GTD Made Simple: Why I think the Internet needs one more blog post about "Getting Things Done"

By Charles Sutton on November 21, 2015

I’m naturally disorganised, but I have so much stuff to do that out of necessity I get organized. (Then more stuff comes and I get disorganised again.) The way I get organized is by attempting to follow a system called GTD. GTD comes from a book by David Allen called Getting Things Done. The book is an unusual read, a mix of management-speak, Zen-speak, and tips for organizing your filing cabinet. But for all that, it’s a good book.

GTD has become popular with many different types of people. It is especially popular with tech people on the Internet. It’s a bit of a geek cult, which is strange. Why are computer programmers singing praises for a management consultant? Indeed, why are university professors?

Lots of people on the Internet have been writing about GTD. It can be hard to get started. For one, the book itself, the writing isn’t always succinct. Also, cleaning up your to do list and blogging about it is a good way to procrastinate. So, there are lots of blog posts out there about GTD. Lots.

I have been trying to figure out a way to explain GTD that makes clear how simple it is.

Look, you need a to do list. It will clear your head so that you can concentrate on your work. That’s it. That’s GTD.

But you’ve tried this already. It helped for a little bit, but then it stopped helping. This is where GTD gets interesting. It’s based on an extraordinarily perceptive understanding of why to do lists stop working. They can stop working because:

  1. You haven’t written everything down. To do lists become way better when they contain literally everything that you have to do in life. If they don’t, then deep down in your mind, you will always know that you’ve got stuff to do that isn’t written down, so you spend mental focus trying to remember those things. It’s like if you tried to keep a calendar but only wrote down half of your appointments in it.

  2. Your list is too vague. If you write down something like “Dentist” on your to do list, every time you see it, you need a little mental energy to work out what that meant and plan what you need to do about it. But after you’ve done that planning, you don’t do anything about it, because you were just scanning your to do list and right now you need to do something else instead. This makes you anxious. And if you read “Dentist” without taking that effort, then you still feel anxious because it reminds you that there’s something you need to do and you’re not sure what it is.

  3. Your list is too long. When you’re not sure what to do, you need to be able to scan your list quickly to decide what to do next.

  4. You can’t find items right when you need them. If you’re about to drive past the hardware store, you need to be able to stop in the parking lot and quickly find the list of stuff that you’d been meaning to buy.

  5. You can’t write down items right when you think of them. When you notice you’re running low on toilet paper, you’re not usually in the grocery store at the time. But you still want to record this right then, so you don’t have to remember it until you’re walking past the shop the next day.

  6. Your list doesn’t keep up with your life. Gradually you get more and more things to do that just don’t make it on to your list.

  7. You don’t compare your list to your bigger goals. Urgent things aren’t always important, and it’s easy to let days slip by you. You need to think about what’s most important in your career and your life, and your to do list needs to contain actions that help make the important things happen.

GTD is a system for keeping lists that is designed to avoid these problems. GTD doesn’t care where you keep your lists or how you store them — this is why geeks love GTD, so that they can keep arguing about what software is best. But you don’t need software. Paper works fine. What you need are principles to guide you.

The main principles of GTD are:

  • Record everything. Everything that you need to do.

  • Record everywhere. No matter where you are, you need a way to write things down so that they will end up on your list.

  • Organize by context. You want multiple to do lists, organized so that when you scan a list, it contains only things that you could do right then, if you decided to. You might have a list of people you need to call, a list of things to do at a computer, a list of things to do at home, etc.

  • Specific measurable actions. This the caveat to “record everything”. If it goes on your list, it needs to be something specific, that you could do right away, finish, and tick off. Instead of writing “Dentist”, you should write, “Email Morag to ask for dentist recommendations”. When you read an item on your list, you don’t want to think “Oh, what was that?” — you want to think “Ah, I can do that!”

  • Small specific projects. A project is anything that takes multiple specific actions to accomplish, even if it’s only 2 or 3.

  • Plan naturally. For any project, work out what you need to do on the sheet of paper, and add to your list the actions that you can do right away. Actions that you need to do later down the line, they don’t go on your list.

  • Review weekly. Check your calendar and your notes to see if there’s anything that you need to do that you haven’t written down yet. Think about your longer term projects and goals and make sure your lists have actions that help with them.

How you organise a set of lists, and supporting files, to meet these principles, that’s what the book is about. It may not always seem so from the surface, but the book is full of clever little tricks. That’s another reason why the book can be deceptive: It’s easy to admire the tricks but not understand the system. But if you really understand the principles, then the practice becomes much more clear.

Tags: productivity