As mentioned in the introductory article on this site regarding ‘Personal Productivity’, my go-to approach for getting the overwhelm feeling out of my life has been the ‘Getting Things Done’ (GTD) methodology of David Allen. In the absence of an office fairy to work the magic for me, I just had to find some way of coping with life’s ever increasing demands and, having personally experienced enormous payback in terms of feelings of control and reduced stress levels, I just wanted to share that with as many people as possible.
And if you are one of life’s natural sceptics, maybe it’ll help to know that even the scientific literature came to positive conclusions about David Allen’s methodology, for instance this one by Heylighen & Vidal.
I write about GTD here because I wish to see others realise the benefits of the approach. It is my hope that by sharing my views and learning on the topic that it will encourage you to take the first steps towards implementing it in your own life. In fact, the only reason I sit here now, with a gazillion items on my to-do list but my mind totally focussed on writing this article, is because of my implementation of GTD. I see this as paying it forward and I do so with full appreciation of the work of others who make it possible for the rest of us to benefit from their insights.
So Why GTD?
Some of the notable first insights that struck me about the GTD writing of David Allen include:
- His assertion that, at some stage, we all feel at least a little overwhelmed and, to solve the problem, have sat down, made a to-do list and felt at least a little bit better. Ain’t that so true!
- But one that really got me thinking was the statement that we behave differently on the day or two before we go on vacation than we do on any other working day. There’s something decisive about how we tackle our responsibilities when we know we need to get out of work with a clean conscience in just 48 hours time. We work quicker, make decisions easier, make peace with what we can’t do, renegotiate task deadlines with ourselves and others, deliver tasks by doing just enough instead of engaging in overkill etc. Recall the last time you went through this scenario. Ain’t this also so true?
And so what David Allen has done is to engineer a process that captures what it is we do when we sit down and make a decent to-list and to codify that for us to be able to implement it routinely, every day. And imagine that, you work everyday like it’s the day before you go on vacation. How productive do you think you’d be?
That process is his 5 Step GTD methodology and, funnily enough, the magic lies not in any individual step being something none of us have thought of before but rather in the fact that you carry out the 5 Steps as 5 separate steps. Not one single step called ‘get organised’. It’s a subtle point but it is able to turn your overload and overwhelm situation completely on its head.
What did my usual workflow management approach look like?
Let’s take a wild stab and see if your approach in any way mimics what I used to do:
- Get to work and open my email software.
- My eyes widen as I see 30 new emails that weren’t there yesterday afternoon when I left work.
- A feeling of overwhelm hits me immediately and a saddened exhalation of breath takes place as I sit down at my PC to read my emails, which are now keeping me from getting on with my work.
- I look at the 30 email headers and scan up and down to see if any are perhaps more important looking than others.
- I find one from my boss that requires a reply in the next few days. But I don’t feel like I’m going to have time to fit this in anywhere so I start to work on it right now. As I start to work on it I have feelings of irritation that this task has hit me now when I have other things to do.
- It takes me one hour to complete the task and, all the time, I am aware that there were 29 other emails I have yet to open, some of which had interesting titles, some of which made me worry about what they contained. So I am aware of all those emails but not able to make peace with any of them right now because I am handling the most important one from my boss.
- Heck, they all look important, I’m just trying to survive here by keeping my boss happy first.
- Yet something tells me that there might be even more important tasks embedded in those emails than the one I’m currently working on.
- And an hour from now, when I finish the task for my boss, I find that an additional 20 new emails have arrived in the meantime and I am still nowhere close to starting the work I had been planing to do today.
What does a GTD-enabled Workflow Look Like?
- I arrive at my office and maybe, maybe not, decide to open my email software.
- If I do open my email software I go straight to the first email on the list. I do not scan the list. I just double-click the first one and start reading.
- It’s an email from my boss asking me to write a summary of the recent exhibition I attended and all the contacts / leads I made.
- I think about this for a few seconds and decide that what I need to do about this is schedule an hour two days from now to write this up. I go to my diary, create the appointment and drag the email to a temporary folder. It’s now out of my inbox and off my mind.
- I then open the next email in line and read it. It’s from a client who wants to know the status of their order with us for a particular product. I know that we are almost complete with manufacturing and will ship tomorrow. I immediately hit reply to her, tell her when we plan to ship and either store or delete the email. Whatever I do, the email is no longer in my inbox.
- Note, I handled this task immediately and have yet to do that report for my boss.
- I open the next email. It’s from a work colleague asking for a summary of the financials on her portfolio of projects. I know this will take me 10 minutes to prepare and that I need to be the one who does it. I open a software application I use for managing my To-Do List and add a new task for myself: ‘Summarise the financials on Anita’s project portfolio in a spreadsheet and email to her by end of Thursday’. I assign a date to the task which is tomorrow, Wednesday. I delete her email. It is out of my inbox and I have a task on my To-Do List to remind me of what I have to do and by when.
- I go through all 30 emails one by one, decide what they mean, either do, delegate, delete or add a task to my To-Do List.
- When I’m done, I have zero emails in my inbox.
- I also have an updated To-Do List which I now visit.
- I see all of the tasks I have set myself for today and this includes four new tasks that I added just now when I went through my emails.
- Note, I still haven’t done that report for my boss.
- I now look at the relative importance of everything on my To-Do List for today and realise there are several tasks that are way more important than that report for my boss. I focus instead on these more important tasks and start working on one of them.
- After completing it I return to my To-Do List and select another task.
- I complete my tasks one by one, all the time knowing that what I am doing represents a set of important items that I need to do today.
- Had my boss’ report been more important to do than anything on my To-Do List for today, I would have added it to today’s list and moved a couple of smaller tasks off to tomorrow.
- At the end of the day I have ticked off all but three tasks from my To-Do List and, as they are not critical items for completion today, I move their dates off to tomorrow or the next day as I feel comfortable to do so.
- I go home with the feeling that I did a good day’s work and was in control of what I did. Priceless.
So What Is Different?
In this latter scenario:
- I didn’t try to do every new task that came into my life as it arrived.
- But I did understand what it was about and decided what I needed to do about it.
- I then either did it (if it was quick) or I added it to my To-Do List.
- I hence maintained an up to date To-Do List of all my commitments.
- And I was able to see the full inventory of my life all in one place, on the list.
- I was therefore able to make easy decisions about which tasks were more important than any others.
- At all times, I had the feeling that I was working on what was most important, not what had most recently arrived in my inbox and was crying for my attention.
- I took control. I did not hand it over to some external force.
- And I can then handle my voicemail messages the same way, one by one, decide what they mean, do the quick ones, delegate or add a task for the others etc.
- And ditto for the paper items in my in-tray. Decide what they mean one by one, not actually try to do them one by one.
It is in this subtle behavioural change that GTD makes its impact.
Pictorially I have viewed it in the following manner:
When the demands of the world directly determine your behaviour, you are at their mercy!
But, when you place your GTD system between you and the demands of the world, you create a buffer that allows you to retain control:
- GTD creates an effective buffer against a demanding world.
- When requests for your time and attention reach you, they get sorted systematically into your GTD system, where they find their right level of priority.
- They then get handled in good time with the correct amount of attention that you are able to give them.
- You are not chasing the latest new input that came screaming at full speed into your life with all sirens blasting because it turns out, on reflection, it needs to wait behind some other items that you are already committed to.
- When you are busy with any particular task, you have the peace of mind of knowing that you are dealing with what is most important in your world right now.
- And when doing any task, because you have an up to date To-Do List, that contains all of your commitments, you will find yourself better able to lose yourself completely in the current task, free of the mental distractions that usually punctuate our thinking.
Isn’t This A Lot Of Extra Work?
Actually no. It’s no more work than you do right now. At the moment, for every email you receive, at some point, you open it, read it, decide what it means and do the associated task. And you do no more work with GTD except you add tasks to a To-Do List instead of trying to remember them in your brain or return to them tomorrow and start the read / assess process all over again.
The only overhead I experienced was getting used to the process upfront, when you are first starting it. Once you have gotten some momentum, you will see that it is a far more efficient use of your mental capabilities to do it the GTD way. And the benefits come pretty much from the word go as you start to feel that sense of control returning.
Or, of course, you can continue to feel out of control and never give this a go?
By way of an analogy, have you ever been to a busy doctor’s waiting room?
- My wife and I visited a gynaecologist a few times when she was pregnant and what struck me about the doctor’s waiting room was that it had a constant stream of pregnant mums coming and going, all looking in various states of distress, often with small children running around or in prams crying, with semi-confused looking husbands and a telephone with the receptionist that never stopped ringing.
- Yet when your name is called and you go into the doctor’s consulting rooms, he treats you like you are the most important people in the world. As if only you exist and that he has all the time in the world for you. The semi-chaos outside his office door doesn’t seem to exist suddenly. The doctor was completely focussed on this one appointment despite how many other people were outside waiting or the fact that he had to conduct surgery three hours from now.
- The doctor had a system running. A receptionist who handled the interaction with the busy external world, deciding one by one what the best next step was, scheduling things in real time, with nothing falling through the cracks. The doctor simply picked people off the list one by one and, in his own time, was able to give them the due care and attention that they needed.
- And then you left his rooms and went back into the waiting room and were reminded again of how busy and noisy and chaotic everything seemed.
- Imagine if he consulted his patients behind a glass partition that allowed him to see the busy world outside of his office so that he was constantly distracted, left wondering as each new patient walked in the door whether they were OK, perhaps they were more urgent than the patient he was currently seeing etc. and so he jumps from patient to patient and never really gives any of them his focussed attention. He would be allowing the external world to now dictate his workflow and state of mind and it would be an exceptionally inefficient way to spend his day.
- Isn’t that how most of us live our work lives though? And isn’t that what the original workflow scenario that I described above doing?
- If you get this analogy, you will have some feel for the change that GTD can make to your work & personal life.
So What Do I Need To Do To Get Started?
On the Chameleon Brain website I have tried to give you enough information to get started with your own implementation of GTD. I present the basic principles of GTD and explain how I have implemented them in a software application. And if you have any questions, there are forms for you to pop a message through. I’ll do my best to answer you.
In terms of a way forward, I would recommend the following:
- Get an understanding of the GTD process.
- Decide upon the format to implement your system
- Some people manage with a paper based system.
- Modern software solutions are however far more powerful and I explain my personal software choice in the article ‘My Choice of Software for GTD‘. This also includes a downloadable document to help you setup the software to implement GTD.
- Start at step 1 of the GTD process and don’t look back!
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