Trying to Get Things Done

by Ken Gibb

I had a catch up meeting with a dissertation student on Friday and for maybe the second or third time I met someone who also uses the time management or self-organisation system developed by David Allen – Getting Things Done.

I have been a devotee for more than 3 years now. It started simply by reading a story in the Guardian about how some of their staff had become enthusiastic followers after doing a workshop with Allen. I checked out the book of the same name and I have been hooked ever since.

Prior to going down this road, I have, for more years than I care to recall, tried different ways to organise myself better to cope with what the world flings at me, and thereby to manage my time better in essentially conventional ways. I probably bought a few too many books in airport bookshops (you know the ones) that promised simple solutions to the self-organising holy grail.

Getting Things Done (GTD) is both very simple but still quite challenging. It is an enabling framework and allows you, within a set of guidelines, to tailor and customize a GTD framework that suits you best. Assuming you have a well-functioning calendar, the key elements are a series of actively managed lists that allow you to organise and prioritise in a comprehensive way. The first of these critical lists is an in-tray of all new requests, required responses and other stuff that implies obligations on your part. Keep this up to date and out of your head and adopt a systematic way of adding these things to your system of actionable lists.

For me the key lists are projects and actions. A project is anything that is important to you and require multiple or on-going actions (at least two) to achieve outcomes important to you. I split these up into work-related and non-work related around 5 or 6 sub-headings. In parallel there are the current actions that flow from these projects (organised in the same way). Actions are the immediate focus of the prioritisation of both work and domestic tasks.

There are other lists that might be employed depending on your requirements and preferences but the other key element is the weekly review, where you spend an invaluable time working through the next week and beyond to plan and prioritise your actions and projects, set them in context and, for me, simply try to incrementally improve the whole project.

Beyond these elements it is really up to you to make this work to meet your own requirements as you see it. For instance, I distinguish between simple actions that can be done swiftly in a few minutes (quick wins) from other more substantial undertakings and I focus on keeping my email in box as near or as close to zero as I can with a document filing system in Dropbox that parallels my email sub-directories. Everything is read and far as possible actioned straightaway or at worst filed in my GTC in box for further action. When GTD is working for you it really unclutters the mind and helps focus and prioritise but the keys to its working, for me at least are threefold: being consistently comprehensive in capturing everything you do; actively managing the system on a daily basis and updating and reviewing lists; and, third, working continuously to make small improvements in the system you use that work for you. Most of the time however it is simply a great tool to manage yourself and create space, paradoxically, to work on substantive, interesting things (including leisure).

Since getting on board I have swapped between doing my list on paper in a notebook I take with me and electronically on an app that works on my smart phone/tablet and laptop. The latter sounds great and is good in some respects but I keep going back to paper. I am currently using a bespoke app for getting things done but I am sure that I will inevitably return to paper and pen.

There are challenges with this type of approach to how you fit this together. One is being a victim of its own success. There is an element of Parkinson’s Law that applies such that you fill up the spaces in your schedule with more projects and actions and you replace one form of stress (disorder) with another (congestion). Paradoxically, fitting more of your non-working time into the model may help though it may leave your partner doubting the concept of free will.

It also has to be said that this is absolutely no guarantee, from other peoples’ point of view, that you will necessarily do the things they want you to do when they want you to do it. Rather it is a system that among other things help you prioritise, rationalise, and allocate your own scarce resources.

Because it works only if you stay on top of it, you may periodically fall off the wagon. That is fine if you can get back on and it really is not hard to reinstate the system through a weekly review process. For me, though the best of many good aspects of GTD is the automatic or endogenous way it encourages me to try to improve and tinker with my own working practices to increase productivity and make life simpler. A day doesn’t go by when I am not struck by some little way of improving how I am organised or ways to think of removing impediments to some work or non-work goal.

I am convinced GTD is is part of a deeper engagement with self-organising. It was not mathematical or economics training but rather reflecting on how I try to manage myself that has led me to increasingly champion parsimony and Ockham’s razor in seeking simplicity (and recognizing those things that just are complex and multi-level). I can’t begin to enumerate the occasions in recent months when I have thought there must be a simpler more direct solution to research design, a paper’s structure, a filing system or whatever. The other complementary benefit is thinking in a GTD way helps you recognise imperfections in how things are organised and, hopefully, ways to improve.

It is a realistic reflection that this is an endless pursuit of seeking to improve one’s position but it is always better to be on the road going forward and making positive change rather than stopped or even worse letting the weeds of entropy push you backward towards disorder. I am also only too aware that a bigger and wider set of commitments makes you more exposed to exogenous shocks. I am a great believer in the old adage that ‘man plans and god laughs’ but we have to roll with the punches when our plans are knocked asunder by wider forces out of our control (I once set up a conference that was literally undone by the 2007 credit crunch decimating the conference attendees). In short: be organised, but be philosophical about it.

If any of this rambling about self-organizing is remotely interesting, do have a look for David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done. There are also a number of You Tube videos by him and others about the system that could serve as an interesting introduction, A search in the internet will yield some other bits and pieces (and Allen and GTD have their own website). A video tor two to start with might be:

I am off to do my weekly review.