Are You Getting Things Done?

In a previous blog article I mentioned that one of the tools I use to fight with the surplus of things to do is a form of the David Alen’s GTD system. In a series of articles I’m going to share the different aspects of the way I manage my goals, projects & tasks, deadlines, priorities etc. I think it will be useful to describe not only my current system but also it’s evolution – the trials and errors I went through. Then after I’ve described the underlying principles and the history of my system I will try do a concise, HOWTO style, summarizing article on it.

It’s clear that people are unique. The way we think, our paradigms about the world we live in, our environment, the temperament, the work we do for living – it’s all different. There’s no single method for planning and action management that will work best for everyone. The methods that I’m going to describe are so far the best ones for me and my situation. For example I work as a System and Network Administrator – that means that 90% of my job is being done while sitting in front of the computer terminal. I don’t meet with clients, only occasionally communicate with business partners and do weekly meetings with colleagues. Another aspect of my job is that a large part of the tasks I have to do are not planned – these are software security upgrades, overloaded systems, hardware failures, power or connectivity outages and so on. Of course I have some limited control – if I put more effort in the design of the systems I work with, or regularly audit and use multiple layers of security measures then some part of the unplanned work will move to the planned & preventive work quadrant. But in general there’s a lot of ad hoc work triggered by external forces in my job.

I’m sure most of us have more work to do than it is possible to be done. At least within sensible time frame and having limited resources. If I record every single idea I’d like to see done and never ever throw away anything it’d be an ever growing list of wishes. But the worse thing is that many of these ideas are just “stuff”. Just raw thoughts that are yet to go through planning stage before they become something doable. That’s the thing that makes you feel overwhelmed more than anything else. You don’t know from where to start because you know you can’t do all these things and more are on the way. It all seems hopeless and in the end it is counterproductive. I know people who avoid planning and project management in general because of these precise reasons.

Is your world taken over by “stuff” as you are running from one crisis to another trying to fix things and hoping that you haven’t forgot something?

Enters GTD. One of the main strengths of GTD system (at least for me) is that if you stick to it you are forced to convert “thoughts” or “wishes” or “stuff” into actionable tasks or so called “next actions”. One of the major problems I had with more complex projects was that I was hesitant to start them because of their complexity and the constant flow of distractions, which is typical for my job. By having all of my work chewed down to specific next steps, contexts, estimated times, energy levels and so on it’s much easier for me to just pick some work and do it. It makes all the difference to have “Outline the requirements for the new server”, “Get a price quotation” etc. in your task list instead of the fat “Upgrade 10 servers” task. I often have only small blocks of time like 30 minutes or an hour and prior to implementing GTD these small blocks of time were often used or rather misused in a suboptimal way. You see – “Upgrade 10 servers” isn’t something that could be done in 30 minutes and hence I was delaying it too much while waiting for that never coming large block of time. On the other hand “Get a price quotation” definitely fits in the 30 minutes block.

Another important thing is that I have a trusted system and I know nothing would just disappear or get delayed because it’s hidden in the ever growing pile of “stuff”. Now when a new task enters my perimeter if it’s not really really very urgent I try not to interrupt my current activity. I just write it down and continue working. By having this trusted system to keep my “stuff” for later processing I don’t have to think about it (and get distracted) until its time comes. Then when I’m done with the task at hand I check the accumulated new “stuff” and pre-process it. If it’s something I could do in less than 3 minutes and there are no other tasks that are more urgent I do it right away. Otherwise I write it down as one or more specific “next actions” with appropriate priorities. Sometimes if this is going to end up as a more complex project I enter it as “P&O: Project name” – i.e. I create task in which to plan and organize the project.

For a very long time I had some problems with setting right priorities until I finally realized that I should evaluate importance and urgency separately and only then merge these two parameters in a single priority parameter. I wrote about urgency vs importance some time ago.

Another aspect I like about GTD is the additional criteria used to choose what task to do next. When I enter a new task into the system I set various properties which I use later for filtering and sorting. Some of these criteria are priority (combined importance and urgency), context, ETA, energy, start and due dates. For examle sometimes I feel tired and have only 20 minutes left till the end of the work day but since I have energy and time criteria in my system I may choose a task that has highest priority and still fits within my current energy level and time available. Otherwise I’d probably just stare for few minutes at some high priority, high energy task that requires too much time and would eventually go procrastinte.

If you have difficulties broking the “stuff” down to a list of specific next actions try this: I find it extremely helpful to start thinking backwards – to begin with the end in mind. In the “Upgrade 10 servers” example the last task would be “Decommission the old servers”. But then I must already have copied the data to the new server so lets “Copy data from old server #1 to new server #1”. Obviously I have to have a new server in order to do that. But I can’t just call the supplier and say “Please send me 10 new servers”. I should “Decide on specifications” of these new servers and “Get price quotation” first. I found it important to try and further break down tasks which look like they would take more than two hours. I mean if some task is going to take you two hours there’s a good chance it is still “stuffy”, it’s probably not really well thought and is more of a project than specific action.

I usually start my day by reading my email, notes left by colleagues, tickets, bugs and checking other communications channels, from which something important may come. I check my calendar as well. I try to do all of this as quickly as possible and I usually finish in about 45 minutes. If there’s something that’s going to take more than 3 minutes I flag it and enter it in my task inbox. If it can be done very fast I’ll do it on the spot. When I’m done with this collecting phase I go over my task inbox and process what’s there by sticking priority, context, time etc. to the tasks and move them into the pile with other already pre-processed tasks. Or if it’s something that has to be done on a specific date I put it in my calendar. Finally I sort the big pile that’s full with next actions and choose some to be done today. Knowing that there are many unplanned tasks to come during the workday I choose tasks with summary ETA equaling about 4 hours. I try to pick 1 to 3 bigger tasks and then some smaller ones to be done in a batch.

There’s one very important aspect of the GTD system that shouldn’t be overlooked no matter how tempting it might look – that’s the weekly review. It’s purpose is to make sure all outstanding actions, projects and ‘waiting for’ items are reviewed, and that everything is up to date. If you don’t do your weekly review regularly the system will start to fall apart and more importantly – your trust in it will decrease, you’ll feel more stressed and will tend to use it less… and so on in a downward spiral. Please, if you decide to evaluate GTD do your best not to skip the weekly review.

GTD is the best tactical action management system I know to date. You will probably still have difficulties choosing the “real” importance of actions without good strategic system. I mean without clearly identified goals and long term plans how and to what would you align your short term projects and tasks? But at least you are moving and stress starts to lessen it’s grip. This system will help you to get on track and will allow for some thinking time in which to think out your life goals and visions.

If you are not familiar with GTD there’s a good overview on wikipedia. But my recommendation is to read the book because there are some important aspects that are not exactly obvious or may look strange at first glance but are well explained and supported by examples in the book.

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