Getting Things Done

The first in a series on how I deal with task management.

The level of complexity in a task management system needs to be commensurate with the number and complexity of the tasks that you’re managing. David Sparks relates that when he was a student, his task management system was to write down the day’s tasks on the napkin he got with his morning coffee. I never used a napkin, but as the complexity of my life has varied the complexity of my task management setup has waxed and waned from simple checklists (both paper and computerized) to powerful task management software.

Right now I’m at a fairly high level of complexity: my task management system involves two different pieces of software, a notebook, and a whiteboard. I’ll talk about these tools in future posts, but to start with I wanted to talk a bit about the conceptual framework that underlies it all.

That framework is the Getting Things Done system by David Allen. GTD is one of the most popular task methodologies, there are a lot of people out there using it. However, everyone seems to have their own particular take on the system. I sometimes think there are as many was of implementing GTD as there are people using the system. So what I describe certainly should not be taken as canonical. It’s more like, “This is my GTD system. There are many like it but this one is mine.”

Clean Sweep

Of all of the aspects of GTD, the one that was the biggest benefit to me when I first started was getting all of my tasks out of my head and into some sort of system. This is important for a couple of reasons: First, since I am terribly absent minded, any task I just try to rely on remembering is very unlikely to actually get done. I have to get it written down in a place where I’ll come back to it later. Second, (and this is the reason that David Allen emphasizes) having these unfinished tasks bouncing around in the mind is a distraction. It’ll be there, gnawing away until it gets done. Perhaps because I’m so forgetful this has been less of a problem for me.

The cure for both these ills is to get tasks out of my head an into some sort of system. For me, that system is OmniFocus. I’ve got it set up so that it’s extremely easy to get tasks into the software and as soon as I think of something I need to do I’ll pause whatever I’m doing and get it in there. I know from experience that there’s not a moment to waste if I don’t want to forget it.

Next Actions

The next step in GTD is to group tasks into projects and organize them as a series of “next actions”. One of the things I had to learn how to do when I started with GTD was distinguish between projects and actions. When I’m capturing a task, it might go into my system as “learn programming language X”, but that’s not something I can just sit down and do. It’s too big and involves too many different steps to bite off in one go. The next actions might be “Search Amazon for books on programming language X” or “Download programming language X software”.

The critical idea here is that taking a larger project and figuring out the next step requires mental energy. If I have to put in that energy right at the moment when I’m trying to start the work it creates an additional barrier, and the harder it is to get started the more likely I am to do something else. By putting in that thought about what the next step is up front, it lowers the amount of effort it takes to get started with the task when the time comes to actually do it. So when I’m looking at my task list all I have to do is pick one and do it.

While the “action” part of next actions is important, the “next” part is critical as well. One of the things I’ve struggled with is when my task list gets too long, it becomes harder and harder to go through the list and pick something off of it to work on. This makes it important to limit the task list to stuff I can actually do right now. There’s no need to clutter it up with something I can’t start on until next week or tasks I can’t start until I hear back from a colleague. This is where software can make a really big difference. One of the things I really like about OmniFocus is it’s ability to defer tasks (hiding them until a future date) or to make tasks sequential (you don’t even see Task B until you’ve checked off Task A). It really helps keep my list of available tasks manageable.

Contexts

The other way GTD is set up to limit the number of available tasks is by dividing tasks into different contexts. If the task is to fix a leaky faucet at home that’s not something I need to see when I’m at work.

This is one aspect of GTD that I’ve always struggled with, and I know I’m not the only one. When David Allen wrote Getting Things Done back in 2001 the canonical contexts where things like Phone, Computer, Internet, and Office. The idea was on an airplane you could ignore tasks that require phone calls or internet access. If you didn’t have your computer with you didn’t need to see tasks that require a computer or internet access. The problem is the proliferation of mobile devices and cellular data connections have blurred these lines tremendously. Unless a task requires me to be in a particular location, it’s usually something that I could be working on wherever I am.

So, I have three contexts: Work, Home, and Computer. The real divide here is between personal stuff and job related stuff. Work is for everything job related. Personal stuff is divided between Home and Computer. The tasks that require me to physically be at home go in the Home category and things that I can do anywhere I have access to a computing device and an internet connection in the Computer category.

In turn, this means that contexts don’t do a very good job of limiting my available task list. If I’m at home I could be working on everything on my Home and Computer tasks lists and almost everything on my Work task list (with the exception of a few tasks I need to physically at the office to do). This means I’ve always got a ton of different things I could be working on, which makes choosing one of them to actually work on more difficult.

Review

The final piece of the puzzle is to review outstanding projects and next actions every week. It’s really a series of questions about each project: Is this something I still need or want to do? Are there any tasks associated with this project that haven’t made it onto the list of next actions? If I haven’t made progress in the last week, why not?

This is another area that I’ve struggled with and it’s really a critical one. When I fail to do my review for a couple of weeks cruft builds up on my task list and things fall through the cracks. I’ve gotten better about this in part by scheduling time for the weekly review. I review for my personal projects on Sunday evening and my work projects on Monday afternoon. I’m also using an app called Due that’s another part of my task management system to remind myself to do the review on a regular basis. My track record on weekly reviews still isn’t perfect, but it’s getting better.

Getting Things Done has really been a godsend for me. Without it I would be blowing deadlines and missing tasks left and right. It’s really essential for me to be able to function as a responsible adult.

Next up in the task management series: OmniFocus, my task management software of choice.