Whilst on holiday last year I did something I haven’t done in a while – I went to a bookshop. It was whilst browsing the various books on offer and noticing how small the computing section had become that I spotted a book I’d heard a bit about – David Allen’s Getting Things Done. I picked up the book, scanned the back cover and flicked through the pages. I was sold, I had to see what all the fuss what about. After all, who doesn’t want a bit of stress free productivity?
I was a little sceptical at first, could this book really deliver the “mind like water” that it promised? However, the more I read of the process and the reasons why it works, the more convinced I became.
I could become a complete addict, an evangelist, it is that good. I’m only just beginning and haven’t really managed to jump in with both feet, but even the small steps I’ve taken have been greatly rewarding.
In order to help my own understanding I thought I’d outline my current use of GTD and try to identify the areas I need to improve.
Three areas of change have really helped me. The first was in processing my email, the second in capturing projects and thirdly in my use of calendar items.
It is true that no-one ever seems to teach you how to organize your email. When I first started work, the paper less office had not been invented yet, so any emails of importance were printed and stored in a folder. My own organization grew from the project / topic kind of filing. Over the years I grew irritated with that approach – how do I file something about multiple topics and a range of projects? I couldn’t find what I was looking for amongst the noise of filing everything. When I read something (I think from Google) about how filing wasn’t needed anymore as search was so good, I instantly stopped filing. My inbox was just a collection of all my emails with no order, but I could at least stop wasting time and mental energy filing every email. Search was pretty good at finding what I needed, but another problem arose – actions. How could I keep track of emails that required responses, emails that required external actions and then a response and ones that had been dealt with. My old system was one of keeping emails unread and flagging emails for actions. This worked ok, but was always prone to missing actions or responses (especially since I also check email on my Blackberry).
GTD has transformed my email processing. I’m actually starting to enjoy the knowledge that I’m on top of everything. I know nothing will slip through the cracks and having an empty inbox is a great little boost to my productivity.
So how did I get from a chaotic inbox to my current basic level. I did a lot of reading on email processing and how other people file their email. The system I settled on was one described by Scott Hanselman. I have 2 big buckets – Reference and Dealt With. If I think I will need to keep the email for a long time I put it into reference, if not then it goes in dealt with. That mental choice is so easy compared to trying to decide the subject to file it under (and having to keep making new subject areas). At some point I will chop the end of the dealt with folder and delete those emails, but until IT complain about disk space or my email client can’t cope I can just keep them.
To give myself a fresh start, instead of processing my whole inbox (several years worth of backlog) I simply dumped it all into an archive folder. I then scanned back a few weeks looking for emails that I might have missed from my previous system and pulled them back into my inbox for processing (I found more than I expected which just confirmed again that my old system was not working).
As I mentioned earlier, I’m only just beginning with GTD, so here’s where I need to do better. Having got my inbox empty I tend to let it fill again with action emails before I bite the bullet and move them out into my actions list (or respond to them). I also have a tendency to use a new email as an interruption and start responding straight away instead of staying focussed on my current task.
Whilst I have email in my inbox I tend not to look at my action list as much. This make me less likely to create actions in the first place – a bit of a catch 22, and one that stops me being as efficient as I think I could be.
Another area of weakness with my emails is in applying the 2 minute rule. Any emails that take more than 2 minutes to deal with should be moved off to my actions list. I tend to either take the extra time to deal with that email when it arrives or later when re-processing the inbox – these should again be added to my actions list.
So what can I do to improve? My first area to tackle is my context lists. I’m not happy with my current set, some are working fine, but the main bulk is simply put into “work” which isn’t fine grained enough. Recent reading has suggested using items like “work timely” and “work sometime”. I think if I had better contexts I’d be happier using them and my email could be processed more smoothly.
The second area of improvement has been in using One-note. I’m fortunate to have a great memory, so haven’t ever needed much help in remembering things, but One-note is much more than that. It allows me to explore ideas and dump items out of my brain that I don’t need to hold in current storage. One-note links in really well with Outlook tasks and emails in Outlook can go the other way into One-note as well.
One-note is my projects list – all the things I have on my mind that are more than single actions. This introduction has again helped me keep track of items and make sure nothing gets forgotten.
My weakness here is my weekly review. I keep being told how important it is, and I agree, but so far it hasn’t become a habit and my projects can get a little stale. I don’t have any regular time at work to shut myself away and perform my review. I need to find or make that time.
Finally, I now make far better use of my calendar. I used to be very passive with my calendar – it had events that other people invited me to, but nothing much of my own. Now, when someone mentions a date I add it to my calendar – an important install, project deadlines, and things that must happen that day. I’ve also started adding items outside work to my calendar – tv that I want to watch and phone calls I need to make.
Again, I think I could do more with my calendar, but as it was the least used area of my work, it is also the least of my concerns at the moment. My days are still a little re-active (one of the drawbacks of being a manager) and I think with better use of my calendar, context lists and actions I could be more pro-active.
So, here are the areas I will be trying to improve:
1. Better contexts for my actions.
2. Processing email into actions instead of holding them in the inbox.
3. Expanding my use of projects to cover different horizons of focus (at the moment I’m very low level covering day to day projects and a little above that, whereas I could also be looking at bigger goals and things like the direction of my career etc.)
4. Refining my use of the calendar.
5. Using GTD more outside of work – the things I need to remember and process are very different, but if it is so good at work, why not use it everywhere?
6. Bring GTD benefits to my workplace – I’m probably not the only one who could benefit from some of the GTD principles of efficient processing.
I’ll post more on my progress with GTD as I discover useful changes or refine my system.