This post is part of my series about mastering productivity from the perspective of a full time working mom of a toddler with a side business. That’s me with the side business, not the toddler.
There is something of a cult around Getting Things Done and that cult is desperate to set the methodology in stone. This ignores that David Allen admits straight away that there is all out or casual implementation. Which is good, given that his ‘Getting Started’ chapter suggests giving yourself two full consecutive days to start the process. Two full days.
In my dim and distant memory, I gave myself most of day when I first decided to give this whole getting organised thing a go. Now, I re-read the recommendation and part of me finds it hysterical to think that I could have anything more than a solid two hours without an interruption. So the first of the so-called golden rules I’m going to outright say you can ignore is that you need two days free in your calendar to even bother trying.
The key isn’t the amount of time, it’s the quality. If you have two hours of focused time, then you can move the needle more than if you have a luxurious day of unfocused, leisurely busywork. So if you have a single room, project or problem that needs dealing with, choose that and give it the attention it deserves. If you haven’t cleaned out your attic for the last ten years and you could go another ten before you actually care enough for it to bother you, then there is nothing to be gained by climbing up there and losing a day to sorting when there are more important things you could be working through.
Another pro-tip: if that attic seems super appealing to you, despite there being no obvious gain in wading through dust and old boxes, then stop and work out what other, genuinely important thing it is you’re procrastinating on that needs to be addressed.
If for some enviable reason you actually have the ability to go through your entire life in one sitting, then there is something very Marie Kondo in this approach. Where she deals with primarily physical things, David Allen associates those physical things with actions and tasks. Both are drains on the psyche when left unmanaged, but having recently read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying, the two books seemed to echo off each other in an unexpected way.
So, the ‘Getting Started’ chapter is all about setting yourself up to begin. Time is clearly one facet and I would argue that it is a factor we feel we have increasingly less of. Space is another – you obviously need to be in a location conducive to collecting and managing things. A dedicated space to sit, think and make decisions doesn’t need to be fancy, but it does need to exist. Even the most technology-savvy people cannot put their entire life in the cloud.
Much of the stress and input we deal with in daily life doesn’t come from our own processes and delivery mechanisms, but those of others. So until the entire world is virtual, then a physical inbox is a lifesaver. Never make the mistake of thinking this is a ‘paperwork tray’. Anything that serves as a physical reminder of something you need to do can get thrown in there. The majority might be cards and papers, but batteries, broken watch straps and cables, they can all go in there until you’ve captured the associated task into your system.
The final piece of the puzzle is the tools you need to begin the process. Here is where another of the golden rules can be broken – you do not need to have all of these items in place to begin.
The original book was clearly written in the days prior to ubiquitous technology. With less paper in our lives, the requirement for a labeller and a filing cabinet with the correct type of hanging files seems quaintly retro. But don’t dismiss analogue altogether. Still keep a small notebook with tear off pages to hand – the act of writing down a quick thought is much easier to manage in the beginning than trying to digitally capture it.
I’ve also managed to do a successful large-scale implementation without the need for rubber bands, binder clips, scotch tape or the required minimum of three paper holding trays. The later version of the book retains all the previously listed tools, but includes any other tools already being used for data capture – a nod to the fact that anyone reading the book most likely has a phone with built-in task management and email – the ‘PDA’ is no longer the preserve of a handful of senior executives as it was in the original.
This overly prescriptive list can act as a barrier to getting started, regardless of whether you’re going for a work, home, or all-out implementation. Don’t let it.
In both editions, the question of an organiser also comes up here. Yes, the question – do you actually need one if all you’re doing is list management? I’m going to go ahead and say yes you do. It doesn’t have to be high-tech, but you definitely need one. If you’re doing this, you already know if you have a digital or analogue preference, or if your workplace is locked down to a certain system. But make the decision now. It’s not necessarily the tool that you’ll stick with forever. You can change it once you’ve played around with it for a few weeks, but don’t gather all your ‘stuff’ into one place, panic when you realise how much there is and then realise you’ve got nowhere to put it.
GTD Golden Rule to break – you don’t need to have a single system that covers work and personal. I use Microsoft Outlook Tasks for work but Toodledo for personal and it has worked fine for years. I don’t want the constraints of either set of circumstances to force themselves on the other. I’ve got a slightly workaholic personality, so if I always have access to work, I’d never stop thinking about it. Having a clean break can actually be better for your mental health than the psychological effort of maintaining two systems.
After a brief argument for the start up items he’s listed, in the 2011 edition there is an extensive argument for the importance of good filing. This is all around the physical mechanics of storing paper where it is easily accessible. A few of the principles apply to the world we live in now, but in most businesses and households, this level of attention to paper storage is simply no longer required.
One thing I would take away from this is that physical paper forces something that digital seldom does: the requirement to purge before you simply run out of space. You can upgrade your virtual storage space at the click of a button, leaving most people with an amorphous blob of badly tagged ‘stuff’ with multiple providers. A yearly purge of data can be invaluable. What we do now is the digital equivalent of storing things in the shed in case it comes in handy later, then repeatedly buying bigger sheds until the tin of paint you want is buried so deep inside that when the time finally comes for it to be useful, you just buy a new one anyway.
In summary, getting started with something as complex as GTD should be as simple as possible.
- Assess the amount of time you can realistically give your total focus to and find the problem that fits.
- Get yourself a place to physically sort things, preferably where you can repeatedly do a smaller version of this (the weekly or daily review). If you live a mobile lifestyle, then this can be achieved simply by the consistency of your bag set up and storage. It doesn’t need to be complicated.
- Finally, get the basics of pen, paper, post it notes, a physical inbox and your list management tool of choice.
That’s it. You’re good to go.