I managed to get to the bottom of my relatively large inbox at work for the first time in a while, and so I found myself with a little bit of downtime. Rather than waste the time perusing Google Reader (Great web-app, excellent productivity destroyer!), I figured I would instead devote some time towards writing about the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology.
This entry actually stems from a presentation I decided to give at work. Since I’m the only project manager at work, I hoped that it would be interesting for co-workers to see how I go about managing the large volume of tasks that constantly filter across my desk.
There are already a lot of websites out there by various gurus of productivity (some self-proclaimed, others widely recognized as such), but most of those delve right in to the details and discuss ways to optimize the system to suit your own needs. I don’t care – I want to write about this subject, and I think I’m pretty decent at articulating concepts, so here’s hoping that this post provides some benefit to some people that are not intimately familiar with the subject matter.
Before I begin, I will state for the record that I am not a GTD guru, self-proclaimed or otherwise. I am simply taking this opportunity to provide my own insight into the subject.
What is GTD?
Let’s start at the top. GTD is, at its core, a time-management methodology. It is a way of dealing with the myriad of distractions that bombard us on a daily basis, and handling all of the various tasks and todo items that crop up as a result.
Who can use GTD?
This is hardly ground-breaking, but the people that will benefit the most from GTD are those that experience the things I’ve mentioned above frequently. People in management positions will typically be bombarded with e-mails, phone calls, etc. on a fairly constant basis throughout the day. The more focused your task at work is, the less likely you are to need to implement a new system in order to stay organized and get everything on your plate finished.
That being said, I feel that GTD can benefit everyone to some extent. Although I use it the most at my day job, I find plenty of the principles apply on a daily basis at home.
At its core, GTD is built on some fairly simple principles (note: simple does not equate to easy).
The principles, at least, the ones that I make use of, are:
- Two-minute rule
- Zeroing your inbox
- The paper system and the 43 folders (the tickler)
I’ll explain each of these items in turn.
The two-minute rule
The core of the two-minute rule can be summarized as follows: If a task takes two minutes of less to complete, you should do it, right now. Simple right? I take this concept one step further, and say that every item that pops up can be dealt with, to some extent, within two minutes. In this context, dealt with does not necessarily mean you can complete the task. It just means that you can either complete it, or file it away, or make a note of next steps, or break it down, etc.
This sounds so very simple in theory, but in practice it takes disicipline to limit yourself to two minutes of interaction for a given distraction when you’re in the middle of focusing on something else. Don’t worry – we’ve got some other tricks up our sleeve to help.
If there is one thing that everyone should take away from GTD, it is this rule. In my mind, everything else about GTD flows from this one single principle. I feel that implementing and sticking with a two-minute rule is the best way to ensure that you avoid procrastinating, and … get things done. You may find that it is difficult initially to make this happen, as you don’t have a system set up to enable this. I’ll talk more about this shortly, and follow-up this post with another one detailing how I maintain a similar system at home.
Zeroing your inbox
The next concept is that of zeroing your inbox. The goal here is that you complete each day with an empty inbox. No straggling e-mails, no tasks that you probably could deal with now, but should instead pick up on later.
This is the concept that most people find the most difficult. Many people where I work like to use their inboxes as a task list, or a holding place for things they have not yet had a chance to work on. This is a bad habit, as it creates mental clutter, and generates additional overhead when you need to focus. A blank inbox provides many benefits, but the most significant one for myself is the ability to immediately determine whether or not I have dealt with a new distraction (if it’s in my inbox, I haven’t).
In addition to my e-mail inbox(es), I use a physical inbox for my paper system. This must be zero’d out at the end of the day as well. No cheating!
Okay, so what do you do with all this e-mail that you’re supposed to be removing from your inbox? That’s where the paper system comes into place.
The paper system
The paper system is how I keep track of my tasks to be completed. To me, one of the benefits of the paper system is that having an action item or a task attached to something tangible provides it with more weight, and allows me to physically deal with an item when I have completed it (believe me, it feels great tearing up an action item once you’ve completed it). On that note, I have found that it is generally not appreciated when you touchdown-spike the crumpled up piece of paper off of your co-workers forehead. Still, it’s pretty fun.
The idea is to have only one task per piece of paper. Your system may vary, but my paper system has three components: the tickler (more on this shortly), the physical inbox, and the physical waitbox.
The physical inbox is the place where I store all tasks that I intend to complete before the end of the day. “But where do these tasks come from?”, you ask. I will tell you.
Every incoming e-mail, every phone or face-to-face conversation, and every set of meetings that I attend get broken down into tasks. Remember our two-minute rule. As soon as a distraction comes up, determine what the next steps and action items are. Ideally, you want one action item per piece of paper. These action items are then sorted into the tickler, or placed at the bottom of your inbox. Each task should contain the action to be completed, along with any necessary context (does it relate to an e-mail? Print off the e-mail, and write the individual task underneath that). Ideally, you want to be able to pick up the piece of paper, and without any further effort, be able to act upon the item.
If this is getting confusing, don’t worry, I’ll have an example soon.
What about the waitbox? The waitbox contains any items that I am ready to act upon, but are delayed waiting on something. Whatever it is that I am waiting on, the anticipation is that that thing will be resolved today. If it is not, I file the item in the tickler.
A good habit is to check your waitbox each time you come back from a break, which should be roughly three times a day (morning, lunch, and afternoon). If you’re not taking regular breaks, then you should also consider doing yourself, and your back, that favour (I’m not advocating long breaks, but give yourself a ten minute walk. It’s not good to sit for too long).
When reviewing items in the waitbox, ask yourself the following:
- Can I act upon this now?
If so, either do it now, or put it in your inbox
- Am I still waiting for something, and will that thing be done before the end of the day?
If so, file it back in the waitbox
- Am I still waiting for something, and will that thing not be done before the end of the day?
If so, file it in the tickler for an appropriate date
Okay, enough teasing about the tickler. Let’s talk about that.
The 43 folders (or, the tickler)
The tickler is composed of two different sets of accordion folders. The first one is your monthly tickler, and has slots labelled from January to December. The second one is your daily tickler, and has slots labelled from 1 to 31, for days of the month.
The tickler serves two purposes. First, it is a place to file away anything that you are not yet ready to deal with, but will need to acknowledge at some point further down the road. Did an item come up that requires talking to someone on vacation? File the action item in the tickler for the day that they return. Secondly, the tickler is a system you can trust to remind yourself when you need to act on an item.
I use the word trust in the previous paragraph because this is an integral part of a successful time management system. If you can’t trust the system that you are using, you will inevitably waste time going back and forth trying to confirm to yourself that you have in fact not let something slip through the cracks, and now we’re right back to where we started. You’ll probably spend some time doing this initially, but we want to minimize the initial part of that learning curve, not integrate it into the system itself.
How does the tickler remind you of items you need to act upon? Simple. At the start of each day, you pull out all of the items filed in your tickler for that day and move them to your inbox. At the start of each month, you pull all of the items filed for that month out of the monthly tickler, and determine whether you can deal with them now, later on today, or later on in the month. File them in the physical inbox, waitbox, or daily tickler accordingly.
At the end of your day, if you have any items left over in your inbox, sort through them and determine, realistically, when you will next be able to deal with them, and place them in the tickler, accordingly.
How about an example?
I feel like this has been pretty dense so far. Hopefully any example can keep us on top of things. Let’s say I get the following e-mail:
I am no longer able to pick up orders from our application, as I should be able to. Also, could you send me an update on the Budget?
So, how would I break this out? As I see it, there are two main tasks here:
- Forward along e-mail to one of my developers, and ask them to look into it.
This is a task that will certainly take me less than two minutes, so I will do it immediately.
- Respond to Jorge’s e-mail
This task is not something I can do immediately, as the next step is to update the budget. I will print out this e-mail, write on it that the next step is “Update Budget”, and then file it in my tickler, as I do not have enough time today to complete this task.
For the record, I don’t actually have any clients named Jorge Mexidando. I wish I did though, because that is an awesome name, and I would probably call them by their full name at every opportunity.
What will it do for me?
Okay, so that’s that. What exactly will GTD do for you? Well it will actually do a couple of things for you:
- Reduce mental clutter and overhead
- Minimize your overhead so that you can actually focus on doing stuff
- Allow you to multitask efficiently
When I presented this information at work, a co-worker asked a very pertinent question: “What about situations where you forward along an e-mail to your co-workers, and then they never respond?”. There will always be situations like this. When your team is very busy, you will have to take on additional overhead and put a reminder in your tickler to follow-up on your question.
More important than that though is the fact that using GTD to clear out tasks as efficiently as possible will free your mind to keep things like this in mind. No system is perfect, but the more you are able to keep outside of your mind and put into a system that you trust, the better equipped you will be to handle situations like the one my co-worker mentioned.
What won’t GTD do for you?
Well, it won’t stop you from procrastinating, and it won’t prevent you from being lazy. GTD is simply a system for making yourself more efficient at doing work. If you are still prone to procrastinating, GTD will actually make this easier for you, as you can simply repeatedly re-file items back into your tickler.
Most important of all, GTD won’t solve all of your problems. There’s no such thing as a silver bullet, and that maxim remains true in time-management just as much as any other domain. While GTD will minimize the amount of time that you lose to mental overhead, it will not make you a superman, able to handle more tasks than you are capable of. If you’ve got too much work, the only solution is to remove some of that work from your plate.
So, where do you go from here?
Most important of all, follow the rule that “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”. If you have a system that is currently working for you, or you are able to manage your existing tasks without wasting time, you probably don’t need GTD. I don’t recommend changing over to a new system unless you feel that you will have a use for it.
If you think you would like to give GTD a shot, try and determine how well this system will integrate with the way you currently manage your tasks. If your current system is drastically different, you will need to look for ways to start moving in this direction. I’m an advocate of gradual changes that stick over drastic ones that feel great at first and then get discarded after two weeks, so look for ways to start integrating GTD principles into your routine that will stick. The easiest place to start is probably working towards emptying out your inbox. This is a fairly simple task, and seeing an inbox with no e-mails will give you a huge sense of accomplishment, and the motivation to keep making changes.
It’s also a good idea to get into the habit of determining what action items and next steps arise out of incoming e-mails and requests. This is a good way to look at all new items that pop up on your plate, and will help you trim away the fat and focus on the essentials.
Above all, be fluid in your approach. If you like some of the principles of GTD, but don’t think that all of them will work for you, then try to adapt as much as possible. I’m a big fan of agilility in all things that we try to do. Adopt what you can, evaluate where you stand after a few weeks, and then adjust your approach as needed. Don’t view any stumble as an outright failure – it is simply an opportunity to adapt your approach and then move forward again.
Adapting a new system is something that will take time and some effort initially. One pertinent question I saw asked online was “How will I know when it’s time to stop tweaking my system?”. You will be able to tell that it is time when you have integrated it into your daily routine. When you no longer need to think about what to do with a new piece of information, or find yourself worrying whether or not you’ve properly filed something, you’ve probably reached a point where you can now just use your system.
Above all, remember that GTD is a system that exists only to enable you to get things done. If you find that you are spending more time trying to make GTD work than you are actually completing tasks, that’s a good indication that you need to tweak your system. I can’t guarantee that GTD will work for you, but it’s done great things for me, and I notice that it is starting to bleed more and more into my home life as I take on more personal projects and add items to my todo list.
I’ve been posting desktop screenshots for a while now, but the next post I will make related to the subject of GTD will detail how these shots actually help my productivity at home. If there are any questions or thoughts, please speak up and post them in the comments.