Stress-free productivity: GTD review

Manage your time better with “Getting Things Done”

I just finished David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”“. I have been wanting to read this book for a couple years, but just finally got around to reading it. It is basically about improving your time management skills and as the title implies, getting things done more efficiently to live a less stressful life. I have read a couple similar books, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Zen to Done, and a few other generic time-management type GTD - Time management skills .jpg books. I learned a few key principles in Getting Things Done that I hadn’t in the others. All in all, I liked GTD and think it is a worthwhile read, however the system may be difficult for some to implement and for those people I recommend Zen to Done – it takes a lot from GTD, but simplifies it just a bit.

In the book David lays out the steps to go from living in organizational chaos to having a system in place to keep your thoughts, notes, and life organized. I like his system, but like most systems it is going to take a few major life changes to implement it fully. When faced with new information or systems like these I like to grab one or two key principles and focus on implementing them rather than the system as a whole. When I try to make a major life change I usually fall off the wagon and end up getting frustrated with myself. Most of my changes that have lasted came by slowly implementing one or two small ones at a time.

Defeating the Stress

In the book David provides a well thought out and reasonable explanation of the source of our stress. He says that the overwhelming, stressful, and other negative feelings we may have are not caused by having too much to do. They come from breaking agreements with ourselves.
At some point in some way we made an agreement TO DO something and the stress and negative feelings come as a result of not meeting those agreements. It is really no different than breaking a promise that we would have with a colleage or friend – if you promise to meet a friend somewhere at a certain time or do something for them, but then you don’t come through – you feel guilty. If you have lots of these agreements that you can’t fulfill you may begin to feel stressed out. So, if you tell yourself to draft up a plan and you don’t do it, you begin to have the same feelings as not coming through for a friend.

He mentions three ways to overcome this stress:

  • Don’t make the agreement in the first place – Learn to say no. It is a lot better to say no upfront, than to have to come back later after failing to do it and apologize.
  • Complete the agreement – Focus all your energy on that one task and just knock it out. Doesn’t it feel good to check things off the to-do list?
  • Re-negotiate the agreement – Change the promises that you made to yourself (or others). Giving yourself some relief from these pressures will greatly reduce some stress.

Our minds add to the stress

He talks a lot about how our minds can make our lives difficult. Any time we have a unfinished task; i.e. something we have said that we ought to do, our minds will continue to remind us that is has not been finished. Often it is at the most inconvenient times.

Our minds, as brilliant as they are in some ways, need to be tricked in this area. The best way to get your mind to stop the endless reminders is to get it out of your head and on to paper. But it must be on paper that your mind is convinced that you will come back and look at on a regular basis. Once your brain trusts that the to-dos are stored in a safe place, then it will stop the endless reminders and will be clear and free to relax. This is how stress-free productivity and our unlimited creative potential is reached.

Basically our minds aren’t free to function at their highest level until we the get millions of to-dos that we have stored up out of our head and on to a paper or digital system that we KNOW we will check again. The key is that it must be something that you check on a regular basis so that your mind TRUSTS that you will not forget about it. The goal of the process it to create a systematic method to keep your mind distraction free, in order that you can work at a high level of efficiency and effectiveness

In my beginning steps of implementing this I have created a google homepage with a couple different checklists to do my collecting of to-do’s. Personally, I have found this to be such a key to maintaining an organized and stress free life. The most difficult part is making frequent and consistent reviews of your collection system.

Processing the inbox

David suggests having a paper and digital inbox. The digital inbox is likely to be your email inbox and the paper one should be a an actual tray on your desk or other workspace area. If you are like most people the initial capture of everything may take many hours to get a handle on it all. But once you spend that initial chunk of time getting it all organized, it will require a whole lot less time to maintain it.

Here are a few of notes about his system:

  • When processing your inbox – start at the top and go down, rather than just looking for the most urgent or interesting like most people. Processing merely means, deciding what to do with it and what action is required and dispatch it accordingly.
  • Focus only on the single top item from the inbox. Don’t get distracted by the others in the stack, the sole focus on the one thing helps you to quickly and efficiently process it
  • Nothing goes back into IN – it is a oneway street, so once it goes out it has to be dispatched somewhere.
  • Most of the stuff is not THAT important, but the possibility in your mind that there might be something important in there allows the stacks and piles to control you, rather than you controlling it.
  • Most people give more attention to things than they deserve, when really we shouldn’t over-react or under-react. Just because something is thrown right in front of you doesn’t make it urgent, just because something isn’t on fire doesn’t mean that it can wait til later.
  • The key to managing all your stuff is MANAGING YOUR ACTIONS!! Don’t just do what you feel like doing, do what you should do.

Next Action thinking

This was a very valuable principle that David mentions in the book. The idea of next action thinking is that our brains often don’t like to do the analysis of what needs to be done when we only have a few spare minutes, BUT if you can go through and get the next action steps for each item, then when you do have a few minutes to spare – you won’t have to think about what you need to do – only ACT, by completing one of the next action steps already laid out for you…

For example if you have a pile of papers that you haven’t evaluated what needs to be done with each the uncertainty of not knowing how long they will take to process causes us to do nothing. But, if we spend a few minutes going through it and deciding what that next action is it will be clearly defined. Once it is clearly defined, we can estimate how long it will take and fit it in to our schedule like a puzzle piece. If you have 15 minutes to spare, just squeeze in the next action for something that will take you 15 minutes.

I have found in my life that the uncertainty of not knowing how long something will take to process has paralyzed me. In the example above, I would have not done anything in that 15 minutes, except feel overwhelmed while looking at the pile. I would have looked at the pile and just assumed that each next step would take more than 15 minutes, causing me to take no action. But if I knew that the next step for one task would take 15 mins or less, I would have done it.

  • The big question is to ask yourself – WHAT IS THE NEXT ACTION to move this project along?
  • If the item doesn’t require ACTION, then it needs to move to storage or trash. Making this decision can be difficult, but is absolutely necessary.
  • If the next action can be done in 2 mins or less do it as soon as you pick it up, if longer then delegate if possible, or defer it to a later date.
  • Don’t waste time thinking about things more than once, make a decision about something when you think about it rather than leaving the loop open and coming back later to think about it again
  • The reason something is on your mind is you want it to be different than it currently is and you haven’t clarified exactly what the intended outcome OR you haven’t decided what the very next action step is AND/OR you haven’t put reminders of the outcome and the action required in a system you TRUST. Until this takes place, your brain will continue to think about it!!

If you have read Getting Things Done or have other ideas to increase productivity, please share them in the comments below

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  1. cory

    I thought I’d give a shout out to my favorite time management book, Time Management from the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern. Although it is a heavy “system,” and it’s difficult for one person to digest and do it all, I learned some very key lessons from this book and would recommend it.

  2. bob

    thanks for the mention – I will add it to my to-read list…

  3. Chef

    Reading GTD now, thanks to Bob for the giveaway! Great read, interesting and can be applied to almost any aspect of life.

  4. bob

    I am glad you are liking it!! FYI to everyone else – Chef won the GTD giveaway we had 2 weeks ago

  5. Cory

    You know, you talked a while back about the Four-Hour Work Week. That, to me, was a great time management book.

  6. bob

    Yea, that book taught me quite a bit about using my time more effectively. The 4hww focused more on elimination of anything that can be eliminated. Getting things done has a light hand on elimination and more focus on managing what is on your plate – it seems to be a bit more realistic than some of the 4hww’s tactics to gain more time.

    But I agree with 4hww that it is a lot more valuable to eliminate things than just shuffle them around…

  7. Dan

    For implementing GTD you might try out this web-based application:

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
    A mobile version is available too.

    As with the last update, now you can add or invite Contacts, and share your Projects and Contexts with them.

    Hope you like it.

  8. bob

    thanks for sharing

  9. temple

    i enjoyed the article on time management and i now realized the importance of thinking about what next without delay. I have a challenge right now. i have a package for T.V presentation but i seem not to know how to either approach an electronic media outfit or somebody somewhere. please help!

  10. Barbara

    Thanks so much!. This hits home. I have been trying to clear my closet of summer clothes for a month. A glass of water, my timer, and I’m off to the races for 40 minutes.