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An Introduction to GTD (Getting Things Done)

GTD is an acronym that a lot of professionals throw around, and those of us who do often forget that not everyone is clued into the cult.  Prof. Hacker has been asked more than once to say a bit more about what it is and why academics might want to know about it.  Though we already have a GTD tag connected to some previously written posts, we are hoping for this post to provide a quick, general overview of the system.  Over the next several weeks, or perhaps for the life of Prof. Hacker itself, we’ll present a series of posts by several of us that focus on aspects of the system that are most relevant for academic life.

GTD refers to Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, a book published by David Allen in 2002, and it has since become a phenomenon.  As I write this entry seven years after the book was published, it is number one on Amazon’s list of books in a range of categories such as time management, self-esteem, and health and stress in business life.  That’s an impressive feat.  So why has this little book become a favorite of so many people?

I think it’s because the basic principles are pretty simple and intuitive, at least for me.  Whenever anyone asks what it’s all about, I send them to the GTD Wikipedia page, which provides a solid overview, but I find four points to be the most influential.

1. Get your thoughts out of your head.
We all have to-do lists, but we probably don’t put everything on them.  It’s pretty common to put the book you are teaching next week in your bag so that you’ll see it and remember to read it.  Or you put the folder for the grant application due in two months on your desk so you’ll get going on it soon.  But it’s easy to forget about those things, too.  After all, everytime you open your bag, it’s to get something in particular, so the book stays in there.  Or you put other things on top of that folder because they need to get done now.  GTD says that every single little thing that you have to do has to get out of your head and into some kind of system such as a folder, index card, handwritten list, or electronic spreadsheet.  If it’s out of your head and in a clear system that you can check regularly, you are more likely to get those things done.  And while you’re at it, you’ll clear space in your head for other ideas and deeper thinking on all the projects you want to complete.
2. Convert your to-do list into a series of action items.
My to-do list used to be full of things like “Work on article for that journal,” “Plan spring editing class,” or even just “Texas trip.”  Each of those things can feel rather overwhelming, which means we–okay, I–might be more likely to ignore them and focus on other, simpler things.  In GTD, you take each of these larger items, or “projects,” and break them down into their various parts, converting each of those parts into action items.  In other words, when you are writing an essay to submit to a peer-reviewed journal, you would develop a list of action items like “Search databases for articles,” ”Download IRB forms,” “Brainstorm for one hour,” and “Call Susan for suggestions.”  And each action item begins with a clear action verb.  After all, the point is to figure out what specific step you need to take next to move a particular project forward.
3. Organize your action items by context.
Context basically refers to where you need to be to complete your action items.  In the above point, “search” and “download” need to be done on a computer, so you would put them on a “Computer” list.  If you brainstorm on the computer that would go there, too.  “Call” would go on a “Calls” list that you would consult whenever you are near a phone.  Or if you only conduct such phone calls in the office, it would go on a list called “Office.”  Other context lists could be “Home” for things to be done at home, “Read” for anything that can be read (unless it’s a PDF or something that can only be read online, which would put it on the “Computer” list), and “Errands” for those things that you have to go out to do or get.  The point is to get your action items onto lists that make it clear what should be done when and where.  When you get to your campus office, you can check your “Office,” ”Computer,” and “Calls” list for anything to do there.  You might also check your “Read” list, and it’s a good idea to check your “Errands” list before you leave to see if you need to pick up dry cleaning or bagels on the way home, where you’ll check your “Home” list to see if there’s anything that has to get done there.
4. Review your list of projects, in-box, and action lists weekly.
The system does not work if you do not regulary review its parts.  In the ideal GTD workflow, you take time each week to go over your project lists, in-boxes of mail and other items (at home and on campus), and action items.  In this review, you add specific items to your action lists.  But you also make sure you are moving forward in the ways that you want in whatever parts of your life feel need the most attention.  If you want to raise your scholarly profile, then create more action items related to research and writing.  If you want to be physically healthier, then create more items related to diet and exercise.  If there is a part of your life that you want to improve, you develop concrete ways to improve it.  And the weekly review keeps you on track.

Basically, when everything in your head becomes a specific action item that you know you will complete in a particular time and place, and you review all your items, lists, and projects regularly, you get things done.

Now, I have left a lot out of this overview, and some may feel like I have oversimplified the GTD process too much.  But these are the key elements that make me a convert, the elements that help me get more done than I used to.  Of course, GTD will not appeal to everyone, but some of us at Prof. Hacker do find it useful.  We intend to explain why in a range of future posts.  With these general thoughts in mind, what questions do you have about GTD?  What parts of it would you like to hear more about?  What did I leave out that you think needs to be mentioned?  Leave a comment, and we’ll get it on our action lists and address it as soon as we can.

(The above photo is one I took in November 2004 when I was reading Getting Things Done for the first time; the photo is licensed through Creative Commons.)

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