After recently streamlining my GTD process, I am finally ready to write about it. It is my steadfast hope that my fretting and flailing might provide you with some insight as to how to improve your own GTD process. If it needs improvement, that is. Mine really did.
First of all, if you are not familiar with David Allen’s Getting Things Done, here is the prerequisite plug for that. There are about sixty (I am making that number up) different ways to organise your to-do list now. GTD isn’t necessarily the best, but it’s the one I’ve used for a decade and it makes sense to me. Here is a stern admonishment not to get bogged down by trying all of the different fancy tools that exist. They are shiny. They are useful. And they are also an excuse for you not to get things done. (Trust me, I know.)
I use Evernote. I’m not going to tell you how great Evernote is, because you probably already know, or you don’t like it at all, in which case you might not want to keep reading this. Anyway, Evernote has a great web clipper that allows me to quickly capture whatever it is I want to remember and shove it into Evernote.
When I’m not on my laptop, I capture stuff like this with Drafts for iOS. Drafts is this ridiculously handy app for taking notes that just gives you a blank screen and gets out of your way. You can process whatever you capture after it is captured, but the important part is just getting it down. Since I’ve started using Drafts, I’ve stopped losing those bizarre story ideas that occur to me at inopportune moments (instead of when I am in front of the computer, waiting for them to occur to me, dammit) as well as book and film recommendations and other cool stuff I want to remember but never do.
And yes, Evernote for iOS has its own “quick entry” ability, but it has lots of fiddly bits that I, a compulsive bit-fiddler, get sucked into very easily. So once I’ve made a quick note in Drafts, I use the “Save to Evernote” action in Drafts. Boom. I go on with my day. (You can make more complex Evernote actions in Drafts if you like.)
Here is where I admit a very dark secret: I don’t dislike email. I know it’s in fashion to hate on email these days, but I really don’t. What I dislike is trying to get anything done with email. Brainstorming via email is utterly frustrating to me. There are three separate threads in my inbox right now that I can’t unravel enough to formulate responses. But I’ll get into that later. Basically, if I get an email about something I need to do or review, I forward it to Evernote with my special Evernote email address and then archive it.
My default Evernote notebook is called “Inbox” because that’s where I put everything that has yet to be processed.
I look at each note in my Inbox and determine what it is. If it’s something I need to do that can be done in two minutes, I go ahead and do it.
If it can’t be done in two minutes, it gets filed into my “Next” notebook – all the things I need to do next, handily called “next actions”.
If it has to be done at a certain time, I put it into Due. You could use your calendar or anything that will beep at you. One of our cats gets medication at the same time every day, so this is a daily repeating reminder in Due. Due syncs with my iOS devices and my Mac. It does what it does extremely well – and gets out of my way. (Here’s the crazy part: I could actually create reminders in Due directly from Drafts. I haven’t been because I just realised that. But I probably will now. Wow.)
But this is where it gets funky. Say I hear about a writing contest I want to enter on the 23rd. In Drafts, I’ve jotted that down and sent it to Evernote. Now comes the processing step. I can’t do this in two minutes, obviously, and “enter the OMG Number One You Are The Best Writer Ever writing contest by the 23rd” is kind of a useless next action because I haven’t written anything for it yet plus I don’t even know what the contest rules are. I could put this in Due, but when it beeps at me on the 23rd it will be too late for me to enter the contest. So entering the writing contest is actually a project, or a group of actions associated with a common goal or outcome. I have a handy project note template that I use for things like this, and in the “next action” space on that note I will enter what I think the next action is. It will be something like “Go to the writing contest website to find the rules.”
Now that’s doable.
This whole step is about transforming things that float around in your brain and in your inboxes into discrete units of work so you can spend less time thinking about doing stuff and just do the stuff.
I like this step. Maybe too much. Taxonomies, ahoy!
Next actions are okay by themselves, but they are much easier to handle when they are put in context. In this system, a context can be something like Errand for next actions like mailing a letter, because it requires going to the post office. I use tags to set contexts so I can focus my attention on the actions I can do next. My contexts include Calls, Computer, Home, and Work. Some actions require others’ help, or other factors that prevent forward movement. These are tagged with Wait.
Remember projects in Step 2? In my implementation, each project has its own notebook. The project note is kind of like a status document, where I can stuff brainstorming ideas and also keep track of next actions. It has a tag *Project so I can easily search on all of the projects in progress.
How about processing all those award-winning story ideas I’m nabbing out of the imaginatosphere with Drafts? Well, they aren’t actions, so they’re things I want to review or refer to later. They go into my “Writing Ideas” notebook where I can peek at them when I’m looking for ideas.
And last but not least, all those things that I might want to do someday (like run the Seven Hills of Edinburgh race) go into a notebook named “Someday/Maybe”.
GTD users will note the lack of a tickler file. If I need my memory “tickled” about something, I use the (not so) new reminder functionality in Evernote. These are different than items that need to be done at a certain time, which are kept in Due.
Depending on how important you are, your daily review might be quite elaborate. Mine is very simple!
First I work on getting my email inbox and Evernote inbox to zero. Then I review what I need to get done: my next actions by context, my waiting-for actions, my projects, and my someday/maybe list. I use saved searches in Evernote to generate lists for each of these groups. Mine are modelled after the searches in this excellent write-up at My Simple Curiosity.
If everything else is set up properly, this is the easiest step. GTD tells us that we should determine what to do next by context, by time available, by resources, and by priorities. The first part we have covered with the handy tags and saved searches. The rest is pretty self-explanatory. Do you have 15 minutes? Do a task that will take 15 minutes or less. And so on.
There is additional methodology about the nature of work and such, but I’ve got to leave something for the book, right?
Hooray for making it to the end of this post! Let me know in the comments if you have any questions. I’m happy to help you wrangle the chaos.
Writing from: the past! Kind of. (I started writing this post months ago!) And also the lounge. Listening to: “Hedphelym” by Aphex Twin.
Here is my one-week check-in for my Avoid, Embrace project on email. So far, the biggest change I have made is in filtering out forwards into their own folder. In Gmail, I used this filter to do the trick:
from:(email address of forwarder | email address of another forwarder)
to:(-my email address)
Do this: Skip Inbox, Apply label “SA/Forwards”
I chose to deal with them as “announcements” per ActiveInbox’s built-in label category, but you can use anything you like.
Filtered out into their own folder, I can look at the subject lines and delete accordingly. Now the only items in my “Someday” category are things I want to legitimately do or review someday. This is a huge win!
The “Time” labels have been somewhat helpful, but because I am on spring break this week, I am just going through messages regardless of how long I think they might take.
I have been setting meaningful deadlines, for the most part, but I am pretty lazy at the moment so there are some un-deadlined items floating about that I need to attack.
The state of my email, as of right now:
It looks pretty good from here.
Next up in my Avoid, Embrace project: the email situation.
Step one: write about something I have been avoiding.
What is not nice is the 132 emails that need some sort of attention on my part. (That number increased to 137 just since I started writing this. Yikes.) I look at these emails in their pretty little categories that make sense, but I don’t do anything with them.
Clearly, the first ones I need to tackle are my Flagged items. I flag email sparingly; it usually means that if I do not do this as soon as possible today, something Very Bad will happen. There is only one thing here today, and I can get it done this afternoon. Good! Yay!
The next category is the generic Action, or things I need to do something about, be it read closely, respond, or create a to-do on my list. Right now, there are ten items. This is where I get bogged down. I look at the list and I do not see anything I can do within two minutes (a GTD trick). So I go somewhere else.
Then there are seven Waiting On items. These don’t require me to do anything yet, but could turn into Action items at any moment. They make me uneasy, just sitting there all unfinished-like.
The big bad is the Someday category, with 120 items. I sense I am putting things in Someday I should either just throw away (hello, forwarded Maxine comics, do you really need me to reply “haha” to you) or deal with sooner in Action. And I have just confirmed that over half of these are forwards.
Step two: embrace the thing I have been avoiding.
The trick to this Avoid, Embrace is not just to power through these but to put a plan in place for dealing with them in the future. My improvements are as follows:
That is enough for now. I will report back on my results!
Sadly, I can relate to about half of Zen Habit’s “10 Signs You’re a Productivity Junkie”, especially #5:
Conversations with friends are broken up by you jotting notes to yourself. People ask you if you’re writing a book and you reply “I just don’t want to forget any of this.”