“…There is a way to get a grip on it all, stay relaxed, and get meaningful things done with minimal effort, across the whole spectrum of your life and work. You can experience what the martial artists call a “mind like water” and top athletes refer to as the “zone,” within the complex world in which you’re engaged…”
— David Allen & James Fallows. “Getting Things Done.”
I’m experimenting with the Getting Things Done (GTD) system by David Allen because it’s one of the most popular productivity frameworks I haven’t previously explored. I recently read his book as well as a bit of supplementary material for a concise recap (Allen throws many different lists, artifacts, and frameworks at the reader and so it’s sometimes hard to keep it all straight).
GTD is very compelling, but I’ve found it difficult to implement well. This is a piece intended for other people who find themselves in the same situation: Eager to use Allen’s system and all of the benefits that it promises (less stress, a state of always working on the most important thing, more consistency, etc.), but looking for a good digital setup and a demonstration of the workflow.
I’ve found that many of the most popular to-do list tools don’t adhere strictly to the GTD framework and so your setup will likely require multiple applications and a bit of creativity to get it working. When I started, I wanted to see someone walk through their whole day and weekly review and tell me what apps they use, when, and why. That is what I hope to show here.
Core task application: Things 3
For me, it really came down to Todoist vs. Things as my main decision point. Omnifocus, another super popular GTD app in the space, is a behemoth of features, pricey — though Things isn’t exactly cheap, and seemed a bit over-powered for me, someone just getting into GTD.
Features of Things I liked over Todoist (though they are almost at parity):
- Ultra clean, Apple-y design. Things won the 2017 Apple Design Award for a good reason. The app gets out of your way and doesn’t clutter the UI with you anything you’re not using. For example, if a tag you’ve defined isn’t used on any task in a particular view, you won’t see the filter for it on the top of the list. Merely looking at my stuff in Things gives me this sense of zen, which is a feature in itself.
- Events import from Apple Calendar into your Today and Upcoming views. Also, Things imports reminders to your Inbox view, so you don’t have to look at other apps besides Things to manage your day. I really love this centralization. This is not unique to Things, but the Siri shortcuts are also dope (“Hey Siri, in Things set a reminder to change laundry in 25 mins” — adds a reminder with a push notification to your Today view).
- Ability to define “Areas” of your life (to house projects), which aligns with Allen’s Horizon 2 area of focus.
- Quick add from anywhere. Control+ Option + Space adds a task from any application. If you’re on Chrome or Safari, it’ll capture the title of the page along with the URL into the body of the task if you want to save it for later.
- Ease of use with Apple Automator (although, I’m aware Todoist for Mac has similar functionality). I defined my own keyboard shortcut for Outlook (my work email client) to quick add emails that require an action from me to my Things Inbox. For reference, I used this handy guide.
- The iOS app has some awesome, natural gestures. I love the thumb drag quick-add to Inbox or your current view.
If you’re not in the Apple ecosystem, or it’s just not as central to your life, Todoist is a terrific alternative.
Another factor in my decision was this super helpful article from The Sweet Setup.
Outside of this, I’ve tried a few other to-do list/note apps: Google Tasks, Apple Notes, Google Keep, but these weren’t opinionated enough for me. I wanted something with more structure and intention to keep me organized.
Attachments and note-taking: Things 3 + Apple Notes
I actually use Things for the majority of my note taking, since it has an area to add text and links within each task.
For heavier-duty documentation, I use Apple Notes because it’s beautifully simple, free, and does exactly what I need it to. The seamlessness of notes syncing across devices is very pleasing. It’s interesting to sketch something on a note on your phone and watch it appear a second later on the Mac version of Notes.
I use a structure like below to match my life areas defined in Things and I file notes in the respective folders:
“Upper horizons” documents (Vision and purpose, 5-year goals, 2-year goals): Google Drive
I keep these documents in a folder that looks like this:
Description of these items (which I review in each Weekly Review — discussed below):
- 2-Year Goals: Main objectives to be completed within the next two years. Equivalent to Allen’s Horizon Three.
- 5-Year Goals: Main objectives to be complete within the next five years. Equivalent to Allen’s Horizon Four.
- Values Declaration & Purpose: Personal mission statement and definitions of metrics derived from each plank of that mission. I tried to attach some quantitative measure where I could. I talk a bit more about that here. Equivalent to Allen’s Horizon Five.
- Weekly Reviews KPIs sheet: I also include a tracker sheet (residual from my legacy system) where I log how I’m doing against my personal metrics defined in my Values declaration & Purpose document. For example, one of my goals is to attain a certain amount of personal net worth, so I track my net worth on a weekly basis.
How does the workflow look in practice?
GTD is very clear on how to do task collection and organization, but not as prescriptive about how you actually work during your day. Allen does give some recommendations on how to choose your actions in the moment. His model is a function of:
- Time available
- Energy available
However, I still found myself asking: What should the interface between my task list in Things and my calendar look like? Should I block off time boxes to churn through specific tasks? How far in advance? How do I organize a given day?
I know from personal experience that when I give myself a block of time to get a task done, I tend to focus hard, get into flow state, and do it. However, as Allen also notes, the circumstances of your day often change on a dime, so it’s really difficult to calendar out your day or even your week for specific to-dos.
…constant new input and shifting tactical priorities reconfigure daily work so consistently that it’s virtually impossible to nail down to-do items ahead of time. Having a working game plan as a reference point is always useful, but it must be able to be renegotiated at any moment. Trying to keep a list on the calendar, which must then be reentered on another day if items don’t get done, is demoralizing and a waste of time. The Next Actions lists I advocate will hold all of those action reminders, even the most time-sensitive ones. And they won’t have to be rewritten daily. — David Allen & James Fallows. “Getting Things Done.”
So, these are my solutions to the questions above:
- How I prioritize and plan my day: The evening prior to a given day, I check the Upcoming view in Things to see what items are there. I review whether or not those items are absolutely essential to get done that day. If there are items that aren’t must-do, I will either defer them to a later day, or move them to the Anytime list to take up when I get time. Like Allen notes, non-essential tasks on a daily to-do list dilute the urgency of the must-dos. I try to keep my Today view as clean as possible.
- How I track next actions and waiting items: I like to have a way to view the next actions for my open projects specifically, versus miscellaneous, non-project actions (do laundry, for instance). For this, I use Things’ tags feature. I assign the “Next action” tag to key items that are required to move a given project forward. This way, when I take a look at my day, I can filter by next actions and get a quick view of the key things I need to do to advance projects, as opposed to miscellaneous tasks. There are many times when the next action for a given project requires a followup, especially in my job as a product manager. For this, I will sometimes tag a task as a Next Action and Waiting with a note to why and what I’m waiting for.
- How I approach focus time: I’ll often block out chunks of an hour or more in the morning and as much time as I can in the evening with an event called “Tasks.” During this time, I simply try to do as many of the highest priority items on my Today list as possible in the time slot. I try to create the space to sit and focus, but the contents of that timebox can be determined when the timeslot begins. I just look at my list and pick up whatever is on top — the spot for the highest priority item. Or, if my circumstances changed, I quickly re-order my list and take up the new top task.
- How I deal with email/“other” inboxes: I set two recurring Things tasks for my weekdays: “Morning ‘Other’ inbox clearing” and “Afternoon ‘Other’ inbox clearing.” When I find myself in one of my “Tasks” timeboxes on my calendar and one of these is on the top of my list, I’ll try to churn through all of my collection surfaces (Outlook, personal email, texts, Slack) and process them. For each message, I either ignore it, do it (if the action time is under two minutes), delegate it (and create a reminder for myself to follow-up with the person I delegated to in Things), or defer the message to my Things Inbox, which is the central collection mechanism I process at the end of the day. If it’s really important, I’ll add the item to my Today view and prioritize it accordingly. This is where the flexibility of my system is really nice.
- How I deal with spontaneous tasks or recommendations: This one is pretty straightforward. If at any point in the day someone gives me work, a movie recommendation, a restaurant I should try, or anything else like that, I record it in my Things Inbox.
- How I handle notes and actions during meetings: Meetings tend to generate a lot of notes as you work through an agenda or brainstorm ideas. I try to record these in Apple Notes and move any actions from the meeting into my Things Inbox at the end. I’ll even record actions for other people for the purpose of follow-up. If necessary, I’ll reference the title of the Apple Note in a Things task as a makeshift attachment. As a rule, I try to send out a recap of the meeting with everything I captured to all participants. I just copy my note into Outlook.
A few other notes about meetings
- Allen always harps on defining next actions. I find this practice to be invaluable. You can sound a bit pushy when you try to eliminate vagueness and specifically call out what people need to do, but everyone will ultimately appreciate it.
- Prior to scheduling a meeting, really, really make sure that you need to have it, otherwise cancel and replace with an email. Synchronous communication is this whole other morass of debate and I tend to fall into the don’t-have-meetings-unless-you-can-possibly-avoid-them camp (see this article by Paul Graham). At a minimum, try to respect other people’s time and only create meetings with super tight and well-defined agendas. Have an outcome or decision in mind as the pretext for setting something up.
GTD emphasizes the Weekly Review as a critical success factor, but what does it contain in a specific sense?
How I do weekly reviews
I took a leaf from this book by Eric A. Bowers and I set up a recurring project for my weekly review that contains headers and tasks:
- The process above can take me 1–2 hours.
- “Review all of your purpose and vision documents” refers to reading through all of Google Drive “upper horizons” goals and purpose documents.
- I write a retrospective of my week in Apple Notes. I answer questions like: How did you feel the last week went? Are you heading in the right direction in terms of achieving your 2-year and 5-year goals? What are your focuses and priorities for the coming week?
- I enter my personal metrics in a Google Sheet.
- I review all of my open projects and all of the tasks in my Anytime and Someday lists to see if there is anything that I want to prioritize or mark as complete or canceled.
- I draw timeboxes on my calendar for the coming week. I try to do this only the day before my week starts to give people a chance to request a meeting for the coming week up to the prior Friday. If it looks like you’re not available far into the future, people will just learn to throw something on your schedule whenever, even if you look booked, which causes churn and rescheduling. A side note here: I do my best to have 1–2 days with no meetings (like Fridays) to facilitate concentration.
I hope the methods I outline above help other productivity hackers out there. I know I was previously scouring the internet to find a good digital setup to implement GTD and an applied look at the workflow.
I also realize that some of what I’m doing is not exactly orthodox GTD. For example, I don’t make use of some of the artifacts like “Contexts” and other things. This is just what is currently working for me.
Thanks for reading!