Revisiting Getting Things Done
Sometimes, we all feel like we’re spinning plates in our working life. Juggling multiple products and coping with growing to-do lists is stressful–even more so if you don’t have a system or strategy for when things start to get overwhelming.
Getting Things Done is one of the most famous productivity systems ever produced, but over 20 years have passed since its introduction and you don’t need us to tell you how much has changed in those two decades. So is the system still relevant in the age of 24/7 notifications?
A Brief History of Getting Things Done
Getting Things Done (often abbreviated to GTD) is a productivity system and book devised by David Allen, a management and productivity consultant.
In the early 2000s, the book gained plenty of acclaim. You may have heard about Allen’s writing on The Howard Stern Show, as Stern referenced it regularly. GTD was also featured in Wired, Lifehacker, and many other influential publications.
The popularity of Allen’s work led to seminars in many parts of the world, and some journalists even deemed it “cultish”. But don’t worry, the author isn’t going to try and sell you anything, other than the book itself. The unfair “cult” comparison comes from a Wired article from 2005, along with the feelings of empowerment people get from GTD and the fact it is so widely discussed.
Allen persuades adherents to buy-in on five main themes. Woven among these themes is the desire to deal with the concept of “Stuff” which is what Allen explains as:
"Anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn't belong where it is, but for which you haven't yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step."
The book was first published in 2001, but there has since been a second edition in 2015, with information added to reflect the technological advancements that have occurred in the meantime.
Five Steps of Getting Things Done
The system is built around the concept of five different steps. With so many fans of the system, these have often been turned into worksheets to help to simplify them and make them even more actionable.
Even if you go no further, and don’t dive deep into the world of GTD, the basic principles can be applied to your daily life.
To start to use these tips yourself, you’ll need:
- An “inbox” which can be a physical or virtual one.
- A trash can. Again, virtual is fine.
- A method of filing material and tasks.
- A calendar (either a paper-based or digital calendar)
The five steps are as follows:
If something crosses your mind or is dropped onto your to-do list by a colleague or boss, it needs to be captured in the “inbox”. They don’t have to be specific tasks: they can be worries, plans, or other considerations. The point is to get it out of your head, a tested method in many aspects of life that Inc magazine calls “Thinking Clean.”
Consider this a sweep of your brain for anything that is causing you stress, weighing on your mind, or building up at work or in your personal life. Examples could include:
- “I really need to book the hire car for my trip next week”
- “I need to ask my boss what is happening with the XYZ Project”
- “I need to check if my daughter’s soccer practice is on this week”
- “The XYZ File is due on Monday”
This is where you will decide whether or not the task in hand is actionable and the sort of sanction it requires. For instance, if it’s something you can delegate, this is the step where you establish this. If it can be completed quickly, the advice is to do it right away.
Crucially, if you find that the action you are thinking about is larger than just one step, create a “project” and work out the single, most-effective step to move that project in the right direction. This makes it actionable.
Time to organize as per the system. This means that the items in your to-do list or inbox are either delegated to others, filed away for the future in an “incubator”, or planned out on your calendar. If the item is actionable, split it into tasks and plan these on your calendar or into lists.
There is no single way to do your organizing in GTD. A lot of people combine the thought processes of Getting Things Done with methods like time blocking or the Eisenhower Method.
Reviewing or reflecting is setting aside time to frequently revise your lists and tasks to see if things have changed. Can you act on something now that you couldn't do previously? Has new information made something easier? Is it now a redundant task?
Weekly, or even daily reflection can be effective, depending on how quickly your working life is changing.
This quote from David Allen sums this up nicely: “Most people feel best about their work the week before their vacation, but it's not because of the vacation itself. What do you do the last week before you leave on a big trip? You clean up, close up, clarify, and renegotiate all your agreements with yourself and others. I just suggest that you do this weekly instead of yearly.”
This step is the final step of the process and it involves taking action using the information above. If you’ve followed the steps in Getting Things Done, it should now become clear which of the activities should be done first. It should have helped you get your priorities in order and work out whether something needs to be done now (or later) or whether it can be delegated.
Does Getting Things Done Stand Up Over 20 Years Later?
There are plenty of reasons why GTD has been so popular over the years. David Allen’s ideas have led to a lot of people feeling more empowered as well as a lot less stressed.
The fundamental ideas will always be relevant. The system aims to take away those things that steal our time from us, and devote time to what is important, all while clearing our mind.
One of the issues is that the system requires quite a lot of organization in advance. You need to devote a fair amount of time to sitting down, creating your inboxes, and working out how you are going to implement the steps.
In 2001, when the book was written, it wasn’t competing with productivity apps. Technology has not only changed the way your world works, it has changed the way you handle it. This means that the system of “inboxing” and analyzing in the GTD way might not be the most straightforward method.
The principles of Allen’s ideas remain beyond reproach. It is about prioritizing and taking action. If you buy into it, you can certainly get more done. However, it needs you to either build a system of inboxing, calendars, and review, whereas many modern methods have built this for you, or at least provide the prompts you require.
One popular option is to use a productivity app to support the GTD process. For example, the kōno app pairs very neatly with the GTD system: you can create a plan mode with kōno to set aside time to process your different inboxes, making the best use of the GTD ideas. Or, when you get to the “Engage” step and need to hunker down and take action, you can use its focus modes to block calls, notifications, and websites, and shut down distracting apps while you get things done.
David Allen’s ideas resonate with so many people that they shouldn’t be ignored. GTD is about picking battles that are “big enough to matter, small enough to win.”
If you are feeling overwhelmed, the GTD ideas can be extremely helpful in prioritizing and planning tasks. It does, however, require a lot of your own thoughts and input on exactly how you act on the five steps. There’s a lot of wiggle room, so you implement the ideas in a way that works for you.