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Getting Things Done: Deliberate Time Management


LifetimeStock-7459-LOnly in a world where so many of us want to be ever more productive, can a simple formula just for getting things done become a Big Idea.

But a big idea it has become. Dave Allen’s branded approach to Getting Things Done (GTD) has attracted the attention (he claims) of over 2 million people.

So, we need to take a look at it. We’ll consider:

  • Why do we need systems for managing our time?
  • What is the Getting Things Done approach? and
  • Who is it well suited to?

Why do we need systems for managing our time?

Put simply: anxiety. We are anxious that we won’t get the things done that we think we ought to. And sometimes that anxiety is well-founded. At least, that is, in the sense that modern life puts plenty of barriers in our way.

The Big Three Challenges to Getting Things Done in Modern Life

For me, though, there’s a ‘big three’.

1. For a start, there’s a lot to do in a modern life; what with:

  • work
  • family
  • social life
  • community commitments
  • …and more

2. And then there are the complex inter-relationships and deeply ambiguous priorities we have to navigate.

3. Finally, what about the daunting nature of so much we need to do? It’s either:

  • Unpleasant – as are so many domestic chores, alongside some of our workplace responsibilities
  • Consequential – getting it wrong is a big deal, so we are scared to start
  • Substantial – the very scale of the task puts us off starting

The result is a kind of ‘amygdala hijack’. The more basal parts of our brain can take over and freeze our logical response.

Overcoming the Challenges

So, what we need is some form of over-ride system that can take control, when our emotional response to what needs doing overwhelms us. And that’s where a ‘system’ comes in. It can be more or less complicated or sophisticated. But, with a system we can trust, we have the ability to set aside our ‘fight, flight, or fright’ reflex and just get on with doing it, by following the system, step by step.

The ‘Getting Things Done’ System

And Dave Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ (or GTD) system is one of the most commercially successful systems there is. It is certainly at the more complicated end of the spectrum, but many many people find it massively helpful. And some take to it and spread the word with an almost cult-like fervour.

What is the Getting Things Done approach?

In his book, ‘Getting Things Done’ (US|UK), David Allen presents his detailed time management system. It has three core principles:
  1. Holding everything you want to do in your head is stressful. You can relieve that stress and release mental capacity by emptying your brain of all the things you want to do. The solution is to transfer them to an external system, which can equally be electronic or paper-based.
  2. Allen recommends a ‘bottom-up’ approach that starts with all your ideas for things you could do, and then synthesizes them into your medium and long-term goals.
  3. There is a deliberate and detailed workflow to follow. This offers a sense of certainty and appeals to people who are prepared to invest time in a rigid ‘system’.

So, what is the Getting Things Done System

Allen has created a rigorous workflow, with five steps:

  1. Capture
    Collect all your ideas, big and small, for things to do. Use paper or a digital app.
  2. Clarify
    Review what each thing means to you. Allen offers us 8 options:

    1. Is a task actionable? If not, mark it as trash
    2. A ‘maybe’ file for tasks that might be important one-day – but aren’t now
    3. File information and ideas carefully for future reference
    4. If the thing is actionable, will it take more than one step? If so, it’s a project that needs a plan
    5. Can you do it under 2 minutes? If so, do it now
    6. Or, if you can delegate it, do so and record it on a ‘waiting for’ list
    7. For the rest, decide whether to schedule it
    8. Or put it on a to-do list
  3. Organise
    Structure your lists so everything is where it belongs. Do this by dividing your to-do list into categories like household, work, calls, etc.
  4. Reflect
    Review your lists frequently and tidy them up, update them, plan your projects, and schedule outstanding tasks.
  5. Engage
    Just get on with doing the tasks from your lists and projects, based on where your focus is.

Originally, Allen used the terms collect, process, organize, plan, and do; which I preferred, for their simplicity. However, the descriptions of the stages have barely changed, so we are left with Juliet’s rose.

Who is ‘Getting Things Done’ well suited to?

The GTD system is rigorous, rigid, and demanding of effort and attention in its own right. So, it is not for everybody.

  • I have a friend who can and does
  • I could, but won’t (I prefer my own process*)
  • My wife couldn’t and would never

I think it’s something about the way your brain is wired. If you have a structured brain that craves organisation, likes following structured processes, and is patient with the overhead of preparing with care, this system could be for you. But even then, it is a big investment to learn and apply GTD. So I think you also need two other things:

  1. To feel a genuine need for this level of organisation
  2. And to not have any process of your own with which you are comfortable and about which you feel confident

What is Your experience of ‘Getting Things Done’?

We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Do you use GTD, or have you another system you prefer?

Please leave them in the comments below.

To learn more…

The Time Management Pocketbook is full of tips, techniques, and tools for those who want to make effective use of their business time.

* Not only does The Time Management Pocketbook summarise the Getting Things Done method and six other systems…
It also contains my own GTDA process for how to manage your time. It’s simpler and more workplace focused, in that it adapts well to the inevitable interruptions and disruptions of modern working life. And there’s loads more in this book too.

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2 thoughts on “Getting Things Done: Deliberate Time Management

  1. Thank you for the interesting read, it is a great summary! At a time in which home office and telecommuting is more present than ever, it is a helpful reminder that it is important to organize ones tasks and schedules to be able to work efficiently and productively.

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