Lessons Learned from 18 Months of GTD

grad cap Lessons Learned from 18 Months of GTDI’ve been using David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” method for just about 18 months now. Without wanting to sound too gushing, it really has been a life changing process for me.

The two main areas of my life that I’d been neglecting up until then were my finances and my ability to get projects done. I always made good money, and I always managed to get a lot done, but somehow I rarely had anything to show in either area. My money was being wasted and my efforts as well.

I don’t use the GtD techniques exactly as presented, at least not all of them. If you listen to his audio seminar “Getting Things Done Fast”, you realize that he doesn’t intend that anyone really should. The ideas are meant to be adapted to the needs of the individual. As I’ve changed jobs and responsibilities, I’ve also had to adapt my working routine to reflect my changing needs. This is a good thing, since each time I do that, the system gets more integrated into my life.

Following are the four main elements my GTD practice that work astoundingly well for me.

Key 1: Zero-based

The big hassle in getting started with GTD is getting through all your piles of papers and tasks, giving them an initial organization. I think that’s where many give up. Don’t. For me, it was intensely liberating to finally get everything filed. I went out and bought two solid, good-feeling file cabinets along with a labeler and a pile of file folders. I threw out my old system and started fresh. Wow. That was one of the truly great decisions of my life.

Just the other day, my wife was wondering where she’d put her contact list. She hadn’t seen it in months, and she needed to write an old friend. “I don’t know”, I said, “if i filed it, It would be under ‘Dustin Contacts’”. I didn’t remember, and I didn’t need to remember. That’s crucial. Where would I file something like that? Because I wouldn’t throw it out, it must be in the files, and it could only be in one or two places. A trusted system saved (probably fruitless) searching and annoyance. I simply wouldn’t put something like that anywhere else.

Zero-based is more than just filing papers, of course. I spend the first hour of each morning processing everything in my in-boxes. The is both my physical inbox and my email boxes. I used to dread doing this, and honestly it took until a few months ago to get committed to clearing my email. My coworkers (when I had them) thought I was nuts, but I was always ahead of the game, knowing what people had asked and when. I didn’t have to constantly run searches on my own email inbox.

One great tip for me has been simply writing notes and throwing them into my inbox. Physical or email, doesn’t matter, either way I can trust that I’ll see the note within a day and take the proper action on it.

Key 2: The tool choice doesn’t matter

I am an optimizer and a geek. I love tools, gadgets and “cool stuff”. I spent the first six months of my GTD life trying all sorts of tools. Palm, Treo, “hiptop”, “Kinkless GTD”, each of them works great. It wasn’t until I picked one and stuck with it that I started really getting the rewards.

The problem is that when you are constantly changing, you lose the trusted nature of the system. At any time, you should trust your system absolutely. It should have no leaks or “alternates”. If it does, your system won’t give you the peace of mind you are after.

My current system is Daylite for tracking, inboxes for gathering, and DevonThink for long term project knowledge base and planning. I am mostly at one computer all day, so this works for me at the moment. When I worked in an office, I used the 3×5 index card “hiptop” method. The important thing for me was to commit totally to one and only one method at a time.

Key 3: Projects don’t have to be big

For a long time, I made the mistake of thinking that my GTD projects had to be big. “Get out of debt” and “landscape the yard” were the scopes I tended to use. These are still valid, but I’ve found a lot of value in lowering the bar significantly. David Allen’s definition of a project is something like “any goal that takes more than one step to achieve.” So now I have projects like “Spring Goodwill donation.” That one requires at least two steps, probably more. When there is no resistance to adding a new project, since after all I can always change my mind or move it to “someday/maybe”, I find that I capture the real tasks-of-life much more effectively.

Key 4: Regular review

I am not the best at this part, to be truthful. I tend to do it at the most biweekly. I think ideally it should be weekly at the longest.

Despite that, I find that regular review makes me consider the value of my projects much more analytically. I ask myself the important questions such as “Is this project really the best use of my time?”, “Could anyone else in the family do it?”, “Could I just pay someone to do this?”, or perhaps most importantly “Does this project move the family toward our long-term goals?”.

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