A GTD Retrospective

After reading how David Seah is managing with his implementation of GTD, I thought I'd take a look at my own system to see how things are going. If you haven't heard of GTD (Getting Things Done), I wrote a review of GTD some months ago on my other website. I also recommend checking out Merlin Mann's "43 Folders" and the Official David Allen website too.

I started using GTD in my final semester of university, and I'm quite sure it's the reason I managed to stay (relatively) sane in those final few months. As much as I hate to admit it, I was incredibly unorganised in my first few years, so any kind of system would have made a big difference. I'd heard a few developers talking about GTD on some game development forums, so thought I'd give it a whirl. Whilst I didn't achieve a "mind like water", I did manage to reign in all my tasks into one place. Considering the position I was in before ("mind like whirlpool"), I was quite pleased.

The bits that work

The Two Minute Rule

Like Dave, I find the two minute rule to be incredibly useful. I would often look at even the smallest of tasks and decide “I'll do it tomorrow”. Not a good habit. There's only so many times you can put a task off until it becomes urgent, and getting into the “I'll do it tomorrow” habit is a sure-fire way of getting yourself into trouble.

Taking up the two minute rule helped me to break this habit, and made me far more productive. Anyone who suffers from procrastination will know that once you're started, nearly all resistance vanishes. Thrashing through a list of two minute tasks often left me with more energy to pursue the bigger tasks.

The Someday/Maybe List

This was another simple change that I've employed. I have a lot of ideas, and I usually think of new ones when I'm supposed to be doing something else. It surprised me that I'd never thought of keeping track of all these ideas in a single place. The "Someday/Maybe" list is a place for me to make a note of all these fantastical ideas, and writing them down means I won't be distracted by them whilst I'm working.

Having an "In" Tray

University generated a lot of actionable items, such as coursework, research subjects and a small forest's worth of lecture notes. Before I had an in-tray, they used to just sit in my bag and wait for something to happen. As you can probably imagine, this was note the most effective system in the world.

Contextual “To-Do” Lists

My time was generally split between four places – university, home, walking through town and sitting on the bus. Dividing tasks into contexts instead of subjects eliminated a lot of mental sorting when in different locations. For example, if I needed to buy something, I would put it on the "@Town" list, which I'd check when in a position to do some shopping.

I also had an "@Bus" list, as the journey lasted around an hour, so it was a good place to revise my notes from the day and plough through a list of small tasks.

The bits that don't work so well


I like the idea of the "next action", but I like to plan further ahead than a single action. Writing software can be a very daunting task, and there's often a whole heap of things that need to get done. Next actions are often very small, and it doesn't seem like the best way of managing a large scale project.

Perhaps keeping track of all this is beyond the scope of my current GTD system, but I know other developers have used it to perhaps some tweaking is in order.

Keeping It All in One Place

I regularly switch between the computer and my desk, so finding a way of storing these tasks and projects has become quite a challenge. I'm still a fan of using paper, but it's much easier to modify tasks that are being managed on the computer. Sometimes I find myself writing the same thing on paper and on the computer, which is very frustrating.

No Scheduling

Whilst to-do lists do the work of deciding what needs doing, they don't help with when it needs doing. The calendar can remind you of deadlines, but there seems to be a gap between the action and the deadline. In a way, this is connected to my problem with GTD's management of projects and my own tendency to plan things out quite thoroughly.

How do I fix these things?

Over the next few weeks I want to modify my entire system to iron out these problems. My current plan is to keep a project plan at the front of each project's folder, and to schedule my day into hourly "blocks" where I can work through the project's list of tasks. Project milestones will get added to the calendar, and I'll trial a completely paper-based system.

Has anyone else encountered these problems with their own systems (either GTD or something different)? If so, how did you remedy them?

Posted in: Productivity | Comments (6)


#1 | | July 14, 2006 at 09:39AM

I have a similar problem. Being a web developer, projects can have many next actions, some which are dependant, some which can happen concurrently.

It's a shame David Allen doesn't go into project management in more detail in "Getting Things Done", and I find the whole idea of only having one next action associated with a project and one time frustrating.

Basically, I came up with two ways of dealing with it. One was a weekly task schedule (the post on which can be seen here) where I allocate time to different projects. This lets me know what I'm doing and when and if I don't get around to something (things always over-run which is fine) I know what I still have to do the next day/week.

The second way was a project/next action tracker - similar I guess to the project plan you mentioned. This lists all phases (or sub-projects as I guess Allen would refer to them) and related tasks (next actions).

I have to admit, I'm slowly moving over to the cult of the moleskine so most of my Next Actions go in there now as it's with me 90% of the time.

Good luck with the GTD-rework, I'm sure it'll work out brilliantly for you!

#2 | | July 14, 2006 at 10:39AM

Thanks for the kind words Katy!

The method you used in "Time Management: Procrastination vs GTD and Non-Conditional Scheduling" reminds me of something I read in "The NOW Habit" called the "Unschedule". In this method, you schedule all the fun activities you want to do for the day, and then include work in whatever time is left. I think I'm most productive when I have a schedule to work to, so it's something I want to try over the coming weeks.

I'm still not sure how I'll be organising my project plans. I've tried using Excel as recommended by Joel Spolsky, but it quickly becomes a huge mess of numbers. I've also used TaskJuggler (on Linux), but it quickly gets out of hand too. Perhaps I need to spend some time on finding a better method of breaking down tasks.

#3 | | July 14, 2006 at 03:27PM

I did use Voo2do for a while which I found quite easy to use but I didn't like the fact I couldn't customise it to my liking (I'm terrible for tinkering). I've also tried GTD-PHP which I was slowly working into something that suited my personal system when it got "accidentally" deleted off the server. A new website out, again based around GTD is iCommit which I've not tried yet but Lifehacker seemed impressed!.

Mind you, all the above is only useful if you want a web-based (or at least browser-based) solution!

#4 | | July 15, 2006 at 12:26PM

Thanks for the links! I like the look of GTD-PHP, so I'll be installing that later and having a fiddle around.

It's probably best for me to try both computer and paper based systems, and see which ones work.

#5 | | April 04, 2007 at 06:25PM

I too am a project manager with an unhealthy interest in all things time and self management. I feel I've tried them all, until I read some of the tweaks people do to GTD and then decide I'm a mere novice!

I've found that by far the best system for me in my job and personal life is to combine GTD with DIT (Do It Tomorrow, by Mark Forster). DIT is much simpler. It proposes the use of 'closed lists'. Anything which comes in today,goes onto tomorrow. So you're always working on 1) yesterday's mails, 2) yesterday's tasks which cropped up and 3) anything really critical that came up today but couldnt be put off until tomorrow. It means you are doing a day's worth of work at a time. Also, he gets you to create a backlog. So you shove everything in there when you start with this system (clear your email inbox, your tasks, your everything) and then chip away at it on top of your tasks. Before you know it, you're keeping on top of a day's worth of tasks and your backlog can only get smaller (down to zero before you know it).

I do a weekly review (GTD) and with my closed tasklist for the day, I group into physical activities (Contexts). I dont prioritise because I know that everything on my list will be done today so no point putting one ahead of another. I use the someday context like its going out of fashion too.

It has worked so well for me that I just can't stop gloating about how organised I feel. GTD felt like it was never ending. Finally, after trying so many systems and just getting so disappointed with all of them, I now feel the 'mind like water' which David Allen talks of as I combine GTD and DIT.

#6 | | April 05, 2007 at 02:19PM

Hi Simon,

I hadn't heard of "Do it tomorrow", but the concept sounds quite interesting. I think one thing that can make people feel really overwhelmed is the idea that everything must be done immediately.

I can see that strategy working well when you're at the stage where you know you'll do the work. I think the reason people feel uncomfortable with scheduling tasks for another day is that they know it won't get done. I totally agree on the someday/maybe list too - it's one of my favourite things about GTD.

Thanks for sharing the DIT tips, I'll be trying some of them out and looking for a copy of the book when I'm out. It's always great to hear about new strategies that people are using to become more organised.

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