Get stuff done: Part I

I am not blessed with good powers of memory. I would often miss important events and forget information. A lazy person would just accept this and blame it on “my poor memory”. However, this would cause such problems throughout life – what a hassle!

Like many of my peers, I use David Alan’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology to help organise my life.


GTD is a form of Active Externalism (As discussed by Andy Clark & David J. Chalmers in The Extended Mind) where the central tenet is that the brain is terrible at remembering information. I can hear you now: “What are you talking about, Tris, the brain is the most powerful computer on the earth!” and you’d be right, but only in processing is the brain superior. Take a piece of paper, for example. This paper will record whatever you write on it for millennia (in good conditions), whereas the brain will forget important information, birthdays etc. so easily.

Alan identifies the two biggest drawbacks of keeping everything in your head:

  1. As mentioned before, paper stores information forever.
  2. Even if the brain has remembered the information (I’m sure you all know your mother’s birthday, for example), it might not yield this information in a timely manner (Only when you read the date on the calendar do you realise it is too late to post a card!)

To solve this, Alan recommends first externalising all information – get it out of your head and on to paper, or in emails, or a todo item – whatever. Put all of that information in a central inbox (physical or virtual). This means that everything that requires your attention is in one place.

Then go through each item sequentially and follow these four rules:

  1. DO. If it takes less than 2 minutes to action the item, do it there and then. If not, continue to the next step,
  2. DELEGATE. Can some one else do this? If not,
  3. DEFER. Is this action too big to do now, or is something you need to do later? Defer it.
  4. DELETE. Not everyone remembers this one, it’s one of my favorites. Most information we receive is junk. Don’t give it another thought, hit the DEL key.

Of course, some stuff that comes into our inboxen will be just “information”, stuff that doesn’t need to be actioned, but we should keep for reference. Receipts, telephone numbers addresses etc. This should be put into an information file, ideally indexed or searchable in some way so that information retrieval is quick and painless. I will discuss this in Part II.

At the end of this processing, you should have a smaller inbox. You will have done a few simple tasks (post that letter, ring that guy), delegated tasks to someone (I also consider using services as delegation, here’s an example: I’ve been meaning to buy some more RAM for my computer for ages, it’s been in the back of my mind all the time, and in the fore when I’m using Windows. How long did it take me to order yesterday? 1 minute. Delegated. Now it’s Crucial’s problem.)

You will now have a list of items that need to be actioned, a task list or some emails telling you what work needs to be done. It’s time to break those up into contexts.

Contexts are a very simple, yet smart, idea in GTD. By putting the tasks into lists arranged by what context is needed to fulfil the task (At work, on phone, Internet, etc,) you immediately can clear stuff out of your mental scope depending on where you are. When you are at home, you just need to look at the “at home” context. You are not bothered by tasks like “Write TPS Report” because they are irrelevant in your current context. This takes a load off your mind.

At its simplest state, GTD can be 80% effective with just these rules.

Stuff -> Inbox -> 4 Ds -> “Contextify”

But the last step is to put related tasks into the same project lists. This will then allow you to look through the project list and decide which is the “next action”. Knowing with certainty what is the next step will allow you to filter all your information into a tiny list of all the next action in your current context. Because this only shows you what you can do, you mind is clear to focus on these few tasks alone.

Stay tuned for the second part, where I’ll talk about the tools I use to implement GTD.

Note: This is my take on GTD, of course, Alan has plenty of other tips and tricks in his methodology, but I believe I’ve covered the basics. Let me know if I’ve missed anything you consider vital in the comments!

Photo courtesy of gilderic


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