For the past several years I've made attempts to get David Allen's well known and popular Getting Things Done (GTD) system working for me. The GTD system is explained in the book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity Every time I focus on it, things get better in my ability to not only get things done, but to react to dramatic external events in a way that doesn't totally disrupt parts of my life not related to that event. But GTD is initially very time consuming to set up, unless the things to get done in your life are already few and simple. I'll explain the time consuming part later.
I'm in the middle of another such attempt, and it's going well so far. Each time I make a stab at setting up the system I can get it implemented faster and better, and my understanding of the system is a little stronger.
There are several important components of GTD, but at the core of the system is getting all your "stuff" (unfinished tasks, mail and documents you need to deal with, ideas for things to do which have popped into your head, phone calls or conversations which may or may not require some action, meeting and appointments which may or may not need preparation, etc) into one trusted system which you review periodically. One of the main traits is that the system cannot depend on your memory or any innate organizational ability. Everything is cleanly and simply written down on an appropriate set of action lists, organized by context and/or project, which you review often.
Within this system each item which enters your life has a life cycle, which you largely determine up front. Some items die early. For instance, a piece of mail arrives. Rather than throwing it on the pile of mail to open at some later time (which in many cases may arrive much later, or never), you open it, determine that it needs no action, and put it in the shredding or recycle bin. Perhaps, on the other hand, it does need some action. There are a set of criteria for how to process it. If it will take less than two minutes to process, you go ahead and do it. If it needs filing for archival reasons you go ahead and file it (rather than throwing it back in the "in" box). There are a number of different paths from the point of receiving the mail to acting on it in the most effective manner. But the point is that you have a trusted and complete system, with a place for nearly every project or discrete item in your life. And most importantly, that system is not carried around in your head, but is an external system which you review frequently.
I'll describe the system more fully in my next post, but it's worth stating why GTD is so daunting to initially set up. The first step in the process is pulling everything which needs to be done in your life into a hugh "Inbox". David Allen calls the process "Collection" or "Capture". This means that every piece of paper stacked on a pile on a desk, every badly filed paper in a file drawer, every bit of email, every unanswered phone message, and every nagging unfinished task needs to be piled (in some appropriate manner) into one manageable location to begin processing. Of course some things have to stay more-or-less where they are (email, a huge rusting piece of equipment in your back yard) but you come up with an accomodation for that (in the case of email, it gets dealt with in place, the huge equipment gets dealt with by writing a note and throwing it on the Inbox stack).
Do you see the difficulty? For most people this is a huge process. When I had the additional house I described in an earlier post, the collection process was daunting to the point of overwhelming. My first stab at setting the system up was almost demoralizing. I had to account for both physical objects and administrative tasks associated with two different locations, one of which was buried in clutter. It didn't invalidate the GTD approach (all those objects and tasks had to be dealt with in some manner, GTD or not, and GTD's solution of deciding what to do with each item up front was actually the most effective way to do it).
Consequently I made several week long attempts to set up the system. It certaining improved my organizational skills and general time management. But at that point I never really got GTD up and running, and each disruptive interruption would sent the whole project into disarray.
Only after I got rid of my extraneous house full of junk did the system become more manageable. At the moment I'm working on getting the system habitual. My tendency is to throw objects which enter my life (even virtual objects like email) into some random place with the thought that I'll deal with it later. In actuality "later" often never comes, and what I'm left with is a pile of disorderly objects. I've begun stopping and thinking before placing each object somewhere. The upfront thought process is no more time consuming than throwing the mail in a pile on the table. It's not working perfectly (I still occasionally pile the mail on some randomly chosen surface) but this time around the system is taking shape better.
My next post will describe more fully the life cycle of the "stuff" which enters the Getting Things Done system. But despite the difficulty I've described, GTD is the most effective system I've tried for getting organized. And I've tried a lot of approaches.