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Some common GTD questions, with answers

I'd like to share some questions that have come up recently, along with my answers.

Table of contents

How many collection buckets do I need?

About the "Collecting" phase: I was thinking of defining a physical place where to put the "In" stuff, and also a basket where I will put some post-its as a reminders of things which are either: 1) too "ethereal", or 2)physical but way too big. Do you think this is a good starting point?
I think Allen would say the fewer 'In Baskets' (collection points) you have the better. In your case I don't see why you'd need more than one; at my office I have a stack of paper-holding trays, and the top one is my In Basket (it's labelled so others can use it too). If you have something that's too big to fit, put a 'place-holder' note just like you were thinking. If you'd rather use a real basket (wire, wicker, etc.) by all means do so; it should be something that is functional (and pleasing) for you.

Regarding 'ethereal' items, an example would help, but I'd just write them down on a piece of paper (or sticky, etc.) and put those in the basket. The main point is to get it out of your head, and into one place that you'll empty out every 24 to 48 hours. At *that* time you'll process it using his workflow, and file, create next actions, etc.

What's the best tool for ubiquitous capture?

About the "ubiquitous capturing tool", I was thinking of a A6 paper agenda: I've used the Palm for 6 years, I love it, but capturing things on the spot is most quick with paper. I'll use the Palm to put the lists, as DA suggests. How does it sound? Also, the PocketMod is very very handy. I've been using it (in non-GTD terms), and I'm very satisfied. I'm using a pencil, instead of a pen, so I can delete the "Done" items.
This sounds great. I'm the same way - paper is quickest for me for capture, but use whatever works for you. Again, it doesn't matter what you use as long as you train yourself to a) put it in your In Basket frequently (don't let those notes sit around in your pocket, etc), and b) process your In Basket every day or so, in order to 'harvest' things to go into your organization buckets - Someday/Maybe, Reference, Waiting For, Next Actions, Calendar/Ticker, and Projects. (And thanks for reminding me about the PocketMod - I love it.)

Do you use a tickler file?

What about the tickler file? It sounds a splendid idea to me and I'm willing to try it out. What's your opinion on the subject?
It's really up to you. Give it a try if you're interested. As an alternative to the tickler file, I've chosen to use the "calendar/holding file" technique (as Stephanie Winston calls it) in which I put a date-specific reminder in my calendar, and put the associated "thing" in a holding file (I call mine "Action Support"). I do it this way because I didn't have enough items in my tickler to warrant the overhead required to manage it. Here's a blurb on davidco about the ticker: The Tickler File.

One nice thing about his system is that he really encourages us to experiment and adapt it. Many of the basics aren't negotiable, but the details are flexible - which contexts to use, ticker, etc.

How do I work a combined digital/physical situation?

I had an e-mail from my boss, asking me to call a co-worker. I called the co-worker, got no reply, and left a voicemail message. I was left with the e-mail; what to do with it? Instead of putting it in @Waiting For--which I am poor at checking--I printed the e-mail and put it in my tickler for tomorrow, to remind myself to call the co-worker again tomorrow if I haven't heard from him by then. I'm pleased at the effectiveness of this solution.

Do you all find yourself taking a digital action and making it physical? Can you give the rest of us some examples?
My take on it:
  • put "call [co-worker]" on @calls
  • add deadline to calender, if time's a factor
  • add it to project list ("assignment [__] from boss") if call is part of multi-step effort
  • if the email contains important information for the call (or project), you can a) print it and file it, or b) save it in an @action-support email folder. Regarding where to file the printed message, I'd put it in the project folder (if it's a project). Otherwise I'd put it in an "Action Support" folder (AKA "Pending" or "Holding"). It's a kind of catch-all for paper that doesn't quite deserve its own folder.
You'll notice that everyone has a different solution. That's one of the great things about Allen's work - it's adaptable. However, it's also a double-edged sword that can lead to confusion for people new to it.

How do I choose what to do next?

I have 8 NA's in my @Computer. One is approx 5 min, three 10 min, two 15 min and two 30 min. When you use Context,Time,Energy,Priority concept how do you choose NA's to act on now? Let's say you have 45 min till the next hard landscape action. What would you choose: one big action or a few small?
As you say, you've 1) used context (you're at your computer, so look at that list) to do the first round of decision-making. (Naturally you might also be near a phone, and have @Calls you could make, but let's stick with your example.) And 2), you know times available and needed, so now energy and priority come into play. I think the gist of GTD "doing" is that you need to integrate all your choices in your head, and make a call. If you're working during your "prime time" (am for most people), then you may want to tackle one of the "harder" ones. (Note: I can't tell whether "longer = harder".) I sometimes use my internal anxiety meter to determine which to work on - it's based on deadlines coming up in the calendar, which is hardest, which I'm procrastinating on, etc.

How do I handle too many next actions?

Is anyone else overwhelmed by the longer GTD lists like me? Mine gets around 175 and hovers there...it's quite overwhelming and I find myself looking at my list less frequently than when I just kept 2 dozen tasks on it.
That's a great question, and is big enough to be a separate post by itself, but here are a few tips from the davidco GTD forum that might help:
  • make a temporary list for the day to help focus
  • move some items to Someday/Maybe
  • make sure actions are really do-able
  • focus on projects (and their actions)
  • limit your NAs - are all important?
  • only list the very next action for projects, not parallel ones
  • hire help
  • block off an hour or two on your calendar, put your phone on voice mail, and just attack your list

What will I physically have when the program is fully implemented?

What I will physically have when the program is fully implemented?
If you walk around the outside "buckets" of the workflow diagram you end up with:
  1. Lists/support for the four key action categories - Projects (the master list - one line/project), Calendar (computer, portable, etc), Next Actions (list), and Waiting For (list). People often split their Next Actions into separate "context" lists, e.g., @Calls, @Home, etc.
  2. Folders for:
    • project support materials (one per project)
    • general reference material (one per topic, project, person, or company)
    • Someday/Maybe (one)
    • tickler (43 of them)

  3. Filing cabinets - Folders get stored in filing cabinets, a minimum of one set (2-4 drawers) within swivel distance. Optional: Second set of drawers for secondary (longer-term) storage. Simplest is to mix project and general reference in one A-Z system. If you have secondary storage, that will be its own A-Z system.
  4. An in-basket for collecting.
Note: You should not have any piles in your workspace. Everything goes into one of the above places. For example, when you're done with a project (at least for now), put its materials back into its folder, and file it. Some people like to use a stacking shelf for "current" projects, but this is only to make accessing them slightly easier. The key point is to use your action system (Projects, Calendar, Next Actions, and Waiting For) for reminding, *not* stacks.

Finally, the only "non-stuff" in my workspace is supplies, reference material, decoration, and equipment.

Should I use digital or analog organizing tools?

GTD is tech-agnostic, so I suggest you go with your preferences. If you're having trouble deciding, here's a quick summary (from Organized for Success by Stephanie Winston):
  • digital: reference, connectivity;
  • paper: capture, memory prompting
However, in the end the tool doesn't matter; the habit of daily processing is more important.

Here are a few other resources:

How do I handle unproductive meetings?

Here are a few tips, but most require a change in the person making and running the meetings. However, deciding whether to attend is within your control. Even if "mandatory," you might convince superiors to let you off if you can give a compelling argument on time lost, work not done, etc.

From The Personal Efficiency Program by Kerry Gleeson:
  1. Identify the meeting's purpose.
  2. Prepare properly.
  3. Keep the meeting on track.
  4. Be decisive.
  5. Distribute meeting minutes promptly and stick to the decisions made.
Also related:I hope these help. If you come across good resources, please pass them on!

Reader Comments (13)

Matt, great suggestions and thoughts on GTD. I have a follow-up question for you. I also have the problem that my NA list is too long, and I get discouraged. I'll ignore many of my issues, and focus on one: You suggest focusing only on the next action for each project, and not including parallel actions. How, then, do you track the parallel actions. Say I've got a project, and I need to do Tasks a, b, and c, in any order. Tasks b and c are needed before I can complete d, and then a and d must be done before I get to e.

Where would you keep track of all but the next one that I'm going to work on?

Any input would be much appreciated.

April 4, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

Great post! I particularly liked the question about whay you will physically have at the end of it all.

My response to Michael's question: Here's how I do it. I keep my very next actions (the ones I think I can get to) in Outlook. I use EverNote as a secondary GTD tool - it's where I store my supporting material, brainstorming, lists of all actions to be done, etc. etc. I'm not necessarily advocating this particular software, but just some *other* place where you keep project material. It could even just be a scratched out flowchart on a napkin in a particular project's folder.

April 5, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterGTD Wannabe

Hi Michael. Regarding independent next actions, I'm with Michelle (GTD Wannabe) - create a project plan (using whatever tool you prefer - paper, mind map, text file, etc.) which lays out the steps (including dependent ones) that need to happen to make the project move ahead. Then pick at least one of the next possible ones (more if you have the energy and they're truly independent) and put those on your next actions lists.

You might enjoy this related post: [ Dealing with multiple/dependent next actions in GTD | http://www.matthewcornell.org/blog/2005/10/dealing-with-multipledependent-next.html ].

Thanks for reading!

April 6, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Michelle, thanks for the compliment, and for your answer to Michael's question.

Note: I think you're going to have to consider re-labeling yourself "GTD is".


April 6, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Matthew and Michelle,

Thanks for the suggestions. I've recently become a fan of MindManager, and have already been using it on an ad hoc basis. Maybe that's the tool I need for my project plans (which, truth be told, are mostly in my head).


April 6, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

Matt, I just saw this LiveMeeting webinar by David Allen called [ Knowledge Work Athletics | http://main.placeware.com/demos/web_seminar_archive.cfm ], thought you might enjoy it.

If you scroll down to 8/18/2005, you'll see the link.


April 7, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Matt, excellent collection of information. In regards to the tools, I, too, have gone back to paper. After years of trying to make a combination of software work, I went back to paper and have never been happier.

The tool that I am using is called [ The Bubble Planner | http://www.BubblePlanner.com ], which is a combination of mind mapping and time management techniques. It incorporates many of the concepts of GTD but adopts a unique application.

April 7, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMy Bubble Life

My Bubble Life, thanks for reading, and for recommending your product. I've had a couple of folks point me to it, and it looks innovative. I'll take a closer look at it.

April 8, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Anonymous, thanks very much for pointing out the on-line David Allen seminar. I thought it was a great intro to GTD. Thanks for reading!

April 8, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I've been using GoalEnforcer for some time now ( www.goalenforcer.com ), and it makes it very easy to organize and re-organize my tasks. They have an innovative visual approach, which is really fun to use. The latest version (GoalEnforcer Hyperfocus) has a feature called "Hyperfocus Zone" that is a perfect match for next actions.

May 3, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Thanks for the pointer, Anonymous.

May 3, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell
Per the Tickler File - what do you think of web tickler file on www.45-file.com?
November 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark
Re: www.45-file.com - I don't see any screenshots or details. I'd recommend updating your site to give more information.
November 23, 2011 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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