Getting Things Done

There’s the old inflation/money printing joke about Bernanke going into a pizza parlor and ordering a pizza. The guy behind the counter asks “How many slices should I cut the pizza into – six or eight?” to which Bernanke responds “I’m hungry today, better make that eight!”

I have a different question: what would you do with the extra hour if we had a 25-hour day? I’m not trying to redefine how long an hour is, I’m genuinely asking you if you had an extra hour a day, what would you spend it on?

  • Would you get an extra hour of sleep?
  • Would you spend more quality time with your family or friends?
  • Would you learn a new language or a musical instrument?
  • Would you read more?
  • Would you pick up a side hustle or work on monetizing your hobby?

Whatever you choose, I’d probably assume it would improve your quality of life. If would allow you to do more of the things you like. So the question is, how do you get the extra time in your day? That’s where productivity techniques come in. Being more productive and managing your time better essentially allows you to get more done in the same amount of time, freeing up other time that you would have otherwise spent being inefficient, treading water or at some other metaphorical roadblock.

The technique to achieve greater productivity with which I am most familiar (and the one I would recommend) is Getting Things Done (or GTD) by David Allen. It’s just as much a stress management, project management and time management technique as it is a productivity tool. In the remainder of this post, I will describe how I understand it and what a system based on GTD might look like. For the ultimate description of this system I’d recommend the Getting Things Done book itself, or countless other books that describe related elements.

Needless to say, any form of self-improvement requires a holistic approach. Working in isolation will improve one aspect, but working on multiple facets will bring improvements that are greater than the sum of its parts. Increasing awareness, presence and mindfulness will allow you to improve your productivity and at the same time, improved productivity in one area will give you the space to be more present and mindful in other moments when you’re not working. Increases in all of the above aspects will reduce stress and improve your quality of life, which can then affect your rest and recreation, diet, exercise, and playfulness, all of which will contribute in a positive feedback loop to the aforementioned improvements. This is why I was so adamant at bringing in books on such topics within the fold of Books of Liberty since this is one of the fundamental building blocks that will help you achieve liberty in your life.

So onto Getting Things Done and how I’d describe it…

In the real world, getting from A to B would require you to identify your destination (B), know your surroundings (see the map that includes A and B within it), plan your route, and go. Traversing unknown terrain can be a challenge and can lead you down many wrong paths. Having a map and planning your route will get you to your destination in the quickest or best possible way. Same is true for future events, tasks, goals, aspirations. The future is unknown terrain and what lies ahead requires planning and some forethought.

We plan all the time, it’s what our brains do best. We just need to take the planning steps in the right order:

  1. Define purpose/ principle
  2. Envision the outcome
  3. Brainstorm different scenarios
  4. Organize the results
  5. Identify the next action(s)

Those planning steps end with identifying the next action that you need to take. That would be the next task on your to do list. But bear in mind the difference between a task and a project. A project is a desired outcome that takes more than one step to finish. You can’t do a project. You can only do tasks – singular actions. You should break down all projects into discrete, actionable, manageable tasks.

One of the main challenges we face is that we have too many projects going on (project overload). With so many projects comes an insane volume of information we need to have at our fingertips. The human brain is not designed for easy or quick recollection of tons of information. The human brain is best suited for thinking and planning (having ideas, not holding them). We need tools and techniques to help us manage this workload. We need to form habits that will allow us to use the above tools and techniques effectively. We need peace of mind to give us mental capacity to do the work. We need to be conscious that we may be doing unessential tasks.

The technique that can be used to manage workflow can be broken down to five discrete phases:

1. Collect

Collect all the stuff that is:

  • In your head
  • In your email inbox
  • On post-it notes
  • In comments from your boss
  • In requests from your family
  • In your notebook, if you have one, or scraps of paper lying around

2. Process

Figure out what all this stuff is:

  • Is it actionable?
  • Do you care about it?
  • What would be the successful outcome you’d like to see from this?
  • What is the immediate next physical action you need to do to get this rolling?
  • If it’s actionable:
    • Can you do it in less than 2 minutes? If so, do it now!
    • Are you the best person to be doing this? If no, delegate it!
    • If it will take longer than 2 minutes and you have to do it, defer it to be done at specific point in time (e.g. immediately after you process/organize, on Tuesday at 10:30, in first week of May, etc…)

3. Organize

Organize into your system based on the results of your processing.
Non actionable items:

  • Trash it, if you don’t need it
  • Put in a reference file for when you’ll next need it
  • Assign a follow up on the calendar if you need to re-visit this in the future
  • Make note in a Someday/Maybe list of things you may want to do

Actionable items:

  • If it takes more than one step, add to Projects list
  • If you’ve delegated, add to Waiting For list
  • If you’ll do it yourself, add to calendar (as a reminder or block off time as a meeting)
  • Add to a To Do list

4. Review

Review your lists as often as you need to keep your head clear.

  • Daily – you should review: your calendar, to know what meetings you have today and if you have meetings tomorrow you need to prepare for; your day’s to do list for high priority items; your Waiting For list to see if anything you’ve delegated is owed back to you.
  • Weekly – you should review: all of your to-do items to see if they’re relevant or if subsequent to-dos are necessary; all of your projects to make sure you’re still on track with them and if there are other next actions you can think of creating.
  • Less frequently – you may want to consider thinking about your goals, your aspirations, your Someday/Maybe list, other longer term aspects of your life and/or career.

When reviewing your work, consider different frames of reference:

  • Current actions
  • Current projects
  • Areas of focus and accountability/responsibility
  • Goals
  • Vision
  • Purpose and principles

The more detailed the frame of reference, the more frequently you’ll need to review, and the higher level the frame of reference, the more context and relevance it will bring to lower levels.

5. Do

If you’ve already done all of the shorter-than-two-minute items when they came in now all you need is to do the items that you put in your calendar at specific points in time. You’ve planned your work; now work your plan! Consider what the next action is to do:

  • Consider the urgency and importance or impact
  • Consider the context, time available, energy available, priority
  • Are you doing pre-planned work or are you reactive and just doing it as it shows up?
  • Are you doing things that are unessential and a waste of time?

Perhaps before summarizing I’d add a couple notes on things that hinder productivity.

  • Distractions: Multitasking is actually detrimental to productivity. Be proactive and remove distractions from your environment (e.g. disconnect from the internet). Set aside sessions to work uninterrupted on a specific task (e.g. Pomodoro technique)
  • Perfectionism: Many of us feel we have to adhere to strict quality standards, whether they are self-imposed or required by your employer or regulations. However, there are often higher personal tastes/standards that are not always necessary. Going above and beyond to do something perfect will leave you constantly wanting to do more, postpone your deadlines or outright make you avoid delivering your work.
  • Procrastination: Nothing can truly mitigate this, but try not to do it! Understand that you can have analysis-paralysis. Happens to us all. Just be aware when you are spinning your wheels.

Concluding thoughts

There is obviously much more to this than what can be written in a short blog post/book review. This is not meant to be comprehensive, merely a taste of what can be learned by David Allen. I’d say be patient with yourself in forming new habits, try to be consistent, and consider how all aspects of your life interact with one another. And as always, thank you for reading!


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