Back in 2011, I started using David Allen's Getting Things Done system, having read his seminal book. His system1 transformed my effectiveness, but it took me a while before I began to understand its true impact.
The key idea behind GTD is to have a trusted system into which you capture anything that has your attention, which you then filter, and organise for later action and review.
Once the system is working for you2, any time you see something you feel you might need to take action on, or delegate to someone, or even a full-blown project, you capture it into your in-tray or digital system (or both). I use OmniFocus, but you can use any digital system or indeed, if you're that way inclined, a traditional paper-based system.
What have I learned in the last few years about GTD?
You're not supposed to do everything on your list
What?!? Heresy! Aren't you supposed to become a productivity machine, demolishing all tasks foolish enough to stand in your way until you stand at the crest of the Hill of Empty Inboxes?
It's OK to capture everything that you think you might want to do, whether it's trying a new cheese, making a call to that friend you haven't spoken to in five years, playing The Last Guardian or climbing Everest, but you don't have to do everything on your list. You're not supposed to! When you capture something, you're ignoring how it fits into your life.
That thing that you captured simply had your attention for a while. Just as your email inbox is a way for other people to organise your priorities, your GTD inbox is just a stream of what captured your attention. You're in control of what you do, and ideally this is in line with your short, medium and long term life goals and values. You're free to discard these things and in fact, you should discard many of them. Think of it as panning for gold, because all that glitters is certainly not gold and your life is too precious to waste on fool's gold.
I find that a regular review of my Inbox and moving most items to the "Someday" section is a good way of dealing with tasks that might have excited you when you captured them, but are not relevant to your life's priorities. This is especially true of purchases, though I must confess to much failure in that regard. If you're brave, you will simply delete these things. The reason I tend not to delete everything is because some things just come back, and I want to know what I've deliberately discarded so that I'm not wasting time.
Capturing everything stills the monkey mind
It's great to get things done, so long as those things are worth doing. What you choose to prioritise is beyond the scope and wit of this article, only you can answer that, but the reason you capture everything is so that your mind becomes clear to think instead of remember.
You're just trying to get the task or project or thought out of your head and into your system, so that your head is free to think, which it's great at instead of remember, which it's not so great at.
This is why doing your lists last thing at night or first thing in the morning is so effective. Before your day begins, your subconscious has already spent all night working on ideas to move you forward in your key tasks and if you do the list at the beginning of the day, then you are driving your day, instead of events in the day driving you. Your mind won't be chattering away with "but you forgot this" and "you must remember that" and even if it does, you can capture it immediately to your trusted system and your monkey mind has been silenced. You are free again.
- Commonly abbreviated to just "GTD" ↩
- Allen does suggest taking a couple of days to process every piece of paperwork in your life. If you want to apply this to your digital life too, this process could take considerably longer. I started by getting my physical paper life into order and this took me three days. It's worth it. Once you have a trusted system in place that you can live with, your life becomes much more manageable. ↩