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“So, basically, it’s just a bunch of lists?” — Jenn

I spent the weekend implementing the system found in David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Rather than explain the system, I want to tell you how I implemented it. However, since I didn’t follow things to the letter, and since most of you are probably unfamiliar with this, a brief summary is probably in order. The following has been significantly simplified.

Our lives, says Allen, are filled with Stuff. Too much Stuff. We think about this Stuff, we worry about this Stuff, we never get all the Stuff done that we need to do.

His solution is simple: collect all the Stuff in a Collection Bucket. When all the Stuff is in one place, process the top item in the Bucket. When the first item has been processed, move on to the second. Process everything in order until there’s nothing left in the Collection Bucket.

How are items processed? Whenever one takes an item from the Collection Bucket, one asks: “Is this actionable?” In other words, “Is this something that I need to take care of?”

If the item is not actionable, one should (depending on its nature):

  • toss the item in the trash,
  • file the item for future reference, or
  • place the item in a regularly-reviewed tickler file for possible future action.

If the item is actionable, one should (depending on its nature):

  • do it, if it’s only going to take a few minutes,
  • delegate it, if it’s somebody else’s responsibility, or
  • defer it.

Using this system, many items are done immediately, while many other items are deferred. Deferred items may be:

  • placed on a calendar if they must be done at a specific date and/or time, or
  • put on list of Next Actions if they’re things that need to be done ASAP

There’s a special subset of actionable items called Projects. These are multi-step events. Each Project gets its own file, and the Next Action for each Project is placed in the Collection Bucket.

After the system is erected, one should empty the Collection Bucket(s) once a week (or as often as necessary). That’s it. That’s the system.

Here’s a graphical representation:

[flowchart demonstrating Getting Things Done steps]

An alternate graphical representation:

[flowchart demonstrating Getting Things Done steps]

There are other nice Getting Things Done flowcharts out there. I’ve got a pretty one hanging above my desk now.

This ideas in this book are designed for business use, but they’re easily applied to one’s personal life. That’s just what I did last weekend.

Here’s how I got things done:

I made a trip to an office supply store to pick up: file folders, an automatic labeler, four 12×12 tiles of cork, a nice wooden inbox, thumbtacks, scotch tape, and a few other items.

Collecting Stuff
I gathered together all of my Stuff, both physical and mental, and piled it on the kitchen table.

To gather the physical Stuff, I walked from room-to-room with a box, into which I shoveled all the Stuff I could find (e.g. magazines, photographs, junk mail, to-do lists, letters, etc.).

To gather the mental Stuff, I walked from room-to-room with a stack of index cards, onto which I wrote all the Stuff that occurred to me (e.g. put away clothes, clean cat food area, hang painting on guest room wall, organize DVDs, prune laurel from back porch, etc.).

Sorting Stuff
When all this Stuff had been collected in one spot (which took several hours), I began to process it.

Mostly the Stuff was easy to process. I just started with what was in front of me, picked it up, and asked myself what the item was and what needed to be done with it.

If it was something I could deal with in just a few minutes, I dealt with it. (For example: books that needed to be shelved.)

If it was something that needed to be dealt with soon, but that would take longer than just a few minutes, I set aside in a Next Actions pile. (For example: cancel cell phone.)

If I no longer needed the item, I threw it out. (For example: house flyers from last spring.)

If it was something that I wanted to keep for Reference, I made a new file folder (labeling it with my handy automatic labeler). (For example: all of the various songlists I jot down for future CD mixes.)

If it was something for somebody else, I put it in a Delegated pile. (For example: anything related to the bathroom remodel, which Kris is basically in charge of.)

If it was a part of a larger Project, I stuck it in a folder marked Projects. (I didn’t finish organizing my Projects this weekend. They can wait. For now there’s a file-folder filled with them.) (For example: organizing all of my writing, from high school til today.)

If it was something that needed done on a specific date, I entered it into iCal. (For example: my upcoming dentist appointment.)

If it was something that didn’t need done right away, I stuck it in a Tickler file to process later. (For example: schedule a poetry night.)

If it was something that was just an idea, something that I might want to do someday, but it won’t kill me if I don’t, then I put it in a file marked “someday/maybe”. (For example: buy a nice leather easy chair like the one Paul J. has.)

This sorting process took an entire day. When the kitchen table was clean once again, I had several file folders filled with to-do lists. I also had a stack of Next Actions.

Organizing Stuff
All of my reference file folders (and there were several dozen of them) were tucked in a desk drawer. I put the Projects file into my inbox (because I need to break it down later, creating individual files for each project). Most of my organization, though, involved the stack of action items.

I hung the cork tiles in the nook, behind my desk. I labeled the top one “Next Actions”. Then, for each action item, I created an index card. (Actually, I ended up using my old Computer Resources business cards. They’re the perfect size.) I tacked the index cards to the cork in no particular order.

After two-and-a-half days, I was finished. My version of the Getting Things Done system was set up and ready to use.

Getting Things Done
When using the system, you’re supposed to take the next action item, no matter what it is, and just do it. You’re not supposed to sort through them. For this one time, for setting up the system, I made an exception. I cherry-picked. I selected a few cards at a time, and then I did whatever they said: clean car, buy mini-to-mini cable, check hoses on washing machine. If the action was something that I know comes up repeatedly (clean car, for example), then I tucked it in a drawer for later use.

After my initial Brain Dump, I had 53 next actions. I did eleven of them yesterday. I brought six more with me to work today (get watch batteries, let State Farm know we replaced furnace, read credit union policies, stop by Les Schwab to check on tire).

I took yesterday afternoon off to relax. I didn’t do any chores. I didn’t feel like I needed to: everything that needs done is sitting there, tacked to my corkboard. I don’t need to worry about it anymore

To some of you, this all probably seems silly. It may seem like a lot of effort to take care of something that you can do in your head. The point, though, is that this gets everything out of your head.

When you’re trying to juggle 53 next actions in your head (along with a dozen projects, a dozen someday/maybe wishes, a score of calendar items, and a bunch of other ideas), it can be overwhelming. It’s easy to feel stressed, or bewildered, or desperate. With the Getting Things Done system, everything is out of your head and on paper. You don’t have to think about things anymore. You just do them.

Any time a new idea occurs to you, you jot it down and put it in your inbox. (For example: a few moments ago I jotted “incorporate all calendars into iCal” on an index card. It’ll go in my inbox when I get home, to be processed later.) When magazines come in the mail and you haven’t time to read them, you put them in your inbox. When a friend gives you a flyer about an upcoming concert series, you put it in your inbox. Once a week (or more often, if you like), you sit down and process your inbox, creating next actions, filing things for reference, and otherwise deciding where each item belongs.

Toward a Pastoral Lifestyle
You know that freedom you feel when on vacation? That wonderful sense that there’s nothing to worry about? That’s what this system attempts to give you. For me, it’s yet another step toward the ever-elusive pastoral lifestyle for which I continue to strive.

Pre-Crash Comments

On 23 May 2005 (09:30 AM),
Lisa said:

When I was working in Seattle, my company paid 1/2 for everyone’s PDAs (mostly Palm Pilots at the time) and then had David Allen come and do a presentation (at least I’m pretty sure it was him). Taking all the thing out of your mind and storing them elsewhere certainly is an incredible relief. It worked really well but my system fell apart after I stopped working full time. Perhaps it’s time to bring it back into my personal life…

On 23 May 2005 (09:37 AM),
Courtney said:

Sounds like a great plan to me! I can’t stand getting bogged down with all the to-do lists in my head. So, I started out with an in-box too, several months ago. The problem is, my in-box has spread to an entire room, which is supposed to be my den/knitting room. Instead, it is piled with stuff to take to Goodwill, photos to be sorted and put into albums, magazines to read, linens to iron, items to file, Henry’s bathtub, etc. Sigh! Just opening the door to that room stresses me out. Someday soon I’ll sort through it all and get it down to a managable size which can be contained in my in-box.

On 23 May 2005 (09:50 AM),
Tiffany said:

I get told that I am organized all the time. But I do not consider it a talent because I think that, for me at least, it is genetics. Both parents are big into ‘To Do’ List and I started those early in life too.
In college I found “Calendar Creator” which looks a lot it ICal. Then back in the late 1990s I got my first Palm Pilot. I became addicted to it, in a good way. You are right about having the items out of your head leads to less stress. I have a thought (I need to call about the ordered furniture, but it is Sunday and they are closed) it goes on the To Do List for Monday. I can set up To Do list my die date so that I know to complete the task in order of needing them done.
The calendar works great for setting up repeat items (like changing my contacts every three weeks and changing the house air filter every three months); in addition to keeping dentist appointments, and flight/hotel times.

I always find it interesting to see how other people organize because there is always room for improvement. Good Luck.

On 23 May 2005 (09:51 AM),
Tiffany said:

Oh, yeah, the biggest benefit to the Palm Pilot, no wasted paper.

On 23 May 2005 (10:13 AM),
Jeff said:

My favorite way to make a list… Microsoft Excel.

I generally work better with lists, but I need to leave them in prominant locations (like the kitchen counter) or I forget about them. Steph sees them as clutter, so she throws them into her piles (her organizational method). My lists get lost in her piles and nothing gets done.

So, I started making electronic lists and leaving them on the electonic desktop… seems to be a good compromise, and I can always print them out if I need to.

On 23 May 2005 (10:40 AM),
Amy Jo said:

I often wonder if I became an editor because of my inclination to order things, to have an ongoing task list, to put everything in its place, or if my non-work life became this way because I am an editor . . .

On 24 May 2005 (11:08 AM),
JC said:

Good post. In a very non-GTD move, I printed it out and took it home to read.

I’ve been on the fence about buying the book for some time now. There are a couple of blogs I’ve been reading that promote the GTD movement [one had an in-depth project management Excel spreadsheet that I’ve been playing with].

My problem/concern? I can’t seem to throw anything away!

Either way, I need some sort of system. JC

On 05 September 2005 (03:18 PM),
Jon M. said:

I’ve been working at implementing GTD, and my efforts seem to keep sputtering like a bad car engine. But after reading your presentation, it’s a lot clearer to me now…my hat’s off to you!

On 02 October 2005 (04:46 AM),
Matthew Cornell said:

Thank you for the post, J.D. I esp. liked your collection idea of using index cards during a house walk-through, and the implications of GTD for a “pastoral lifestyle.” I have one concern, having to do with this point: “When using the system, you’re supposed to take the next action item, no matter what it is, and just do it.” If you are referring to the next action in a list of actions for a project, i.e., that you should pick the next one to put on your next action lists, then I understand and agree. However, if you’re instead talking about how to *choose* actions from your lists, then I believe Allen would say use one of his models for deciding what to do, esp. the “four-criteria” model: 1. Context, 2. Time, 3. Energy, 4. Priority. Of course, I’m new at this and might be completely off my rocker! Thanks again for the post.


On 08 October 2005 (09:07 AM),
JC said:

That is my understanding too Matt. I think the idea to process things one by one without preference applies to the inbox only and not to next actions. For those who are interested, this is discussed near the beginning of chapter 6 which starts on page 119.

JC (Yes, another one.)

5 Replies to “Getting Things Done”

  1. matt says:

    you alternate graphical representation diagram is very good. this will help me!i’m a highs school student by the way.

  2. Geoff says:

    Great summary of the GTD system and your personal implementation. I have read most of the book and I have to say that you’ve captured the essence of it in a few paragraphs. There really isn’t much more to it folks, read this and implement it!

  3. Scott says:

    I’m curious, after 1.5 years after this post, if you are still using the system. I’m considering taking the plunge and want to see what pitfalls to avoid and how I can help others maintain the “pastoral lifestyle” you mention. Great post, by the way!

  4. Ecohuman says:

    man, this is fantastic, thanks. i see a lot of GTD stuff, but to be honest, had a hard time visualizing it in action. nice job.

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