Becoming a nomad – and I imagine any other life-changing project – comes with an extraordinary amount of things to do. In my previous posts, I wrote about the benefits of splitting tasks relating to the new and the old lives. In this post, I want to share with you my second time and task management trick: GTD.
Getting Things Done (GTD) is a productivity system that helps me and thousands with me to do exactly what it says: get things done. I used GTD to organize my life long before I decided to become a nomad. The system made a real impact on the amount of stuff I got done while simultaneously reducing the stress involved in doing them, and I bet it can do the same for you.
Enough preamble. Let’s get some stuff done!
So what is this GTD business?
Getting Things Done is the title of a book written by David Allen. It became incredibly popular among life hackers, to the point of becoming a cult. It is hard to believe how a glorified to-do list can get the sap rising, until you try it out. Before you know it, you find yourself writing blog posts about how good it is.
As cults go though, GTD is quite benign. There is only one cheap (~£7) book to buy, and as far as I know, there is no need to perform any blood sacrifices in the name of either Mr. Allen or productivity.
Free your brain
Your brain is amazing. No, really. This is not the worst pick-up line ever. (OK, it is. Don’t use it!) It is a fact. Brains are creepily creative and able to make the most surreal conceptual leaps that thrust humankind towards glory. (Peanut butter and jelly? I mean, wow! Who would have thought?)
It is a crying shame to waste this blob of fat and synapses on keeping track of your ‘stuff’. When I say ‘stuff’, I mean all of those things your brains thinks you should do, now or sometime in the future. I will be using this word a lot.
Your brain is not even good at keeping track of stuff! It is a self-doubting over-achiever. Our subconscious is constantly keeping tabs on stuff that we should not forget. It is like a plate spinner, constantly running from plate to plate to give them a bit more spin and keep them from falling. It is amazing that it gets any time to do anything else. Apart from being a waste, it is also stressful.
So how do we free our brains from having to keep tabs on our ‘stuff’ so it can go and do something great, like curing cancer? Simple. You free it from the responsibility of keeping track of your ‘stuff’ by externalizing it into a system. Enter stage left — GTD!
So how do I capture this stuff?
Do you recognize this situation? You have had a moment of inspiration and created a nice to-do list. You look at it from time to time and your brain slide right off it like it had been made of Teflon. The procrastination monster in the back of your head gently guides you to the TV instead, and the poor to-do list remains as incomplete in the evening as it was at breakfast. What went wrong?
You may have had an item like this one:
- Do your taxes.
Well, what is the problem with that? The problem is that it is not one task but many, all rolled up in one vague goal. The first thing you need to do when confronted with a ‘task’ such as that is to think. When you are in a doing kind of mood, you don’t want to think; you want to do. That why it is a ‘to-do’ list, not a ‘to-plan’ or ‘to-think’ list.
Doing your taxes is also a behemoth of a task. When something seems too big to complete in one go, we push it to the future. Where is the fun in working for a couple of hours and not getting the satisfaction of ticking anything on your list?
So, when confronted with a goal such as ‘Do you taxes’, set it down as a project and then think of the next concrete action you have to do to complete it. For example, it could be like this:
- Print form A-904.
Is it concrete? Yes. Do we need to do any thinking before we set to work? No. How long will it take? Maybe five minutes. Do you think that you will do it if it stares you in the face? Why not? You can do it while the next streaming episode of Buffy finishes buffering!
One last note on how to capture your stuff. Make a note of where you need to be or what you need to have at hands in order to do the task. This is called the context of the task. For example, say that I need the internet and a printer to print form A-904. I have internet at home and at work, but I only have a printer at work. Well, note down ‘work’ as a context.
- Print form A-904 (work).
When you are in one of your contexts (e.g. work) you can look at only those tasks that you can do and ignore the rest. The aim is to filter out that which you can’t do in order to better focus on what you can do. Other common contexts are errand, home, online, phone, bank etc.
Trust the system
You’ve done it! You purged your brain of all your stuff and put it into your system. You have an awesome list of projects and tasks. Your brain is free to do some creative work, now that your GTD system is your brain’s personal assistant that keeps track of your tasks. Your brain has never felt so light in your head and the sun is shining.
How long does it last?
I can tell you when it stops. It stops the second your brain suspects that your system isn’t to be trusted. If your brain gets even the most whimsical wisp of watered down what-if-the-system-doesn’t-work suspicion, it will snatch back responsibility for your stuff so quickly that your head will spin as fast as your plates.
To keep this from happening, you need to review your system once in a while to make sure that it is up to date and complete. Thirty minutes on Sunday morning works well for me.
During this review, ensure that your brain isn’t spinning a plate somewhere in the background. If it is, take the plate away from it and put the related task into your system. This is also the time to go over your task list and make sure that you have seen it all. This is important. If your brain knows that you will, without fail, keep tabs on your stuff at least once a week, then your brain never has a reason to doubt you and start doing this for you. It trusts that nothing can get ‘lost’. It trusts that your system is better than it is at spinning those plates, and your brain is free to think about other things that might go with peanut butter.
The artist, the executive and the grunt
A blog post can never have too many analogies, so here is another one.
We humans are not constant. We change our moods throughout our days, and so at different times we are better suited to do different kind of work.
Sometimes we are dreamers who idly think up cool stuff that we would like to do. We are artists then who think big with little consideration for whether the thing can or even should be done. The GTD system loves our little artist and suggests we prepare inboxes for the little guy. The artist can make a quick scribble that it would like to paint both the living room and the clouds pink and pop it into the box.
At other times, we put on the suit of the executive director. This is our sensible and thinking guy who doesn’t come up with ideas and certainly doesn’t do any work. No, this guy makes decisions and plans. He will look at what the artist has thrown into the inbox – Paint the living room and the clouds pink! – and process those ideas into the system of projects and tasks. So in our example, he would discard the project of painting the clouds pink as both impossible and tasteless. The painting of the living room though is a fine project, he decides, and makes that a project. He also thinks out the very next action which is to pick up some colour samples from the DIY store.
Project: Paint the living room pink.
Next action: Pick up colour samples from DIY store. (Errand)
And of course, nothing would ever get done if the world was run by artists and executive directors. We need to be a grunt at times and get our hands dirty. This is the guy who does whatever it says on the next action list. It is amazing how quickly you can do stuff when you don’t need to think! Boom boom boom! Before you know it, all of your errands are done in one afternoon, thanks to them being lined up in one place with all pre-requisite thinking already taken care of. Your grunt returns home with a whole swatch of pink nuances in his triumphant hands!
The main points of GTD are:
- Your brain is great at creative work.
- Your wonderful brain is not only wasted if it is put to keeping track of what you should get done, but it is also a source of stress. Therefore, you should externalize the job of task tracking into an external system.
- For the real effect, you should capture all your tasks in that system.
- Your brain will know if your system is not water tight and immediately resume the job of keeping track of your tasks for you.
- Avoid vague tasks descriptions that are actually goals. Ensure each task is a single concrete task.
- Separate task generation (the artist), prioritization and planning (the director) and execution (the grunt).
The beauty of GTD is that it is light and simple. Still, there is more to the system than I can cover in this post. Read the book to get the rest. I can’t recommend the system enough. It made my life much more organized, simpler, reliable and most important of all, less stressful.