Getting Things Done: The Aftermath

Back in March I posted a review of David Allen’s renowned book Getting Things Done. I vowed back then to embrace the entire GTD methodology and write another post on how I got on. So has it allowed me to achieve more in less time with minimal stress? Or has it just turned me into someone who is obsessed with filing? Maybe a bit of both…

Getting started

The biggest hurdle to getting started with GTD is that you first need to create a suitable environment (filing cabinet, desk, in tray, etc.) and stock it with the right equipment (folders, stapler, labler, A4 pads, etc.). The My filing systembook has an excellent chapter “Setting up the Time, Space and Tools” that walks you through exactly what you need to do. The only problem is you kind of have to take it on trust that it really will improve your life because you can’t really implement the rest of the book until you have done what this chapter tells you to. Trust me though, once you have the system set up, you will wonder how you ever survived without it. You simply cannot be organised if your environment is not up to it. It amazes me now to see how little filing space many people allow themselves (both at home and at work) and it doesn’t surprise me therefore that they end up storing stacks of paper around the house and on their desks. This quote from the book explains it well:

I know almost no one who doesn’t have overstuffed file drawers. If you value your cuticles, and if you want to get rid of your unconscious resistance to filing, then you must keep the drawers loose enough that you can insert and retrieve files without effort.

Some people’s reaction to this is “I’d have to buy more file cabinets!” as if that were something horrible. Help me out here. If the stuff is worth keeping, it’s worth keeping so that it’s easily accessible, right? And if it’s not, then why are you keeping it?

The beauty of capturing everything

A central pillar of GTD is that all input, from an email through to someone asking you something when they bump into you in the corridor, needs to be captured and placed in your in tray for processing. Crucially this doesn’t just include external input from other people but also any ideas or thoughts that you have. It might even be things like “I really should call Joe this weekend”.

Once you have everything captured David Allen describes what to do next in the chapter entitled “Processing: Getting In to Empty”. The brilliant thing about his system is that it makes it very quick to go through your in box even if it is quite full. Key to this is the idea that you don’t necessarily have to action everything immediately but you must set up the relevant note or reminder in your personal organisation system.

Both my personal and work email in boxes have been consistently empty for weeks now and the same is true for their real world counterparts. This may sound gimmicky but, believe me, it is soooo relaxing to know that you have a handle on everything that you have been asked to do. I now shudder when I see people with more then 20 items in their in boxes even though I used to have well over 1000!

Capturing everything has also made me acutely aware of how many things are going on in my life at any one time. It is no wonder that I used to struggle to keep this all in my head. As an example, typically I find that I am waiting for over 50 things (i.e information, products, invoices, expenses, etc.) at any one time. Now that they are all written down I no longer have to worry about them. I know that I will chase them up if required and nothing will slip through the net.

The benefits

The key benefits that I have felt are as follows:

  • Relaxation – I can now be certain that everything that needs to be done will be done. When I leave the office at the end of the week I know that there is nothing that I still need to do that can’t wait until Monday morning.
  • Reliability – People around me (and indeed myself) can trust that things they need me to do will get done.
  • Prioritisation – GTD provides an excellent system for prioritising tasks. I find that most of the time I am now confident that what I’m working on is what I should be working on.
  • Productivity – Strangely I don’t think this is the greatest benefit of GTD. There is only so much time in every day and, ultimately, this book is about how you choose what to do with that time because it can’t magically create more time from nowhere. However, in practice, I have been getting a lot more done over the last few months. I think the boost has come from being organised (i.e. not wasting time trying to find that email/document/license that I need) and always knowing what I could be doing with my time (i.e. calling a customer while I’m waiting for a flight or reviewing a document on a train journey).

The right book at the right time (for me)

When I look back over my career I realise that when I started work as a software developer I did not have a massive need for good organisation skills. At work I would be given one task to complete and, once that was finished, be given another. My home life too was significantly simpler and did not include my current range of hobbies and interests.

Slowly over time this has changed. At work I am now responsible for a wide array of projects and typically have over 30 items that need my attention at any one time. Similarly my home life has become more complex. As the expectation of me has shifted from doing one thing well to keeping a multitude of tasks and projects on track the requirement for improved personal organisation skills has become increasingly acute. Thank goodness I read this book now!

Have you read Getting Things Done? Has it worked for you? Do you use other personal organisation techniques? I’d love to hear about your experiences so please go ahead leave me a comment.

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