Getting Things Done
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GTD

My name is Luke and I, (like you) am very very busy. We make a ton of commitments on a daily basis in all facets life: Commitments to ourselves, our families, employers, communities, friends, and schools. I run media and photography company, participate in community art events, and local government and community programs.

There’s a lot going on and it’s a lot to keep track of. Now, I don’t know about you but I’m pretty scatterbrained, and I smoke a lot of pot. I used to think about this for a minute, and then jump to that, back and forth forever… I’d pace around worrying about all the things I forgot, and feel guilty about all the things I should and should not have been doing. I was not advancing on any of my goals, or even defining them. I was losing track of everything that mattered.

Some years back I stumbled upon a web series called “The Secret Weapon”, and the principles contained therein changed my life, and the way I get work done, and helped me to allow space back into my brain for creativity. “The Secret Weapon” is no longer around, but it was a series that helped people set up the then-popular note-taking app Evernote thus that it could be effectively used as a tag-based task management system. It really was brilliant. (EDIT: It’s BACK!!! www.thesecretweapon.org) I then learned that the concepts used in that series were based upon David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done (GTD)”. This is one of the rare books in my lifetime that I have read more than once. It has since spurred an entire industry. 

The mind is for having ideas, not holding them – David Allen

David Allen very famously believes that “the mind is for having ideas, not holding them” – and the minute I read that I came to believe with all of my heart that it was true. Holy shit David Allen, you’re right! We suck at remembering things. Even the best humans, the most successful people, still forget the milk. We still find ourselves lying in bed at night with random, and often unhelpful, reminders popping into our consciousness with no sense of priority or importance.  It’s not our fault, as a species we were not designed to keep up with today’s demands. Our brain tries to help us out by reminding us to do an important task for a project at work while we’re still at home in the shower. Unhelpful. Luckily there are tools and systems available that can help us manage the flurry of oncoming demands that vie for our attention: the endless email follow-ups, registration renewals, submission deadlines, old friends to call, family anniversary parties, project deliverables, band practices, vacations and so on.

Omnifocus Forecast

David Allen, in his book, developed a system in “Getting Things Done” that is based upon 5 steps:

  1. Capture everything
  2. Clarify what actually needs to be done
  3. Organize and prioritize all those things
  4. Reflect on your list – Review it at regular intervals.
  5. Do the stuff

This is how I’ve used GTD in my own life. 

Capture

Ideas come and go fast. For this whole thing to work, we need to be able to capture them somewhere – in one single place. A repository for everything. Something that we dump our ideas and commitments into that is fast, frictionless, and easy. 

The backbone of my system is The Omnigroup’s task management solution Omnifocus. It’s an application for Mac, IOS, and web. It literally controls my life. Omnifocus captures all the little things that tend to pull on my mind and breaks them into projects and next actions.  It allows me to look at everything I have committed to, and everything that I want to do in one place. It gives me the power to organize, prioritize, and review all of that so that I can achieve my real goals and be most effective with my time.

“Actions” are organized into “Projects”, which can be assigned defer and due dates along with other notes and metadata. Actions can also be assigned any number of “Tags” which can help to further organize and filter different types of work. 

Since I capture everything that I intend to do into OmniFocus, I rely upon several pathways to get my stuff into it with minimal effort. Its power is in its ability to bend to your individual needs. This is what works for me, but keep in mind that you’ll need to find what works for you over time.

SIRI DICTATION –  Throughout the day, I tell my phone to add items in OmniFocus. This is very helpful when I’m driving and thinking about the things I need or want to do. 

“Hey Siri, remind me to change the water filters in a week”
“Hey Siri, remind me to stop by the place to get the thing at the time!
“Hey Siri, remind me to send a super important message to a super important client”

EMAIL FORWARDING – Every morning I process all of my inboxes. Most of my email is noise, and I use the keyboard shortcut ( ] ) in Gmail to archive it quickly. When I come across an email that requires my attention, I forward it straight to Omnifocus with the keyboard shortcut ( f ). From there it becomes just another task in my task list, and then I am able to archive it in Gmail immediately. This enables me to clean out my entire inbox very quickly while still capturing all the stuff that’s important.

I use Gmail because it’s inexpensive and it works well,  but no matter what email provider or client you use: if you look for them, you’ll find keyboard shortcuts that can enable you to plow through your email without ever taking your hands off the keyboard! I recommend that you do!

BRAINDUMPS – The braindump is a periodic purge of all the things I’m thinking about. To do this,  I write a list in the IOS application “Drafts”. Drafts is great. I write a new line separated list of things and when I’m done, automation parses each line and sends it to Omnifocus as a new action for myself to later address. It’s awesome. I try to do this weekly. 

MAC QUICK ADD SHORTCUT

Omnifocus Quick Add Dialog

This is the method I use the most. On the Mac, the keyboard shortcut CTRL-CMD-SPACE opens an Omnifocus quick entry dialog on the screen. It pops up over whatever application you’re working in.

This is great because it allows me to create a task without finding or opening any apps, and I can do it immediately, otherwise, there’s a chance that I get distracted and it never gets captured. If I’m in a meeting and I commit to getting someone something by some time, I can hit CTRL-CMD-SPACE and note that down with all the relevant details without ever taking my hands off the keyboard. It rules. It’s like magic.

Clarify

Omnifocus Tag View

Capturing stuff happens quickly – most ideas and tasks don’t start fully fleshed out. I think this is the largest barrier to success that I see in daily life. People just don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing. Mostly that’s just because the task itself, or the method to success isn’t clear. Each morning, after processing my email inbox, I review my Omnifocus inbox. The “Inbox” in Omnifocus is as it sounds – an inbox for new actions to be processed. Anything I send to Omnifocus during the day dumps into the Inbox. For example, “Get notes to team members” might be something I would see in there while I’m sleepy-eyed and sipping my coffee.

On its surface, a reminder might seem helpful,  but it is really a half-developed thought that I wrote at the end of a busy week on a Friday. It might not make any sense at all on a Monday after a glorious weekend full of art-making and adventure. What was I really trying to tell myself? “Get notes to team members”? What notes? Who was on the team? What team? I have no idea what I was trying to tell myself when I added this to Omnifocus.

In the clarify step I can look at these items and clarify what I meant and need to do if anything… Who was on the team? What were their email addresses? Which notes are relevant? I would need to collect all that before this placeholder could be actionable. 

I might edit that task to read more like “Deliver Minutes from 10/25 strategic visioning meeting to the Pre-Sales Team”  which would be more helpful to me in the case that this item is deferred or deprioritized and I later forget it’s context. I might also decide it was total nonsense and just delete it. Good riddance. Sometimes I capture tasks with all the relevant information right away. Those are great! If I have all the information, the quick entry bar allows me to enter it all. Often times though I don’t have enough information and what I really need is a reminder of some kind to go and get it. I go through the inbox and clarify the items every day. A nagging to-do will only leave my mind if I trust that I’ve captured it and that I’m definitely going to look at it again within a relevant timeframe. I review the inbox a couple of times a day usually. 

Organize

After I’ve clarified each of the items in my OmniFocus inbox, I organize and prioritize them all. Items don’t leave the inbox until they have been assigned to a Project and a Tag.

I put way more stuff into OmniFocus than I will,  or could ever do. That’s ok. What’s easiest? What’s most profitable? What advances your goals? What can be done at home? What can only be done in the office? – Defining this information upfront is very powerful so that you can choose all the stuff not to do.

David Allen describes the concept of assigning “contexts” to tasks and projects. A Context is an environmental descriptor. @Home, @Work, @Store, @Computer A context could be anything you could use to define a bucket of work. Places you need to be at, people you need to be with, or things you need to have available are all good context candidates. 

Creating a new task in omnifocus

Note that new versions of OmniFocus no longer refer to “Contexts”, as these have been replaced by “Tags”. These are the tags that I use most often:

  • Home – Personal stuff
  • Work – Work stuff
  • Business – Small Business stuff
  • Errands – Not at home or at work.

As I process my actions, I assign to each one of them one of these contexts. I also assign it to a project and generally set a defer date, on which I want to be reminded of the action. “Write Content for The Uncanny Valley” for example, is a Project, the Tags for which would be @business, and @computer.

This is so powerful to me. After having assigned Tags to my Actions this way I can pull up all my tasks with the @computer context and work on them when I’m sitting at the computer. When I’m sitting on the bus, I don’t see them. That’s very efficient.

I also use Tags for agendas and meetings, as well. Here’s an end to end example. 

Let’s say I get a mailing from my town with a warrant for some important town meeting. I read the body of the agenda for the meeting, and have questions. Now I lift my wrist to my mouth and speak into my Apple Watch “Remind me to ask the Board of Selectmen about warrant item 1 the next time I’m at Town Hall”.  When it comes time for me to process my inbox, I will take that item and add some information to it. 

I know that Town Hall is closed for the next couple of days, so I’m going to set a defer date until it opens. I won’t see this task again until there’s something I can do about it. Now, I know the date of the town meeting, so I can use that as the due date. In addition, I know that this is town related business, so I’ll give it the tag “Town”. I also know that I have to speak to the Board of Selectmen about it, so I’ll give the tag “Agendas : Boards : Board of Selectmen”.

When I’m next at the town hall, I’ll pull up my Agendas tag and see if there’s anyone there I need to talk to. If I happen to see one of the selectmen about town, I might pull up my Board of Selectmen tag and see that I’ve got to ask him about that warrant! 

All this metadata makes it easy to wrangle all the people, places, and things that constitute our open loops when they are most valuable to see. 

Review

This is the step that brings the whole thing together. There’s no use committing to the overhead it takes to capture, clarify, and organize every task in your life – if you’re never going to review that work. GTD doesn’t work without frequent fearless review. A task manager is like a garden that requires constant care and feeding, pruning and attention. It’s a living system that grows and changes and scales with your life and circumstances. The only way this whole thing works is if we capture all the commitments we make somewhere we trust, and then we review that place frequently. Only then, will my stupid brain allow me to relax. “It’s cool dummy, you captured it. You’re gonna review it. You don’t have to worry about it, because I know you’ve got it covered.” That’s what we want. That’s the goal, and that’s what GTD gives me.

Do

The least fun part of the whole GTD system is the actual doing part. This is a lot of maintenance to put into a life management system – but we can’t forget that the purpose of it all is to actually do the most important work that gets us closer to our goals.

Each morning, after I’ve processed my email and my inbox, I look at my calendar and assess how much time I have in the day for execution. Using that information, I take a look at all my categorized projects, consider my goals, and I flag the tasks I think are most likely to move me towards them today.

This not only shows me what’s important, and what I should be doing with the resources I have available at the moment, it also allows me feel ok about the huge lists of things I’m *not* doing.

I can’t do all the things at once. Having them organized gives me situational awareness and the confidence to make decisions based on data. 

I’ve learned over time by capturing it all – how little of it really matters. We should be focusing on the big stuff. Our dreams and our life goals.

This has been a basic intro of how I structure my days and manage my tasks and commitments. GTD is how I’m able to feel confident when I tell someone I’ll get back to them.

I don’t stay up at night anymore, thinking about what I need to, or what I forgot to do. I trust that I’ve captured all of that stuff somewhere safe. I know I’m going to look at a trusted repository in the morning so my subconscious can relax. It no longer needs to try and help me at 2 am. 

If this interests you, I encourage you to look into it more.
You can get David Allen’s Getting Things Done Here

Choose your Reaction!
  • I love GTD! It has changed my life and productivity. There is no way I could live the life I do now without those guidelines.

    It irks me that “The Secret Weapon” web series you mention isn’t available. Things aren’t supposed to disappear on the web ever! The stupid picture of me from 2011 exists in 179 different places on the web and I can’t make it go away ever.

    And it also irks me that the system you use in only in the IOS universe. Although Google’s tool set serves me well for GTD.

    • Something always irks everyone, but pretty much every creative and tech professional I know is in the apple universe… for good reason.

      Focusing on the one platform allows the Omnigroup to create the most robust and powerful task management system, for the people that are most likely the audience for that.

      The lack of really good windows options in this space kinda proves that. Now omnifocus has a web version that’s pretty usable for people that might have to use windows for whatever reason.

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