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From the Archives: Getting Things Done

paper clips One of the most popular posts on ProfHacker is Nels’s An Introduction to GTD (Getting Things Done). Many of us on team ProfHacker rely at least in part upon David Allen’s model for increased productivity, which was first introduced in his 2002 book Getting Things Done, and many of our older posts relate to different elements of the GTD approach. In his introduction, Nels boils down GTD into four key elements which I’m going to use here to organize this survey of our archives.

Get Your Thoughts Out of Your Head

One of the appealing aspects of GTD is its simplicity, and in fact many GTD coaches warn against the impulse to over-complicate Allen’s framework. The essential elements of a GTD system include a calendar and four lists: Projects, Next Actions, Waiting For, and Someday/Maybe. These lists can be maintained on sheets of paper, on document or spreadsheet files on your computer, as items within a to-do organizer application, on index cards or post-its, or basically in any other format you like.

When you initially set up your GTD system, it can require a few hours or days to gather up all the ideas and tasks represented in your current to-do lists, emails, and thoughts in your head. But once you get through that initial collection stage, you can easily collect items as they show up.

Even if you don’t implement a full GTD setup, I’ve suggested that the practice of doing a mindsweep to record all the ideas and tasks floating in your mind can help you to feel less overwhelmed and to make better decisions about how to use your time. Use your brain for more complex thinking rather than for storing to-dos. Setting up a simple GTD system lets you trust that the tasks you’ve recorded will stay available to your attention and not get lost among a pile of daily lists.

Convert Your To-Do List Into a Series of Action Items

A fundamental distinction in GTD is between an action — something small and measurable that you can actually do and know when you’ve finished — and a project — any goal that is made up of more than one action. Thus “find plumber” and “Work on article” are projects, not actions. If your to-do list is full of projects, you’re likely to feel confused or overwhelmed when you look at them. GTD is all about breaking it down into simple steps that you will know how to do. So “find plumber” might be broken down into “Call Mary to ask who is her plumber,” “check work schedule for at-home days” and “Call plumber X to schedule appointment.”

As I mention in my post on using a timer, the GTD “2 minute rule says: if a next action can be completed in 2 minutes or less, you should do it right then, because it would take longer to record it as an action item on a list.” This rule is especially helpful when you’re going through a bunch of emails. (Maybe even trying to get to Inbox Zero.)

In Creating Action Lists for Students, Nels emphasizes the benefits of starting each action item with a verb. He uses GTD-style lists to communicate expectations to his students by recommending things they should do beyond the formal course requirements, trusting that with the lists “I know I have been as clear as possible about what they need to do to succeed in my class.

Organize Your Action Items by Context

GTD suggests that rather than organizing your lists of actions by priority or date like traditional to-do lists, you organize them by context, usually either by place (home, office, errands) or by technology (phone, computer). The idea is to divide up your task lists so that you’re not looking at “pick up dry cleaning” while you’re sitting in your office, and not looking at “review spreadsheet” while you’re out in the car. I’ve written more extensively about GTD Contexts and Academic Work and a number of ProfHacker posts discuss tools for tracking action items: Ryan’s Putting the THINGS in GTD: Managing an Academic Life with Culture Code’s Things, Amy’s Got Milk? Using Remember the Milk for Task Management, Shawn’s Take a Minute to Collect Your Thoughts With Evernote, and my All Things Google: Tasks.

Review Your Lists of Projects and Actions Weekly

David Allen recommends setting a specific time each week to go through your lists of projects and next actions. This is a crucial element of his system, and one that many people find difficult to implement. So Jason suggests treating this review time as an appointment on your calendar because “the weekly review is the time you set aside during the week to make sure you’re not just getting anything done, you’re getting the right things done. It’s the time when you think about what’s bothering you, where your time’s going, what priorities need to change to reflect new facts, and so forth.” In Managing Project Files in GTD, Nels explains how keeping his project materials in separate file folders helps him to stay engaged and aware of all of his commitments as he conducts a review.

The simplicity of the GTD system means that you could manage your projects and actions entirely on paper, in a digital system, or by using some combination of tools. Over the coming months, expect to see some further ProfHacker posts about specific elements of GTD and tools that can help you to implement this organizational method.

Do you have any particular questions about GTD or requests for GTD-related posts? Let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user dominique godbout]

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