“Getting Things Done”: Some decisions

All right.  In the previous post we discussed the all-important Weekly Review. Now that we’ve laid all the theoretical groundwork in terms of processes and “bins”, let’s talk about some decisions that you’ll make in setting up and maintaining your system.

Personal vs. Professional

Should I use one single system for both my professional and personal to-do items?   One of the simplest and most obvious advantages of a single system is that everything is in one “place”: one notebook, one set of folders, one app, etc.  Particularly for your calendar, I would say this is essential.  If your boss asks if you can work after hours on some project, you want to know at a glance whatever conflicts you’ll have in your personal life, so that one or the other can be rescheduled.

That doesn’t address the emotional value you might think splitting the systems up would provide: separating work from personal life so you can forget about work.  Well, let me suggest this: If you actually implement GTD thoroughly, you’ll be using contexts.  Stuff you can only do at work will end up on work-context lists.  Therefore when you’re thinking about things to do when you’re not at work, you’ll just breeze right past the work-context lists anyhow.  If anything, you ought to get a good feeling knowing that your work stuff is organized and that you don’t need to think about it any further right now.

Also, for many of us in tech jobs, work vs. not-work is not always as clean a divide as we would like.  Maybe I need to send mail to someone, and things work out such that the best time to do it is when I first get home from work before I relax.  Or the reverse: Maybe I need to call a contractor about fixing something at my house, and I have to make the call during business hours, so it winds up on an “@phone” list that I will look at in the office.

I claim that putting your professional and personal stuff together in one system is more good than harm.  You are of course free to disagree, but I suggest you at least give it a try.

Perfect vs. Good

We all know the saying “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” You spend so much effort trying to make something perfect from Day One that it never gets off the ground.

Your system will evolve.  Period.  That’s part of the value of the weekly review — reflecting on how your organizational needs are changing.  Accept from Day One that the system itself needs to be fluid and adapt, and you’ll stress much less about “oh crap I’m doing it wrong!” Just make some decisions — via coin flip if you need to — and get started. You’ll quickly figure out what’s more effective than not.

Paper vs. Digital

For a lot of people I expect will read this, this will be the big question.  Obviously if you’re not able to afford or use one of the options, your choice is made by circumstances, but if not …

A lot of people — myself included — still like to write.  I like to use a pen and put things on paper.  (In cursive, in fact, thank you very much.)  And there are plenty of people who have come up with ways to implement the GTD methodology in a nice snobby Moleskine or similar notebook.  David Allen himself talks about setting up the system in a physical medium, at least at first: manila folders, and one sheet of paper per item to do, or per managed list.

For ideas, for coming up with things, for recording my thoughts on a topic, I still love paper.  But for GTD, I’m firmly in the digital camp.  Here’s some reasons why.

  • I can store my entire system online in a way that I can access from anywhere, without having to worry about losing or forgetting the paper system. Even if I lost my laptop and phone, in theory, anywhere that has wi-fi I could log into the cloud service I use and get up and running.
  • Copy/paste/move.  For example, if an item keeps bouncing back and forth between Waiting For and Next Actions, it’s easy to move it between those lists in software.  It would also be easy to do it if it were a discreet sheet of paper that I kept moving between two folders.  But if it’s an item I write on a “Waiting For” page of a notebook, I keep crossing it out, then re-writing it when it comes back, etc.
  • Searching.  This is the huge win. Need I say more?
  • Tagging.  In practice, GTD contexts are more like Venn diagrams than a single value.  Suppose you have a task which you can only do (1) when at work (2) but can make a phone call (3) but only when you have a big chunk of time for a long conversation.  Should you put that item on three separate lists, the “@work”, “@phone”, and “@extended” lists? When you cross it off as completed, do you have to search for it on every single context list you have to make sure you removed it everywhere?  Or when you write it on each list, do I include something like “This is also on the @phone and @extended lists”?  That seems really tedious.
    With a digital system, you could just put multiple labels or tags on things, and use search or filtering functionality in your software to pick out the tag or tags that are appropriate at any moment.
  • Recurring items.  Maybe you have tasks that have to be done repeatedly, such as paying a bill.  Although it’s certainly possible to implement such things in paper, software can make it much cleaner to create such items, repeat them as needed, and put a checkmark on each occurrence so while it’s done for this month, it’s not gone forever.

Whew.  I’ve covered a lot in this series.  In the next posts, I’ll be describing some systems in a little more detail, including how to fake a calendar with manila folders and how to put all of this in a spreadsheet, as just two real implementation examples.