A Fortnight of GTD: Part 2

24 01 2008

After a brief intermission for yesterday’s Wiki-Wednesday goodness normal programming has resumed. I promised there was more on my experiences with GTD (I sense many groans as people’s eyes glaze over, despite the fact that this is all useful stuff). Perhaps not my own observations (after all, I’ve been pretty useless at this) but certainly the book itself which I cannot recommend highly enough. Anyone who finds themselves constantly nagged by thoughts of all the work they need to get done that isn’t getting done needs this book. Consider David Allen your own personal Jesus, and the book your newfound bible. It’ll help you more than the old one I promise.

When last I left you I was discussing the next action, how it’s absolutely life-changing to break those massive tasks that seem undoable (precisely because they are, at least as single actions) into bite-sized chunks of work that can be finished in 10-15 minutes. The beauty of this compared to the conventional to-do is that instead of, say, “Finish chapter 3 on The Socioeconomic Impact of Immigration”, your next action would be “Read 5 pages of chapter 3”. Alternatively those nagging term papers that seem so big could be broken down into research, drafting, writing and editing. How good is that?

Another positive has been writing everything down. My brain feels so much more at ease, my head so much “lighter” and free to think without the constraints of memorising small tasks. Having finally gotten good at capturing everything, however, my issue now moves onto actually reading the lists. Part of the reason for this is contexts, or rather my poor use of them. I have too many, it was giving me an excuse to squirrel stuff away but not actually do it. My email was a perfect example. I set up an “action” and “hold” folder (I use Gmail w/IMAP on Thunderbird so use the in-built “All Mail” for archive purposes).

My inbox was always at zero. Great. That’s the goal, right? Wrong. It’s the goal only if you’re actually reviewing the”action” and “hold” folders. At the very least you have to enter a next action on your list every time you have an “actionable” email, not just put it into the “action” folder and hope you’ll action it. Likewise for your hold folder and your “waiting for” list. If all you do is move email from the inbox to folders you convince yourself it’s under control but it’s not. So now I’ve set up a single inbox with no folders (except for the All Mail archive) and tag individual emails as action or hold (using Thunderbird’s tagging system). This has proven to be far better for me.

The real difficulty in GTD is finding, building and developing your “trusted system”. Merlin once said to try and find a system you love and then take a couple of steps back from that and I think he’s right. You don’t want the system to be loved because you’ll be forever tweaking it and I think this week, as opposed to last week where I used simple text files, I got a little carried away tweaking my system. I built my first Hipster PDA, which worked in some respects (I finally had a ubiquitous capture tool that I actually used and took everywhere) but didn’t work in others. For daily checklists it was brilliant but for next actions it wasn’t as useful. Although I do suspect this may be my own fault.

I broke the cardinal GTD rule; scheduling tasks that don’t need to be scheduled. Of course if something has to be done on a certain day, it should go on the calendar, or if something has a routine structure (for example I go to the gym every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at roughly the same time) then it can be useful to “firewall” that time by using the calendar. One very good use of this is for your weekly review (which I do put on the calendar) . However the key is not to schedule your next actions. Why? Well because then you do what I did and never look at the next action lists themselves.

Practically the only time I looked at my lists themselves was when setting up the weekly schedule and then when I remembered to tick off tasks. However the point of GTD is that you don’t remember things, your system does. You simply trust the system and remember to use it everyday for everything. So long as you collect, process and organise all inputs as many times as possible during a given day, and then simply remember to review your lists, you’ll actually find the stage of “doing” is pretty easy.

Separating those processes out, the planning and the doing, is the foundation of GTD and it’s where I’ve been sucking quite badly. Particularly during the Weekly Review where, instead of simply reviewing where I am compared to where I want to be and doing the necessary planning to get from A to B I dash off to do things, things that seem small enough to fit under the 2 minute rule but then explode off into tangents.

Tomorrow I’ll discuss my planned solutions to deal with these problems.


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