Productivity is something that everybody struggles with at least once in their lifetime. No matter how much you’d love to move forward, it’s easy to get lost in the multitude of ideas and applications. Wanting to accomplish too many things at once can render just the opposite result: you end up doing nothing and being unproductive.
While there are many productivity primers that promise to take task accomplishment to the next level, probably the most popular one of all is GTD (short for “getting things done”). It’s an effective system that eliminated the noise and gets people focused on the truly important things at hand. The system is based on a book written by David Allen, where he presents the concept of self-organization that can help a person achieve personal and professional goals through better prioritization.
GTD’s Five Pillars
For the most part, getting things done is a system that revolves around the idea of staying organized. It isn’t a system that’s looking to implement rules on how you do your tasks, but rather on how to choose the ones that require your attention first. It’s about prioritizing and staying on top of things by efficiency organizing your to-do list. There are five pillars that stand at the base of the getting things done productivity primer.
The five steps below are the core principles of this primer. Their main role is to extract the ideas from your mind and put them on paper or digital support that will give you a clearer image of what you have to do. It helps paint the bigger picture and eliminates any potential excuses you might have once you actually have to get things done.
The first pillar is about taking note of everything that you have to do. Try to picture a whiteboard where you’ve pinned all your tasks on colored post-it notes. The idea behind capturing all your tasks is to create a visual bubble of everything there is to be done.
You can use any type of visual support to meet this pillar halfway. That being said, it doesn’t matter if you track your to-do list using software or if you have an actual notebook where you write it all down. The important thing here is to have all your tasks in one place, using a tool that you find normal to use. If you’re more of a write-it-down kind of person, you’ll find it out of hand to use software for tracking your to-do list.
This is important because whenever a new task surfaces, you should have no excuse in postponing adding that task to your list. This concept is all about capturing new tasks as soon as they appear, and not storing the task in the back of your mind thinking “I’ll just make a note of this later”.
Whenever you are writing down your tasks, formulate the text is the clearest way possible. More specifically, don’t make your to-do list sound ambiguous. The idea is the following: the clearer you are in breaking down a task into actionable steps, the easier it will be for you too see the task through, and eliminate the probability of not knowing where to start.
For example, if you formulate a task simply by stating “research new product”, you might find yourself staring in front of an empty search page for quite some time. But, if your “research new product” task is followed by actionable steps (such as: research competition by examining sales of X, Y, Z brands; make a SWOT analysis for X. Y, Z features of our product; check X website for product name availability, etc.), the moment you actually start working on this task, it will be clear where you have to start.
It’s important that once you actually start working on something, you don’t have to waste any more time figuring out how to do it, which is often a time-consuming matter in itself.
Once you have mapped out your to-do list, it’s time to prioritize it. This is a step that requires plenty of assessment because you will have to set (realistic) due dates for your tasks. You won’t be able to “research new product” in one hour because there’s so much information that you have to gather in the process.
If you’re working with digital productivity tools, you should set reminders when it’s time to start working on a task, as well as specify the deadline for it. Remember that this is not the step where you actually start performing your tasks, but rather the final step in arranging them for the upcoming future.
Once your to-do list is clear and organized, you can reflect on it. At this point, you should have a very clear idea of what your next step is and how you can do it. In order to be productive, choose one of the tasks with no prerequisites, meaning you can start working on it right away.
When you look at your to-do list with a reflective eye, you can immediately spot any tasks that are vaguely formulated, giving you the possibility to break it down furthermore, if need be. Another important productivity hack tells us that it’s important to reflect on the to-do map periodically. This way, we can track our progress and see if the getting things done system is actually working in our favor.
This is the part where you actually get to work. It is as simple as choosing the first thing on your to-do list and start working on it. The whole system with the above steps was designed in such a manner as to avoid all possible impediments that could prevent you from working on your tasks in this final step.
Your tasks are clearly formulated, you know what are the steps you have to take in order to see the task through, you know what the deadline for the task is, and everything is divided into milestones, so you will always know if you’re on track.
How GTD Actually Works
Another concept that we have to introduce at this point is the GTD tree. Picture it as a diagram with a series of questions that you have to answer in order to decide if a particular task is truly worth being in your to-do list.
Every person has a personal inbox, not just their email one. This inbox can be anything from your notepad, your phone notes software, or even the back of your mind. In this inbox, you receive daily information that more or less urgent, and you have to filter out the emergencies from the things that can be postponed and solved at a later time.
However, this means that you should have some sort of filtering system, else how can you possibly know from the get-go what are the important things that require immediate attention. Well, the getting things done system has a list of questions (or a tree) that can redirect you towards the right action to take when it comes to your daily tasks.
Once the information or the task has reached your “inbox”, the first thing you should ask is what this new information is. It could be something you have to add to your grocery list, or an email that you have to send to someone.
Once you’ve figured out what that new bit of information is, it’s time to figure out if it’s actionable. If this concept is vague, ask yourself: is there anything that I can do about it? Naturally, there are two responses to this question: yes and no.
If this new information is not actionable right now, there are three things you can do with it:
- Send it to trash.
- Store it in the “someday/maybe” folder (and review it at a later date).
- Label it as a reference file (so that you have later access to this information whenever you need).
If this new information is actionable, you will have to figure out what is the next step. Something very important to keep in mind at this point is that if a new piece of information can’t be solved in one step, it’s not a simple task, but rather a more complex project that involves multiple steps. If this is, indeed, a project, then you might want to store in the “someday folder and figure out what you’re going to do with it the next time your review your GTD list.
Should this new information be actionable and require just a single step, the next important question is “Can I do it in two minutes or less?”. Naturally, if it only takes a couple of minutes, you should go ahead and do it. However, if it takes more than that, you can either:
- Delegate it. Of course, even when you delegate the task to someone else, you will still have to follow up and make sure that the person saw it through.
- Defer it. You also have the option of postponing the task, provided that it has some prerequisites, or it needs to be completed at a specific time. If none of these two apply, the task is probably not that actionable or not that important. Also, if you defer a task that has to be performed at a certain time, make sure to mark that in your calendar.
Tips for Maximizing Your GTD Plan
It may take a while before you get used to the getting things done productivity primer, but chances are that once you do, you can never go back. At first, you might not understand why those five pillars are important, or you may not be sure on how to formulate your tasks to make them actionable and based on milestones. The following tips might help:
- Baby steps are key. Since the GTD system is based on a lot of different steps and concepts, you have to be aware that you won’t nail it the first time. Instead, start by learning how to master one thing at a time. For example, you can start by learning how to filter the information you receive in your “inbox”. You can fiddle with the tasks that you can delegate, or work on figuring out which are the two-minute actionable tasks that you can perform right away.
- Understand the beauty of it. Truth be told, people don’t really see how efficient the GTD primer is unless they actually start doing it and get to compare the “before” and “after”. There is this misconception that the GTD planning system takes longer than it actually does.
- Staying realistic is one of the best productivity advice anyone can ever give you. You are only human, and when you are obsessed with being productive, you might be tempted to take on too many tasks in a single day. By the time the evening arrives, you will have lost all your energy and end up feeling sad because you didn’t see all the tasks through.
- You might even be tempted to think the GTD system doesn’t work. So, instead of taking on ten tasks per day, how about you start with just three and see them through? If you finish them, you can pick up one more. And one more. Until you’re finally ready to rest. Doesn’t that sound more rewarding?
- Staying focused is also an important part of GTD. If your productivity primer was set up for a very specific project, don’t add tasks that aren’t actually related to the results you want to achieve. If you’re working on developing a new product, don’t add tasks that have nothing to do with the end result you want to achieve. Staying focused is a sure way to end up reaching an end result that’s satisfying.
The “getting things done” productivity primer is all about staying on top of the things that will help you achieve your goals. They can be personal, financial, career or education-oriented, and basically cover whatever aspects of your life you want to get in order.
Before you actually get started on creating your own productivity map, it’s important to consider what the priorities in your life are right now. Even if “productivity method” sounds very business-oriented, you can actually set up a GTD plan to get your health back on track. There is actually no limit in the fields where GTD can be successfully applied, so you’re basically free to use it for whatever goals are more important in your life.