A Simplified Way to use Getting Things Done

Regular readers know that I am a devotee of David Allen’s Getting Things Done system of productivity management. But, in truth, I don’t use his entire system, which if followed to the letter involves as many as 43 file folders and more lists than I can remember. Over the years I’ve reduced his system into four very simple lists that are easy to maintain and track.

1. A Master List of all of your projects

One of Allen’s most powerful insights is that we waste huge amounts of energy trying to remember all of the things we have committed to. Another is that any commitment that has more than one step is a project.

Allen says: “I define a ‘project’ as any desired result that requires more than one action. This means that some rather small things that you might not normally call ‘projects’ are going to be on your ‘projects’ list. The reasoning behind my definition is that if one step won’t complete something, some kind of stake needs to be placed in the ground to remind you that there is still something left to do.”

The simple act of listing all of your commitments in one place is incredibly liberating.

Allen suggests that you schedule at least one review of this list weekly. He likes to do it on Sunday evening. Check in with every commitment you’ve made. Add additional commitments that are not on the list. Most importantly, ask yourself “What is the next action I need to take to keep this commitment?”.

2. Next Action list

Another insight that makes the GTD system work is the understanding that you can never “do” a project. The only thing you can ever do is the very next thing that needs to be done. Very often this action is incredibly simple ad small, such as “schedule review meeting with Catherine.”

While Allen abhors the term “To-Do” list, for me my “Next Action” list is, in fact, my to-do list. On a big project I may update it as many as a dozen times a day.

3. Waiting list
Very often a “Next Action” involves asking, assigning or delegating a task to another. When I’ve asked Catherine for a date for our review meeting I move that action from the “Next Action” list to the “Waiting” list. It now might read “Catherine to reply to Doodle poll”.

For the moment I can put this request out of my mind. But I do scan this list daily to fall any requests that are lagging or falling behind.

4. Agenda list
Another one of Allen’s profound insights is the realization that the distraction of remembering all that we want to get done keeps us from getting anything done. So, rather than keeping a running list in my head of all of the things I need to talk about with a specific person, I make an agenda list for that person. Then, when we are together I simply refer to this list to make sure that all the various things we need to discuss are covered.

After using the GTD methodology for 15 years i have found that I can get most of its benefits by relying on just these four lists. But, as I say this I also recognize that by distilling Allen’s processes and procedures so dramatically you do risk missing the power and elegance of his insights. And, I am exaggerating to suggest I don’t use anything else from his system. I do make use of file folders, just not 43 of them. I do parse my “Next Action” list using his guidelines of Do it, Delegate it, or Defer it. And as disruptive as it seems at first, I do recommend that you take the time to get into the “ready state of the martial artist” (his term) by first collecting all of the things that demand your attention.

Most importantly, do read the book. Follow his pedagogy to start. I suspect that you’ll evolve your own interpretation of the system that works best for you.


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