One of the many complaints I hear about GTD (Getting Things Done) is that it is very easy to fall off the wagon and revert back to old habits of disorganisation, stress and overwhelm. It is easy because remembering to capture everything immediately after remembering to do something, or feeling motivated enough to do the daily mini review and, more importantly, the crucial weekly review is difficult and can take quite a long time to form the habit. This is why so many people give up on GTD and go back to their old comfort zones.
And yet it does not have to be difficult at all. David Allen himself admits becoming a ‘black belt’ at GTD takes time and effort but, as with anything worthwhile, sticking to it and persevering has so many benefits. I remember when I made the change from a Franklin Planner to GTD, it was hard and it took a lot of concentration to remember to write things down. For me the more difficult part was trusting my system. I had used a Franklin Planner for nearly fifteen years — a beautiful Aniline Leather binder that just got better and better looking with age — and was so used to using the A1 / B1 / C1 prioritising method, that not using any priority methodology was alien to me. I didn’t feel comfortable and I didn’t trust my system completely for months. But gradually I gained more trust, I found the daily mini-review essential to building my confidence and the weekly review made sure I wasn’t missing anything. Now, I have complete trust in my system and if I do miss anything it is likely to be a technology failure (which is very rare) or because I was lazy.
So here are my 8 tips to staying on the wagon with GTD
1 Start small.
I know David Allen says do it 100% or do not do it at all, but for many people this is just too much of a change to do well. I would recommend that you get in the habit of capturing things first. Use your phone, or better still carry a small notebook and pen with you everywhere. Whenever you sit down with anyone put the little notebook on the table. This will always remind you to capture your ideas, commitments and thoughts. I find a little notebook and pen is less obtrusive than putting your phone on the table and people do not get annoyed with people writing things down. They do get annoyed when you keep typing on your phone. The David Allen Note Taker wallet is a sound investment when starting out.
2 Never neglect the weekly review
The central core of the GTD system is the weekly review. Choose a day and time and give yourself one hour. Block it off in your calendar and make sure you commit to it without any exceptions (including holidays) I choose Sunday afternoon before I go out for my long run and it makes my Sunday run the most enjoyable run of the week. My mind is free, I know there’s nothing forgotten and I’m ready to tackle to week ahead.
3 Process Your Inbox at least once every 48 hours.
I know there will be days when you get home and you will be exhausted. Or there will be days when you go out after work with your friends and have a few too many beers. Never force yourself to do the mini-review when you feel like this. Just leave it over until tomorrow. You can do a quick scan of your inbox anytime you like just to check there’s nothing coming up tomorrow. I have found the 48 hour rule much more flexible than 24 hours.
4 Trust your calendar
From the moment you begin your GTD life you must trust your calendar. Never put a “maybe” task on your calendar. Your calendar is for “absolutely will happen” tasks only. If you are using software to organise your todos do not add your tasks to your calendar. This was a mistake I made early on and very quickly I stopped looking at my calendar because it was full of stuff and just overwhelmed me. Once I took off my daily tasks and only put in appointments and deadlines I began feeling must more comfortable with my calendar.
5 Really get to know your software / notebook
Whether you choose a task manager like Todoist or a simple notebook you must learn how to use it properly. This is certainly the case if you choose to use software. I use Todoist (and have used Omnifocus in the past) and I spent hours learning what the application could do. I read blogs, books and instruction manuals (Really! I did). I wanted to become an expert at what the software could do. The confidence this gave me really boosted my overall sense of what I was doing was right and took a lot of the stress from becoming a GTD ninja out of the equation.
6 Make you contexts useable
Another tenant of GTD is contexts. The label you use to allocate a task to a certain place, tool or person. Contexts are very personal and so need to be useful to you not anyone else. Too often I find people have copied someone else’s contexts and then not used contexts properly. It took me weeks to come up with the perfect set of contexts for the way I work, but since I did that I have never looked back. Things have changed as my tools changed, but overall they are still the same as they were when I first set them up.
7 Be patient
You are not going to become a GTD master overnight. It takes time and it does take a lot of thinking about how you will set it up. GTD is wonderfully flexible, and that is a good thing, but it can also be a curse. Decide whether you are a digital or analogue person and choose your capture tools and list holder accordingly. The time and effort it takes to become a GTD black belt is worthwhile though and well worth the patience it takes to become a master.
8 Read the book, then re-read it every year
I know there is an awful lot of stuff written about GTD online. And in theory you could learn how to do it simply by reading many of these articles. But, if you truly want to achieve a life free of stress and be in control of everything going on in your life then it is a must. Every December I re-read GTD and I still find things I have missed, or have stopped doing. Last year for example I realised I wasn’t using my contexts properly and was relying too heavily on dates. Once I readjusted my system I very quickly found myself achieving more.
If you follow these tips, I can promise you will soon get comfortable with GTD and it will quickly become a big part of your life — in a very positive way. Good luck.
Carl Pullein is the author of Your Digital Life: Everything you need to know to get your life organised and put technology to work for you, a book about how to get yourself organised in the twenty-first century