Getting Back to Getting Things Done

I've recently migrated this blog, and the older posts might not yet be satisfactorily cleaned up. Apologies for the temporary mess.

[This post originally appeared at ProfHacker.]

I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done five or six years ago, and it has more or less shaped the way I organize my work since then. I say more or less, because the elaborate system of projects, next actions, someday/maybe lists, and processing that makes up GTD is easy to slip away from. That’s probably for the best, since undue obsession with planning your work can take away from actually doing the work. I’ve noticed that I go through long cycles, at the end of which I return to organizing my work according to GTD.

I’ve recently gotten back to the *Getting Things Done system, thanks to a series of episodes in the podcast Back to Work*. Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin discuss the high points of GTD, especially the sticking points where your system can fall apart. (A caveat: the hosts spend a lot of time talking about things that are off topic, especially comics. If you enjoy that, fine; if not, scan ahead to the place about 30 minutes in where the episodes really get started.) Here are links to the five episodes: episode 95episode 96episode 97episode 98episode 99. You can read the show notes to find which episodes might be most helpful to you.

Since I’ve gotten back to GTD (for now, at least), I feel a lot more confident that I’m working on the right things at the right time. For example, I’m sure that I’m not missing fellowship or grant application deadlines, because I’ve made projects for each of them, and I can move ahead on any of my projects at any time, because I’ve already figured out what the next action is that I need to take. These are the main points that I took away from the _Back to Work _podcasts:

  • I’ve been far more consistent about doing a weekly review, and now I often perform a review twice or three times a week. My tendency is to plan everything then not actually look at the list of projects, and to let the inbox pile up until it’s unmanageable. Reorienting myself at least once a week has given me a lot more confidence.
  • I’ve take the time to figure out the actual next action for each project, whereas before I’ve created a long list of things that could conceivably be done for each project. I really am more likely to move a project along if the next action is “Checkout BV 4705 .H4 Isaac Hecker’s Diary @GoldfarbLibrary” instead of “Read Isaac Hecker’s Diary.”
  • I’ve been more realistic about what is a project. A project like “Write dissertation chapter 6″ (let alone,“Write dissertation”) is inadequately thought out. Now I have a series of reasonable projects that correspond to sections of each chapter. For example, a project might be”Read the secondary literature on gift economies as it relates to religion\” with a next action of “Compile a starting bibliography from Schmidt’s essay.” My work is more focused and efficient when I conceive of a project as a chunk of work that can be accomplished in a few days, rather than a few months.
  • I’ve written better instructions to myself. Tasks such as “Read Schmidt” might be fine if I do it the same day I create it; they’re worthless a month later. A task like “Read Schmidt’s essay in Lived Religion, looking for the main concepts and literature on gift economies” is far more likely to be meaningful.
  • I’ve gotten better about deciding not to do projects, either by deferring them or outright deciding against them.

The other way to get back to GTD is to read the ProfHacker archives—it’s a topic of perpetual interest here. You might start with Nels’s introduction or Natalie’s review of the key concepts. Ryan reviews Cultured Code’s Things software, which I use; somehow ProfHacker doesn’t have a full review of Omnifocus, the more popular alternative to Things. Natalie writes about “How to Defer an Action” and about “GTD Contexts and Academic Work.” Jason reviews some posts about productivity related to GTD, and suggest how to resume tasks rather than restart them. Finally, you can look at all our posts tagged GTD.

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