Getting Things Done

I'm writing this blog post at 21:45 on a weekday after an intense day at work and a full evening of looking after my daughter and cooking pizza. I was in three video conferences and chatted with two colleagues in Teams, all while having my kid run around me all day because the daycare is closed. Now's the time to do something for me. Wouldn't it be nice to have some help to juggle all these different things and not feel overwhelmed?

In the next weeks, I'm trying out the Getting Things Done (GTD for short) method. I have tried GTD for short periods off and on over some years. Without knowing the concept, I used Things but abandoned it after some time. That was over 10 years in my studies. A few years back, I read the original book and re-read it last year. So why try again? Didn't I learn my lesson?

No - I didn't :-). Although I've never completely adopted it, I've soaked up more and more of its practices. This time around I'll try to apply all its techniques as well as I can and see where that leads me.

GTD in a nutshell

Quoted with small changes from the book:

  1. Capture all the things that might need to get done or have usefulness for you - now, later, someday, big little, or in between -- in a logical and trusted system outside your head and off your mind.
  2. Direct yourself to make front-end decisions about all of the "inputs" you let into your life so that you will always have a workable inventory of "next actions" that you can implement or renegotiate in the moment.
  3. Curate and coordinate all of that content, utilizing the recognition of the multiple levels of commitments with yourself and others you will have at play at any point in time.

There are already many concise and complete introductions to the basics of GTD, so I won't repeat them here. Read Erlend Hamberg's well-structured one: GTD in 15 minutes. It's a quick and well-written guide.

In a sense, GTD is very American because I have the feeling (North) Americans are obsessed with lists. Many clickbait articles you come across have titles like "top X things" where X is more often than not simply the number somebody came up with. Although I must admit the last example was from a German site 13 WordPress-Anbieter.

GTD has a list of the next actions one wants to look at. This is different from a todo list in that there are stricter rules on what a good entry can be. For example, it has to be a physical action and not a whole project. GTD also prescribes reviews (every day and every week) to keep on top of these lists. There's a comfort to know you'll triage a pressing question or inspiring article the next day or at least at your weekly review. This relief is at the heart of GTD: knowing that nothing will fall through the cracks you can relax from time to time.

One pays for a generally more relaxed general outlook by following a couple of small practices very closely. To capture all things, David Allen means that all emails or collected snippets are processed and collected too. I found it especially significant that one should collect references and notes on everything that might come in handy later. Collecting things comes very naturally to me; as a kid, I liked to collect buttons -- of all things -- and to keep many books around. When at long last I got my own computer I immediately started collecting all the things. My del.icio.us accounts probably had more than a thousand collected links when it was shut down. GTD emphasizes to collect references for later usage. A lot of input is not useful at the moment and only potentially later at some point, but still, you can rely on your system to keep it for you.

Is GTD for everybody?

David Allen originally "discovered" it in his work as a consultant and executive coach. I would argue that it's useful when you're already pretty organized. If you're in a routine job with little need for interaction with others it might be overkill for you. A simple todo list and some basic tricks to fight procrastination could be enough. There are fewer and fewer routine jobs. Most office workers are expected to be as "agile" when shifting many responsibilities as executives two decades ago.

Besides GTD

In summary, I've mentioned that a convenient "setup" serves me better than vague "hacks". It can increase motivation and/or remove distractions. For my productivity, I still find it crucial to avoid news sites as much as possible. I've replaced them with a collection of RSS feeds from newspapers and some blogs. With a configured update interval of four hours, refreshing it every few minutes is less attractive. Turning off communication tools, the popular Pomodoro technique or simply walking to another room, still help me. I like that you can still apply many other ideas and still refine my personal system. If I had nothing to procrastinate on, that would be sad too, right?

I think getting rid of distractions is more important than having the perfect productivity system/todo tool. Cal Newport's ideas from his books (especially "Deep Work" and "Digital Minimalism") and his blog immediately come to mind. Here are some ideas from developer Tania Rascia that I can relate to.

How to Implement GTD

You have to decide if you want to go analog or digital. David Allen suggests in his book to keep lists and folders analog first. Digital tools realize GTD with more or less sophistication. I've never tried to use only paper although I tried working a lot with my Moleskine notebook. At some point, I had also used Things but only used it as a fancy todo list.

For me a very text-centric simple note-taking app called nvUltra has worked well. It lets me write lists in different files synced between my laptop and smartphone. It's not very adapted to GTD but I like that it is an excellent reference system too. nvUltra is the commercial successor to the excellent open-source nvAlt. This in turn evolved from Notational Velocity. There are also cross-platform implementations such as nvPY.

todoist is a sophisticated tool for GTD too. OmniFocus has been around very long and has been refreshed over time. Other general-purpose note-taking tools can be adapted for GTD too, such as Evernote, Notion, or OneNote. Org-mode is an alternative plain text file format that's more powerful than Markdown. It's mostly used with the Emacs editor and supports notes and todos as well.

GTD horizons

One distinguishing feature of GTD on top of todo management is more abstract and longer-term levels of focus. rom the day-to-day "ground" level, David Allen introduces the level of longer projects at horizon 1 and goes up to the purpose of your life with horizon 5. In his podcast, David Allen mentions that for many it takes years to reach these longer-term perspectives. It takes a long time to integrate them into the system. He suggests one should start off with the day-to-day and form long-term plans bottom-up.

GTD horizons with their increased abstraction remind me of Eastern religions such as buddhism. In stoicism as well one works towards a very distant ideal of "enlightenment". This is not far-fetched as David Allen is a black belt karateka and used his experience in the conception of GTD. The book mentions having a "mind like water" to be ready for anything that may come to you as a concept from martial arts. There's also a blog by David Allen with 10 more similarities.

Is it Simply Self-Exploitation?

"Increasing productivity" also has a stale 19th century factory worker exploitation aspect to me. At least the basis of management "science" had very questionable origins. Managers "scientifically" noted how long some workers took to complete a task. They noted the fastest and decided to increase work quotas for everybody. Even then short-term exploitation didn't have long-term lasting positive effects.

One could argue that a personal productivity system only serves as self-exploitation. Where managers exploited industrial workers, we do it ourselves now. I haven't read or though much about this, but a dev article by Ivan Petrov raises some interesting points. They emphasize:

What I have learned and forgotten and re-learned is that the power NOT to do (negative potency) seems to be the only weapon.

This at least we can take to heart by filtering out many actions. We can also try to move away from "outside" areas of (work) focus and focus on our own values and vision.

Trial Period

For the next month until December 6th, I'm implementing GTD and revisiting its techniques. For me some questions still remain unanswered:




Scientific Evaluation