Friday, January 20, 2012

How To Be Productive and Get Things Done Using GTD

Do you need more time to do the things that you enjoy? Of course, you do. For geeks there are tons of technical projects to mess with, but we don’t have enough time.
Over the years, I’ve tried few time management and productivity systems. While they all helped me grow, there is something in those system that didn’t go well with my working style and thinking.
Few years back, I came across David Allen’sGetting Things Done (GTD), immediately it just felt right for my working style and thinking. I cannot imagine my life without GTD anymore.
GTD is not about telling you what software or tools to use to become productive. GTD is a productivity framework that you can tweak it to match your working style.

Why GTD for You?

  • You won’t like any system that tells you to do things exactly as explained in that system. GTD is not a rigid system, it’s a framework!. It provides the high-level building blocks, which will guide you in implementing a solution that you think is appropriate. This is the #1 reason why GTD is a great fit for geeks.
  • Geeks like to pay attention to details. Apart from providing a high-level framework, GTD also explains in detail about how to implement the framework with a well thought-out approach.
  • You don’t need to worry about assigning your tasks with High, Medium, Low (or A, B, C) priority anymore. You don’t even need to sequence the tasks in the order you like to complete. In GTD, you do a task based on the context, the time available, and the energy available.
Getting Things Done (GTD) is a productivity framework.

Overview of GTD

According to David Allen, everything that needs your attention are called “Stuff”. This may be as simple as buying milk from the grocery store, or completing the proposal for the multi-million dollar project. Anything that takes up space in your RAM (mind), are called as stuffs. Not all stuffs are actionable. But, all stuffs needs to be collected, processed, organized, and executed appropriately.

5 Different Phases of GTD

1. Collection Phase

You are always collecting stuff. Some stuff comes to you directly, and some gets collected for you in the background. For example, emails get collected in your in-box in the background. You also need physical in-boxes where you can collect stuffs. At home (and work), have a physical in-box, where you thrown-in anything that needs to be processed. I have following 4 different in-boxes, where I collect my stuffs.
  1. Office email in-box
  2. Personal email in-box
  3. Physical in-box at office
  4. Physical in-box at home.
The amount of things that goes into the in-boxes doesn’t bother me anymore, as I don’t process them as it shows up. Also, while I’m not in front of computer, if an idea for a project strikes me, I typically send an email to myself from my phone, which will get collected in my email in-box for later processing.

2. Processing Phase

You should process the items in your in-boxes frequently. Please note that processing doesn’t mean doing. Don’t DO anything on this stage, except processing. Process the stuffs collected in your in-box once a day (or  how often you feel comfortable). Following is my processing schedule.
  • Office Email: Three times a day. Critical system alerts that comes to my cell phone is not part of this, as those needs immediate attention.
  • Personal Email: Once a day. I used to check personal emails multiple times a day. But now, I check only once in the night time before going to bed. (I was able to get to this stage of checking personal emails once a day, as part of my personal on-going 30-day-habit development project, where I try to develop new habits by trying it out for 30 days.)
  • Office Physical In-box: Once a day. At the end of the day before leaving work.
  • Home Physical In-box: Once a week. I used to do this daily, but later I realized it is enough to do this once a week for my style of work.
Keep the following items in your mind while processing items from your in-boxes:
  • Start from the top and go down. For example, start with the email on the top and work your way down, or take the 1st item from your physical in-box and work your way to the bottom.
  • Process only one item at a time.
  • Once you’ve taken an item out of your in-box for processing, don’t put it back in your in-box.

How to Process?

  • Take one item from the in-box, and ask yourself – “Do I need to do anything about this item?”. Otherwise, “What is the next action for this item”?. You should come-up with a clear answer for this question. Initially this might be hard. Once you get used to it, identifying next action for every email (or physical item) can be done in matter of seconds.
  • If there is no action, you should trash the item, or archive it for reference, or put it in your incubation list.
  • If there is an action, you should do it immediately (if it takes less than 2 minutes to do it), or delegate it to somebody, or defer it for later by putting it in the appropriate next action context list (more on that below).
  • I typically process my email in-box in matter of 10 or 15 minutes. Again, processing doesn’t mean you complete every single task in your in-box.

3. Organizing Phase

Any item that you’ve deferred for later should be put in the appropriate next action context list. In GTD, there are no priorities. You only have context.
For example, “withdrawing money from the bank” may be a high priority task, but you cannot do much with that task when you are work. At work, you should be doing work related tasks. While driving and running around, you should be doing your errands. When you are in the server room at the data center, you should be doing the tasks that can only be done directly on the console or on the server.
All tasks should be organized around the context in which it needs to be performed. This might be different than how you are used to working, but once you get used to this, it will be effortless, and you’ll be super productive. I like to keep my next action content lists very simple.
Following are my next action context lists. The tasks in these lists contain only the next actions (not some vague project, or high level tasks).
  • @Home – Next actions that can be completed only when I’m at home.
  • @Work – Next actions that can be completed only when I’m at work.
  • @Call – Tasks that can be done when you are on the phone. Even when the cellphone is always with me, I’m might not have the energy or time to make a call anytime I want.
  • @Errands – Tasks that needs to be done when I’m outside. For example, deposit check in the bank, buy milk, etc.
  • @DataCenter – Tasks that can be done only when I’m physically at the datacenter in front of the servers.
I used to have around 10 next action context lists. Now I’ve reduced it to the above essentials, which works great for me.
Apart from the next action context list, you also need the following list.
  • Project List (Work) – This is your master list for all work related projects. Any project that cannot be completed with one next action, should be tracked here. For example, “Configure Dev Server” is a project that needs to go as an item in the work project list. However, the next action for this project, “Install Red Hat OS from DVD” should go as an item in the @DataCenter next action context list.
  • Project List (Home) – This is your master list for all home related projects. For example, “My daughter learning swimming” is a project that needs to go as an item in the home project list. However, the next action for this project, “Go to YMCA website and get swimming class schedule for kids” should go as an item in the @Home next action context list.
  • Someday/Maybe List – This is your master list for all items that you might consider doing it some day, but it is not important now. This list has more than 100 items for me. For example, “Learning Spanish” is something I want to do someday, but not now. So, it is in my Someday/Maybe List.
While organizing, apart from putting things into the appropriate next action context list, or project list, you also need the following.
  • Calendar – Next actions that needs to be done at a specific time should go here. Treat your calendar with full respect. Do not put any wishy washy tasks here. Put only the next actions that you WILL complete on that specific day and time.
  • Day Specific – Some tasks are only day specific (not time specific). Put this in a day specific list. Do not put a day specific item in your calendar for a specific time. Keep both of them separate.
Fig: GTD Workflow

4. Do It! Phase

When it is time to execute, you should not be thinking about what needs to be done, or you should not be checking your email for items that needs to be done, or you should not be looking at a one big long to-do list with priority and try to figure out what needs to be done.
Instead, depending on your current context, you should look at the items in that next action context list, and decide quickly on what you want to do. For example, if you are at work, you look at @Work list, which will have all your previously defined next action that needs to be performed. If you are driving, and have the time to make a call, look at the @Call list, which will have all the previously defined calls that you should make.
You’ll have multiple next actions in your context lists. When it is action time, you should pick one item from the context list and execute it. The question is: which item should you pick?. Since there are no priorities assigned to the tasks in the context list, use the following as a guideline to decide which take needs to be executed at any give time.
  • Your available energy. Certain tasks needs to be done when you have full energy. You don’t want to work on the “Create logical network diagram for new server room” tasks at around 4:00 pm, when your energy level is low. Rather, you want to perform this task in the morning.
  • Your available time. If you have 10 minutes, before going to a meeting, and would like to do something, check your @Work context list for next actions that can be completed quickly in 10 minutes and do it.
When I’m really doing something, I’m doing one of the following:
  • Do items based on the next action context list.
  • If I’m not working based on my context list, I’m working on planning. Thinking through on my projects and defining the next actions.
What I never do is to try to complete the work as it shows up, which is useless most of the times, and you might not be working on tasks that matter most.

5. Review Phase

You have to review your system once a week. I do it every friday evening. Following are some things that you might want to do as part of the weekly review.
  • Review your project list and define next action required for them.
  • Review your professional and personal goals and create new projects as required.
  • Review your current week calendar and process any notes from the past meetings.
  • Review next week calendar and plan appropriate next actions.
  • Review all next action context list.
  • Do a mind sweep and dump everything in your in-box for later processing. (If time permits, process them after the mind sweep).
  • Review your someday/maybe list and look for any projects that you want to work on.
  • This is also a good time to process all your in-boxes before you complete the weekly review.
There you have it. That is how I get things done.
I strongly recommend that you give Getting Things Done (GTD) a try. There is nothing for you to loose, other than spending $10 for the book, which will dramatically change the way how you get things done.

GTD Resources:

Give yourself some time to try and understand the GTD framework. As you progress, tweak the system to suite your style of working. This system doesn’t require you to use a specific software, or binder, or anything like that to get organized. You can even use a simple pen and paper and get started. GTD works for everybody, as it provides a flexible framework, that can be tweaked for your working style.
Keep in mind that to become productive, what software you use to get things done is not important, rather your attitude and approach towards execution is important.