How to Get Things Done

Reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done in 2016, instead of when it was published in 2001, I was hoping its revised edition would prove more ‘digital’ inspiring. Unfortunately it did not, although it still offered several useful insights.

In short, GTD is a method to organise yourself to be more productive and efficient, and to have more head space for creativity and new ideas. By writing down all our short-term to-do’s that occupy our mind in a personalised organising system, we can free our head and instead focus on long-term visions and dreams. As long as we keep our activities in our head they will continue to haunt us when we least want to, such as when we sleep or when we have no way to write down what we are just about to forget. A trustworthy organising system gives relief, while an unreliable one has the reversed effect and cause stress.

‘..collect what has your attention, process what it means, put it where it belongs, review frequently and simply do’ – David Allen

What you need is an inbox, a notebook and a calendar, physical or digital is your choice, I work with the latter. The tricky part is to have as few inboxes as possible and to empty them regularly. If you gather information, such as those ‘to-read-one-day-piles’, at too many different places you will unavoidably loose track of them. This I have learned goes for both paper and digital systems; bookmarking what to read later without a routine to go back to the page is equally inefficient as printing a publication and piling it on your desk.  The material has to be accessible and visible, and preferably transferable between home and work. This is easily solved online as you can sync your devices via apps or cloud and always access it wherever you are. Separating between activities and reference material may sound simple, but often things we have to do tend to get lost among what we simply want to save.

Allen offers many advices for getting things done. Although, instead of investing in full fledge physical work stations and a long shopping list of inventory, I would rather recommend an environmental approach of going paperless, or if necessary a notebook made of recycled paper. Yet some of his suggestions are useful, such as:

If it takes less than two-minutes, do it now. If it takes longer time, set a deadline for when you will do it, and if it is not you who should do it, delegate. The two-minute rule is Allen’s selling point. I have tried it out last weeks and although it is efficient it can also add on stress, especially if you are a time-optimist that estimates that a task takes two minutes when they in fact often take longer time.

Decide what to do next based on your context, available time, energy level, and priorities. We have days we are low on energy and cannot efficiently do mentally requiring tasks, for those days it is good to know what other activities we have to do that are less demanding. Activities can also be categorise according to the context, so when you have time to make a phone call, you check your activity list for ‘calls to make’, and if you know you’ll have some time to kill in a waiting room or on the train you can turn to your ‘to-read’ list. Although Allen’s mantra is efficiency, it can sometimes be valuable to do nothing and let our mind rest for a few minutes while waiting for the updates on your screen or the bus to come.

Take time to ask if the unexpected activities and surprises we get caught up in are of higher priority than the ones you already have planned for. This observation by Allen made at least me think how often we unreflectively let the unexpected take precedent over what we have planned to do.

Our frustration and anxiety is not so much about not getting things done, but rather about the fact that we break promises we make to ourselves when we set up deadlines for our activities. In the same way we call a friend or colleague and re-schedule an appointment when we cannot make it, we should frequently review our planning and re-negotiate our deadlines so we can feel more comfortable with what we are not getting done.

While Allen wish each of his reader would follow his method meticulously he admit that even if you end up writing down just a few more things than you otherwise would have, go through your inbox more often or simply ask yourself and your colleagues ‘what is the next activity?’ you will experience benefits.

A last point, some of us have a tendency to priorities and plan for our work in much higher degree than for our private life. It can be good that we remind ourselves to also note down to call a friend or family member and ask how they are doing, as it should be equally a priority as getting work done.

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