The Getting Things Done® methodology, commonly abbreviated as GTD®, is an approach to personal and professional productivity developed by renowned coach and author, David Allen. GTD is practiced all over the world by everyone from artists to engineers (and no doubt by at least a few artistic engineers) and has been adopted by numerous Fortune 500 companies, including Google.
Your Mind: A Great Place to Create Thoughts, A Lousy Place to Store Them
A basic premise of GTD is that the mind is a great place to have thoughts, but a lousy place to store them. Trying to keep track of too many things in your head inevitably leads to heightened stress levels and forgotten commitments.
GTD promotes capturing everything that has your attention into a trusted system that is reviewed regularly. The result is a more relaxed and focused mental state and a heightened ability to look at thoughts objectively. As David Allen often comments, “you never have to have the same thought twice, unless you like the thought”.
Thriving in the Information Age
The growing popularity of GTD, notably in the technology sector, is hardly surprising. Our modern world often moves at a rapid pace and the volume of information that comes with technology advances has led to unprecedented demands on our attention. As David Allen aptly points out, the stress is not a result of information overload, but stems from the fact that the significance of all the things that are grabbing our attention hasn't been established.
Getting Organized is Only Half The Story
At first glance, GTD may look like an approach to organization. In fact, this is really only half the story. David Allen stresses the importance of having both control and perspective. Having control but no perspective can lead to becoming the proverbial bean counter - where there’s so much emphasis on doing things in an organized way that the big picture gets forgotten. Conversely, perspective without control can foster grand ideas that never get implemented. Control and perspective operating in unison is akin to “being in the zone” and is a highly productive state.
Talking About Productivity
“Productivity” is a popular buzz-word these days. For many people it conjures up images of being more efficient at cranking out “widgets”, or whatever it is you’re creating. When we add perspective into the equation, productivity takes on a whole new meaning and becomes about producing the results that you want in your life. By this definition, spending an afternoon relaxing on the beach could be deemed highly productive, assuming this is the outcome that you set out to achieve.
Keeping It Simple...But Not Too Simple
When David Allen developed GTD his goal was to keep things as simple as possible, being careful not to oversimplify the process and limit its effectiveness. The approach he came up with includes six levels of perspective and five things that need to be done regularly to maintain or regain control.
It’s important to point out that GTD is an approach to productivity, but not in itself a system. A “GTD system” is the actual implementation of the approach based on GTD principles and can include traditional media, such as pen and paper and modern devices such as computers and mobile devices.
It’s a Matter of Perspective
The “runway” level of perspective encompasses all of the discreet actions that you engage in - such as sending e-mails, scheduling meetings and running errands. At 10,000 feet are “projects” - which are simply desired outcomes within a defined period of time that take two or more actions to complete. At 20,000 feet are “areas of responsibility” - essentially areas of our personal and professional lives where we’ve assumed a level of responsibility. You may have multiple areas of responsibility at work and personal areas of responsibility might include relationships, your health and the oft overlooked realm of fun and recreation. Unlike projects, areas of responsibility don’t tend to have a beginning or an end.
Gaining altitude, one-year goals are at 30,000 feet and five-year goals exist at 40,000 feet. As you to climb to 50,000 feet and above you’re into the realm of life goals and values. As you bring clarity and completion to items in the lower altitudes, the higher level goals tend to become clearer. It can be difficult to see a broader view of life if you have 10,000 e-mails in your inbox and lack clarity around the projects you’re working on and around responsibilities in your job, business and personal lives. Getting started with GTD often involves “cleaning house” (literally and figuratively) and bringing clarity to the multitude of things that are competing for your attention and draining your energy.
Fast Forward and Under Control
Getting things under control starts with capturing all the “stuff” that needs to be dealt with. This can include everything from e-mails to thoughts and the goal is to capture all of this stuff into physical and electronic inboxes for later processing. There are many ways to capture all this stuff and having convenient methods at your disposal is key.
With all this stuff captured, the next step is to process each of your various inboxes one item at a time. This involves systematically going through each item and determining its relevance. Is there an action to be taken and, if so what is the next physical action? If it’s going to take less than two minutes to do, it’s generally best to step into action and get it complete. Otherwise, the task you just defined would either go onto a next action list, be added to a new or existing project, be added to a calendar if it’s something that needs to be taken care of on a specific day or be delegated to someone else. If there is no action to be taken then it may be appropriate to save the item for reference, revisit it at a later date or place it in the trash.
Conserving Your Psychic RAM
In order for you to keep all these potentially distracting items out of your “psychic RAM” it’s necessary to review your system regularly. Otherwise your mind will start to doubt your ability to keep track of all of this stuff and will tend to remind you of your commitments, often at inopportune times such as when you’re trying to sleep at night. The “weekly review” is an opportunity to process all your inboxes, check off items that have been completed (something that I personally find very satisfying) and revisit all your commitments to make sure that nothing has slipped through the cracks. GTD is a very proactive approach and encourages dealing with things as they show up, not when they “blow up” as David Allen puts it.
Stepping Into Action
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is the actual doing of the actions. In every given moment, only a subset of your defined next actions are available based on the “context” you’re in. For example, there are certain tasks that may require that you be physically at work or at home and others might require that you have an Internet connection or a phone at your disposal. Other determining factors include such things as your energy level, how much time you have available and the presence of other people. Through the use of contexts a large group of tasks can be reduced to a manageable list.
My Life Changing Introduction to GTD
My story of discovering GTD (which led to being interviewed with David Allen himself as part of his “In Conversation” series) is an unusual one and points to the power of this approach. In 2008 I was very unexpectedly diagnosed with a highly aggressive form of cancer. Overnight my life changed dramatically as I let go of all my business pursuits to focus on regaining my health. During this transformative time I listened to the GTD audio book and created my first project, which I called "Healing Journey 2008" with a goal of being cancer free by the end of the year. Declaring this an intention and defining and completing concrete actions towards this goal proved to be a great source of motivation and I'm happy to report that I was able to mark this project complete just before Christmas after receiving the best Christmas gift I could imagine: a clean bill of health.
The GTD approach proved to be equally effective as I rebuilt my life and businesses following my bout with cancer. I continue to reap the benefits of this methodology to this day. Key benefits include feeling relaxed and present, even when I have a lot on the go, and a heightened sense of confidence when I take on new projects. By closely tracking the commitments I make in both my personal and professional lives I’ve developed a reputation as a man of integrity and attract new and exciting opportunities.
Next Action: Read the “Manual”
If you're intrigued to learn more I recommend that you start by picking up a copy of the Getting Things Done book, which is essentially the manual for GTD. It's available through most major bookstores and in audio and electronic form. There is also a wealth of resources on the web. The GTD Times blog and the David Allen Company website are a great place to start.
I work with individuals and organizations to apply the GTD methodology, with an emphasis on technology. This includes choosing the most effective tools and creating an effective system and workflows that foster productivity. Contact me for a free consultation and let your productivity soar!
This article was originally published in the Annex Extensions newsletter on July 4, 2011. GTD and Getting Things Done are registered trademarks of the David Allen Company.