How, and why, to organize yourself (my implementation of David Allen’s Getting Things Done)

indian bureauocrat by Jan Banning

This is an Indian bureaucrat, from an interesting art project by Jan Banning

I believe in David Allen’s theory of consciousness from the  book Getting Things Done.  In it, he describes how every commitment you make- large or small, to yourself or anyone else- is recorded by some small part of your being.  That part of your being will not be at peace until that commitment is completed.  Furthermore, that part of your being always thinks you should be doing that task right now and will not rest until you have.  It may be overridden, ignored, or drowned-out by competing interests… but until you have disavowed the commitment or completed the action, it remains an alive and dissatisfied part of you.  Allen calls these incomplete commitments open loops.

The rest of the book is dedicated to the proper tracking, completion, delegation, or deletion of these open psychic loops.  Clearing all of the open loops isn’t the goal, because they crop up too fast and are a necessary part of an effective person’s life. Allen proposes that true peace involves knowing that all of your open loops are being accounted for in a reliable system so that when you are relaxing, you can be at peace knowing that the open loops are accounted for and not floating around in some forgetful or guilty-feeling part of your brain, ready to ambush you, or just quietly contributing to an inexplicable sense of never-ending urgency and inability to relax.

My organizational system draws heavily from the system mapped out in Allen’s book, so I’ll explain the basics of his system.  Then I’ll describe what parts of it I actually use.

David Allen’s GTD in a nutshell:

The system needs to let you see all of your open loops at once, so that you can review them and choose how to manage your time from a clean, well-organized bird’s eye view.  In order collect all of the open loops, he proposes building collection buckets, which are repositories where you can dump/collect open loops.  These are things like a notebook, an email inbox, an iPhone/PDA, the writing on the back of your hand, and evernote account, a spreadsheet, your answering machine, etc.  You are supposed to have a finite number of buckets that you regularly process.  Processing is the act of dealing with an open loop once it has been collected.

Processing is a different action than collecting.  Typically you want to be able to sit down with a pile of shit that needs to be processed, and get through each item/note/voicemail/message on the back of your hand within two minutes.  There are four processing options.  Remember- you only have 2 minutes per item. Here, in order of preference, are the actions you can take.  I have slightly modified what he says in the book here by adding archiving to the processing options:

  1. do it (only if it takes <2 minutes)
  2. archive it put it in a folder somewhere for reference (sometimes coupled with a calendar or to-do entry)
  3. delete it let it go, baby
  4. delegate it make some sucker do it for you
  5. defer it to your calendar or project/to do list

From here a lot of stuff will wind up on your calendar or project list/task list.  A project list should consist of big-picture headings with single action sub-heads below it.  They should be a sequential, actionable route to achieving the larger goal.  Your task list should consist of all of the single actions you’re currently working on for the larger goals. Example:

Launch breakfast taco sales extravaganza:

  1. Write and send introductory email to current customers
  2. Yell at Andrew until he goes to the customers’ businesses and begs for their support
  3. Have sales goals been met?
    1. Self-flagellate. Go back to #2.
    2. Treat self to nice steak dinner
  4. [etc. until all actions to complete the task have been listed]

[Next project starts here]

The final piece of the puzzle is your archive.  For me, this is a hanging file cabinet, my gmail archive, and my evernote, dropbox, and fujitsu scansnap scanner folders.  The main thing to remember about the archive is that you should use the shit out of it.  Don’t know what to do with that weird letter from some government agency that’s been on your desk for 4 months?  Make a folder called “Govt shit- weird” and get it off your desk.  If you’re worried about it, put an entry into your calendar (with a reminder, if you use gcal) to schedule a time to actually follow up on it by calling around.  Remember to write down the name of the folder where you filed it in your calendar so you can track it down later.

That, in a nutshell, is David Allen’s system.  I highly recommend the book, especially the part about open loops.  Rumor has it that he had a nervous breakdown, abandoned his life in the US to be a monk for awhile, and then came back and wrote GTD.

My GTD implementation looks like this:

Write all of the shit that I need to do for the week down in on a page in my notebook every Monday.  Carry unfinished stuff from previous week over. Check things off as I get them done; use the notebook to take relevant notes and update my next actions.  I use boomerang to schedule and track followups for email communication (or the lack of response); everything else that is time specific gets put on the my google calendar.  I often do this by voice.  If you send a text message to google calendar, it can schedule events for you (register first!).  The phone number for doing this is 48368.  I often schedule events by using google voice to speak a message that is then sent via SMS to gcal.

Let a bunch of shit pile up on my desk until I get fed up with it.  Form it into a pile and go through it, responding, scanning to archive as a searchable PDF with my Fujitsu ScanSnap Scanner (love this thing), or throwing it away.

Freak out every once in a while and setup a bunch of collection buckets that I brain-dump into for a few days (e.g. notepad in the car, index cards in my back pocket, renewed dedication to evernote) which I then compile into a google doc that guides my task list for awhile.  This typically only happens when I start to get a lot of stuff piled onto my plate.  Otherwise the notebook seems to work fine for me.

In conclusion, I supposed there is a fairly large rift between Allen’s proposal and my system.  That said, my system is still pretty effective- much more effective than it used to be.  All through college and until a couple of years after I started The Green Cart, my system let all kinds of open loops form.

In fact… I still have an open loop from 3rd grade, when I found out Christopher Columbus killed a bunch of Native Americans.  I told this kid Brian Brandes that I was going to write a letter to the Knights of Columbus to insist that they rename their club.  I never did that.  I took credit for doing something I hadn’t done, and then didn’t do it.  This is basically tantamount to stealing credit; so tantamount to stealing.  It’s actually weird to me that this thought comes to mind, now.  I haven’t thought of this memory in probably over 15 years… and it has been lurking in my consciousness since I was about 8 years old… whispering …thief! in my ear so softly I could barely hear…

I supposed I have a letter to write to the Knights of Columbus tomorrow.  I’ll post it when I’m done.

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2 Responses to How, and why, to organize yourself (my implementation of David Allen’s Getting Things Done)

  1. Pingback: How to deal with a vague, nagging sense of frustration and/or anxiety | Jeff's Blog

  2. Mike Jurkash says:

    Great post! David Allen’s book is great and I’m glad you reminded me of it. I think it comes done to the brain wanting to be congruent and keep promises which builds trust in oneself.

    Another great point in Allen’s book – if you notice there are certain tasks on your notecard/planner that seem to be lurking around a while.. make sure you have it in actionable item format.

    In other words, if I have an item that says “Passport Health” because I need to get a Polio booster shot, my brain doesn’t really understand what it’s supposed to do. If I write “Call Passport Health at (512) 428-8409 and set up appointment for Polio shot”, my brain knows exactly what to do and the action seems easier.

    Also, if something isn’t getting done it could be because there is a missing action step. For example, I have had an action step “Send Sean Amazon Card” because I have a gift card I’ve been meaning to send a friend. Well, the problem is I don’t know Sean’s address so the next action step is actually” Call Sean @ 555-5555 and ask him what his address is” Might sound crazy, but it works! Thanks Jeff!

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