The Key to Getting Things Done

I spent many years working for various companies that, like most businesses, were more or less dysfunctional.  They were places where priorities constantly shifted, where every day brought a new emergency, and where managers and peers might show up at any time with something urgent that needed my attention.

When I became a full-time writer, I discovered that I needed different ways to manage my time than the ones that had worked when I was an employee.  Interestingly, the different ways that seem to work best for me aren't new at all — they're the old classic tools of time management.

Getting things done
The hot concept in time-management these past few years has been Getting Things Done.  It's a significant departure from the old ways of time management, where you made to-do lists for each day and then blocked out time on your schedule to do each of the things you wanted to get done.

Instead of to-do lists and blocks of time, Getting Things Done emphasizes the practice of capturing all the things that you need to get done, and then turning those items into “next actions” that are steps toward getting the thing done.  It also describes some simple behaviors for reviewing your lists, to make sure that nothing important falls through the cracks.  It's a powerful tool that enables you to spend almost all your time making progress on your most important tasks.

My experience this past year, though, is that Getting Things Done doesn't solve the problems that I face now that I'm working almost entirely for myself.

Working for the man
Getting Things Done is perfectly designed to solve the problem of the guy working for a dysfunctional company.  When every day brings shifts in priority and new emergencies, it's critical to have a fluid list of actions that need to be taken — and it's pointless to block out two hours on a Wednesday afternoon to work on a big project if manager A is going to assign a more-urgent task, managers B and C are going to ask for status updates, and peer D is going to ask you to spend that time reviewing and commenting on some completely unrelated thing that has to be finished today.

In a situation like that, it's very easy to end up spending all your time doing things without every getting anything done.  And, if you somehow thwart the system (perhaps by coming in early or working late) so that you can finishing something, it will turn out to be the wrong thing — because priorities will have shifted or plans will have changed.

As a way to handle that circumstance, GTD is wonderful.  Any moment when you have a chance to do some work, you check your list of next actions and do the most important one that you can squeeze into the time available.  As long as you keep your lists up-to-date with the constantly changing plans and priorities, you can have considerable confidence that you're always making progress on the things you need to do.  And, if you keep doing that, you will manage to get things done.

Working for me
The thing is, my circumstance is different.  My problem isn't that goals and plans and designs and priorities are constantly changing out from under me.  My problem is that I've got more things I want to do than I can possibly get done, and that many of those things require large blocks of time to make much headway.  In that situation, I tend to alternate between dithering around with multiple tasks, and then throwing my hands up at my lack of progress and deciding to read a good book instead.

Similarly, I alternate between getting in the running, bicycling, and lifting that I need to be adequately fit and healthy, and then cutting those activities so that I can focus on the many tasks that I want to get done.  I also spend a lot of time reading interesting stuff on the web.

The old-fashioned way
It turns out that I can solve this cluster of problems with the old-fashioned time management technique of blocking out chunks of time to do things.

  • It solves the dithering problem (as long as I don't block out the morning into a dozen 15-minute chunks of time — which looks so silly on a schedule that I automatically tend not to do it).
  • It solves the problem with getting my exercise in (as long as I routinely put the exercise on the schedule).
  • And it solves the problem of excess web-surfing (as long as I block out enough time for the necessary web surfing, and then keep to my schedule).

I've discovered that, for my current circumstance, the key to getting things done is doing things.

Get Rich Slowly reviewed Getting Things Done in November 2006. Like Philip, I've found the system unworkable for my lifestyle. I think I'm trying to make things too complicated. I think I need to take his advice and do things.

More about...Uncategorized

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
19 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
jeffrey strain
jeffrey strain
12 years ago

I take portions of the system and apply them, but I definitely have hacked it into something that works for me. I think the main thing is finding a trigger that alerts me when i am procrastinating and not getting the things done that need to be done. I find that an alarm clock is the best method for me. What happens is that if I get off track, I usually get so into whatever has gotten me offtrack that unless there is something physical to alert me, I just never get back to what needs to get done. By… Read more »

Daniel Klotz
Daniel Klotz
12 years ago

This is a keen observation, Philip. David Allen’s system is designed as a set of tools for the kind of present-day “knowledge worker” that Peter Drucker identified, working in a knowledge-driven organization. But the fact is that there are many, many jobs today that are not particularly new or different. Yes, blogging is new, but blogging is essentially writing (with research and everything else it involves), and writing is nothing new. I’ve also never heard of GTD working on the floor of a factory. Maybe in a factory’s back offices, but not on a plant floor. I have practiced GTD… Read more »

Shanel Yang
Shanel Yang
12 years ago

Eat that Frog! by Brian Tracy is still the best tool I’ve ever found — and it works great in crazy corporate environment and for blogging at home. I summarize it at http://shanelyang.com/2008/06/02/eat-that-frog/

brad
brad
12 years ago

The late Randy Pausch had some interesting ideas (none of them new, but all of them effective) in his Time Management lecture, which is available here: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-5784740380335567758 Like many busy people I’ve developed my own system over the years. When looking at tasks I mentally sort them into the classic urgent/important, not urgent/important, urgent/not important, not urgent/not important hierarchy, and tackle them in that order, often letting the “not important” tasks slide until they magically disappear. I manage most of my work through Microsoft Outlook. When emails come in that require action on my part, I drag them to my… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

Last night, when I couldn’t fall asleep, I read a new book from Dave Crenshaw called The Myth of Multitasking. Because I couldn’t fall asleep, I also wrote a short review, but I’m not going to post it for a couple of weeks. (This a personal finance blog, not a productivity blog!)

The upshot is this: multitasking doesn’t exist. Studies show that people are much more productive when they set aside time to get things done — one thing at a time.

Michael
Michael
12 years ago

I read Getting Things Done and I thought it was a pretty good book. The biggest thing that I learned from the book was to partition my tasks into contexts. Which tasks can I perform at home? At work? When I’m out? Etc.

Doing this allowed me to put aside the tasks that I can’t possibly take care of at this very moment so that I can concentrate on the tasks that I can take care of right now.

Mark Nelson
Mark Nelson
12 years ago

I have been in a couple of businesses and have found each one very different. I am a list writer and now that I work in a home office I tend to schedule blocks of time (typically for an hour or so) to accomplish things. I start out my week writing down everything I want to do. From there I put them in order of days when I want to work on them. I have that many things can throw off my schedule and that will always happen. I do not let that frustrate me, I have just learned to… Read more »

Mo Money
Mo Money
12 years ago

Since we all procrastinate, this will be agood book to read.

Eric
Eric
12 years ago

A former supervisor and friend of mine once recommended Getting Things Done as a management technique for me when I set out on my own. Like you, I quickly realized that it didn’t work as well outside a larger organization as it did inside. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to swing back to the “traditional method” so quickly and actually lost a lot of time trying to “improve” the ideas of Getting Things Done. Productivity is hard to nurture when you’re your own boss, but it’s even more important. I agree that the key to getting things done at this stage… Read more »

Adam
Adam
12 years ago

If you get nothing else out of this system, make sure you understand the importance of “next actions” compared to to-do lists.

The next action is literally that: the next physical action you need to take. Cross one off your list and immediately add the next action required to complete your goal to the list.

Traditional to-do lists are often times counter productive. They use vaguely worded goals that are often dozens of steps long and do nothing but discourage you from being productive by permanently sitting on your list, mocking you.

Pieter Friedrich
Pieter Friedrich
12 years ago

I would guess that, like many people, my problem isn’t one of knowing what to do when but of being motivated to do. Consequently, systems like GTD, and even old-fashioned methods like blocking out time, seem to overthink things. I’ve made lists, schedules, and so forth many, many times, but have always found them nearly impossible to even implement, yet alone live by. It’s been far more effective for me to implement a policy of simply doing things, stupid as it may sound. Instead of wasting time chalking out a schedule or refining my to-do list, I just DO it.… Read more »

Jesse
Jesse
12 years ago

“the key to getting things done is doing things.”

I would say this is probably the key to doing most things….at most times 😉

Josh
Josh
12 years ago

I think the grass is always greener on the other side when it comes to any todo system. I work in an 8-5 job and feel like GTD doesn’t work for my situation but would if I was working for myself!

Caitlin
Caitlin
12 years ago

I disagree that it doesn’t work when you’re working for yourself.

If I were working a 9-5 job (none of this 8-5 nonsense – that’s an American thing), my time wouldn’t be my own to structure how I want.

I’ve worked for myself for two years and I’ve found GTD to be extremely helpful in raising my productivity. I might occasionally write daily lists but that’s taken directly from my next actions list and just reflects the priorities for the day.

Peter
Peter
12 years ago

“the key to getting things done is doing things.” Absolutely. The whole problem with the GTD “system”, is that the last thing a person who has trouble concentrating and following through on things needs, is another system and more tasks to keep track of. A huge percentage of the time, the GTD system takes longer and creates more work than just doing the task and being done with it. There is someone at work who I think follows this system and he’s impossible to work with. Even small tasks take him hours because he only works on a single thing… Read more »

Cathy
Cathy
12 years ago

Well, everyone has their own ‘system’. I’ve never known anyone who follows GTD to do it exactly the same way. There’s really a couple of the most important skills that I learned from reading GTD: 1) Never keep things in your head. I carry a notebook everywhere. Inspiration or a to do strikes me – it gets recorded. 2) Whatever gets recorded gets processed and sorted into a ‘next action’ or ‘someday’ category at a convenient time. 3) 2 minutes or less – do it now and get it over with. 4) Refer back to the ‘someday’ category at regular… Read more »

Corey T Morine
Corey T Morine
12 years ago

Perhaps GTD works great for a certain type of person, regardless of what they do. I am self employed; I cut down and prune trees. As a business owner this involves 20% knowledge work, the remainder is actually just doing things. GTD has been a godsend for me; really it has changed my life. Many of the individual TODOS on my projects are greatly separated by both time and space. With a traditional TODO list I was always making more trips than I needed to, and as a result using my valuable motivated time just driving around. Now, using David… Read more »

Shawn Fumo
Shawn Fumo
12 years ago

While GTD isn’t a silver bullet, I have found it helpful for me. I do have a greater sense of not having things falling through the cracks. Issues for me are still mostly of the variety of saying no (especially to myself! there’s only so many directions a person can go in) and of avoiding things I know I should do. I find the hardest thing is getting out of my comfort zone. Peter, I’d be a little careful of the “work out every day” method. It depends on what you’re doing, but generally it’s a good idea to have… Read more »

Jonathan
Jonathan
12 years ago

Phillip, I think you missed the point of the system. It’s not a time management system, it’s an action management system. The idea is that as anything comes at you, you decide if there is an action for you to do based on that item and you record the action in the system based on when/where you can do it. This can and will require a bit of time to initially get everything in there. Once everything is in there, you have a list of actions that you can take to progress everything in your life that you have agreed… Read more »

shares