“Getting Things Done”: Some principles

(If you’d like to know about why I started doing the GTD system, read the previous post.)

I’m not going to summarize the Getting Things Done (hereafter, GTD) principles quite the way David Allen might.  Rather, I’m going to start with what I think are some great takeaways from it.  These principles alone can be very helpful to think about.  (I’ll start describing the method in the next post.)

To feel good not doing anything, know what you’re not doing.

If you have a steady job that permits you to take good time off, then when you go on vacation, I bet one of the things you do beforehand is to go through all your tasks and make sure things are caught up, or handed off to other people.  Why?  Of course, you don’t want things to explode while you’re gone.  Not a good way to win favor with your boss.

But there’s another reason, which is arguably more important: Even if you knew your boss would be happy with you, you will want your mind to be clear so you can enjoy vacation.  You want to be thinking about cocktails and beautiful people and beaches and glaciers.  You don’t want to find yourself thinking about that contract which isn’t done or the meeting that you were supposed to organize weeks ago and now the project is languishing.

If you made a list of everything you have to do, and you know that none of it needs some action from you right now, then you can relax!  Before vacation, you don’t get everything you could possibly need to do at work actually done; you simply make sure it’s in a good state and can either wait until you’re back, or that the right people are working on it.  So you can relax, confident that things are where they need to be for success.

But why wait for vacations?  Why not get yourself into that relaxed, confident state nearly every day?

You cannot “do” a project; you can only do actions.

Suppose you put an item on your to-do list like “Renovate the kitchen.” Okay, sure, but then you see that on your list a few weeks later, and you think:

Oh, jeez. I gotta figure out who to call for the floors, and for the cabinets. And I have to work out a budget.  And my spouse needs to go over paint colors with me. And there’s all the stuff we’d have to move in the meantime while it’s under construction.  And that means no cooking for a couple days.  And …

… and you just go “Ugh” and you push it down the list of things that are not getting done, because it’s just a mess to think about.  So it never goes anywhere.

What if, instead, the item on your to-do list was “Discuss kitchen budget with my spouse.”  Huh.  Well, that’s much better. You may not even know exactly what you want in the kitchen, but you can probably figure out how much you can afford in terms of your savings account, or monthly installments, or whatever.  So the two of you can sit down and have that conversation.  And it’s a little bit of progress, which would allow you to more usefully take another action, like “Call the flooring company and ask them about their payment plans.”

You cannot “do” a project.  A project is a multi-step process that gets you to a desired outcome.  It is not an action, which is something you can actually do.  A big part of the GTD methodology is knowing the difference between the two, and knowing how to handle them accordingly.

If it takes less than two minutes, do it now.

Say you’re going through your to-do list and you come to the following action: “Ask Bob what the project budget is.”

If you can do this via email, and you’re at your computer or smartphone, then don’t tell yourself “that’s not important right now.”  Don’t ask yourself whether you want to get coffee first.  Unless there’s some actual emergency, like a fire, or a biological imperative, or you’re already going to be late for a meeting, stop and send it right now.  It’ll take you what, a minute to send it? “Hey Bob, what’s the budget for Project X? Thanks, –Shawn.”

Just do it.  Why wait?  Oh, I know.  Because you struggle with priorities. “Oh crap, I could email Bob, but I should be sending more important mail first …” But that more important mail is not the thing that happened to be at that spot on your to-do list.  The Bob’s Budget mail is in your mind now, so send it now and be done with it.

You can’t do everything all the time.

On one level, you probably already understand this.  It’s no good to be reminded that you need to buy fresh tomatoes  when you’re in your office and you can’t.  So you make a list specifically of groceries you need to buy, and while you may add things to that list whenever you think of them, you don’t actually pull it out and look at it as a to-do list until you’re at the grocery store.

So apply that same principle to other activities.  What about short downtimes between meetings?  Those might be the perfect time to send quick pieces of email or make short phone calls, but would (probably) be a terrible time to work on writing a play.

How about things that involve other people?  If there’s 5 things you need to discuss with your boss, and you’re going to do those in person rather than email her, once again it does you no good to be reminded of them when you’re sitting at home trying to figure out what you should be doing.  So make a list of “Things for meeting with boss” and don’t bother looking at it when you’re not actually meeting with her.

Your to-do lists should be broken down by the situation in which you can do them: “at store”, “at phone”, “with boss”, “at home”, etc.  That way, when you pick something to do, you don’t have to spend any brain cells deciding “No, I can’t do that one right now, or that one,” all over again. The list you look at will already be limited to things that are currently possible.

Your mind is really good at reasoning, planning, and creating, but not storing and recalling.

The human mind is very good at some truly remarkable things, like string theory or chess or music composition, but it sucks at remembering lists of things.

What’s worse (to some degree) is that it knows it’s not good at such a task.  So whenever you’re trying to decide what to do, your brain goes “Crap, am I forgetting something I should be doing?” Perhaps the central point of GTD is to create and maintain a system which “remembers” things for you, so you can train your mind to say: “I have good habits and methods for capturing and organizing things I need to do, so I’m confident I’m not forgetting anything.”

So the GTD method creates a system in which the mind does what it’s good at — making decisions of how to classify things, figuring out the steps needed to accomplish a task — and offloads what it’s bad at, namely remembering lists, to “spare brains” like paper and electronics.

In the next post of this series, we’ll get started with Allen’s method for “getting things done”.