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Getting Things Done

Koby Ofek

I started to re-read Getting Things Done on May 31, 2020. It was about 17 years after studying it for the first time.

The first time around impacted me greatly. It changed my work habits in a time I was overflown with corporate work and I adapted many parts of the GTD system.

With the years passing, some principals and ideas have stuck while others, slowly evaporated. I moved on to other system, other tools, and eventually created a system that, while changing a bit over time, has somewhat stabilized.

It's been a while now that I wanted to read GTD again, but for some reason, I didn't. Well, to be honest, I misplaced the original book, and also, the task of re-reading something again, may seem a bit counter-productive, doesn't it?

One thing led to another and I did decide to read it again. I am managing more projects than ever, and things seem to get a little out of hand.

Apparently there is a second edition, and it was re-written from cover to cover, so here's a good excuse to start from scratch.

The principals rang a bell, but from the very first second I knew that I will find value here. I deep read the entire book while taking notes of things that may be useful. Some parts I didn't really like anymore, but I made my best effort to stick with my principal of filtering for value. All the stuff that I'm critical of, think it's wrong or don't find relevant, I just skip and ignore.

The value

  1. The highest level of productivity is achieved when one is in the zone, when your mind is like water, when you are laser-focused on what you are doing and nothing besides that.
    I like the concept of mind like water. I don't experience it much, and unfortunately I hypertext mentally and physically all the time. One of the main principals of mindfulness is being immersed in what you do in any single moment and it's very difficult for me to apply. I tend to check on Twitter, email, and some news sites way more than I want to, even while I'm engaged with other activities, but at times I do manage to get to be in the zone and it's a cause worthy of pursuing. The other day I did a whole day worth of work in 30 minutes. I pumped like crazy. Some days I can't get 30 minutes worth of work in a whole day.
  2. Being focused on what you do requires you to eliminate all distractions.
    Usually, people think of distractions as physical. There's a baby crying in the background, something aches, you are hungry, you need to pick up your kid from school.
    Allen refers to mental distractions and specifically means that if something is on your mind, there is a tiny part of you keeping tabs on it, and it's distracting you from focusing on other things. You want to get rid of any open loops. Open loops can be any task or project that you need to get done or think you need to get done and is just lurking at some point in your mind.
    Like many, I have quite a lot of these. Personal, professional, long and short term tasks, big projects and tiny errands, seriously - a gazillion things. Allen is right that they get in the way.
    I need to clean my garage. I don't want to clean my garage. I sometimes read a book and start to think about how I again didn't clean my garage. It's not OCD, it's just that there is this open loop in my mind that interrupts me. I need to find a solution to this garage garbage thing. and a gazillion others.
  3. Eliminating open loops means storing them in a safe system that you know will be reviewed often enough as you need.
    So, here is the catch. I have been storing ideas all the time. As someone who read GTD a while back, I even have separate lists for all kinds of stuff like (todo right now, someday list, big ideas list and so forth). One catch (actually two, the second one is coming in a minute): I don't like looking at my lists. It's a pit of demons. It contains quite a lot of stuff that I don't want to do. Hidden in there are also stuff that I need to do and stuff that I want to do but I will never figure it out if I don't look at the friggin' list.
  4. If my brain is aware of the fact that all my demons, monsters and imps are stored somewhere safe, and that I will frequently enough visit this place and check what's hiding there, it will calm down and just do what it's supposed to right now.
    So, I was missing the review often enough part, but I also missed another bit. I didn't put everything in my external brain. And by everything, Allen means everything. He wants you to religiously store any task, open-loop or thought about the near or very far future outside your brain. It can be in a notebook, on pieces of paper, a word processor, a productivity app, whatever. Get it out and look at it often. And you need to get all of it out. Puke, vomit, do a tummy-wash of all your brain-stuff. It's hard to get it all out but it's a mind clarifying process. While doing it I had some thoughts about my career goals and my personal goals, some long term projects that I clarified for myself, and a few house errands that I needed to do.
  5. Tasks & Information are two different types of stuff that need to be stored.
    Neither of them should be aimed to be stored in your brain. I'm thinking a lot about where to save my stuff and how to organize it. There are many good options but none is perfect. I also failed miserably when trying to build a full-fledged second brain. Maybe it's time to give it another shot.

The GTD System

Frankly, I don't really care about the system. It can work for you, you can work it out differently, doesn't matter. If you are curious, read the book or find a website that summarizes the thing.

In a nutshell, the idea is to put stuff in trusted lists that you frequently revisit, and if you do it all the time, and you obey the 2-minutes rule, you should be fine.

It's really impossible to argue with that and if you are the type of person who can live by a structured set of rules and be disciplined enough not to let anything slip, it will work amazingly for you.

I know I'm incapable of a 100% adoption of the system. I prefer to look at it as a set of recommendations and life pro tips that push me in the right direction. Here are a few tips that I adopted and try to work with to make myself a little more productive:

  1. Think before you do - clarify to myself what do I need to do, what am I trying to achieve and what is the next step for every project I am doing.
  2. Act fast on the little things - Take the bull by the horns, right? Well, just if it's a quick win. Otherwise, defer until I need, want or have enough mental resources to do the task. Anything under 2 minutes (or 5 minutes in my case), just do it. It will take longer to write it down in a todo list, review it some time and think again what needs to be done about it.
  3. Act on intuition - While this may be the weakest link in the GTD's chain, I kind of like it. In any given moment, when you ask yourself what needs to be done... you probably already have good intuition on what really needs to be done. After you clarified everything, wrote everything down, know what's possible to do right now and what needs to wait for someone's feedback or a tool that is still missing... you will know what you need to do now.
  • Sometimes it's something you will enjoy and you feel like doing right now.
  • Sometimes it's something difficult but you have the mental energy to do.
  • Sometimes it's a frog you have to swallow at this very minute because there is no choice.
    Intuition is a strong tool, but may not be the right word for anybody as it may seem, a bit unscientific. Well, if it makes you feel better, call it whatever you want. It's your brain deciding what needs to be done now, fine? It's just that the concept of having to decide what's next can't be decided for you. It's not an analytical process of giving points and weights to different options and measuring them against each other. It's more like a hunch. It's true that sometimes you know what needs to be done right now and you don't do it. You choose to do something else. Yet that's a problem form the realm of procrastination and not a decision issue.
  1. Use great tools to be productive - purchase a new pen, buy a new notebook, try out some shiny new productivity software. Sometimes function follows form. When I put my hands on some new productivity or knowledge management tool, I often do a huge mind-sweep to unload everything to it. I did it when I first started to use Evernote, or Wunderlist, or Zenkit or Notion. After each migration, I experienced a bump in productivity which is awesome. So, use new tools, shake up your system every once in a while. It's good for the mind, it's good for the heart.
  2. Picture positive outcomes for everything you do - There is quite a lot to say about positive psychology, and I'm as bearish as one can on "the secret" type of advice and books. However, once you do decide to attempt something, having a clear view of what success looks like, will help you zero in on what you are doing. No, it doesn't guarantee success. Nothing does. It just helps you clarify what you want and how to achieve it. Without understanding the what, it's impossible to deduce the how.

Who is Getting Things Done for?

I ask myself Is GTD preaching to the choir? I think it does. Those attracted to implementing Getting Things Done are usually already on a self-development path and don’t assume that they’ll be doing the same things a year from now that they’re doing now, anyway. Those are people like me that think about organizing and reorganizing their stuff all the time. It's for people who make lists but maybe aren't disciplined enough to review them and need some structure.

However, there are amazingly smart people, talented and bright that can't use the system. A good and brilliant friend of mine is always struggling with her actions. He always has a lot on his table and his professional work dictates keeping track of a million open loops. From the outside, it always seems like he is doing great, but inside, he says, he can't keep up with everything.

He writes lists sometimes, but they are not the GTD type lists. They are more like 3 inch colored paper lists that you scribble in the morning with a few tasks and don't look at ever again. He is just not the type of person to work with GTD. He will never do a full mind-sweep. He will never re-review as often as necessary. He will never strikethrough completed tasks methodically.

Being always in stress-mode is bad for your health, for your productivity for your personal life. Yet for some people, that's just the way it is. They work better in stress mode. They won't take the time to build external brains. They won't manage their commitments in a way GTD-like people do. It's difficult to manage things with these types of people, but not impossible.

I find that I need to remind my friend of things more often compared to other friends, but that's his personality type so I grew to accept it. He can't really do things differently. Buying him the book won't help as he never has the time to read it. And it's fine.

If you are the type of person who can benefit from extra organizing in your life, GTD is a good system. If you don't have what it takes to implement at least a significant part of it, don't bother. You still got your intuition which is awesome.

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