Getting Things Done

Those of you that follow me on Twitter (and if you don’t, why not?) may remember that a month ago I started tweeting about the GTD method and working on setting up my to do list. I received quite a few questions back about that, so it seemed fitting that I write up a little description of what it is I’m doing.

First, I have to give props to Van Metchke for persuading me to consider this program. I’d read about it before, but figured it was for big-shot executives, not me. Van’s words still ring in my ears, “It is changing the way we do technical ministry.” With an endorsement like that I made the big-time commitment of getting the book out from the library. About two chapters in, I ordered it from Amazon. The book of which I speak is called (appropriately enough) Getting Things Done by David Allen. Allen is sort of a curator of a system of productivity that has already changed the way I work. He may not have come up with every idea in the book, but he’s systematized them and created a program that anyone can follow.

Before I get into the system too far, I want to give you a little background. I’m a recovering perfectionist workaholic with intellection as a top 3 strength (Strengths Finder by Tom Rath). The summary of intellection is “mental hum.” Simply put, my brain does not shut down. I rarely have a time when I’m not mulling over or actively thinking about something. It’s one reason why I don’t sleep well. Combine that with workaholism and perfectionism and a tendency to want to fix everything and well... Clearly I need some help.

And that’s where GTD comes in. This post will be too short to lay out the complete process, but here are a few highlights (and reasons why I think you as a tech guy should read the book). Our minds are kind of like the RAM in a computer; you can only put so much stuff in there before it starts over-running. Once the RAM overflows, you start forgetting things. How many times have you thought, “Oh! I need to do....first thing tomorrow,” just before falling asleep. And of course when you wake up, you’ve forgotten all about it. You may not have slept well, however as your mind was trying to keep that in the forefront so you’d remember.

The goal of GTD is to clear your mind of all the clutter and reach a state known in martial arts circles as “mind like water.” Picture a still pond, the glassy water perfectly reflecting the sky above. Throw a stone in and you’ll see ripples spread out in response. After a few minutes, it settles back down and is calm once again. That’s how we want our minds to be. Calm, in the moment and able to respond to whatever we need to, fully engaged, then quickly able to return to a calm, peaceful state. How can we do that, however, with hundreds of idea fragments floating around in there? The truth is, we can’t. And that really hurts our effectiveness.

The process of GTD is to take all those fragments; to-dos, ideas, tasks, thoughts, dreams, and whatever else is floating around in your head and capture them in a system you can trust to bring them back to you at the appropriate time. For example, I have come up with a good opening for our creative community meeting in a few weeks. I could try to keep reminding myself to work on it, but doing so takes up a lot of processing cycles that I should be using to accomplish tasks due today. So instead, I put it in my to-do list system (Toodledo, a web app that syncs with a companion iPhone app) with a due date a few days prior to the event. When I get to the beginning of that week, it will show up on my system and I can schedule time to work on it. I don’t need to think about it again until then.

For GTD to work, you must have a system that allows you to quickly grab thoughts and ideas, get them into a system so you can forget about them until you need them. For me, that’s Toodledo, iCal (with MobileMe) & Evernote. Another component is to clear out the clutter around us. That’s the idea behind inbox zero. I have successfully whittled my email inboxes down to zero over the last few weeks. Here’s how that works (and this is how I process almost every piece of information now): I look at an e-mail and make a decision--Is this something I need to act on? If yes, and I can do it in under 2 minutes, I act on it then delete or file the e-mail. If it will take more than 2 minutes, it goes into my “Action” folder to be dealt with later. If it’s junk, I delete it. If it’s reference material, it goes in one of 2-3 folders for future reference. Nothing is allowed to sit in the inbox waiting for action.

Now, that’s greatly simplified; as I said I can’t lay out the whole program for you in 1,000 words. But here’s where the rubber meets the road; it’s hard to explain how much lower my stress level is, or how much clearer my mind is after just a few weeks. I’m missing far fewer deadlines and tasks, and I’m more fully engaged in whatever I’m currently doing. I can fall asleep at night because I’m not worrying that I forgot something (or will forget something). The book is under $15 and will be the best $15 you ever spent. Van had it right; this will change the way I do technical ministry.