Getting Things Done

Productivity tips from David Allen and Mark Forster.

I recently attended David Allen's Getting Things Done seminar in London, all about personal productivity and time management. I've read his book a couple of times now, and all his methods that I have taken the time to implement have helped me a lot; they tend to be much more practical and just plain reasonable than most other works on the subject. I was hoping to learn some new stuff, and to hear some hints about how best to implement the methods I'm already using.

David is an entertaining speaker, and I found it easy to keep my head from flopping onto the table. I don't think I learnt anything completely new, but there was a lot of interaction from the audience (some of whom had been to the seminar before) which helped to reinforce some of the "best practices." Since returning from the seminar I have set up a tickler file (after seeing what it really looks like, and hearing about how useful they really are) - I'll give it a month to see whether it's worth continuing to use. I've also got myself a physical inbox for work (I already had one at home), along with a plastic folder to use as a portable inbox (cardboard ones self-destruct too quickly).

The other main GTD methods that I find particularly useful are:

There's a workflow diagram of the entire process on David's website, but I highly recommend reading his book if you're either interested in this stuff, or if you're worried that your life is about to implode because of the pressure from all directions.

Get Everything Done

One of the breakthroughs I've recently had using David's methods has actually come from reading a different book. Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play by Mark Forster covers many of the same topics and methods, but from a different angle which clicked a bit better with me. Two of the most useful tips from this book were around the related topics of setting priorities and tackling procrastination. I used to find that there were always "unimportant" tasks which would stay undone at the bottom of my to-do list. One of Mark's key points is to make use of your unconscious, and in this case that means tackling the thing that you are resisting the most, either by doing it, delegating it to someone else, or renegotiating the agreement that put it on your list in the first place. Until you do that, it will keep niggling you, stopping you from giving the proper attention to your other tasks. And it might be niggling because it really is important.

It's easy to say "do the thing that you are resisting most", but I may well be resisting it because I really don't want to do it for whatever reason, and I can be quite creative in coming up with reasons for avoiding it. Mark covers that one too. Make an agreement with yourself that you will spend a fixed amount of time working on the item, and then stop. Reduce the time depending upon how reticent you are to attack the item. I use five minutes for things that I really don't want to do. That lowers the barrier because I know that even if I really hate working on that thing, I'm only 5 minutes away from stopping. And I use a countdown timer (Cesium on my Palm) so that I can literally see the seconds counting away. At the end of the time I just stop. Even in middle of a sentence or line of code. What I inevitably find is that the task isn't as horrible as I'd imagined it to be, and I'm actually quite keen to get going on it again. The next time I work on that item I will increase the time-slice allocated to it, and the half-finished nature of where I left off helps me to pick up and continue.

This page is It was first published on Saturday 4 December, 2004 and last updated on Saturday 26 February, 2005.