating your calendar with the Mind Sweep list to make sure calendar tasks flow in.
The GTD system workflow
We now look through the list and remove duplicates. Let’s group related ToDOs into a single task with multiple steps and add in any reference material required.
Once we have all the tasks listed, we need to clarify what we need to do with them. Make sure to call out the next actionable step for each ToDo. This is key because you wouldn’t otherwise know when you were done!
We then slot the task to a deadline (today/ tomorrow/ someday etc). If it’s likely to take less than 2 minutes, do it right away. This tip alone helped me get so much more work done.
If the ToDo will take longer, slot it for a particular date or put it on “Someday.” About 50% of the tasks for me ended on the Someday list.
This exercise looks simple, and it is. It takes a while – it took me 4 hours, and I ended up with 250 tasks and 15 projects. These projects were then further grouped into 5 Areas. I had to play around with the hierarchy quite a bit as ToDos can be organized in multiple ways – and the best fit for you takes time to discover. Once you are done, the sense of relief is tremendous. You now have the master plan of your life -your whole “to do” spectrum – laid out in front of you.
The secret to Getting Things Done: Organize your mind, organize your life!
Note that this is a very nuanced understanding of how we go about our lives. We believe it is the big questions – our careers and relationships – that engage our minds and time. David is telling us it’s not a “time” problem at all. While big things are important, it’s not those that are taxing us. It’s the little things – the bill we have forgotten to pay, the chore we promised to do but find our calendar does not permit, the call we were supposed to make but missed – it’s these things that cause all the noise in the head. Get these in order, and you are all set.
The list needs constant refinement. I have scheduled an hour every week to review the plan. This is in addition to the 15 minutes I spend reviewing and reprioritizing my day. I find the reviews satisfying. In particular, I I find significant improvement in two areas. Calls that were pending forever get done way quicker now. The”someday” tasks find closure at a fast clip too – it’s almost magical!
Finally, ToDos morph into projects and patterns over time providing invaluable insights into our life’s unseen priorities.
Introducing Things 3
Things 3 is a piece of software that helps us with GTD. Indeed, it is loosely inspired by the GTD methodology.
Let’s take a detour to talk about software. While the software capabilities are vital, I also care about how it’s creators have planned for the software to enter your life. The experience of welcoming a tool into your life varies a lot – and Things 3 ticks all the right boxes viz:
What you see is What you get (WYSIWYG).
Many apps offer you a free try-out period (marketing speak: risk-free!) but take your credit card information anyway. They hope (and we often help them realize that hope!) that even if we don’t use the software, we’ll forget to turn off our credit card subscription. They can go on billing us happily until we realize our folly. Things 3 takes a very different approach. You go to their Website and download the fully functional software as a trial version without providing any credit card details. Once you decide to buy, you buy it on the App Store – yeah, it is an Apple-only product.
Buy the printer cheap, pay dearly for the cartridge! Car manufacturers used this approach too. They sold the cars at a discount but made up for it in the servicing costs. Today’s apps use a similar system with their “in-app purchases.” The developer leaves out some must-have (e.g., cloud sync) stuff in the “freemium” version and ensures you buy it in-app. Things 3 has no in-app purchases. There are no yearly investments – you pay a lifetime for each device (so it is not cheap!). It’s expensive but honest pricing – and that gets it my vote! Each form-factor has its app ground-up designed to make sure its screen size and capabilities are fully utilized. And of course, they sync together.
Convey’s law is not at work!
Every large organization suffers from Convey’s law.
Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.
— Melvin E. Conway
You look at the product and you can determine the Organization structure. The help manual, for instance, can read like Latin, totally unlike the intuitive UI. Or the brains (AI) may look like it requires you to have a math degree!
Thankfully, this one is built by a small team working out of the Nordics with a creative name “culturedcode,” and it seems to not be affected by the Convey law at all. I love the way the app is put together – in all aspects. If you work on a Mac, I’d recommend you give a try for 30 days.
Things 3 implements many Getting Things Done constructs
Now the Things 3 stuff helps you implement a lot of what the GTD approach advocates but not all. It is particularly useful in the Mind Sweep part, where it has a three-part hierarchy defined. At the bottom-most level, you have ToDos.These can be grouped into projects and further into Areas. The ToDos can be decomposed into checklists ensuring that you can track your tasks at a very granular level,
And in keeping with Mr.Allen’s prescient observation that tasks have a propensity to grow into projects or even Areas over time, the software does a stellar job of scaling up or down using a very intuitive UI.
Mapping GTD into Things 3 Areas and Projects
I organized tasks and projects into these Areas:
- Work (everything related to work) with multiple individual projects
- Home (all home related stuff) – bills to pay (with recurring timelines), chores to do, all the transactional things
- Family – Tasks related to family members (birthday gifts, organizing trips, financial planning long term, etc.)
- Special Focus areas – Includes Pet projects like this Website.
I also had a couple of projects outside these areas:
Waiting for reverts – where I wait for someone else to complete something. This is a GTD construct that helps you stay on top of areas that have been delegated to other people.
Calls/ pings People I need to call or email. This project address communication I keep putting off because they seem so easy – the trick is to use any downtime to make a few calls. This idea looks so simple, but you’d be amazed at how many you’d be able to knock off your list – and how many people would be super pleased to receive a call from you just to say hello.
I also have a Delivery Orders project to track Amazon and other retail orders.
Most importantly, you can schedule a task for a day (there’s some basic AI there, too!). You can also schedule something to repeat every day/ week/month. Most importantly, it comes with a “Someday” tag – so you can bung in all the tasks you don’t have a deadline for but which you want to follow up on. The very act of seeing them makes sure you close them out on time.
The “Someday” Project and “invisible” design will put a smile on your face
It’s time to watch a fun Tim Urban’s TED talk.
The Someday folder – no kidding – actually helps you progress on things that have no deadline. The very act of seeing the ToDos gets you to act on them – it is uncanny. On completing a task, you check it, and it goes to rest in a secret place. It’s always fulfilling to see how much you have done – and since this is tracked daily, chances of you falling way behind are actually very low.
Great software takes after Jeeves, that super butler.
I am impressed that Things 3 similarly simmers into the background allowing us to focus on the hand without drawing attention.
I often find that when I am engaged (making a ppt, watching a YouTube), my mind throws up an unforgotten task – a bill to pay, a call to answer. Switching off is heart-rendering, and I often decide to take care of it later. Alas, later never comes – since I have long forgotten it. Things 3 allows you to plop in a task from anywhere (or even using Siri) so you can go on with whatever you were doing while capturing that random task.
Searching is another thing you want to do with the least resistance. In the app, you press the space bar, and the search box opens up, and you can search away to glory.
Keyboard shortcuts are available for most activities. It does take some muscle memory learning – once done, you’ll find it super-efficient.
You can “drag and drop” ToDos and projects, so prioritization, reordering, shuffling tasks within projects are all super easy. The checklist feature within ToDo is one of the most intuitive I have seen in a project.
There are things it does not do. For instance, it does not support delegation implicitly. However, you can delegate a task to someone and put that in your “waiting for revert” folder. It supports email integration but is not a native email client and cannot help us with email streamlining. For that, let’s head over to hey.com!
Managing Emails – the elephant in the room
For most of us, our inboxes are the most significant contributor (for some as high as 80%) to ToDos. Emails need replying, and receipts need storing. There are newsletters to read, tickets to print – and a ton of junk that keeps cropping up that needs to be cleared. There’s a lot of stuff that may have been relevant once but no longer is – and it adds to the email clutter.
The new Jonesus are emails – you can’t keep up with them. Or so I thought until I came across Hey – a new way to email. Just like Things 3, they offer you a “no credit card required” trial and overall a very transparent buying process. Here’s why they feel mail had to be reinvented.
What should the ideal Email software do?
As I look closely at my emails, I realize there are nine categories of emails. All of them add to the workload; existing solutions address a few.
1. People send emails at will to anybody and your acceptance is implied.
With email providers offering almost unlimited storage size, the general feeling is that you’ll figure how to ignore something that’s not required. Thank goodness, the spam filters at least do a great job in limiting spam – else, this will be a catastrophe!
2. You shave signed up for a newsletter that no longer appeals to you.
This is not a problem if you are disciplined enough to unfollow the newsletters – they are required to have an unfollow option by law. But we struggle with this, and the newsletters keep piling up! The last time I checked – my Gmail had over 1000 unopened emails – a large component of them were newsletters!
3. Cookies allow senders to track you, and then they send even more emails.
Note that they don’t necessarily understand what you like – but that doesn’t stop them from bombarding you with even more emails! All of this is not spam as per the definition – so they end up hogging your inbox.
4. There’s stuff you’d like to read only when you have some free time.
You are waiting for an appointment and have an hour to kill, and you pull up this stuff – how cool would that be? It’s possible to do that today, but you need to have the qualities of a nerd and an accountant combined.
5. There’ are bills and contracts you need to keep but don’t need to read.
You need to be able to find the statements when required – a warranty contract when something’s broken, your bills at tax-filing time.
6. Some emails demand a considered reply.
You need undistracted time to reply to these and end up postponing this for a later time, only to forget. Unless, of course – you use labels and color, etc. – in which case you are probably that nerd + accountant combo person!.
In a long email, there’s a nugget of information that you want to preserve.
It could be a coupon code, a creative sentence, a testimonial that warms your heart – whatever.
8. Some emails are actually ToDos in the waiting – for instance, your quote is approved and requires setting up a project now
9. Some emails belong together.
Traditionally emails are clubbed either by subject or sender. However, you may want to tie together a stream of emails related to prospecting and buying your dream house from multiple senders.
Hey email does all the above – and then some
In essence, we need to understand what the email is about (the meaning) and any action required and file it in an appropriate place where you can access them (organize). You’ll realize that this mirrors the GTD ask. Hey.com, email has simple ways to do all of the above – and well enough to put a big smile on your face.
As opposed to Artificial intelligence, it relies on Human (specifically you) intelligence to screen all senders and block out those who are no longer relevant. This sounds simple – but is super useful. From about 50-100 emails, now I get less than ten emails a day. And blocking out a sender is fulfilling. You simply say mark a sender as a “no” to stop emails from that sender (to reinstate, you simply go to the sender list and undo the block, and emails start flowing in). Points 1 and 2 are taken care of already. Just for this, I consider hey.com’s price good enough.
Hey.com removes tracking codes and informs you of the offending emails by default taking care of point 3. It has a lovely folder called “The Feed” where your newsletters to go (you need to define them once), and you can read them as would a magazine whenever you wish to (point 5)
There’s also a “focus” feature where it shows you all the emails you have flagged for a reply and cuts off all other distractions (new emails don’t show up in the panel when you are in this mode). You set thirty minutes a day, switch on this mode, and reply to all your precious emails (point 6). There’s also an extractor function allowing you to clip pieces of an email for easy access (Ask 7). You can also send an email from Hey.com to Things 3 (you can actually send it from any email client). Things 3 automatically creates a ToDo list item – this is a great way to integrate the two apps (ask 8). And finally, it does allow you to merge emails for your viewing intuitively. You can have threads of interconnected emails from your perspective (most software threads it from the sender’s perspective).
Hey.com makes Emails effortless to work with. It’s not perfect – it doesn’t integrate with a calendar (not at least that I know off), and Gmail is probably faster. But it is very intuitive. And whenever I see a zero inbox, I smile! The smile gets more expansive as I screen out offending folks (and I never get to see their emails again).
The bigger picture – GTD and life priorities
Now we have tasks, we have projects, and we have areas. But how about the bigger picture? David has devised a model that helps us evolve these mundane ToDos into our life purpose and vision. Here’s his approach – note that Things 3 does not support above level 3.
Putting it all together back: Here’s how we get things done!
We’ve covered a lot of ground. It’s time now to sign-off with the mandatory two-minute summary:
- David Allen has a simple and elegant methodology for organizing ToDos. If you prefer paper journals instead of software, you can use his templates out of the box. The process is linear – you list all the tasks to be done, clarify what the next step is for each of them, and decide when to do them. You then organize them by project or area, and a weekly review will help you prioritize, keep count of what you have done and focus on the future with a lot less stress.
- Things 3 is a software that will allow you to do most of the stuff above. The app is built to take stock of tasks in both your work and personal life, allow for prioritizations on the fly and track them to closure. It also enables you to upgrade or downgrade a task as its magnitude changes in your life context.
- Hey.com, email enables you to cut down on the email clutter. It automates the flow of emails to various boxes and filters out stuff (that you get to choose) you don’t wish to receive. Since Things 3 allows for Email integration – you can send email ToDos from Hey, making it a complete product. Remember, a clean inbox(they call it Imbox!) often enables a peaceful life!
Note that you don’t have to use these precise tools – you can configure some of the other products in existence today as well. I’d love to hear of your experience with the approach and any tools you found beneficial. Don’t forget to check out my other posts and share your feedback – I appreciate it much
After twenty years of playing IT leadership roles, I am taking some time off to read, reflect, and share thoughts on Leadership and Technology. I am specifically interested in how we can use these to further our success. You can find my work at https://nsubra.com and 2-minute daily posts at https://angulam.in