Getting things done

The main thesis of the book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen, is that all the tasks that bombard us on a daily basis prevent us from gaining the clarity we need to tackle the important things. In this way, this book takes a different approach from books such as The 7 Habit Habits of Highly Effective People, which stress the need to Begin with the End in Mind.

The author is not arguing that the big picture is not important. Instead, he argues that it is difficult to focus on such big picture stuff, when there are hundreds of little picture things vying for attention. His system provides a simple approach to clear the mental clutter, allowing people to then focus on the bigger picture.

Here I will provide a summary of the author’s general workflow process of managing all your tasks, as well as his natural planning model for tackling non trivial projects.

Workflow Process

1. Collect all Input

In order to clear out the mental clutter, we must have a single inbox where we collect all possible inputs to our workflow system. The importance of capturing all possible important is that it gives us permission to then ignore it, knowing that it has safely been recorded and will eventually be processed by our system. Note that this does not have to be a physical inbox, but rather someplace where you know every possible input will be safely collected. I personally like using evernote since I can access it from my work laptop, home computer, and on my phone. I use the word “folder” in my summary below because it fits better with the author’s paradigm, but in Evernote that would correspond to a “notebook”. 

2. Process input

Is it actionable?

No is not not actionable

Determine what type of input this is:

  • Trash – discard it. Sometimes problems magically resolve themselves. Sometimes the circumstances change, and the original input is no longer valid or relevant. For example, maybe you had to write some code for a particular feature, but the product management decided it was no longer needed. 
  • Action needs to be taken at a later date – This should be moved to a Waiting folder or a Someday/Maybe folder. The waiting folder is for action items that are blocked. For example, perhaps your dog is ill and the veterinarian has run some tests. You are awaiting the test results before coming up with the next steps, so this would now be moved into Waiting.

    The Someday/Maybe folder should be used for lower priority items such as tertiary hobbies that you would like to do someday, but currently are unable to. For example, I always wanted to play Dwarf Fortress, the world’s most complex computer game, but held off on it until now. It sat in my Someday/Maybe folder, which I review regularly, until I decided now was the time to act. 

  • Contains information. This should be moved to the appropriate folder in Evernote, corresponding either to a specific project folder, or a specific subject. To continue from my previous example, I am learning how to play Dwarf Fortress, so any interesting articles or guides that I encounter online would go to my Dwarf Fortress folder. I also have various websites, with a folder for each one in Evernote. Reference information could be notes on how I set up the website in AWS and got SSL working, or computer science articles that I want to write a blog post about.

Yes it is actionable

  • Determine the outcome. This is a critical step. Too often, goals in our life is vague and nebulous. “Get in shape”. What does that even mean? By giving specific and objective/measurable criteria with some kind of a deadline, it makes an item more concrete, and more likely to be acted on. Bench 3 sets of 10 reps of 225 lbs by end of year. 
  • Determine the next action for this input. This is also critical. We are unlikely to move on goals that are vague and nebulous, as previously stated. The way to tackle large seemingly unsurmountable tasks is to break them down into smaller, and more manageable subtasks. As in the previous step, we want to move from some vague/nebulous notion of a task into something that’s actually concrete. This increases the chance that we’re actually going to accomplish it. To continue from previous example, the next action item could be to get a gym membership. The next action item is to find a training partner or personal trainer. The next item after that could be to purchase protein shakes. And so on and so forth. 
  • Now either do the action (if it takes less than a few minutes), delegate it to someone better suited to handling it, or defer it (file this under Next Actions folder).

3. Organize

Now that we have processed the input, we want to collect this information into various folders. 

  • Projects folder (with subbprojects) – author defines a project as anything that requires more than one action. 
  • Project Support Material – the author has these in a separate folder. With evernote, I just have each subproject as its own separate notebook, and then any relevant reference material needed for the project added as notes. For example, if the project is to sell an app on the windows marketplace, support material would be my Microsoft account information (don’t store your password in here in plaintext though!), links to the publisher dashboard, information about my LLC, and so on and so forth.
  • Next Actions – This likely be subdivided. For example, the author recommends a separate subfolder for “Phone calls” (scheduling vet visit, doctor, car insurance claim, etc). I have another one for errands (grocery shopping, replacing light bulbs, assembling baby crib and so on).
    Reminders for actions should be categorized into time specific actions, day specific actions (no time component), and day specific information. Time specific would be an appointment and would go on the calendar such as outlook. Day specific could be that you promised Joe you would touch base with him regarding the financial planning report this Friday. Day specific information on the other hand, might be information that’s relevant on a given day (appointment confirmation info, activities that occur on that day such as plays, concerts, comedy shows and so on). 
  • Someday Maybe – as touched upon above, these are things you can’t tackle right now, but don’t want to forget about either. For me it was learning how to play Dwarf Fortress. Still on my Someday/Maybe folder are playing Dungeons and Dragons and learning how to play Arkham Horror, a board game I purchased but still haven’t gotten around to playing.

    This can be further subdivided into books you want to read, TV shows to watch, music to listen to, and so on. 

4. Review

In order to keep your head free of mental clutter so you can actually focus on a day to day basis, you must review the system. By consistently reviewing it, your frazzled brain can relax, knowing that any of the dozens of things you are juggling in your head can wait because they will be processed accordingly.  A weekly review is important to come up for an immediate tactical plan of action. The main point of the author is this – only once your house is in order can you then have the mental clarity to then do higher level reviews for current projects, areas of responsibility, 1-2 year plans, 5  year plans, and life goals. Trying to review life goals without first having categorized all your to do items in an organized and systematic fashion won’t work. 

Finally the author offers some general guidelines for deciding what to do at any point but doesn’t give any hard and fast rules. Context, time available, energy available, and priority should all be considered. One useful tip I got was to look for pockets of “weird” time. Such as if you have 20 minutes in between meetings, this is a good time to go through your next actions and look for simple tasks such as looking up how to renew a passport, or making a quick phone call to schedule a vet visit for your dog. You could batch certain tasks such as phone calls so they’re handled all at once, and similarly you can treat errands the same way. But by having all the actions items captured and organized, you gain the flexibility to review them at your leisure and decide what best to do at any given moment.

The Natural Planning Model

The Progression of the Unnatural Planning Model

The author first starts off by describing what a typical (and unnatural) planning model looks like:

  • Action – Due to a failure to plan up front, there is now a crises in the project. People are scrambling and working overtime to try to fix it and hit the deadline. Oops
  • Organized – Throwing more manpower and hours at the problem doesn’t help. Now someone clever suggests getting organized, by drawing some diagrams and labeling all the moving parts.
  • Brainstorm – Of course, drawing all these labels and putting them on a powerpoint won’t solve the actual problems. So now someone clever suggests brainstorming. The boss asks for some good ideas. When not much happens, now he brings in consultants.
  • Vision/Purpose – These highly paid individuals will now ask: “What are you actually trying to accomplish?” People will be blown away by these insightful consultants and then begin to figure out what the actual goal and scope of the project is. 

The natural planning model with example

  • Define purpose and principles. The purpose is what you are trying to accomplish. Your principles determine the scope. For example, if I wanted to go on a trip to Spain, the purpose might be to become enriched by the local culture – art, music, sculpture, and so on. My principles might not be explicitly called out during this, but it would implicitly determine things such as food and lodging. For example, do I want to stay in a fancy hotel, at an air b&b with a local, or do a hostel and party with other travelers? Do I want to do all the tourist style sight seeing? Do I want to go party where the expats are? Or do I want to see if someone in my social network can connect me with a local for an authentic experience? How much money am I willing to spend for comfort, luxury and convenience, versus how much of that am I willing to sacrifice for affordability? This step concerns the why.
  • Outcome visioning – What do I envision this trip to be like? I might think about viewing modern art at the Prado museum, or perhaps walking amongst the massive arches holding up Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. This step concerns the what.
  • Brainstorming – This step concerns the how, and begins in a very informal and ad hoc manner. Questions are asked such as: where are we going to stay? How many cities are we going to visit? What forms of transportation will we use while we are there? Which exhibits will we see? This will generate a large number of ideas.
  • Organize – Now that there is a large number of ideas produced by brainstorming, we want to organize them. Ideas might be arranged in a hierarchy. For example, think of the following folder structure: Spain/Barcelona/Gaudi/Sagrada Familia. The Gaudi folder would contain additional subfolders for each of his famous architectural triumphs. We might also look to organize by priority and sequence of events. Priority might be the must see exhibits for a Spain trip, while the sequence would be the travel itinerary. 
  • Identifying next actions. Now that the why, what, and how have been covered, the final part of the planning process is the execution. Plane and train tickets need to be bought, hotels need to be booked, and so on. 

The author calls this the natural planning model (contrast to the unnatural planning model mentioned above used in most workplaces), and uses the example of going out to dinner with friends. You want to hang out with someone you haven’t seen in a long time (purpose), decide to go to a new Thai restaurant because you are both curious (principle), think about what kind of food you’re going to order (outcome visioning), start asking many questions such as what time to go and how you will get there (brainstorm), organize them into a plan of action (call friend to confirm, get reservation, look up directions on google maps, etc), and then executing the next action. The idea is to default to this everyday natural mode of planning for all your projects, not just figuring out dinner plans.