Managing life using the Getting Things Done system

If you want to learn how to maintain productivity, then you need to read the book Getting Things Done by David Allen. This book is seriously a life-changer. I have used this system for the past few years and while I don’t adhere to his system 100%, the majority of his principles are extremely beneficial.

The Getting Things Done system has five steps: capture/collect, process, organize, review, and do. I’m going to discuss each step in turn.

1. Capture/collect

First, you need a place to capture things that comes your way. I have two places where I capture everything: my email and my to-do list. You need a system that can capture things wherever you are. This is why I use a to-do list app (shout out to Todoist) because it is available on all operating systems and is connected to so many other types of software, including Gmail and Slack. If you deal with a lot of papers and other analog data, then it’s recommended you have a physical inbox as well.

This system needs to be able to capture everything for you. This includes emails, tasks, articles, questions that pop up in your mind, bills, and notes. Your brain is not a suitable place to collect these things! Your brain is fallible and you will forget something. Don’t be that person!

2 and 3. Process and Organize

Next, you need to figure out what to do with everything that you collect. When you decide to process tasks (i.e., go through your task list, check your email, clear out your paper inbox), then for each item you go through the following steps. If the task isn’t actionable, meaning you can’t do something with it, then either chuck it, archive it (e.g., save the email into another folder or save the document into it’s appropriate folder), or mark it as a “someday” task. I like to have a “someday” project in my to-do list where I save thoughts and ideas for future projects (like my thesis and dissertation!).

If the project does have an action, then you have one of three options. If the task takes less than two minutes, then do it. I find that the two-minute rule most often applies to emails. When I’m checking emails, if I can respond to that email within two-minutes then I do it right then and there. If I can’t get it done in two minutes, can someone else do it for me? Sometimes someone asks me a question that I do not know the answer to, in which case I forward the email to the person who does know the answer. In all other cases, defer the action. Either add the event to your calendar or add the task to your to-do list.

4. Review

I think this is the area where most people fail the Getting Things Done system. They store their information away and then promptly forget about it because they are not engaging with their system enough. To properly review, you need to get clear, get current, and get creative. To get clear, make sure your system is cleared and ready to go. This means to gather all loose things that need to be collected and process them all. To get current, review your calendar, to-do list, waiting-for list, project lists, and any other checklists you might have. Prioritize tasks for the upcoming week alongside your calendar (i.e., don’t place to write for three hours on days that you have back-to-back meetings from 9-5). Lastly, to get creative, review your someday/maybe lists and see what projects you might be able to start.

I personally do each review chunk in different timelines. I get clear at the end of each day or at the beginning of a long work session. This frees up my mind to really focus on the tasks at hand. I get current on a weekly basis. On Sundays, I set down with my calendar and to-do list and make sure my days are evenly split and I’ve properly prioritized my tasks. I get creative monthly. This means checking my someday/maybe pile and checking the progress on my projects that are low on the totem pole but where my inspiration resides. When the summer hits, I’ll be able to get creative a little more frequently (yay!).

5. Do!

At this point, you should be able to engage with your task list and get things done! With your mind free from all the things you are trying to remember, your inbox down to zero, and your calendar and task list organized and ready to go, you can now focus on the important work at hand. You might need additional work in how to prioritize tasks or break down tasks into manageable, bite-sized chunks, so we’ll cover that topic next!

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