Getting Things Done (GTD) – First Impressions

So I checked out a copy of the renowned “Getting Things Done” book by David Allen. If you go to sites like lifehacker.com, then you probably heard about this system already. I can’t do a book review because I skimmed parts that honestly did not make sense to me. I’m writing about this book though, and the strategy of getting things done proposed by the book, because I think there are some points that is applicable to any system designed to maximize productivity.

First, the GTD way of doing things is not another time management system. The book talks nothing about how to spend your weekends or how to get that 20-minute nap in the afternoon. (Well, it does talk about doing your “weekly reviews” on Friday afternoons to go into the weekend with a clean slate, but really, this is just a suggestion that may not work for you.) It doesn’t really talk much about time at all. I like this aspect of it, because, in my own personal experience, flexibility to adapt your workflow to any situation is the key to increased productivity.

Now, to the basics. GTD, in its bare elements, consists of some rather simple principles:

  1. Write down everything that you need to do. Write down everything that you want to do, as well. If anything comes up and you need to do it, or you want to do it, write it down immediately.
  2. (Complete those tasks that you’ve written down–since they’re more manageable now due to your having written them down in a smart way.)
  3. Once a week, review all outstanding/uncompleted tasks and plan for the next week. This is time to review any projects that need tweaking, etc., and should take a couple hours.

That’s pretty much it — Principle #2 isn’t really a principle as you can see, I just put it there to make the 3rd one make sense. Principles #1 and #3 are really, really new to me, and have given me some new insight into how to handle tasks.

The beauty about Principle #1 is that, once you do this, you don’t need to think about anything that has not been completed. And the lists that you end up writing up need not be detailed; for example, it could be something as vague as “learn to play the piano.” Once you’ve written this down, and you tell yourself that you don’t need to mentally remind yourself about this, you make room for other thoughts.

As for the actual tasks that really do need to get completed, you break them up into environments. It’s a to-do list, but a much better one, constrained (split up into subsections) by where you are or what you will have with you. Thus, the “Next Actions” list (GTD’s to-do list) may be composed of multiple lists like: @home, @computer, calls, emails, @work, @school, etc. See how these topics already make the decision of where you should be doing the tasks? This makes a huge difference for me. Try it out–this aspect alone will help you quite a bit–you’ll have to do less thinking about the task and how to do the task, when you’ve completed this first step of writing down tasks based on context.

About Principle #3: Apparently, this is the most important part of the GTD system (or any productivity solution). You should do your “weekly review” to take care of your various lists and “stuff” and make sense of them for the coming week. “Stuff” is anything that has not been processed, basically, into a “Next Actions” list. It could be your bank statement. A call from your friend Chris who wanted your input on deciding where to go for the ski trip. Emails. Ah, and that list containing things you want to do (like learning the Piano). “Stuff” is essentially any piece of information that has been given to you, about which you have taken no decisions how to deal with them. During your weekly review, you’re supposed to get everything that has piled up in your “stuff” bin and turn them into tasks for your Next Actions list. (My tip: make these tasks as bite-sized and friendly as possible to make sure that they can be knocked out one after another; there’s no point in writing into your Next Actions list something fuzzy like “plan a vacation trip for the coming holidays,” when “call travel agent” would be more to the point). And generally, this “weekly review” is the time when you take a step back from your tunnel-visioned Next Actions list, and try to get the big picture, and make any adjustments to your Plan for World Domination or whatever else plans/projects you might have (I’m assuming that everyone has such a plan, or set of plans, because otherwise, they are merely reacting to stimuli from their environment and not taking proactive actions about their lives). Also, it doesn’t hurt to do a monthly and yearly review to take a look at your more overarching plans/questions/ideas (your post-graduate plans, your questions about the meaning of life, etc.)

Allen does give some concrete tips to optimize the way this system works:

  • Get a physical basket or tray where you can put all the stuff into one place for processing in your weekly review (I like this idea, and I started just putting everything in one pile in one part of my room for this purpose, since I’m too cheapo to buy a tray for this); Allen calls this basket/tray as the “in” basket in his book
  • Only use your calendar to put things that are absolutely mandatory for you to do, or things that will by their very nature expire automatically after a certain date passes. This will make your calendar function as an instant visual check on which times are available for you to mold to your wish (your Next Actions list). Also, by keeping your calendar free and clear of any “to-do” activities that are less-than-mandatory, you will avoid the psychological letdown of seeing your commitments fail. Keep your calendar sacrosanct. (I like this tip too, and use it in my own calendar now. No more generic reminders on calendars!!!)
  • Keep 43 manila folders. Thirty-one of those folders should be the days in a month, and 12 of them the months of the year (voila, 43 folders). This is, essentially, a gigantic calendar that has a 3rd dimension. The point is to use these folders as way to keep track of which tasks need to be completed on that day. So if one of your Next Actions list’s tasks was to go see the Super Bowl, you could put your Super Bowl tickets into the “21” folder for the 21st of the month. The trick is to open the representative folder for the current day in the morning, and then take care of everything inside, or to use them as reminders; it’s like the President getting his executive morning briefing of all events for that day. Before you go to bed, you should take whatever is remaining in that folder, and move it into tomorrow’s folder. It’s quite an imaginative idea, I have to admit. However, I have not implemented this system because I don’t get enough “stuff” from people to really make use of all those folders. But hey, I’m sure it couldn’t hurt.
  • Keep an archive. I.e., you should keep a file system for archiving material you might need later (aka “reference material”), such as phone numbers of people or a list of those new product lines that you wanted to take a look at in the future. Receipts, invoices, faxes, they all fit into this category. Allen doesn’t like hanging folders (I think it was because they’re weird to carry around with you), but hey, if you’re archiving material and you mean to keep them inside those big boxes or drawers, I don’t see why hanging folders can be such a bad thing).

It’s only been a couple days since I’ve implemented the essence of the GTD system, but I think it’s working. I feel less stressed out because of Principle #1 (see above). Also, it took me a while to write down everything that I want to do (learning foreign languages is a big one for me). I plan on breaking down every project/plan I have written down into smaller chunks that can be considered a task in the Next Actions list. Also, whenever I write down anything into the Next Actions list, I write down the estimated amount of time that it will take me to accomplish that task (always using conservative estimates), and also the amount of energy required for me to do it (is it creative work, or is it filling out a registration form?), in my own “code” language. This way, I can glance at the Next Actions list, and just see which one is the easiest one to do (or the hardest one, for that matter). (Again, the key is to prepare these tasks for ultra-easy consumption; more thinking at the processing stage (of the stuff) about how tough something will be will help you quickly choose a task from the Next Actions list and start completing it.) The time/energy requirement are not my inventions; Allen says that you should use these criteria when deciding which task to complete next — I just systematized it into the Next Actions list itself (much like how you break it down into @home, @computer, etc.).

Try it out. Get the GTD book for more details, but basically, as far as I can tell, everything I’ve written here is the heart and soul of GTD (the book itself is filled with the typical motivational testimonials and anecdotes that are entertaining, but are, really, just filler).

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Book Review – “How Life Imitates Chess” by Garry Kasparov (8.5/10)

Today I finished reading Garry Kasparov’s latest book, “How Life Imitates Chess.” Kasparov was world chess champion for over a decade, and the highest-ranked chess player in the world for almost two decades. It goes without saying that this man knew how to stay on top of his game.

The book was very easy to read. Kasparov includes little bits of history and quotes from notables across the spectrum of great achievers, such as Goethe and Simon Bolivar. But he does more than speculate on historical results, and includes concrete parallels from his own career as a chess grandmaster, and even into his childhood. Granted, this is my first full read of a self-improvement book, but I think it was well worth it. He offers some interesting stabs at better understanding solid decision-making.

Some key concepts I found helpful: the division of everything into 3 factors when making a choice into Material, Time, and Quality. You judge the quality (the value/worth) of each material thing and also how time affects their value, and how material affects time. (E.g., in chess, a pawn in one square may be worth more than its sister pawns in other squares.) This “MTQ” line of thinking is, in my view, very simple and robust. If you’re not using certain material to your advantage, then it has no value–and is worth sacrificing for other gains. Also, it’s good to keep changing your routine, so that you don’t get into habits. Habits–even good ones–can be harmful, because the environment is always changing. You don’t want them to become second-nature, and to this end Kasparov recommends breaking your routine often. I agree. Why not? Breaking your routine may give you a fresh perspective on how you think about things.

I’m not going to spill all the details, but the book itself, weighing in at 204 pages, is a breeze to read. I give it a 8.5/10.