Getting Things Done – My Approach

There are so many ways people have implemented David Allen’s Getting Things Done I avoided blogging about mine for ages. Then I realized, after three years of using it, that it’s pretty effective. It’s also pretty simple and that’s part of the appeal. Last but not least, it’s paper and pen based, which makes it portable and immune to the peculiarities of IT departments.

The system is simple and has the following elements:

  1. A list of all projects started. A project is, as written in GTD, anything that takes more than one step. I keep a handwritten list, each project in a numbered list.
  2. A stack of active projects, in a folder marked Projects. One sheet of paper for each project. Number in the upper right hand corner, title in the upper left hand corner. The sheet is a simple log of next actions, and sometimes a few additional thoughts. The lowest item is always what needs to be done next in simple, visible terms.
  3. A next action list. This also holds everything else that I need to do that is not a project. Date in the upper right hand corner, and a list of items. Sometimes I fold the sheet in half, and use the four pages for contexts (i.e. Home, Work, etc.) often I don’t. This list may get folded up and carried in a pocket, or it might sit in the Projects folder. This sheet also serves as a sort of inbox – a good place to jot new things to be processed. Because any new next action list involves copying items from the old one, the new items will be processed.
  4. Another folder labeled ‘Inactive’. This is where old next action lists, and full or finished, project sheets go. This can probably stay in the desk.
  5. Another folder is labeled ‘Someday/Maybe’
  6. A stack of blank paper for making new projects, or new project sheets for older ones.

The workflow is also pretty simple:

  1. Add projects to the project list.
  2. For each project, write a project sheet. At the top it sometimes helps to write a clear statement of the expected outcome. Write the next thing you need to do for that project.
  3. Add that next action to the next action list.
  4. When you’re done, start working on the next action list and all the other stuff life brings to our doors.
  5. At least once a week, or when the next action list has accumulated a fair number of check marks, review the project sheets.
  6. For each sheet update the status – what’s happened or been accomplished. Change the next action if necessary. If nothing was done, simply go to the next project.
  7. Record each next action on the next action list as you look at each project.
  8. If nothing has been done on a project in a long time, I ask myself if if this is really an active project or not. Many ideas get turned into projects, that then turn out to be either not as useful as thought or they simple become irrelevant. If it happens that a month or so goes by with no action I will usually make an entry that says something like “Hibernating until I have more ideas.” Sometimes a project will go directly to Someday/Maybe.

I’ve tried a variety of software on my desktop computer, my laptop, my iPhone, and web based. All had some neat features and some of those feature could have been addicting but for one thing. While I would rather do this stuff in software, in every one of these systems I found myself updating them after the fact instead of using them in the process of planning work. They were good record keeping systems, but they didn’t add anything to the process except work. This pretty much destroys the value of the Getting Things Done system, which is derived from the planning that comes out of the project review process.
I also tried a number of different combinations of paper, but in the end simple blank sheets and file folders work the best.

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