David Allen’s Getting Things Done productivity method is the gold standard when it comes to achieving all of the things on your to-do list. Often abbreviated as “GTD,” it makes so much sense on paper. Or — as often the case these days — in an app. Putting it into practice, however, often comes with its own challenges.
I admit that I can usually stick to the GTD method for a couple of weeks. Then my anxiety begins to snowball when I don’t quite seem to get things completed in my allowed timeframe.
The GTD System
Let’s go back and look at the GTD philosophy. It involves taking all of those tasks in your head and putting them in writing — either on paper or digitally. It could even be a combination of the two. Whatever format you choose, you need to make a list of all of your tasks to be completed.
You may be able to delegate some of these tasks if you’re lucky. Now, take a look at everything that is left and determine one step to move each one of those projects forward. Enter that information into your to-do list as well.
I should note that this is a big oversimplification. Definitely read David Allen’s book Getting Things Done for a complete overview of the entire system. The book also goes into detail about the cognitive benefits of the GTD. Once you have your objectives in writing, it calms your brain so you can focus more intently on the tasks at hand.
Of course, it’s easy to follow the GTD method when you maybe have five or ten projects on your list. Ironically GTD becomes harder to follow as you add more tasks to your list. Many people give up on the system just when they could benefit from it the most! This is unfortunate.
With some experimentation, I’ve found a couple of simple ways to ensure that the GTD system is easier to follow even as the number of tasks increases.
Never Skip the Weekly Reviews
David Allen has stated that if you aren’t doing weekly reviews, you aren’t doing GTD. It may seem especially decadent to sit down and look over everything you have on your plate — especially when you are super busy — but this is one of the KEY elements in GTD. Spending a little bit of time to prioritize your tasks and organize your entire list will definitely lead to greater productivity later. It will also make things less stressful!
Here’s another key element that I never thought would work, but it’s surprisingly effective. It’s a strategy known as “temptation bundling.” In short, you combine something you don’t want to do with another task that’s enjoyable. So you may tell yourself that you can’t watch another episode of that binge-worthy show on Netflix until you’ve organized your office and replied to all of your emails. Temptation bundling relies on human psychology, and it works.
Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less is another good companion to David Allen’s approach. Even though you may have all of these things that you want to accomplish, sometimes you have to pare things down to the most essential tasks. That’s just life. I knew this on some level, but McKeown’s book put it into perspective for me.
Being productive isn’t about checking off as many things on your list as possible. Sometimes circumstances shift, and it’s totally okay to remove tasks from your list if they are no longer relevant.
Remember, you don’t have to say yes to everything. It’s human nature to want to be helpful … but unfortunately almost everyone has to say “no” to projects that we simply can’t handle. If your boss wants you to take on more responsibility at work, clarify what you should de-prioritize instead. Every new task comes with an opportunity cost. As much as we’d all like to believe that we are superhuman, capable of anything, we all have our limits!
Be gentle with yourself. It’s ok to reschedule tasks as well. And remember, you aren’t going to be perfect at the GTD system immediately. It’s something that you will develop and refine over time. Just stick with it and the rewards will soon be obvious.