Whenever you start something new, you never really know what your getting yourself into right? Sure, you read up about it and it sounds interesting and workable but, will it get added to the junk heap of things you’ve tried just a few days or even hours from now?
But with GTD I had a different feeling right from the start. One that said that this man David Allen was on to something. As I started my first ‘Collect’ step (step 1 of the 5 Step Process) I immediately felt like I was actually doing something about the position I found myself in. And so I started to look at my progress in terms of an ongoing assessment of how in control I felt. Or at least, was I heading up the curve for once? And was I able to sustain the direction and level of control as things changed in my life and new inputs of different magnitudes, arrived? And right from the start the answer to both those questions appeared to be a yes!
The Collect step is a funny one though when you first start out because there is just so much backed up in your life and your brain that you have to come to terms with. It’s a bit like going up to clean out the garage on a Saturday afternoon.
- You take a quick look around, decide this is probably a 2 hour job and get started.
- And then, once the sun has gone down and the family has popped up to see if you’re still OK, you are in a state of constant wonderment as you uncover yet more and more stuff lying around that you had forgotten about.
- In a way, you kind of wish you’d never started.
- But at some point you see that the back end of the garage is now starting to look really sorted and you get this sense of having achieved something.
- Sure, those shelves on the side still need attention but perhaps you can tackle them next weekend?
- And so the achievement of a new level of organisation in your garage spurs you on a week later to tackle the next pile of stuff. And before you know it, you have been to the dump and charity store, discarded everything that you didn’t need in your life and you have the world’s tidiest and most functional garage.
- How priceless a feeling is that?
Until of course someone makes a snide remark along the lines of ‘don’t worry, it’ll be back to where it was in a couple of months’.
But you have really achieved something here and you want to protect it right? Well, if you carry on handling your garage the way you always handled it, I can assure you that it will indeed be back to the same disorganised state 2 months from now. Unless that is, you decide to handle what goes into the garage in a structured way from here-on out. You need a methodology that allows you to make a quick decision about whether to let something new into the garage, decide what meaning it has to you and whether it should be let in, then you put it somewhere sensible that you know you will have no problem finding it another time.
And as you make use of things in the garage, like pots of paint, you make a point of doing something about them once you’re finished with them. Leaving them around to collect dust so you can trip over them in the dark a month later is how you used to handle things, right? But now you simply dispose of them in the correct way and for some strange reason, your garage continues to look clean and functional and you continue to feel like you have the upper hand over your garage!
And should you ever have a period where things do pile up, by going back through your decision making process on your return to the garage, you can quickly get back on top of things. It was a habit thing that had to change. A way of handling what you either let or didn’t let into the garage and how organised you kept everything in there. And the essence of a successful implementation of GTD is right there … are you prepared to change habits that don’t really work? I once noted that it is always easier to go back to your comfort zone, even if it doesn’t work. I was determined that that wasn’t going to be my experience!
From Your Garage To Your Mind!
Now imagine that scenario for all the things you are busy with in your life. Imagine having EVERYTHING identified and a place for it found. Things which you are not going to engage with get passed on to others or simply deleted. Or perhaps stored just in case some day you do need to do something with them. But having a process to handle those decisions in a structured manner is what allows you to make sense out of the potential chaos.
And so it is when you start to ‘Collect’ in your work and personal life. You seem to constantly find new things that pop out of either the physical or mental woodwork in your life. And every time something new emerges you feel like you are sliding back down that control curve. And believe me, if you are serious about the Collect step, you will find that you will go through an ongoing series of up and down movements on that control curve.
For me, my first Collect step took 3 days. I probably had about 90% of what was in my life collected at that point, with the other 10% continuing to pop out at me over the next 2-3 weeks. It just seemed like an evening didn’t pass without me remembering something else that I had to do something about. But with a small note pad handy I would quickly write down enough words to capture the thought and then, when I arrived in the office the next morning, I would simply place those slips of paper in my in-tray for later Processing into Projects & Next Actions. And it didn’t matter if they were personal or professional, everything gets Collected into ‘in’.
Clearing Your Mind
By Day 7 I made a note that I had the best night’s sleep in ages, there were no nagging items appearing in my brain suddenly. And for me, used to waking night after night with at least something on my mind, this was utterly bizarre.
An interesting observation I made though was that I had always thought I awoke at 3.00 in the morning thinking about work because of everything that was on my mind. How funny then to find myself still occasionally waking at 3.00 in the morning but now just having nothing on my mind … this GTD stuff worked!
Processing ‘In To Zero’
By Day 14 I had finally managed to process ‘in to zero’ for the first time. This had taken a fair amount of resolve I can tell you. You need to be determined to see this initial process through or you will not actually emerge on the other side of the GTD fence, where that green grass lies.
And to see my physical in-tray without any papers in it and, let’s blast this from the rooftops … my email inbox sitting empty for the first time probably since someone opened me an email account in the late ’80’s!
And so that feeling of control soared once again as I realised I was getting there.
What was interesting though, kind of like that garage that finally gets tidied, now I had something to lose. If I swayed from my course at this stage I could very easily let all of this slip back into disarray and my long awaited feeling of control would start to evaporate.
Taking the 5 Steps To The Next Level: The Weekly Review
And so, with a steely determination, on Day 16 I tackled my first ‘Weekly Review’. Doing so before I had Collected everything and managed to Process ‘in to zero’ just didn’t seem to make much sense. In a Weekly Review you go through ALL the open loops in your life and assess the need to add or tick off your Projects and Next Actions. So doing that before you have done a thorough Collect and a complete Process of ‘in to zero’ didn’t really make much sense.
My first Weekly Review took me almost 5 hours and, to tell the truth, was quite exhausting! Coming to terms with everything you’ve some form of commitment to in this way can be quite overwhelming early on but, once you’ve made peace with the fact that this is your life and these are your Projects and Next Actions and that they exist whether you have them in some sort of system or not, it can be quite a sobering realisation. The ability to say no to new projects then tends to come a lot easier once you realise the extent of everything that you have already committed to and not yet finished.
And so, week by week, I continued to faithfully keep to the 5 Steps and so my list grew and grew and my Weekly Reviews became shorter and shorter.
These days my lists are longer than ever but my Weekly Reviews are down to an hour a week. And, funny enough, no matter how long my list grows to be, the fact that I have everything in them with an allocated date when it will come up on my To-Do List, means that I don’t feel the overwhelm that I used to feel. I only ever have to deal with what pops up on today’s list and the fact that I can renegotiate any of the Next Actions at a moment’s notice, means I can always ensure that what I see as most important is coming up on today’s To-Do List and is all I really need to deal with.
The Reaction Of Others!
If you get this right, you should find that you become a whole lot more organised! And you stop being a bottle neck for things that you never knew you were (the Two Minute Rule plays a big role in that) and you start delivering what’s been promised in time, sometimes dare I say, ahead of time. And, to tell the truth, it’s pretty difficult for people around you not to notice that something different is in the air. I had one person tell me that they thought of me as one of the more disorganised people that they dealt with but that, without knowing I was up to anything, had seen me now turn that completely around and, often, I was one of the first people to deliver their requests. Now, I didn’t do any of it in a competitive mindset but, for those of you who are so-minded, it’s not a small thing to consider.
I also found something else out though … that when I receive a request with a new task to be done, with its duly allocated deadline, I am very quick off the mark to respond by either OK’ing the deadline or by immediately knowing that I will need an extra day or so because I am already committed to a range of other Projects & Next Actions. Previously I used to just nod in the right places, add the task to my list and know that I was going to battle but somehow would try. And then wound up being late or delivering on it whilst dropping other balls. And this really is a huge benefit that came once GTD became a part of my standard operating approach. That complete inventory of your life’s commitments now gets a new Project or Next Action added to it and, pretty much immediately, it becomes obvious to you how things now need to shake down differently. You renegotiate deadlines with yourself and others and hence make space for this new, important item in your life. Doing this without a GTD style approach was pretty much impossible for me to master.
And, perhaps the topic for another blog post sometime, let’s not forget the experience of having people report to you who do GTD. They are often the ones to immediately come back asking for an extra day on a deadline but you know that they will deliver so it’s not a problem usually. I’ve read about a USA Army officer who buys all new reports the GTD book and demands of them that they use it … so there must be something in it!
And let’s not forget another benefit of GTD for those around you … by Day 24 I found someone actually putting post into my in-tray instead of leaving it on my chair or draped over my keyboard in some vain attempt to get it further up my priority list. By processing ‘in to zero’ at least once every 24 hours you can keep on top of so many more things and people appreciate that.
A Word Of Warning Though!
My experience of implementing GTD brought such a sense of control that, even though I was already over committed, I suddenly started taking on extra assignments … what was I thinking!! You should use GTD to first bring your tasks under control and then use that to get your overall level of commitment down to something manageable. My initial experience was to get control and then use that to take on more work … don’t worry, I soon self-corrected that path!
So, I probably took about a month to truly get my new processes going and the system fully in place but I knew pretty much from Day 1 that I was onto something. And to have life return to something more manageable felt like I suddenly had a new job.
But I worried early on that I would fall back from the process and allow my previous habits to reinstate themselves. Which, if nothing else, tells you I had something that I dearly wanted to hold on to. And, for sure, there were days when the inputs arrived at a totally unmanageable rate and I fell off the GTD wagon for a day. But one of the magical things about GTD is the ability to get right back on the wagon when the opportunity next arises, usually a day later max. Heck, it can take just one urgent phone call to up-end your life but, with GTD as your approach, you will be far better equipped to know the sudden impact of this new input and be able to cope.
And for sure, there were days when, in an almost absent minded moment, I allowed myself to start scanning my email inbox for what looked most important … oops, I was trying to put all 5 Steps into one … but you soon realise you’ve slipped up and will know how to get back on track.
And, as a final comment, something which I request of people whenever I talk about GTD … implement the 5 Steps and Principles faithfully until you have realised the benefits … until you know you have achieved a superior level of control over your tasks compared to anything you’ve ever had. And only then consider trying to change anything! If you try to change the process early on, before you’ve truly realised the benefits you risk never really “getting it”. I’ve seen it happen. They’ll then tell you that GTD doesn’t work.
But to quote David Allen, ‘with over a million copies of the book sold, no-one has ever come back to say the stuff in the book doesn’t work’. It’s all about you getting it to work by actually implementing the processes. It is seriously so easy to get caught up in a new software application every week and to think that’s where the benefits will come from … but to be honest, the software does not need to be overly complicated … I describe some of what I see as being necessary here … and I was lucky to already have a task management software application that I was familiar with that did the job. Just be careful not to get lost in the bells and whistles and all that glistens about another software app … you risk losing all the benefits … there’s plenty of time later to play with the process and software, by then you will get immediate feedback that your latest change created a turn for the worse or not.
Well, I hope the above gives you some flavour of my own personal experience of implementing GTD and what it took to get to the greener side of the fence of task management behaviours. I wish you luck if you try your own implementation of GTD and would love to hear from you on how it went. (Either use the Comments link below or feel free to start a new thread for discussion in the Forum.)
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P.S. If you are unfamiliar with the GTD approach, please check the menu links above under ‘Personal Productivity’ to learn more!
Note: ‘Getting Things Done’ and ‘GTD’ are trademarks of the David Allen Company.