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Sunday
Aug072005

Actually getting things done with Getting Things Done! Surprises and learnings from my implementation.

Yes the GTD meme continues to infect, and it's got me good! (In fact, I've starting coaching others in it, but that's another post). Today I want to briefly summarize my experience implementing David Allen's Getting Things Done (AKA GTD on the net), highlighting points which were particularly helpful or surprising, and describing issues and questions I have so far.

Briefly, I had been given a copy of GTD by my boss earlier this year, and it took me a while to get to it (some resistance there), but I started implementing it on 2005-05-16, and finished the initial implementation on 2005-07-17. It took me two months because a) I really did pile every single thing on (and around!) my desk, b) I worked on it a few hours at a time (with an initial 8 hour start), and c) I also processed a ton of old files. After using it for a month or so I have to say it's made a significant improvement in my life, esp. with my 'GSA' (Gnawing Sense of Anxiety) over stuff. Hell, even my wife's noticed! (An aside: I'm seeing a pattern of 'spouse testimonials' - spouses expound GTD's benefits to the relationship when their significant others 'get' it - Has anyone else noticed this?) I find that Allen's argument that 'getting things out of your head' (and into a trusted system that's reviewed regularly) does work for me.


Current Setup
  • I need portability because I bike between two offices (home and on-campus), so I decided to carry a Hipster PDA (hPDA) in my purse - oops, I mean man bag. However, I keep my project folders and reference files in regular-size manila folders in (nice) file cabinets at my home office. I carry an inexpensive plastic (waterproof) file holder in my backpack that contains these folders: Action Support, Inbox, Read/Review, @Work, Blank, and current project folders. Along with my purse (hPDA, calendar) I'm all set.

  • My hPDA contains the usual assortment of sections. I included my projects lists and my 'Areas of Responsibility' lists (separated by work/home) so that I can do my weekly review wherever I am. However, my someday/maybe lists are in regular-size manila folders. (There's a nice analysis of what needs to be portable here.)

  • It worked best for me to have all files, inboxes, reference files, etc. at one location, not duplicated as Allen recommends. I chose my home office since I'm there on the weekends doing personal work as well. My reference file is the standard A-Z, and I mix home and work files. Some (e.g., someday/maybe) have '- work' or '- home' on the labels. I reconcile the two by simply bringing everything from campus home - mail, printouts, etc.

  • I bought a Canon Pixma iP3000 (based on this recommendation) to print Douglas Johnston's D*I*Y Planner - Hipster PDA Edition cards. However, there's some clipping, and I don't like shrinking, so I'm looking at hacking custom PDFs with ReportLab (Python) - more professional for coaching/examples. I will post it when it's working. I'm also considering a paper planner (a DayRunner, Day-Timer, Circa, etc.) but I haven't found one that's compact enough yet.

  • I use a plain text file for my professional and personal log/journal (you can find a bit more on this in my article Photo Blogs, Wikis, and Memories for Life).

  • The best short summary of Getting Things Done I've found is here:

    In the conclusion of GTD, Allen says this:

    "To consistently stay on course, you’ll have to do some things that may not be habits yet: 1. keep everything out of your head; 2. decide actions and outcomes when things first emerge on your radar, instead of later; and 3. regularly review and update the complete inventory of open loops of your life and work."

    The numbering in the quote is mine.

  • The best labeler I found was the Dymo LetraTag QX50. (I read that the Brother models, which Allen recommends, use tape that's hard to peel, and waste tape). Helpful hint: You must have fresh batteries for good, dark, high-contrast printing!

Surprises
  • The significant reduction in stress and worries has been a major benefit to my life. I really have had more energy for projects, as a result of getting things out of my head.

  • I've found that focusing on the next action, even a very small one, helps during those times when I'm having trouble being productive at work. Just a 15 minute 'win', followed by a break, repeated, helps a ton.

  • I love the idea of 'visualizing WILD SUCCESS' for projects, esp. Allen's idea of writing an (unpublished) article set in the future touting you success. For example, To that end I wrote a two-page one on my coaching GTD for local paper; congratulations to me!

    The Daily Hampshire Gazette | October 2005
    The Amherst Man Who Helps Get Things Done
    by Tom Marshall STAFF WRITER
    ...

Particularly Helpful
  • As a geek I'm very drawn to this discipline. I guess I'm not alone - from Wired News: GTD: A New Cult for the Info Age:

    "Geeks are early adopters," Allen said. "They also love coherent, closed systems, which GTD represents.

    It's so true!

  • I've found the mind sweep to be very helpful when my head is full of negative thoughts and feeling overwhelmed. I just start blasting out items and pretty soon I'm feeling better. Then I check that each item has an associated project and/or next action, adding new ones as needed. Interestingly, talking to a friend I found out that he uses the sweep for primarily positive processing, i.e., generating ideas, etc. Here's a related article: Finding joy in the mind sweep. (To be fair I do record multiple ideas each day in my professional log/journal.) Here's Allen's comment on it, in the context of the weekly review:

    Be Creative & Courageous
    Any new, wonderful, hare-brained, creative, thought-provoking, risk-taking ideas to add into your system???

  • I love the idea of always having a UCT (Ubiquitous Capture Tool) with me at all times, especially when I'm trying to get to sleep. (My mind loves to work things over at this time of night, and I just reach over and write it down - ahh.)

  • Carrying my Read/Review folder with me has become central to my life, and quite handy. It's great for those minutes when I'm waiting or have a short break. However, I'm now printing more so I'm using more paper. But I bought a new printer the does duplex, and shrunken pages (Canon iP3000)! (A typical geek 'solution'.)

  • For making progress on reading books I do the following: I collect books I want to read on my Amazon wish list (87 of them at the moment), then periodically request them on-line from our great library system, which offers email notifications and local pickup. Free books; woo hoo!

  • Making my projects and commitments explicit has given me a greater respect for how I spend my time, esp. what I choose to read. I've found the 50 page rule for books (and my 20 minute variation for movies) extremely freeing. The idea: Give up on a book after 50 pages if it's not enjoyable:

    Never force yourself to read a book that you do not enjoy. There are so many good books in the world that it is foolish to waste time on one that does not give you pleasure and profit.

  • I've started using an alphabetical arrangement of email folders for reference, to mimic the paper one Allen recommends. So far I like it a lot.

  • A friend recommended sometimes 'blasting' through all (or most) items on a particular context list as a nice kind of house cleaning, esp. lists that get long.

  • When I've finished a read/review article and I have notes that are important to me to save, I simply a) write the notes on the article itself, and b) when I'm done I put it back into my inbox for recording in my (electronic) log/journal.

  • A 100% implementation of GTD does represent a "near vertical learning curve" (A Year of Getting Things Done), and requires rigorous discipline to maintain it. However, for me it's completely worth it.

Questions and Issues
  • One trap that seems to be common is spending time on GTD, instead of actually getting things done. I agree with this article that I should find *one* system that works, then fiddle with it as *little* as possible - doing 'Getting Things Done' != doing projects' work.

  • What contexts/categories are appropriate to programming? From 43 Folders: A Year of Getting Things Done: Part 3, The Future of GTD?:

    David Allen's system seems optimized for a certain kind of professional ... This seems especially true with contexts, where the needs of, say, a writer, a nurse, and a graphic designer are different enough to merit more specialized help putting together a system that's feasible to implement and maintain.

  • I need a better secondary storage solution. Currently I keep old finances, etc. in top-opening banker's boxes in my office closet, but I'm looking for front-opening ones (they're currently stacked three levels high, so opening the lower ones is a pain, even though I do it only once a week or so).

  • My someday/maybe folders (home, work) contain a mixture of a) letter-size printouts, b) a letter size list of projects, and c) scraps of index cards, each with one project idea. I need to consolidate, or at least get rid of b).

  • I'm still grappling with the problem of some lists getting too long. I look at carrying old items forward as a red flag? How do you deal with this? Of course this is one of the prime justifications for Allen's contexts/categories. However, I think there's an emotional component to some of the older 'cringe' tasks - I'm not taking action because I still haven't worked out whether a) it's the right action, or b) I really want to do it at this time. One solution has been to take it off the list, and put in a tickler two weeks from now that says 'Think about X', just to let it percolate in my subconscious. Dental issues seem to top my list, not surprisingly...

  • I'm not sure what the best way (OK, a good way) to trigger printing new articles and requesting new books is. The problem is that I don't think about it until I'm sitting around with nothing to read (a classic you-need-GTD symptom). Any ideas? More generally, I find I have to treat certain events as 'triggers' for next actions, including mail arrival (esp. bank and credit card statements), emails, phone calls, etc. Does anyone have a good way to remember these? Checklists? Stickies? Currently I have some checklists on stickies near my desk, which I try to remember to look at when something comes in. Also, I have two special folders under my in box - 'Waiting For Mail' (including credit card statements), and 'Waiting For Bank Statement'. These include receipts that can be thrown away after being reconciled with the statements.

  • I'm still working out the interplay between agendas and waiting for lists. For example, I might be waiting for a friend to send me something. I can put it on the w/f list, but should it also go on the agenda for that friend? I haven't thought this problem out clearly enough yet...

  • I spend a lot of time trying to sort through my RSS feeds for useful nuggets. It took time to realize that this is a 'Defining Work' phase, and is often a distraction. (As an aside: I really need to better manage my lists of on-line reading. Here are two articles on the topic in my inbox: Productivity: Reading News The GTD Way and Productivity Tips For Avid Blog Readers.)


That's all for now! For the future I am planning on changing the focus of this blog to more personal productivity, organization, and GTD-specific thoughts, hopefully with contributions from fellow GTD-ers around the area. Also, as I begin coaching GTD I want to share experiences and issues that come up.

Reader Comments (25)

Just a suggestion for a nice small pocket calendar/organizer. Check out the week-at-a-time Moleskine - http://www.mojolondon.co.uk/product.php?sku=02509. I use one and it's really great for keeping organized. If you don't need dates, a simple lined Moleskine would work great too (http://www.mojolondon.co.uk/product.php?sku=02126).

Matt

August 8, 2005 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Thanks for pointing out the Moleskine, Matt; I hadn't seen the weekly spread, which I love. I have been trying to love these great little books ever since I learned about them, but I can't seem to get around my need for removable pages and dividers. However, if I stick with my current 'separates' for calendar, GTD lists, and contacts, I'll definitely switch to the Moleskine.

matt

August 9, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I'm not sure what the best way (OK, a good way) to trigger printing new articles and requesting new books is. The problem is that I don't think about it until I'm sitting around with nothing to read (a classic you-need-GTD symptom).

Levenger, in his book, "A little guide to your well read life", recommends keeping a little home "bookstore" of books available for you to read. I have a "Bookstore" shelf in my condo where I have at least 4 books, usually more like 15 books waiting for me.

As you check out books rather than buy them, I think this might be a little harder for you to deal with if the due dates are less than a month away, but I hope this is an idea that makes you have books available for yourself.

October 6, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Langford

Thanks for the suggestion, Michael, and for the book reference - it's now on my wish list. I do have a shelf somewhat like you describe, but maybe I have too many books...

October 6, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I'm still reading through the book so I haven't started anything yet but there are so many online evangelists that it's gotten me pretty curious and excited. Once I get it started and running I suspect I'll have more than something to write about it on my blog.

November 16, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterAlvin

Please let me know how it turns out. I'm always interested in coaching perspectives on the work, and in related works. Also, I enjoy your blog, Alvin - thanks.

November 16, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hi Matt. Just stumbled across this today. Welcome to the world of GTD!

My blog - www.desparoz.com - has a lot of discussion about personal productivity. My foundation is GTD, and I talk about some of my systems and approaches a bit.

I also co-host the Personal Productivity show on The Podcast Network. You might be able to suggest some ideas for discussion to us!

I look forward to continuing to read your posts - I've been subbed to your feed for a while, but obviously after this gem of an article was posted.

January 5, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDes Paroz

Thanks a bunch for reading, Des. It's a pleasure to hear from you. It turns out I'm right in the middle of catching up on your podcasts - they're great!

January 6, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

GTD has been something that has certainly made me better organised. So much used to get forgotten to my absolute frustration.

I have a Brother P-Touch 1250 labeller and there are settings to stop you wasting tape. It's just that the manufacturers set it to the "waste tape" setting by default. It peels easy enough from the backing by stroking the end of the tape across your finger at right angles. As with all of these things, check out the cost of consumables.

I use Moleskines. I was lucky enough to be able to pick up a load at 3ukp each (US$5), certainly cheap for the UK where we get ripped off on a daily basis. I have picked up a small FiloFax (pocket size) and this will take 5x3 cards wonderfully. This should make a great mobile GTD system, until I get back to home/office.

April 17, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterLerwegian

You said --> "I'm still working out the interplay between agendas and waiting for lists. For example, I might be waiting for a friend to send me something. I can put it on the w/f list, but should it also go on the agenda for that friend? I haven't thought this problem out clearly enough yet..."

Mac users have a great solution available. I use an application called Notebook from www.circusponies.com and when you date an entry in Waiting For it syncs with iCal the calendar application. This solves your problem perfectly.

April 17, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterLerwegian

Thank you for the handy comments, Lerwegian. I'll check out www.circusponies.com. I'm also glad to hear of your Moleskine successes. I really haven't studied how you get around pages that aren't removable...

Thanks for reading!

April 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Lerwegian said:

I have a Brother P-Touch 1250 labeller and there are settings to stop you wasting tape.

Thanks for letting me know. I *did* try changing the settings with a client's Brother, and they helped some, but we still couldn't get rid of about 1/2 waste. Really didn't seem possible.

It peels easy enough from the backing by stroking the end of the tape across your finger at right angles.

Thanks for the tip! I think I read that they used to not be split down the back, but now are.

Thanks for reading

April 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

"I'm not sure what the best way (OK, a good way) to trigger printing new articles and requesting new books is. . . . Does anyone have a good way to remember these? Checklists? Stickies? Currently I have some checklists on stickies near my desk, which I try to remember to look at when something comes in. "

Routines help. If you have a standard day you go to the library or do desk work, associate it with that activity. If not, consider setting up a checklist for different days of the week of things that you want to do, or want to consider doing. For example - most Wednesdays I go to the library (the convenient night for me that they're open late). I try to do other out of the house errands on that night also. Since I know I want more out of the house time, I plan a simpler dinner menu for Wednesday nights to allow more time. Thursday nights, I try to do things that are desk or paper oriented, etc. I have a small list that identifies the routines for the different nights of the week. It works for me.

I've popped into your blog several times from other GTD places and always find it interesting. Thanks.

June 28, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

I really like your suggestions for creating routines, anonymous. I've been thinking about routines (I think [ Time Management for System Administrators | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0596007833/qid=1151541930/sr=2-1/ref=pd_bbs_b_2_1/104-8085125-4087950?s=books&v=glance&n=283155 ] got me going on it - the Table of Contents is [ here | http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/timemgmt/toc.html ].)

Thanks for the comment, the details, and for reading!

June 29, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

If you are thinking of a planner like a daytimer but it seems too big, try using a plain 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 3-ring binder, available at office stores like Staples. I've found it is much more compact and handy (and costs only about $2!). Those beautiful fancy binders made by the Planner companies are impressive (I have a couple), but they become bulky and awkward to use due to extra pockets and thick covers and zippers or flaps or whatever. To further reduce bulk, I use post-its or flags on my notes pages themselves to keep things organized, eliminating extra blank divider pages.

December 16, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Thanks for the great tip, Anonymous. I like the DIY approach, using a standard (and inexpensive) three ring binder. I appreciate your reading!

December 16, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I have found, through my own "extensive research" that the el-cheapo ($20) Brother P-Touch labelers are the best bet. (PT 65, 70, 80, the kind that uses M Tape)

They perform the all of the most needed and basic functions, they don't waste the tape the way the higher end models do, the tape is a bargain at $10 a pop. I bought mine for $10 on sale and so it's not too much of a splurge to have one in your car, like I do, for business (I am an organizer) and one at home for ME!

thanks for doing what you do, Matt!

warmly,

Jessica from It's Not About Your Stuff

March 17, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Duquette

Thanks for the tip, Jessica. And I very much appreciate your reading. Love your [ blog | http://getorganized.blogs.com/ ]!

March 17, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Matt,
Your blog is always very interesting. Thanks for your writing. I recommend you to check out [ this post | http://www.wrike.com/blog/9/4/2007/Getting_things_done_with_Wrike_saves_us_hours ]. The tool offers a somewhat different approach. No need to review your "waiting for" lists, huh?

October 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRiston

Thanks for the pointer, Riston. It's neat to see the incredible range of tools for implementing GTD digitally.

October 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I am still deciding on what type of system would be best for me, as there are so many options! It is inspiring to read articles like yours that get me motivated to do them!

December 1, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Woodruff

Give me a holler if you have any questions. I've been collecting the best ideas from systems, so it's a topic near and dear.

Thanks for reading.

December 2, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Very thorough and well-stated implementation. I have been seeking something exactly like this post to give me the motivation of others' successes. This motivation is extremely necessary (if not required) by many and you have nailed it right on the head.
Thanks!

April 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGibson

Thanks for stopping by, Gibson.

April 13, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell
Still deciding on what type of system would be best for me, as there are so many options! It is inspiring to read articles like yours that get me motivated to do them!
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