02 January 2006

Review: GTD

OK, I have decided to start this year off with a book review. A book about getting things done, which is often what people make new years resolutions about, so it seemed appropriate. I know these reviews are going to be a bit long for a blog but I haven't figured out a better place to post them quite yet so here is where it's going!

Getting Things Done - (aka GTD)
''The Art of Stress Free Productivity''

This book presents a new angle on, well, getting the most done with your time. At first I thought, oh, another time management technique... and I guess it would fit into the same category as time management, however, I would say it is more accurately called activity management.

Traditional time management encourages you to get in tune with your life vision, you 5 year vision, your goals, etc... and then gets you to cut your calendar into chunks and then split those into itsy bits and assign those bits of specific time to specific tasks. The theory goes that if you do all the activities at the time you say you will, you'll reach your goals. This is what Allen calls a top down approach. In the software world we call this BDUF (Big Design Up Front).

Allan says the traditional approach was backwards, and took up way too much brain space or (RAM as he calls it). His suggestion is that we follow some really simple rules and put some simple structures in place so we don't have to juggle so many things in our heads thus reducing stress and freeing our minds for more creative pursuits.

The basic steps in the process are:

  1. Collect all your stuff.
    Gather all of the to-dos, mail, project info, reference materials and other stuff that you have around your office, briefcase, notebooks, whatever, that needs some sort of action into a collection area to get ready for processing. Get all this stuff out of your head and into some other reliable form (like an inbox) where you know it will be dealt with, so you can forget about it for now. If you're like me, you'll have several collection areas (physical inbox, an e-mail inbox, a PDA with voice memos and a notepad).

  2. Process your collections
    Periodically and on a regular schedule, process your collections. Processing means scanning your collection bins and one by one take each item from the top and do the thinking that goes with it.

    If it is actionable decide if it gets done now or later or not at all. If it takes less than two minutes to do, do it now.

    If it is reference material, store it in a filing system if you want it, if not, get rid of it.

    Allen gives a ton of helpful tricks and tips to make this process a breeze and even fun. I personally found the immediate feeling that I was getting a lot of small stuff done that I had been putting off, was pretty gratifying.

  3. Deal with Actionable Items
    Allan suggests that deciding exactly where to put things during processing is a very important but often under-rated task.

    Traditional time management would have us creating a to-do list and sorting them in priority order, then crossing things off as they are done and transferring undone things to a new list each day. I don't know about you but I find it frustrating to transfer all the items that I wanted to do but didn't do each day.

    Allan says, forget prioritization and forget copying lists. Priorities are constantly changing in our fast paced world. Rather than set priorities, classify actionable items by context - where you are going to do it - so that next time you are there, you have a list of relevant items for that context.

    This is where traditional time management falls apart. We don't make the best use of our time because we don't have a ready list of things we should be doing, or worse, we have scheduled an hour to work on our project, only to find that we can't start because some piece of information is missing.

    Allan says, you only put things on your calendar if they really need to be done at a specific time, otherwise, they are just things to be done ASAP. Putting them on a list that is specific to a context that you will find yourself in allows you to make phone calls while you are waiting at the coffee shop for someone to join you, brainstorm about your projects while you sit in a ferry lineup, buy that gift when you are already out running errands. You get the idea.

  4. File Reference Items
    Allen's suggestion for your filing system is key. You need something that is fast and reliable and most of all simple to use. If you have to think about where to file it, you probably won't.

    What he suggests is to just use an alphabetical system A - Z and just file stuff under that letter, wherever that may be. The theory goes, that if you are filing a proposal for Space Widgets for your client, Jones Publishing, you could file it under "Proposals", "Space Widgets" or "Jones", but that about exhausts your options. So, pick one, it doesn't matter which, and file it. You can try to be consistent but even that is not critical.

    When you go to look for it later (if you ever do) you are likely to look in those places in your filing system and thus you are likely to find the item. Way more likely than in one of the random piles of paper in your office or briefcase.

  5. Review
    The review process is critical in Allan's method because it's the periodic review that gives you the confidence that you are not letting anything slip through the cracks (at least nothing that you don't intend to let slip). Periodically reviewing your action lists keeps you on top of what's on your plate and focused on what you want to be doing.

People who use the ideas in this book report being much more productive and organized and as a result the book seems to have created quite a buzz (have personally seen it referred to many times online and several friends have mentioned it to me). All I know is I have been following just some of the ideas for the last couple of months and I definitely feel like I am much more on top of what's on my project list (I had over 100 projects when I started and am down to about 40 now). I'll keep you posted as to how it works for me in the longer run as I get more experience with it.

By using your brain for what it is good at, choosing the best thing to do in the given context, you will get way more done, more efficiently, with less stress than before. For the $22 this book costs and the time it takes to read, I recommend anyone who has a lot of projects and activities I have one thing to say:

Read this book.

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