Getting GTD done - Thoughts and Tools

2013-08-19 Personal Management Tips & Tricks Thoughts

We all have a lot to do. Effective time/task management is essential. I’ve been using GTD (Getting Things Done) for a while now (a long while :)) and for me it comes down to the question, “How do you pick the next, best, most valuable thing to work on?”—basically answering the question of how to make the best use of the time you have.

Picking something from your list of urgent things to do is kind of easy, but how can you make sure you are not missing the opportunity/chance to work on something important, if you get the chance to do so?

Easy! Just do Inbox-Zero and use GTD (Getting Things Done), read the 7 Habbits of highly effective people and work through the stuff in 43folders and ... problem solved, right?

The aim of this blog post is to share some of my thoughts on how to become effective or even better maybe only become more effective than you are today and what tools to use and how to use them.

First let's be clear: It all starts with yourself. You need to be clear and serious about what you want to get out of life and what is important to you. The stuff above will help you to get organized, but it will not make you happy (at least this is true for myself).

What has helped me is to think about golf balls. You know? The story about the professor that teaches philosophy and is pouring sand and beer into a bucket? Means every 6 to 12 month I am making sure to set aside half a day with a friend or on my own and think about the golf balls that need to go into the bucket. Sometimes I am adding one (easy), but then I am also making sure that I am removing one (hard). I try not to have more than 5 golf balls in the bucket.

One other good way to look at it is the "flight-level" approach that is suggested by David Allen to put structure into GTD.

And here comes the first tip or trick: Originally I had all of that in one place (e.g. your GTD tool of choice). For me personally that was bad in 2 ways: First, I was looking at it way too often and second, the list-view way of looking at my purpose, vision, goals just did not resonate with me.

A couple of years ago I started to maintain my high(er) level believes (e.g. 50k, 40k, 30k) in a very expressive and colourful mindmap. To maintain the mindmap I am using FreeMind. And then I am printing it and put it somewhere, where I can see it (at home). This works very well for me. I look at it a lot and most of the time it makes me smile.

Means I am using my GTD tool only for the lower "flight-levels" and the runway.

So let's talk a little bit about my GTD tool. I have tried a lot (not naming names), but like OmniFocus most/best. The only big problem with OmniFocus is that it does not support Android. If one of these days I find a tool that is as good as OmniFocus and supports Android, I will switch to it.

Using OmniFocus or any other GTD tool comes with it's own set of challenges. Most of the time the tools feature a tutorial and suggest a way to use it. In the case of OmniFocus and for me this did not really work well. It took me a while to figure out how to make OmniFocus work for me.

For me it comes down to one very important question: Assuming that you are done doing something, how do you pick the next task? And this is where the rubber hits the road and this is where the tutorials start to fail, because this is really something that you have to figure out for yourself. The tutorial might suggest that you need to structure it along the lines of projects or locations (at home, in the office) or if you have your laptop or a phone. For me none of this matters.

I am picking my next task based on urgency and importance. Sounds familiar? So far, so good. As always urgency is easy. Every task got a due date and you just sort the tasks by due date and you will be able to find out what you need get done in the next couple of days. In OmniFocus I am using the Due perspective and that works fine.

But I also created a second perspective for myself that I call the Do perspective. And that perspective helps me to find tasks that I can do that are not necessarily urgent. I thought about this a lot and for me there are two dimensions/questions that I use to pick something from that list:

  • Do I need somebody to make progress on this task or can I do it on my own?
  • How long will this take?
So let's say, later in the day and I suddenly have 10m, 30m, 60m or more than 60m to do something and I am done with my urgent list. I then go to my Do list/perspective which is sorted by how long a task will take and find the tasks fit into the time that I have. 10m might be a call, 30m might be to followup with somebody on an important project. In the best case I am picking a big/long task which needs a lot of people, because in general these are difficult ones. In the worst case, either because I do not have a lot of time or because nobody is around/awake, I am picking a short task that I can do on my own. But it is very important to favour the longest possible task and if possible one that requires other people, because to find a slot for a short task that you can do on your own is easy.

To make this work I give every task a duration. I am only using 3 durations: 10m, 30m and 60m (or more). For tasks that I am delegating I am using 100h, because this task has no duration for me. The thing with the 100h is important, so that I can see the tasks that have no duration, which in my case is an indication that something went wrong. If I would use no duration as a valid value, I would not be able to find the tasks that are not configured correctly.

Finally I am using contexts to express, if I need somebody for a task or not. I have two sub-groups: "Need help from ..." and "Waiting for ...". In "Need help from ..." I have a context call "Nobody" and a long, ever-growing list of people and groups of people that I need to get something done. Means every time I am processing a task in my inbox I decide quickly, if I want/can do this alone/on my own and if so assign it to the "Need help from ... > Nobody" context. Otherwise I pick the person or group I need to make progress with this task. If it is not me who owns the task I am assigning it a person in the "Waiting for ..." sub-group. In that sub-group I only have people, no groups, because when I am delegating something, I am delegating it to a person, not to a group of people. All of the contexts on "Waiting for ..." are configured to be in status "On Hold" and I have a perspective to show me all tasks that I have delegated. Needless to say, when I am delegating a task I set it up in a way so that I do not have to poll for progress, but agree a way of working together so that progress reports and updates are pushed to me.

Here is how all of this comes together:

  • Most of the time I use the "quick entry" keyboard shortcut or the "Send to OmniFocus" clipping feature to put something into my Inbox. Especially while processing email. More on this later.
  • Once a day I am going through my inbox and give the task a project, a context, a due date and a duration. I do this for every task. This needs to be quick. To make this quick I am using a couple of "short-cuts"/simplifications (features of OmniTi and GTD that I am not using at all or in a different way). This means for instance that I am not thinking about "does this task need a due date or not". I always give it a due date. If it is not urgent the due date might be in 3 month from now. But this way I have squared it away and have clearly expressed that it is not urgent and that is also important.
  • Another short-cut is that I only have a very small amount of projects. Most of the time I am only using two Single-Action projects. One for my personal tasks and one for my business tasks. This makes finding the right project for a task very fast. I am not using OmniFocus for Project Planning or Project Management (for that I am using OmniPlan). I am mainly using OmniFocus for task management.
  • After that I take a look at my Due perspective and my Do perspective and pick the best task for the first time slot that I have.
One of my urgent, reoccurring tasks is to clean my EMail-Inbox. I normally do this twice a day. Once in the morning and once in the evening. And I normally do it before I process my GTD-Inbox. But just to give you an idea, I normally have 100 emails in my EMail-Inbox and I process it in 10-15 mins and cleaning up my GTD-Inbox normally takes less than 5 mins. I am very strict not do anything while I am processing.

So last, but not least lets talk about email. Again how you are doing your inbox processing or your Inbox-Zero is very much a question of personal taste. My system has 3 labels or folders: NeedsAction, Keep and Archive. The one thing that is important for me is that moving emails to these folders/labels has a keyboard short-cut associated with it. I am using and it took me a while to figure out how to make this happen, but with Mac OS 10.8 it is possible to assign keys to menu items, means in my case I have Ctrl-J, Ctrl-K, Ctrl-L assigned to "Message > Move to > NeedsAction", "Message > Move to > Keep", "Message > Move to > Archive". With that I am flying through my inbox very fast. NeedsAction includes everything that takes longer than a minute to do. This includes reading a long email or even responding to an email. Sometimes I start to work on an email, but after a minute I start to feel that this will take 10m or maybe even 30m. At that point I stop working on that email and just put it into NeedsAction. In a second pass I am going through the NeedsAction folder and either do it or turn it into a GTD task (including the tasks I want to delegate). I do it this way to make sure that I do not keep tasks in my email. If I am not strict on this, then I start to maintain 2 lists, which makes picking the next best task hard(er).

Ssssoooo ... that's about it!!! This is how I get things done with GTD. As I said most of it is a question of personal style. My style is maybe more task/action oriented than other people. Maybe other people prefer to think about what needs to get done more in the context of projects, but what have described here works for me. But this might be the most important take away from this post: Create a task to really think about how you are getting things done and what information you need to make good decisions on what task to tackle next. Spending an hour on it and implementing it afterwards, might be a good investment in your future. 

Last but not least, I would love to hear from you how you use/organise your projects and contexts in OmniFocus or any other tool you are using.

I am now going to take a look at my Due and Do perspective to pick something that I can do in the next 30 mins, before I have to go to my next meeting.