This is an update from something I wrote when I was using a (don’t laugh) PDA (Personal Data Assistant). PDA’s were the big rage before smartphones. Since then, of course, software and smartphones have made them obsolete. But, because planning and prioritization of tasks hasn’t changed much, this article is still relevant. I’ve used GTD for most of my career.
GTD (Getting Things Done) is a methodology on tracking and accomplishing tasks, both at home, and at the office. It was invented by David Allen, who wrote a book about it, and has created a worldwide following. You can find hundreds of articles about GTD on the internet. Implementing the scheme is the trick.
It uses two basic rules:
- Put everything you want to do in one place–either paper or computer, in the form of tasks.
- Organize your task list by context. For example, @home would be the context for things you want to complete at home. Like mowing the lawn, organizing a birthday party, etc. @work would be for filling out your timesheet, making a phone call, etc.
The reason behind rule 1 is that this frees your mind from having to remember things, even the most trivial things.
Number 2 is for simplicity. You can concentrate on those things that are pertinent to where you are.
There other helpful rules, but I find these to be the basis of the concept. Some people actually do use paper to organize their task lists, but I spend most of my time in front of a PC, so I chose the computerized route. I also had another motive–I want to be able to sync to my desktop and phone so I can have my list with me everywhere, and I can enter tasks on my phone and instantly sync with my PC.
What software to use?
This also simplified my software approach. I was already a fan of Outlook, and am extremely dependent on it for organizing my life. But in the past, this was pretty much limited to the calendar and address book functions.
I don’t use Outlook any more, as I’m retired, but since my work days, I’ve started using RTM (Remember the Milk), which meets all the requirements for a GTD implementation.
You’ll start off by creating generic lists like “In”, “Next Action”, “Waiting”, “Projects”, “Me”, etc. “In” is a catch-all for capturing things that occur to you that you want to track, but can refine to a specific list later. “Me” is for personal things, not related to a project.
Context tags represent a place where you’re going to do the work, like office, car, home, or maybe some alternate work location. They’re usually preceded by an @ sign, to separate them from tasks and dates. RTM calls them Locations, and when you add a task, just enter @ and the first letter of the location, and it will autofill the rest. You have to set up a Location before you can do this, though. Also, you have to enter a physical address for the location, but I just use my home address for everything.
Let’s use an example that applies to a project, like building a web page for my brother in law. We’ll make a list called “arrowbail,” since that’s the name of the web site.
Tasks might be:
- Buy the URL
- Select a theme (I’m going to do it in WordPress)
- Collect photos of his office, and a family shot
- Build the prototype
There will be many more tasks, but for right now, this will suffice. Create a task for each of the above, and assign them all a context tag of @office, where you’ll be performing the work.
Outside the normal GTD scheme, I include an additional tag that I call a category tag. It’s used with a virtual list. I’ll explain further down below.
The importance of Next Action
Setup is done, now you need to figure out what to do next. Number 1 is obvious, so move it to the Next Action list.
This is a fundamental concept of GTD–the assignment of Next Action. You should review all your projects on a regular basis, and move tasks to the Next Action list. You never want to have too many, as that defeats the purpose of classifying them that way. You want 3-4, so you can concentrate on just those that should be done next, and don’t worry about the rest until your next review.
The GTD scheme I use, is to introduce the category tag, mentioned above. If you only have one Next Action, you’ll be moving items from multiple projects into it, and I prefer that they stay in their own project list. I don’t want “buy a URL” for two different projects in Next Action, separated from their respective projects.
Instead of moving each one to Next Action, I just add the category tag nextaction to each one. RTM (Remember the Milk) has a Smart List function, where I can collect all tasks with the nextaction tag by clicking on that Smart List. To create a Smart List named Next Action for this, create a new Smart List with that name, then add a criterion with a tag named nextaction. The tags for “buy a URL” in the list arrowbail would then be: @car and nextaction.
With the Smart List named Next Action, I can see all my nextaction tags, leaving the task within its respective project.
Now, this could get confusing too, as anything you tag with nextaction is going to show up in the Next Action Smart List. You might have problems remembering which list the item belongs to. To simplify this, you could create separate a Smart List for each project. You could then add another criterion for the Smart List with the name of the List for that particular project.
Once a task is done, you mark it complete, or delete it, and eventually you’ll rotate everything through the Next Action list (or category tag nextaction).
And there you have it–simple, no bells, no whistles, but it meets my requirements. If you try it, please let me know if it works for you.