“Getting Things Done is not about getting things done,” says David Allen of his famous productivity method, also known as GTD. According to the American productivity influencer, GTD is “really about being appropriately engaged with what’s going on.”
When Allen codified his system in his book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity two decades ago, his objective was simple: to teach people to have a clutter-free mind so they could “be maximally efficient and relaxed.”
According to Allen, GTD will unlock powerful bursts of creative energy and free you from the mundane realities of your task-driven existence. He says the leaders he works with often report having a “stream of ideas and visions about their company and their future” the very next day after implementing his system. What they lacked before using his system was “psychic bandwidth,” he explains. “If you don’t have psychological space, you could have two hours of free time and waste it.”
Allen’s converts—who include the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith—often credit his system with helping them unlock creative flow states and higher levels of cognitive thought.
Some even draw parallels between his central premise–that we should empty our minds of the task-related information to properly engage with the present moment–and Eastern mindfulness philosophies such as Buddhism.
So how do you know if you’re “appropriately engaged” with the things you need to do? “The more it’s on your mind, the more it’s not happening, the more you’re inappropriately engaged with it,” according to Allen. “It’s only on your mind because you know there’s still some thinking or some decisions about it that you haven’t made.”
Allen designed GTD for anyone who wants to free their mind to be creative, strategic or more present. Whether you want to write a book yourself, create your own company or simply stop forgetting the birthdays of the people you care about, the GTD method can be a useful tool for getting there.
The core of Allen’s system involves using this five-stage method to deal with your workflow:
Jot anything down that is “pulling on your psyche” onto paper or in a digital format of your choice (e.g., an online task list). This could include anything ranging from plans for a book to learning a foriegn language or your desire to buy someone a birthday present.
Collect all ephemera that commands your attention, such as bills or mail you need to respond to, in one place. You can use physical containers for paper documents or idea-collecting apps such as Evernote. Some people find it useful to visualize ideas at this stage with a bullet journal.
Go through everything you’ve collected and ask yourself which items are actually actionable. If the item isn’t actionable (e.g., a receipt you can’t expense), consider tossing it out.
Then ask yourself what action you’ll need to take first. Can it be done in under two minutes? If so, do it immediately.
If it’s actionable but will take more than two minutes, either delegate the action to someone else or defer it to a future date.
Categorize all the tasks you’ve deferred by grouping them by project, context or deadline.
Use whatever task management and organization tools you feel most comfortable with, whether it’s a calendar app or a to do list for each project.
Allen suggests conducting a weekly review to ensure you’re staying on task and moving toward achieving your goals. The review consists of “going through the five phases of workflow management–collecting, processing, organizing, and reviewing all your outstanding involvements.
You might also consider conducting an honest self-evaluation of your progress toward your goal by doing a freelancer review.
Now that you’ve externalized the information and to do lists cluttering your mind, it’s time to act.
The aim is to have a calm, focused engagement on the task at hand. Channeling this state of being in the zone feels awkward at first, says Allen, but has big payoffs. You’re supposed to teach your mind not to ruminate and wander to your task lists, which can prevent you from fully being present.
Allen originally published Getting Things Done back in 2001—and since then, his methodology has been criticized for several reasons.
Computer scientist and productivity writer Cal Newport criticizes Allen for his “task universalism,” or the idea that you can break all projects down into simple tasks you bang off your list one by one. “Creating real value requires deep work,” says Newport. And deep work “is a fundamentally different activity than knocking off organizational tasks.”
But there’s no reason that you can’t consider spending six hours in your studio making art or doing deep work a single task. Alternately, nobody’s stopping you from using Allen’s system to only deal with the more mundane minutiae that gives you anxiety.
For example, an artist could use it to keep track of curator visits, pitch deadlines and tax season. GTD can help you live and breathe your artistic practice when you haven’t scheduled any tasks.
Newport also makes a solid point in the New Yorker: GTD doesn’t work as well for people who aren’t their own bosses. People in the service industry or assistants, for example, might find they have little control over the way their superiors haphazardly throw tasks their way.
GTD also doesn’t account for people whose domestic distractions, such as caring for children during the workday, could prevent them from accessing this dreamy-sounding, stress-free state of flow. If a child is having a temper tantrum, for example, don’t feel like you’ve failed if Allen hasn’t freed you from your stress.
But Allen writes that people existing in more demanding contexts such as these can still benefit from his system though by building in a “consistent process of regrouping, when your world is not directly in your face.” So even if you feel you have no control over your environment, you’ll still benefit from trying to schedule small moments of calm for yourself.
GTD may be best for leaders and creative types with control over their life circumstances. But people who aren’t their own bosses can still use the system to take control of the parts of their life that they feel they can.
Allen describes GTD as the “art of stress-free productivity.” But stress isn’t always rational and personal productivity systems certainly aren’t magic bullets that always make stress go away. For example, if you’re worried about how to pay your landlord rent, having a calendar app tell you rent’s due is unlikely to quell your anxieties.
But if there are no magic bullets, there are still techniques and strategies you can try.
Add self-care practices to your daily schedule, such as yoga and meditation. Consider these non-negotiable “tasks.”
You may also want to schedule time for stress-busting social activities, such as having tea with a friend. Research shows that having friends around makes you perceive the stresses in your life with rose-tinted glasses.
You’re not an island, and a productivity system isn’t enough to reduce your stress if you’re isolated and not taking care of yourself.
Allen’s system is missing a fourth dimension: time tracking. Properly managing your time can help you gain a sense of control over your life.
Consider time blocking tasks and activities in your calendar so you don’t wind up stressing yourself out by taking on more than you have capacity for waiting too late to tackle your work and running out of time.
Research shows that writing about your feelings can help relieve stress. Consider combining GTD with routine self-reflection journal prompts or guided self-reflection meditations. Doing so helps you clarify which of the things pulling on your psyche you should “Capture” and “Organize.” Without some degree of self-awareness, you’ll otherwise spend most of your time chasing tasks your brain deems urgent, such as responding to emails, but not those that move you toward realizing bigger goals.
The beauty of GTD is that there’s nobody stopping you from hacking it to suit your own needs and applying it to your life in your own unique ways. You may choose only to embrace Allen’s system fully when you’re going through a pretty hectic period of your life and feel overwhelmed by too many tasks.
There’s also no reason you can’t pause using this system when you’re working on big creative projects in a more free form way for an extended duration of time. For example, you might lock yourself away to record an album, a process in which GTD might not be helpful. But you can do this after you’ve used GTD to get all the funding and pieces in place.
Whatever you choose, GTD can be an invaluable tool to help you finish what you start: “Complete the projects you begin, fulfill the commitments you have made, live up to your promises,” writes Allen. “Then both your subconscious and conscious selves can have success, which leads to a feeling of fulfillment, worthiness and oneness.”
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