David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity is a phenomenon in the tech community. If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably already read the book, or at least know something about the productivity system that it defines. I read it years ago, but like many readers never put into practice more than a tiny portion of the system.
As 2012 drew to a close and I looked back on all the things I meant to accomplish, I decided that I should give this productivity bible another look, in the hopes of getting more things done in 2013. I won’t bother to summarize the system that David Allen defines. The book is very readable and does a much better job than I could. Instead, I’m just going to note how I decided to apply the principles of his system in my own life, especially given the changes in technology and lifestyle since the book was originally published a dozen years ago.
Some essential elements of the GTD system include:
- one or more inboxes (as few as you can get away with),
- a calendar,
- a “tickler” file to remind yourself of tasks that can only start at some future date,
- a place to organize your reference material, and
- a tool for organizing lists of projects and tasks.
The original GTD system was developed in a paper-focused world, before cloud-based calendars and Internet-connected phones became the norm. I’ve worked really hard to eliminate the mountains of paper in my life, so I have no interest in buying filing cabinets and manila folders.
The vast majority of things I need to manage in my own life are actually digital. Email, digital music, more email, PDF downloads, email again, digital pictures, and did I mention the email? Digital references take up far less space, are easier to move, and are full-text searchable. I quickly resolved that my organization system would be digital, not physical.
As I had already begun to use it for scribbling notes I wanted to keep track of, I decided to do the simplest digital thing that could work for staying organized, and elected Evernote as my default tool.
Evernote gives me myriad advantages over a paper-based system.
- It’s a great place to jot down random notes (replacing a physical notepad). It can even create notes from pictures or voice recordings, making it even easier to capture everything.
- The option to use notebooks and/or tags to organize notes, and its full-text search capability, make it an excellent reference database (replacing the filing cabinet).
- It runs on my phone, so it’s always with me (no need to carry a paper organizer or notepad).
- It magically synchronizes with both my work computer and my home computer, so I never have to switch contexts to access it.
Setting up Evernote to work with my system was dead simple. I renamed the default notebook to “INBOX.” Any random notes I capture are there, waiting to be processed when next I process my inboxes. I created a Projects stack, containing a notebook for each large project, and a “Miscellaneous” notebook with a separate note for each smallish project. A Reference stack contains various notebooks organized by topic where I can file informational notes, PDF or Word documents, photos of the whiteboard scribbles from a brainstorming session, or any other assets I need to keep around.
With a physical inbox, Allen recommends dealing with things that won’t fit into it by writing a reminder of them on a piece of paper and placing the paper in the inbox. Since my inbox is digital, physical things won’t fit into it. So if I need a reminder of a physical thing, I snap a picture of it with my phone and add it to my Evernote inbox. I also file away papers by scanning them or taking a picture with my phone (and then trashing/recycling the physical paper).
Allen recommends keeping a list with all your “next actions” on it. I have become accustomed to visualizing work using a kanban system, so instead of a “next actions” list, I have a notebook called Backlog containing a note for each task, and another called WIP that contains notes for the tasks I am currently working on. When completed, I move them to the Done notebook. During my weekly review of open projects, I determine the next actions for each project and add a note for each one to the Backlog.
GTD recommends keeping an agenda list for every regular meeting you have, so that you never have to be embarrassed that you forgot to ask Bob about that one thing when you spoke with him this morning. I keep an Agenda notebook in Evernote, with a separate note for each person or group I speak to regularly. If I run into someone in the hallway, I can whip out my phone and access their agenda immediately. Any notes generated from the meeting go back into the inbox to be processed.
Since most of my reading is also digital, I use Pocket (formerly Read It Later) as my Reading list. I do a lot of my reading in the moment as a less-than-two-minute task, but when I need to queue something up, I toss it into Pocket. I am finding, however, that my appetite for reading later is a bit more ambitious than the amount of time “later” actually affords me. Perhaps I need to work on this.
GTD Patterns I Don’t Apply
GTD recommends keeping your Next Action list organized by Context: Things you can do at home, at work, at the phone, etc. I found organizing by context to be almost useless, because almost all my tasks can be performed in any context. My work is all digital, and my work computer is a laptop I bring home with me at night. In a pinch, most of my work could performed on my phone. I always have a phone in my pocket, so there’s no need for a “calls” context, I can make calls from anywhere. Most of my home activities are habits rather than tasks (take out trash, wash clothes, etc.) and therefore do not need to be tracked.
I don’t have a “Waiting For” notebook for tracking delegated tasks. Instead, I place a reminder on my calendar to follow up on a certain date if the awaited item has not arrived in my inbox by then. I also make “appointments” blocking out time to complete important tasks, otherwise there is a risk that my schedule will fill up and leave no time, or that I will get distracted by the in-the-moment work, leaving important things too late.
My calendar is already digital and synchronized across my devices. I use the Exchange calendar provided by my company, but I could just as easily use a synchronized iCloud or Google Calendar.
Finally, I decided that the tickler file was really an artifact of the paper world where a calendar is a sheet of paper with little boxes drawn on it. You can’t file papers in those little boxes, so you need those 43 folders to store date-specific items. In my all-digital world, if I need to be reminded of something on a certain date, I can just drop it onto my digital calendar and store it there, or at worst store a link to some other repository. So I don’t have a tickler notebook in Evernote, instead I use my calendar directly to fill that role.
I’m just getting started using and tweaking this system, and I’m sure it will evolve over time. Perhaps I will write a follow-up post in a few months to record how it has changed and how effective it has been.