Ghosts of Planners Past: GTD and Friends

This is probably going to be the hardest post to write in this series, and so I’ve been postponing it.

I got into Getting Things Done around 2005, when it was really starting to gain momentum with tech workers online. I first heard about it via PvP Online’s creator, Scott Kurtz. Yes, I found a productivity and planning system via one of the first webcomic creators. The internet is funny that way.

Notes from 2011 on doing GTD better

If you have no idea what GTD is, then I suggest starting here. It’s a 15 minute guide to David Allen’s all-encompassing planning and productivity system. If it resonates with you, then the GTD book is pretty good for a book in the productivity genre. Books in this genre tend to be repetitive, padded with anecdotes, and oftentimes poorly written. The GTD book is readable, and while it contains the inevitable productivity guru anecdotes, there aren’t very many of them.

There are a few things to note about GTD that set it apart from other productivity systems, and make knowing about it worthwhile:

  • While it was developed for a paper office based world and appears on the face of it to be very rigid, it is in fact extremely customizable and flexible, and it converts very well to digital planning and to do list systems. Many of the most popular to list applications have their roots in GTD, for good reason.
  • While it was developed for an office setting and busy executives, it easily works well for students, designers and other creatives, developers, teachers, and just about anybody that doesn’t lead a leisure filled life. If you have “stuff to do”, if you feel overwhelmed, then GTD in some form or another could very likely help you.
  • This system spawned dozens and dozens of other systems. You can see the roots of GTD in BuJo (Bullet Journalling), there’s a monster list of GTD implementations, and 43folders (Merlin Mann’s old productivity site) is full of info on various GTD tweaks and variants. This, by the way, is my favourite one.
  • The basics of GTD are worth implementing no matter which system you use, because they just work, and because they will likely fit whichever system you use. They are:
    • Make a list of all the things you have on your mind that you need to do. They need to be actions that you can perform in the real world, and you need to be able to clearly envision what “done” means.
    • Curate that list – make sure that things on it are actually ACTIONS that you can take IN THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE. Break big tasks into little ones, things that you are able to do it small chunks of time. Make sure there aren’t any hidden dependencies or prerequisites to these tasks. Make sure you know what DONE looks like. Make sure that they are REAL and actually need to be done, and need to be done by YOU. If things on that list take less than 2 minutes to do, just do them. T
    • Go over that list and do the things. If you’re stuck, make sure the thing was properly defined and isn’t a hidden project (i.e. isn’t actually one task but rather 20), something that you can delegate or not do, or something that you can’t start working on now. If you’re balking at doing it open a timer (the famous pomodoro technique enters here).
    • Once a week prune the list. Be ruthless.
    • Don’t schedule anything on your calendar unless it absolutely has to be on your calendar – a doctor’s appointment, a child’s graduation, an exam date, etc.
  • You can get carried away by GTD and become more interested in the organizational part of it (“Productivity Pr0n”) than in actually getting the work done.

The last bullet is what earned GTD a place in this blog post series.

I love GTD. I’ve been using it in various form for almost two decades. I have the book and have read it twice, and I have a good grasp of the major players in the GTD cinematic universe. I know the system well enough to be comfortable to get rid of its mannerisms and streamline it to my own needs. I can see its influences in Jira, in BuJo, in Omnifocus and other to do apps. And it’s very powerful dark side is that it really invites you to tweak and tinker with it. You are tempted to make your system a little bit sleeker, better, more efficient, better suited for your needs, to the point where you suddenly find yourself spending more time and care on the system than the tasks that it is supposed to help you manage. So while GTD taught me how to define and manage my tasks, it also taught me to be constantly aware of how much time I’m spending on my task management systems.

So if you are worried about being carried away by GTD’s siren call to tweak, tweak, tweak, here are some basic ideas from the system that I think are worth taking with you or thinking about no matter what:

  • Our minds aren’t good at keeping track of things. Write them down.
  • Not everything is a real task. It if it isn’t an action that you need take in the world, then it needs to be trashed/delegated/better defined.
  • Tasks that languish in your planner/to do system are either ill defined (see bullet above) or require deliberate action to get out of the way (see pomodoro technique, dashes and timers).
  • Don’t clutter your calendar. It just adds needless stress to your life.
  • The best definition of a task is a physical action, that can be accomplished at a sitting, supports valuable progress towards a recognized and desirable goal, and something that YOU are the most appropriate person to perform.

2 thoughts on “Ghosts of Planners Past: GTD and Friends

  1. Danny Watts

    Been a while since I’ve read acolytes for GTD. I’ve been using my own twist since 2003ish. My biggest challenge is employers who believe meetings are always and frequently required. Several years ago I was forced to attend a meeting on having meetings. My employer is often frustrated my my lack of attendance at meeting lacking a clear cut objective and planned topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. writingatlarge

      Oh wow, do I hate those kinds of meetings, and people have no problem scheduling them. Take five minutes to send an agenda so that others can be prepared and you won’t waste time and need a follow-up meeting…
      Great to hear from another early GTD user!

      Liked by 1 person

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