Giving myself the "Getting Things Done" treatment

I knew I had to improve my organizing skills early in the summer when I missed two scheduled conference calls in the period of a month. In the moment, I blamed the meeting organizers, who had not attached reminders to the meeting requests, so my Blackberry didn’t buzz 15 minutes in advance. After reflection, I realized it wasn’t the responsibility of the meeting organizers to account for my time-management peculiarities. I also realized that making a habit of missing conference calls I had committed to attend was bad business.

Around the same time, I listened to a podcast interviewing David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. I liked what he had to say, and a few mouse clicks later I had ordered his book, determined to give myself the GTD treatment.

It wasn’t painless, and it took quite a while, but I’ve been more or less successful at organizing my work and home commitments. I feel like I’m getting more done, and the stress level has decreased because I have all my commitments (work & personal) documented in the same list, and I review that list regularly (though the review could be more regular and more thorough).

First, a look at Allen’s key prescriptions:

  1. Collecting all items that need to be looked at in your inbox
  2. Emptying the inbox frequently
  3. Deciding what to do with an inbox item immediately (acting on it if it can be done in 2 minutes or less, disposing of it if no action required, scheduling action or adding to task list otherwise)–i.e., no returning items to the inbox!
  4. Filing inbox items where they can be easily retrieved
  5. Organizing task lists by context (computer, phone call, errand, on-line, reading, waiting-for)
  6. Reviewing your calendar and task lists regularly

There’s a lot more, obviously, that you can find in the book, but those are the highlights.

In my experience implementing GTD, here’s what I found:

  • Collecting all my stuff and processing it took a long time–upwards of two weeks. I had to-do’s written on note cards in my bedroom, written on my white board, in notebooks, on existing task lists, and in the inbox already. I had piles of unread books in several places, and articles I wanted to read scattered in my computer directories. At the end, the collection pile measured more than one foot high in my inbox and another three feet or so on the floor beside it.

  • Filing was easier than I thought. Allen recommends one alphabetically-arranged filing cabinet, rather than files organized by some subject (like home, work, finance, etc.). This works for me, although I keep my finance files in a separate accordion file. All the others are in one cabinet.
  • I ended up with a large task list (probably 75-80 items), and it hasn’t gone down much if at all. Some people find such a large list intimidating (God, what a lot I have to do!). For me, it was a relief to know that I had everything on paper, and didn’t need to carry it in my head–a key benefit that Allen cites for his system.
  • Personal organizer systems don’t deal with the Allen approach very well. I tried both the Macintosh iCal system, which didn’t allow for even a first-level categorization, and Microsoft Entourage. Entourage allowed two levels of categorization with manageable sorting problems, but couldn’t handle three at all… and I wanted three for my list. I was able to work around the problems, but it would be nice to have an automated application that could sync with a mobile device and handle the entire GTD system.
  • Like many people, I don’t review the lists enough. I schedule a brief review every day, and a more comprehensive review on Friday. I usually get through the every-day review, but the Friday review is frequently no more substantial than the dailies. I need to work on that.

Like any major change in habits, GTD takes a lot of commitment, time and persistence. For me, at least, it was worth it. I feel more in control of my life and prepared to take on more work than I was a few months ago.

Would anyone out there like to comment on their GTD experiences?

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