Getting Things Done: Part One

For some time now I’ve been trying to implement the system known as “GTD” or “Getting Things Done.” Created by productivity expert (isn’t it awesome that we’ve become so incredibly busy that we now need experts in how to get things done productively?) David Allen, GTD has been written about exhaustively in the blogosphere as well as in print and electronic media. In fact, after the publication of Allen’s book Getting Things Done, the concept went viral, moving swiftly from the intended audience–business professionals–to the world of IT and other techno-geeks like me and then continuing to expand outward. Not surprisingly, given its popularity (which has reached almost cult-like status) among the techno-geek population, GTD has inspired a multitude of software programs and GTD-centric blogs. Since I read Allen’s book about three years ago, I have been trying (on and off) to implement the system with limited and certainly sporadic success. Given my research on cognition and writing and given what I’ve read  in the scholarship that explains how we process information in decidedly different ways when writing as opposed to thinking and speaking, I thought that writing about my process might prove helpful. At the same time, it seems that exploring the cognitive value of GTD, which relies primarily on writing to achieve maximum effectiveness, might prove useful in giving me the final push that I need to successfully integrate the system into my life.

To begin, a brief explanation of the system seems in order. GTD relies on the principle that we have limited storage space in our brain and that much of that space is being inefficiently used. Our “wet” hard drives, or brains, are filled with information that could be stored elsewhere. This information could be as mundane as “I need bread” or as significant as “how am I going to get tenure.” (Remember–I am looking at this from the perspective of an academic.) Allen asserts that while we have all of these ideas bouncing in and out of our consciousness and being stored in our subconscious, we are unable to focus and actually accomplish the tasks needed to achieve these task and goals. His solution: write it all down. Sound familiar, fellow academics? And when he says “write it all down,” he means “write it ALL down”–every single thing in your brain no matter how small or large. Once everything is out of your head, it gets processed and organized into simple tasks, projects, goals, etc. Once everything is organized, you set up a system to keep it that way by continuing to collect information and process it on a regularly scheduled basis.  [For a real introduction to GTD, check out Merlin Mann’s Getting Started with “Getting Things Done” (which contains a multitude of other links and posts), David Allen’s definition of GTD, the Business Week excerpt from Getting Things Done, and/or Wikipedia article on Getting Things Done]

Early Attempts to Get Things Done

My firsts attempts at implementing GTD included the filling of pages and pages on a legal pad, creating a set of GTD folders in my email inbox and on my computer desktop, and experimenting with a seemingly endless array of GTD applications. My first crucial error: getting overly absorbed in finding the right GTD software app. I spent so much time searching for, downloading, and experimenting with apps that I totally forgot to implement the system. To be fair, this is not an unusual problem for me. I do get entranced by new technologies and spend an abundance of time finding the “right” one. However, to be equally fair, this inevitably works to my advantage, helping me to better understand user needs and ultimately “hacking” a system so that it works best for me and in the case of teaching technologies, for fellow instructors and our students. Unfortunately, this was not the case with GTD. I couldn’t decide on one application and attempted to use them all simultaneously resulting in a system that I could not depend on. My mind was not at ease. On the contrary, it seemed more confused than ever.

Once I abandoned the quest for the perfect application, the confusion improved and I was able to implement some of the techniques. This is fairly typical for me. I am a self-help junkie (though only for self-help books that focus on organization and time management). I am a naturally disorganized person, which results in an unhealthy fascination with and extreme dedication to being organized. As a result I am an obsessive micromanager and constantly struggling macromanager. In some situations, this is quite beneficial. When it comes to organization as a teacher and in some ways as an academic, my detail-oriented nature is helpful. When it comes to overall peace of mind and organization in other aspects of my world, it results in constant struggle. Still, my continued devotion to learning about organizational strategies has been beneficial; with each system I learn about, I extract at least a few techniques and integrate them into my everyday life. Each system that I read about and attempt to implement improves my level of organization. GTD has been similarly helpful. At the same time it has been more frustrating than the other systems I’ve attempted. Specifically, the other systems seemed in many ways counter-intuitive and ultimately incompatible with my personality and my profession (most systems were created for 9-5 business folks not academics). On the other hand, GTD seems quite intuitive and meshes both with my personality and profession. So, why is it so difficult for me to integrate it into my life?

Unrealistic Expectations

Ultimately, the most difficult part of the implementation process is the “Jesus factor.” I expect the system to save me from all the difficulties of my life if I simply accept it as my savior. (Caveat: I know this isn’t really how Christians believe that people are “saved through Christ” but that it is the misconception, thus it fits well with my own. So, please, no offense to Christians meant.) In other words, the work part of it gets overlooked, especially the reality that it takes time to effectively implement any system. I want to jump straight past the collection of everything and just start using the system. As a result, I still have a lot of brain space filled with unimportant information or at least information that could be more effectively stored elsewhere. One aspect of this relates back to my previous issue–I can’t decide on what tools I should use. So, I just chose one and jumped straight into using it. My most recent attempt follows this model.

Merging Unrealistic Expectations into Software Applications

Now, on the one hand, I seem to have found a fairly good software application and am having some success in using it. Things is a task management/to do/organization application for Mac that is designed using the GTD methodology. Software designed based on an organizational system isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. I know that at the very least software has been designed for the Franklin Covey system.  GTD, however, has gone (as one of my favorite tv characters would say) “crazy viral.” In other words, there are already tons of apps designed specifically for GTD and even more that have been hacked to use the methodology. As with all applications, this has been done to varying degrees of success. Since I’ve tried out quite a few of them, I feel fairly confident in recommending Things.

Ultimately, Things allows me to create tasks on the fly (using a keyboard shortcut), set up projects, tag tasks based on what I need to complete them, include notes for the task, assign due dates, set up recurring tasks, and set areas of focus. So far I’m not utilizing Things to its utmost potential. For example, Things allows you to set up “horizons of focus” –areas of responsibility in your life. Right now I’m using tags to divide tasks by my various roles (e.g., “teaching,” “scholarship,” etc.). I am, however, collecting to do items as they occur to me (at least while I’m at my computer, which is most of the time) and filing them under projects as is appropriate. The projects that I have currently defined might be more accurately represented as “horizons of focus” under the GTD methodology. For example, I have “English 420 Spring 2010” as a project, which is rather broad, as are other projects such as “job search” and “professional development.” Still, for right now these seem to be serving their purpose and since time is an issue, I’ll continue to use them until I have some extra time to learn the other ways of organizing these tasks/projects. One of the functions that I find most useful is the tagging feature. I use David Allen’s “contexts” for these. Specifically, I tag tasks based on where I need to be in order to complete them. “Do laundry,” for instance, would be tagged “@home,” while “pick up dry cleaning” would be tagged “@errands” and “pay credit card bill” would be tagged “@online.” Using those tags, I can sort items that I need to do  when I actually can do them. This keeps me from constantly looking at items like “do laundry” while I’m in my office on campus or at a coffee shop.

So far, so good. More to come… In my next post I’ll discuss how GTD works for academics and is particularly adaptable to organizing writing and research.