Getting Things Done, or GTD, is a methodology and productivity framework pioneered by David Allen. Since its release in 2001, GTD has become a household name. Countless readers, from busy executives to housewives and students, have found relief from procrastination behaviors and disorganization. In my bid writing work for major public transport operators, I’ve learned how essential it is to ward off that “I’ve lost my wallet!” feeling: the sudden waves of shock and anxiety that threaten to overwhelm you, whenever you end up forgetting about something important. GTD shows that any person, no matter how busy, or how naturally (dis)organized you are, can benefit from a systematic approach to productivity. In this blog, we’ll share 5 important lessons to help you beat procrastination and stress.
More than talent or drive, David Allen explains, what defines our ability to perform at a high level is the degree to which we can empty our minds. It is incredibly difficult to look at the big picture when everyday nitty-gritty keeps getting in the way. Allen compares our minds to the RAM of a computer: our actual processing ability is many times smaller than the full background memory. When we have too many tasks occupying space in our RAM, we become bogged down and ineffective. It is essential, then, to empty the mind by externalizing everything else that needs to be done – collecting it, writing it down in various ways, and making sure we are periodically reminded of what needs to be done.
This is more difficult than ever in our time: smartphones provide a constant distraction, e-mail inboxes tend to flood, and our work becomes ever more diverse and complicated. Meanwhile, the tools we use remain largely the same: most of my clients still manage their work only with Word, Excel and e-mail. Allen proposes a smart system of databases – lists and folders – to make sure you capture all the information you need and periodically review it. We like to use database software for this purpose: sending out automatic reminders to review items and keeping all your (digital) lists and folders in one place.
The greatest threat to productivity, Allen explains, is when stacks of things-to-do build up and get mixed up with general reference information that has no action attached to it. When this happens, it becomes especially daunting to figure out what actions need to be taken, prioritize them, and get to work. The GTD system is designed to quickly filter actionable tasks and reference information into designated lists and folders. This way, it’s easy to keep tracks of the next steps you need to take for your projects. You will have the reference information on hand whenever you need it, but it doesn’t occupy any space in your RAM.
Whether it’s on the workfloor or in their personal life, many people feel like they never have the time to work on their big projects. David Allen explains that one of the reasons projects make us feel overwhelmed is that we can’t do a project: we can only do actions associated with it. Our ability to work effectively on a project is directly correlated to 1) how well the outcome is defined; and 2) how well you’ve managed to split it up into actionable tasks. The natural progression of project planning that Allen suggests is as follows: first, define the project’s purpose and principles; then define the desired outcome; then brainstorm options; then organize and prioritize; and finally, decide on next actions. For many projects, this is as much as needs to be done to get things underway. For complicated projects, like in large organizations, a framework like Agile OGSM can help you define the purpose, principles, and outcome, as well as organize your project.
Applying the system of GTD should ensure that you’re always doing what you need to be doing. To have that assurance, you need to review your lists and folders regularly: without that, you won’t be able to fully rely on the system, and your brain will pick up its old duties of remembering, processing and reminding you. We recommend a daily review of your calendar and next actions list; and a weekly review of your projects list, things you’re waiting for, and your “someday/maybe” folder. Trash or archive anything that you think you won’t need – keeping all the lists and folders clean and unclogged will maximize your ability to work effectively.
The GTD system is an excellent tool to get stress and procrastination under control. However: the tools we use to organize our work often haven’t kept pace with the increasing complexity of our jobs. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by colossal Excel sheets, flooded e-mail inboxes and an ever-accumulting reading pile, maybe it’s time to change pace. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for tips on how to re-organize your work for a low-stress existence.
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