Sunday, March 21, 2010

Getting Getting Things Done Done

If you are, like me, a disorganized schlub, the last time you received formal instruction in "study skills" was fourth or fifth grade. Life was simpler then. We had workbooks that had blanks to fill in, book reports to prove we actually read something (in 4th grade I put a Paul Gallico novel on my reading log. I'm sure now my teacher had me dead to rights), TOPS cards to let us practice math with story problems. Instead of looking at girls you could run around the track (capped at 6 laps). You could even accidentally jam a pencil in your hand and get the lead stuck in there until you're almost 30.

But I digress.

Outlining and time management didn't really stick in there, and so for the next fifteen years, in and out of school, I managed to avoid learning it. I would write 10-page research papers over a weekend, and stay up real late playing video games before finals.

Not knowing this skill killed me for years and years. I can say this with perfect hindsight. I was good at times, just never as good as I could have been (valedictorian good? we'll never know).

I just never knew how bad off I was until I got to Amazon. Here I finally started to see that I had to do something or I was going to drown in minutiae and errands.

Thus, Getting Things Done by David Allen. I finished it recently and it's been a huge eye-opener and relief. The basic point is that your brain has a limited ability to focus, and when you haven't solidly nailed down your commitments and the projects that are important to you, they consume your focus with worry.

Instead you need to feel comfortable that every loose end in your life has a concrete action tied to it. The loose ends could be as complex as buying a house or as simple as writing an email. The point is to think ahead a little bit and figure out how easy the single next step would be to move that loose end forward. Then you have lowered the barrier (activation energy? A little chemistry there) to actually doing that thing.

Best of all, when there are less loose ends in your life, you get peace. You feel like Augustine, who could say truthfully that if he discovered Armageddon was coming tomorrow, he would still go hoe his vegetable patch today.

There are many ways to run a system like this, with a bunch of lists of things to get done. For me, a program called Shuffle made my phone even more indispensable. It's simple, but it does all I want it to in terms of organizing tasks and integrating with my calendar.

Any system you use to get organized? Tell me now, before I turn 30.


dannielo said...

For implementing GTD you can use this web-based application:

You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
Comes with a mobile version too, and with an Android app.

Dan Lewis said...

Cool, and thanks for the invitation.

I have seen quite a few implementing sites, also including Remember the Milk and

Emacs users can also find several articles on using org-mode for GTD.

I am not sure that I'm comfortable giving a third party this kind of info (what I care about doing, all the time) without some pretty ironclad guarantees on privacy. So I prefer managing my own repository.