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Getting Things Done

4th April 2014

How often do you put things off? When you know you’ve got a morning to get through a huge list of important tasks do you find yourself getting distracted by pointless and meaningless things? Getting Things Done by David Allen is a productivity method which describes how to organise all the bits of information in our head in such a way so that we can focus on actually doing tasks rather than remembering and recalling the tasks that need to be done.

The problem of procrastination

The cause of procrastination has long been debated amongst psychologists. Some believe the pleasure principle may be responsible whilst others believe that personality traits are responsible.  Nevertheless, procrastination can be a major issue during the lifespan of a large project and can be a major drain on time and budget.

Some people are worse procrastinators than others. Contentious types will naturally find it easier to be self disciplined and motivated whereas impulsive personalities may find it more difficult to prioritise productive tasks and stay organised. Generally I think we all procrastinate at least some of the time and maybe it’s not necessarily a bad thing in every situation but ultimately every workforce benefits from being more productive so any steps we can take to counteract ‘putting things off’ is going to be a good thing.

Getting things done

The Getting Things Done method by David Allen has an almost cult following amongst the web community. It’s a great way to overcome the problem of procrastination. GTD is a zen like approach to time management with five key steps to follow.

1. Collect

The first stage is to collect all the tasks that you need to take care of in one place. The key to this stage is to capture the task as soon as pops into your head. There are numerous tools you could use to collect all this information together but it’s important that it’s kept in one place. Here’s a list of tools that might be of some use.

I use Mailbox as a task list and try to achieve inbox zero as much as I can throughout the day. As soon as a task pops into my head I’ll send myself an email with the task in the subject line. I can organise and prioritise the task later but my main goal is to get it captured.

2. Process

So now we have our list of things to do. Without further action though this list just becomes an unmanageable mess which is why I think that trying to achieve inbox zero is a great advice to follow.

Allen offers a simple plan to deal with our list of items.

The first question to ask is “is it actionable?” or can it be done by me at some point in the near future. If it can’t be done then there’s no point in it being there and it should be deleted. If its part of an action we plan to carry out later in the future then it needs to be stored under a dedicated category which Allen calls a “tickler”. This is the part where Mailbox really excels, it creates a dynamic tickler system by allowing you to postpone an email to come back into your inbox at another time like ‘tomorrow evening’ or ‘next week’.

If a task can be actioned then we have some choices to make. If it’s something quick which can be completed in under two minutes then we should do it immediately and get it off the list. I think there’s a huge psychological boost you  get from working through these small tasks as soon as they appear.

If it can’t be done in under two minutes then we need to decide whether to defer it, delegate it or just do it. In which case it becomes the next action on our list.

3. Organise

It’s important now that our tasks get organised in a meaningful way. I use Mailbox as a way to capture personal tasks  but at a team level we use Trello to organise our tasks. We have separate lists on our board for unscheduled, this week, today and done. Trello offers brilliant features for organising and adding supporting information to tasks. It’s a shared board so you can delegate tasks by assigning them to other team members.

A task may begin life in my inbox, like an email from a client, but once it’s processed it gets moved over to Trello where it’s processed, organised and then actioned.

4. Review

Allen suggests a weekly review as a critical part of the method. Whilst the GTD method is very supportive of making quick judgement calls on a day to day basis it’s important that you take a step back and review things regularly from a top down view. At a project level this is obviously a critical part of keeping the project on track. Every week you should be reviewing all your tasks to decide whether you’re committed to actually doing them or whether they require further processing or organisation.

The aim is to create a list of actionable items that can actually get done. If a task is too big then chop it up into smaller chunks. If you don’t have the resources available to do the task then you need to get those, which could become another task in itself. I think this is perhaps the most important step within the process. The very act of this reviewing process gives you a productivity boost. It turns into an organic, flowing mental activity where you don’t feel that you’ve got even the largest workload under control.

5. Do

So now the real work can begin, but before we tackle our list of actionable items we need to ask some questions in order to determine what to do next.

  • Do I have the resources to do this task now?
  • Do I have the time to do this task now?
  • Do I have the energy to do this task now?
  • What’s the priority of this task?

I think these questions are good to keep in mind but in reality there may be other variables to consider based on the project. In theory by the time we have gotten to this stage we should have already done most of the prioritisation and processing required to get to a stage where we’re motivated to do the tasks on our list.

The Getting Things Done method is a great way to deal with the problem of procrastination. It does require a level of self discipline though as it’s easy to overburdened with a huge workload. The process in and of itself feels rewarding and the perceived level of work you can get through keeps you motivated. The method pairs well with an agile development approach in my opinion, the iterative and responsive approach lending itself to the changing nature of agile development. If you’re a the kind of person then who finds yourself checking your twitter feed or tweaking your system preferences rather than doing some productive work then the GTD approach might work for you. Just don’t put it off, try it now!

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on 4th April 2014