GTD’s process flow is based on a number of key principles and it useful to understand these prior to engaging with the process.
Principle 1: Keep Everything Out Of Your Head
- To use David Allen’s words ‘Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them’.
- The brain is highly effective at making links between disparate pieces of information and generating brand new ideas. It loves doing this. What it doesn’t love so much is then trying to remember those ideas along with everything else that you have to do in a day. For this task, it is nowhere near as effective.
- Sure, we can remember a lot of things in our minds but, have you ever noticed how these things pop into our minds at times when we can least do something about them? Or at times when we really don’t need to be thinking about them? This is our brain’s way of bringing things to our attention but it generally has no rhyme or reason for when it does it.
- So remembering to buy cat food at 3.00 in the morning when you are lying awake in bed is nowhere near as useful as remembering you need cat food when you’re at the grocery store.
- Or reminding yourself at 3.05 a.m. that you need to speak to a work colleague when you get to work today about his presentation … which comes to mind 5 minutes after you have forgotten (for the third time) about buying cat food.
- So one of GTD’s most fundamental principles is that if you have a thought of some or other commitment that you need to keep, you make a note of it in an external system, e.g. on paper or, if you can, in software.
- So, when you think about buying cat food and it’s midday, you add it to your To-Do List. It’s then off your mind and, as long as you regularly check your To-Do List, your mind won’t need to remind you the following morning at 3.00 a.m.. Even if you forgot to buy the cat food on the way home from work this evening, your brain will not need to remind you tomorrow morning at 3.00 a.m. because it knows you have stored that thought safely away in a trusted system. One that you will be checking just as soon as you are in at work the following day.
- So maybe take a moment to extrapolate this to your actual life, with its hundreds upon hundreds of commitments, small and large, that are all swimming merrily around your brain. Your brain tries to keep track of all these things but, with a short term memory that typically is able to store 7 or so items at a time, is it any wonder things slip through the cracks? Or that these 7 items get constantly updated as we remember new things?
- All of this consumes an enormous amount of effort for your brain when that energy and capacity could be much better spent having constructive and creative thoughts about one of your commitments.
- So, capturing ideas and commitments in some sort of system (that is not your brain) is one of the cornerstones of a GTD implementation.
- And when you free up your brain so it doesn’t need to keep remembering things, oh my, what a lot of creative energy you will suddenly find you have!
- Think about this for a moment. Have you ever thought of your mind in this way? That it is generally speaking being used to do something that other mechanisms are far more effective at doing?
- It’s one of those GTD things that you actually have ‘to do’ in order to truly appreciate and ‘get it’.
Principle 2: Deal With Things When They Show Up, Not When They Blow Up
- A controversial comment from David Allen is that ‘big things are often just little things waiting to happen and you are the bottleneck’.
- I say controversial because, whenever I mention this to people, they often look offended, as if I don’t really understand what it’s like for them. There’s a moment there when they consider how to respond but are not entirely sure about whether this could indeed be true.
- Usually, the light bulb comes on as they start implementing GTD and they suddenly see a surge in productivity. And I’m not just talking for themselves but for others that rely on them too. It’s another of those you have to ‘do it’ to ‘get it’ things.
- Consider for instance how often you open an email that needs just a one minute response, yet you close it to think a bit more about it and then, in a couple days, when the deadline for your response has just passed, you quickly fire off a response. And think of how many times you do that in a year and how many sets of ‘a couple of days’ back up in the system for you and others. And then multiply that by all the people you work with who are similarly holding back.
- So a key principle of GTD is that when you have chosen to set aside some time to look at all the new inputs in your life, such as when you sit down to a fresh page of emails, you do not just open and close each email and succeed in frustrating yourself. Instead, you force yourself to come to a conclusion on the single next step that you need to take in order to move this particular item forward. And believe me, when you are not trying to remember 300 to-do items, this is a lot easier!
- These single steps are referred to by David Allen as the ‘Next Actions‘ that you need to take and the step of taking an email and deciding what to do about is referred to as ‘Processing‘ that email.
- You then capture that Next Action on your list.
- You then move that input out of your inbox and either delete it or store it in a folder as you feel is appropriate.
- But the principle is that if you are going to engage with it, you decide the Next Action, capture it and then move on to your next input. Now. Not later!
Principle 3: Any ‘Next Action’ That Can Be Done In Less Than 2 Minutes Should Be Done When You First Think Of It
- This is strongly linked to Principle 2 above.
- Think about it … if you open an email, think about what needs to be done, realise that it’s a fairly quick (say less than 2 minute action) and then proceed to capture that in your To-Do List so that you can go back at a later date / time, read it to understand what needs to be done and then do it, you might as well have just done the Next Action when you first thought of it.
- So it’s like an overhead thing, why spend the time when the pay back is not there?
- So whenever you are ‘Processing’ your inputs (such as email) and think of a Next Action and you realise it could be done in around 2 minutes or less, you do it IMMEDIATELY.
- Many people who engage with GTD find that this single principle often has the single biggest effect in the early stages of implementation of unlocking their personal productivity. They literally redefine for themselves what it means to procrastinate.
- If you do nothing else on this page, try the ‘2 Minute Rule’ and tell me if it isn’t a game changer.
Principle 4: Process ‘In’ To Zero
- As mentioned above, the step of deciding what to do about each input is called ‘Processing’. So when we say ‘Process ‘In’ to Zero’ we are saying that you must decide what to do with each new input, one by one and then keep going until you have no new inputs left. But what is meant by ‘Process to zero’?
- Well, one of your old habits is probably that you deal with an email and then leave it in your email inbox. Just in case.
- In case of what?
- In case you need it again at some later date?
- OK, then create some storage folders in your email software and store it there after you have dealt with it.
- And if you are not sure whether you will need it, create a storage folder called ‘Temp’ and pop all such items in there, allowing yourself to clear that out every now and then.
- Otherwise, some sort of hierarchal folder structure in your email software should be used to store any emails that you wish to keep for future reference.
- The important point here is that you have already dealt with it and you do not want to stumble on it again later in the week and wonder whether you handled it.
- Move it out of ‘In’ and rely on the fact that you have added a ‘Next Action’ to your To-Do List to remind you what you need to do about it.
- If you don’t do this, you will be constantly reminding yourself of the last two week’s worth of emails and be adding to that sense of not really being in control.
- It can be a difficult habit to break, leaving the email there in the inbox … ‘do it’ for every email after you’ve handled it and you’ll ‘get it’.
- Hence, ‘Process ‘In’ to zero’!
Principle 5: All Of Your Next Actions Must Be Directly Doable
- This is one of those really obvious things in hindsight that will have you wondering why it never occurred to you before!
- We often add things to our To-Do List that still require more thinking when, in fact, we could have thought about the required Next Action and directly recorded that.
- So if you have this niggling feeling as you drive to work that you need to do something about your upcoming vacation … think think … oh yeh, you need to call the guesthouse you’re staying at to ask if they can handle your vegetarian diet … why then do we get into the office and add a To-Do item ‘call guesthouse’. That’s it: ‘call guesthouse’. So later that afternoon when you come out of a day of meetings and you see your To-Do List, you read the words ‘call guesthouse’ and you are left wondering about what you need to ask them. And you can’t quite remember. So you move to the next item on your list. It says ‘car’. Hmm, what about ‘car’? Nah, can’t remember either. OK, time to go home.
- Yet if you had written the wording for your To-Do List items as ‘Call guesthouse to ask if they can accommodate my vegetarian diet’ and ‘call Super Exhaust to get a quote on a new exhaust for the station wagon’ … you would have had a very different experience in the 5 minutes between leaving the meeting and going home.
- And now think about this principle amplified across your several hundred Next Actions.
- We often read a Next Action and realise that we have in fact not finished our thinking about that item. What is it about the guesthouse or the car that we need to do? And capture the exact thing that you need to do.
- So, don’t rush through Principle 2 above, make sure you are clear in your mind that you have identified the genuine single Next Action and write it in words that allow you directly do it, with no further thinking required.
- You will then find yourself not resisting items on your To-Do List and you will find yet another way of unlocking your own productivity.
Principle 6: You Must Also Record Your Projects Along With Your Next Actions
- Most of us use the word ‘project’ to refer to something we are busy with that is multi-step and likely to take some time to complete.
- But we wouldn’t think of, say, replacing the exhaust on our car as a project would we? It seems too small a job to talk of as a project.
- If we think about putting a new exhaust on our car though it could be single-step in that you always go to the same service centre and know that you need to simply add a task on your To-Do List that says ‘Visit Super Exhaust and get a new exhaust fitted on the station wagon’.
- But it could also be multi-step in that we first want to call around a few car service centres to get prices. In that case, the Next Action might read ‘Call 2-3 car service centres to get quotes for replacing the exhaust on the station wagon’.
- And once that’s done we will choose a supplier and then add a task saying ‘Visit Joe’s Exhausts to fit new exhaust on the station wagon’.
- This is a trite example but it makes the point that when carrying out a Next Action, we are in fact doing so to achieve some or other ‘Outcome’. And that Outcome can be considered the title of our Project.
- In GTD terms, if something simply requires a single Next Action, then that’s what we record.
- But, if it is a multi-step activity that we are embarking on, we actually need to capture two things on our To-Do List:
- Firstly, the ‘Desired Outcome’ = the title of our Project and;
- Secondly, the single ‘Next Action’ that we need to do to move the Project forward.
- With most modern software for handling To-Do Lists, if we add a single Next Action and then, after completing that Next Action we tick it off on our list, the Next Action will disappear off the list. And if you imagine how many different Projects of this definition you are currently busy with, it will often happen that, after completing the Next Action, the project itself slips out of your mind as we move on to the next Next Action.
- Hence, by the end of the week, we will have done a hundred Next Actions but, in the process, it will have slipped our minds that some of these Projects still exist.
- By separately recording the title of the Project, in the form of the ‘Desired Outcome’ though, we create a peg in the sand that will remind us that we are still busy trying to achieve a particular outcome.
- And then when we set aside time to work through our list of Projects and Next Actions, we will come across the Project for fitting the exhaust, realise that we never followed up after making the phone calls to get prices and will then add a new Next Action against that project.
- The time that you set aside for this is referred to in GTD as your ‘Weekly Review’ and it acts as a backstop for you to pick up actions on all of your open loops. After conducting a Weekly Review you should be in a position where you have Next Actions allocated for every commitment in your life, knowing clearly what to do on each one and having an idea of the date by which you need to move on it.
- This level of organisation is utterly priceless. ‘Do it’, you’ll soon ‘get it’!
Principle 7: You Need To Regularly Review Your Projects & Next Actions List
- OK, so this was touched upon at the end of Principle 6 but is such an important aspect of GTD that it warrants its own Principle.
- Once a week you need to hold the world back for an hour or so and go through your entire list of Projects and Next Actions. This is referred to as your ‘Weekly Review’.
- What it says is that, left to our own devices, Processing inputs as they arise, adding Next Actions and then doing them, we will find that our lists slip away from being 100% complete … as the week goes on my lists start to drop in completeness but it’s usually not a problem because I know that on Friday morning, before I start the work day, I will have done my next Weekly Review.
- And it’s during this review that I find countless Projects that are sitting there dangling, with no current Next Action attached. And so I get the opportunity to think about each Project and construct a new Next Action for it.
- I also get the opportunity to have my mind triggered with a bunch of new Projects that I realise I need to make happen and these then get added, along with a Next Action, to my list.
- I also get to tidy up the list, delete Projects that are now complete, modify Next Actions that I’d like to go about differently etc.
- In doing the review, I Process all of my inboxes to zero, one by one. So no emails are left to Process, no Voicemails, no paper inputs etc. Everything is Processed and turned into Projects and Next Actions.
- There have been times when I have finished a Weekly Review that I feel like I could take the rest of the day off. It creates a huge feeling of being on top of your world and in control of the work that you do.
- By way of advice on it though:
- It is probably best not to do a Weekly Review when you first start populating your GTD system.
- Startup can take a couple of weeks to get on top of and it’s usually better to spend time learning the GTD process and populating all the loose ends into your system than trying a full blown review.
- A couple of weeks in, perhaps even up to a month after you start, you should be ready to run your first Weekly Review.
- Make sure you do indeed close yourself off from the world though to do the review. Trying it at my desk with the inevitable phone calls and interruptions does not see me do a thorough job. I need to get lost in it for an hour to be sure I have done it properly. And you will know If you have done it properly because you will have an ill at ease feeling that you didn’t quite do a thorough job. After a good review I find myself champing at the bit to get stuck in to the day’s work.
OK, so that closes off the discussion on the ‘Principles of GTD’ … I hope you have had your brain tweaked by some of these and can feel the paradigm shift starting to happen.
What remains is for you to read the formal ‘5 Step GTD Process‘ that allows you to achieve all of the Principles without having to give them conscious thought.
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