Getting Things Done: The Five Stages of Mastering Workflow

This is the second entry in a fourteen part series discussing the time management classic Getting Things Done by David Allen. New entries in this series will appear on Tuesday afternoons and Friday mornings through July 16.

gtdLast time, we talked about why an effective time management system is useful and also the basic ideas behind what a successful one would be. Namely, a good time management system allows you to get the things that occupy your thoughts out of your head and into a trusted system, which frees your mind to focus on the task at hand, making you more efficient and more likely to produce excellence in whatever you’re doing.

Knowing this, though, presents a new problem. If you simply toss down whatever is in your mind onto paper, it quickly dissolves into a disorganized, unmanageable mess. Trust me, I’ve done it. For a while, I really got into jotting down everything that came into my mind and I made myself feel as though if it were out of mind, it was taken care of. Of course, what happened is that I wound up with a notebook full of scraps of ideas and things to do and other stuff that was simply unmanageable and not useful in any way. I wound up in worse shape than when I started because I had to devote so much energy to piecing through all of that nonsense.

There has to be a better way. And there is.

Allen proposes a system (starting in this chapter, then expanded upon in great detail later in the book) for dealing with all of those floating ideas, appointments, tasks, projects and other things floating in your head that sneak up and devour your focus. It’s really made up of five parts.

Collect
This is really the only portion of the process that’s an ongoing thing. To put it simply, to collect means to just jot down, in some fashion, any idea that you know you’re going to have to deal with later and put it somewhere where you can very easily find it later. In Allen’s words, from page 26:

In order to eliminate “holes in the bucket,” you need to collect and gether together placeholders for or representations of all the things you consider incomplete in your world – that is, anything personal or professional, big or little, of urgent or minor importance, that you think ought to be different than it currently is and that you have any level of internal commitment to changing.

What Allen is saying (in a bit of a wordy way) is that whenever you have an idea or encounter something that you think you’ll take any sort of action on in the future (including even just thinking about it), you need to grab it and put it in some physical place outside of your head. Call it your “inbox.”

Let me give you an example of what I mean, again from my own life.

I walk outside to get the mail. On the way, the girl from two doors down yells, “I need the money for the walkathon by Friday!” Uh-oh – that’s something I need to take care of. So I pull a pocket notebook and a pen out of my pocket and jot down a note: “Get Billie her walkathon money by Fri.” This note takes up a whole sheet in my pocket notebook, just like any other such note. I go get the mail and dig through it on my way into the house, where I throw away the junk mail and keep four things worth looking at. As I go upstairs, the very beginning of an idea for an article starts to form in my head, so as soon as I get upstairs, I open a computer program and start jotting down the idea in rough form. I then save it with an appropriate name (“Jun 4 Taxes Idea”), pull out my pocket notebook again, and write down “Jun 4 Taxes Idea on computer” on a new sheet of paper. I then tear out the two sheets I’ve written on and toss those sheets and the mail into a physical inbox on my desk.

So, in this process, I collected six items: the note about the walkathon, the note about the “tax idea,” and the four pieces of mail. They’re now all laying in one specific place – the inbox on my desk – to be dealt with later. I no longer have to actively think about any of them for the moment and can settle in to focus on whatever task is at hand.

Literally, whenever any idea at all pops into my head that I need to take care of, it gets jotted down on its own little piece of paper. Then, as soon as I have a chance, I toss all of the sheets of paper into my inbox on my desk. Usually, it’s just these notes. Sometimes, it’s physical items – pieces of mail, a book I need to read, a phone message, or something like that. I also sometimes use Evernote in this fashion to jot down things I need to do – it’s just an electronic form of my physical inbox on my desk.

The key thing is that all of this stuff is in one place. I’m not worried about organizing it yet, just making sure it’s out of my mind and in a single place so that I don’t have to worry about it and can focus on the task at hand instead of having stuff routinely popping up in my mind.

This is an ongoing process, of course. I jot down notes like this all the time and save them. You can use whatever form of “inbox” works best for you, whether it’s a physical one or an electronic one (or both).

Process
Of course, without further steps, that pile of notes, mail, and other materials would quickly explode into chaos. Once a day (or a few times a day), you have to go through this pile of “stuff” and do something with it.

Allen offers a very simple plan for dealing with each individual item in your inbox.

First, ask yourself “is this item actionable?” In other words, does it directly lead to some sort of action in the very near future on your part? If it doesn’t, it’s either trash (which means throw it away immediately), it’s for reference (which means file it immediately), or it’s something that needs to “incubate” (meaning it’s something that will tie heavily to action later on, which should be stored in their own special place called a “tickler” that we’ll deal with later). Examples of the last group would be agendas for meetings that will happen in a week or the scripture you’re supposed to read aloud in church next Sunday.

So, if it does require action, ask yourself if the action can be done in the next two minutes. If it can, do it immediately. I’m often amzed how many things just disappear from my inbox simply by doing them right away.

If they take longer than two minutes, you have some choices. You can delegate it – meaning you’re making sure that someone else is going to take care of it. You can defer it – meaning you set an appointment in your calendar to take care of it at some future date (this is what you do with an appointment notice, for example). Or you can simply do it, which means add it to your list of “next actions” to take – in other words, your immediate list of things you need to do.

Let’s continue the example above.

I’ve got six items in my inbox.
1. The first one is a note about writing a check to Billie for the walkathon. I need to take action on this. Billie’s out playing in the yard and I have my checkbook right here, so I know it’ll take less than two minutes, so I just do it now. I then toss the note.
2. The second one is the note about my post idea for taxes. I add that to my small pile of “next actions” – my actual real work for the next few hours.
3. The third item is a letter from the church reminding me that I’m supposed to serve as usher on a particular future Sunday. I immediately add it to my calendar and toss that note into the trash.
4. The next item is a magazine. I look through it and identify an article I ought to read – the rest looks like rubbish. So I just tear out that article I want to read, put it in my “next action” pile, and toss the rest of the magazine.
5. The next item is from our son’s science summer camp. I open it and read it, because it might be a bill, but instead it’s a welcome packet. I defer it to my son by simply placing it on his pillow in his bedroom.
6. The last item appeared to be a bill based on the envelope, but actually turned out to be trash, so I tossed it immediately.

My inbox is processed, so now I move onto actually doing my real work – and I’m able to focus in on it knowing that there’s nothing circulating around that’s unfinished.

Organize
That takes care of a lot of the obvious stuff, but what do you do about big projects – things that require a lot of actions to complete?

Allen’s suggestion, in the end, is to maintain a folder for each project that you have going on. So, whenever something happens related to a project, you can just open that folder, look at the situation of that project, determine your next action for that project, and add that action to your pile of stuff to do today.

Allen explains it on page 38:

You don’t actually do a project; you can only do action steps related to it. When enough of the right action steps have been taken, some situation will have been created that matches your initial picture of the outcome closely enough that you can call it “done.”

I’ll give you some folder examples of my own projects.

Learning the piano My end goal for this is that I can sit down with a reasonable piece of sheet music (not high-end concert pieces, but ordinary stuff), look it over, sit down at a piano with it, and play it. That’s not just one action that anyone could take. So, I have a folder for this project. Once a week, I take an action step towards it – my piano lesson for the week. I also practice regularly throughout the week. In my folder, I keep things like a practice log and some sheet music that I intend to try out when my skill level is up to it.

Writing and publishing a novel My goal with this project is to publish a novel. The way to get there is murky, but I do recognize that writing fiction in order to improve my skill is an important part, as is generating ideas for a novel. So, in this folder, I mostly just collect ideas – plot ideas, character ideas, and so on.

Building a love of literature in my children I also want to encourage a love of literature in my children. In this folder, I keep an ongoing document that describes things to do to encourage a child to read, along with tons of literature recommendations for different age ranges and reading abilities so that I can always find great books for them as they grow.

These folders serve several purposes. They keep all the documents I need for a particular project all together in one place. The existence of the folder itself is a reminder to keep going with that project (see “Review,” below). They also help me to figure out what my “next action” is going to be – for example, if I flip through the “love of literature” folder and recognize Joe’s ready for something more advanced, I have the materials in hand to help me figure out the next step, like getting him a copy of Maniac McGee.

I also keep a someday/maybe list and a few “sub-lists.” What goes on these things? They’re full of ideas of things I’d like to do someday, but I don’t have time for now because I have too much going on. The “sub-lists” are things like “Books I want to read” and “Movies I want to see” and “Places I want to travel to.” They’re usually places to record whims that show up in my inbox.

Review
The three steps above really do help me take care of everything that passes through my inbox, but it’s easy to see that if I just left it at that, I’d fail to make progress on big projects and I might also allow other things to slip through the cracks, like “next actions” left undone.

The solution to that is to do a weekly review of everything – your inbox, your remaining next actions, all of your project folders, and so on. Allen sums it up well on page 46:

Everything that might potentially require action must be reviewed on a frequent enough basis to keep your mind from taking back the job of remembering and reminding. IN order to trust the rapid and intuitive judgment calls that you make about actions from moment to moment, you must consistently retrench at some elevated level. In my experience [...] that translates into a behavior critical for success: the Weekly Review.

Once a week (I usually do it on a weekend day on whichever of the two days Sarah is on nap duty while the kids are napping), go through everything. Your inbox. Your remaining “next actions” that you haven’t finished up yet. Your project folders. Your calendar. All of it. See what you’ve been doing well and what’s been lagging.

This is the time to ask yourself big questions like whether or not you’re committed to actually following through with a volunteer project you agreed to or whether you’re putting enough effort into learning the piano or losing weight or getting your financial house straight. You can often judge this by the “next actions” left undone.

This really is the most critical part, because it’s the time you can ask yourself why you’re filling your time the way you are, why you’re doing some things and not others, and really dig into who you are and what your motivations are and what your real goals in life are. Everything else really comes from that, and reviewing it once a week can be pretty stark.

It is the single most important thing I do with regards to any of this. It’s a weekly gut check.

Do
In the end, you’re left with a pile of “next actions” to take – your actual, real work. For me, it’s a mix of professional stuff, personal stuff, big stuff, little stuff, urgent stuff, non-urgent stuff, important stuff, and not important stuff.

On page 49, Allen suggests a simple way of deciding which action to tackle first:

There are four criteria you can apply, in this order:

1 | Context
2 | Time available
3 | Energy available
4 | Priority

The first question is can I actually do this right now, given the location and the resources I have available? If you can’t, then you know that item is out.

Next, you ask yourself do I have time to do this right? If you don’t, put it aside. The worst thing you can do is shoehorn a two hour task into forty minutes and do it abysmally.

After that, ask yourself do I have the energy for this? So, for example, early in the day, I might have the mental energy for a big writing project, but later in the day, I don’t. Discard the stuff that you don’t have the energy for right now.

Finally, simply prioritize the rest. How do you do that? It really depends on your job and the demands on you. Some jobs are “urgent, urgent, urgent” and you have to constantly put out fires. Other jobs aren’t like that and you can put the “important but not urgent” tasks pretty high in the queue.

The amazing thing is that all of this just flows together almost seamlessly once you start doing it. It seems like there are a lot of parts to it, but in the end, once you start doing it, there’s really not much to it at all, especially once you’ve done it. The amount of time saved by not carrying ideas and appointments and things in your head is just tremendous and the ability to review everything you’re doing once a week is also incredibly empowering.

Next time, we’ll look at chapter three, covering the five stages of project planning. How do you take a large-scale project and incorporate it into this kind of mindset? Yep, we’ll be looking more closely at those “project folders.”

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25 thoughts on “Getting Things Done: The Five Stages of Mastering Workflow

  1. I have been trying to live within the GTD frame work for a few years now and I still seem to get stuck at the review phase, both inbox review and weekly review. A lot of people I talk to have similar problems.

    The capture part came quickly, although I occasionally venture out into new tools which can leave my capture spot fragmented which is a recipe for getting frustrated.

    My biggest failure is not deciding up front what the next action is which comes from not processing the inbox well enough. I often get stuck with a to-do list of large actions without a clear next step.

    Second, is developing the discipline and desire to do a weekly review in the midst of getting things done. Without the weekly review things get back burnered that you forget about and you get overwhelmed. You end up acting as a fireman man, last thing in is the first thing out rather than the most making intentional decisions on what is important.

    Haven’t been able to get past those hurdles yet.

    Your awesome series is rekindling my desire to try again though. Your concrete examples are the best part of the series. They provide excellent motivation and perspective.

    Hopefully you will provide some of your tips and hacks that you developed along the way.

  2. This has been a great series so far and after I read the first part I looked into the book (first on amazon, then I remembered the library). I really want to read this myself, with your posts being a guide.
    Getting things done is occasionally a problem for me, but at times can morph into a huge behemoth, where I’m immensely productive for periods of time (4-6 hours) and then it tails off from there. I’ve tried to minimize the unproductive hours and maximizing the productive ones by simply finding more things to do with myself, but that seems to have caused me to get less done, not more.
    I think I’ve got the same problem as Happy Rock, that I dont review next steps frequently enough.
    Hopefully, this will help.
    Also, this may seem like a fairly odd request, but could you post a picture of your office at some point? Seeing the layout would help me (and possibly many others) a great deal.
    Thanks!

  3. Jaime says:

    I just wanted to tell you how much I’m enjoying this series and thank you for sharing how you use the system. It really helps to see how you’ve put everything into action in your daily life.

    I like the excerpts that you’ve shared and the way Allen breaks out the steps make a lot of sense to me. It sounds like a system that could really work in my life. I may have to see if I can get a copy and start reading it next week!

  4. Money Smarts says:

    I use my Gmail inbox in a way similar to this. If there is something I need to do i create a draft and save it. Later on in the day i check my drafts to review my action items, and to process through them. I get them done and delete the draft as items are done.

  5. Trent says:

    “Hopefully you will provide some of your tips and hacks that you developed along the way.”

    We’re getting there. Wait for the five chapters that deal with the five sections of this workflow. Pictures, etc. I’m going to be revealing my system in incredible detail so that anyone can follow it.

  6. becky says:

    So far I’m really enjoying the level of detail that you’re going into for this. I’ve always heard of GTD and tried to implement a few things, but never really followed through. And my lack of completing things totally shows that. I’m hoping to get back to actually being able to check things off of my to-do list, instead of just having piles of things on my desk. Thanks for this series, Trent. I didn’t realize how much I needed until I got to this 2nd installment. Looking forward to the rest.

  7. Ruth says:

    I am also learning piano and would be interested in seeing the list of sheet music that you plan to try. Do you have that in a digital format that you could share? Are you using a particular book right now?

  8. Crystal says:

    I’m going to have to start using that question, “is this item actionable” since mail seems to take over our counters more every day.

  9. Ryan says:

    I’ve always thought GTD was a bit of a cult and not something I could learn to to, but these two posts have made it seem much more doable.

    I start college in the fall and this might just help make the transition from high school level work to college level a bit easier.

  10. WendyH says:

    Trent, do you know if this or another time management system is designed for or addresses skills for those with Adult ADD/ADHD? My limited understanding of the condition is that typical management skills don’t always work for them.

    Long-story-short: I just spend 4 days helping a friend clean and purge a dumpster worth of junk. I’d like to understand the condition further so I can find ways to help organize that would be most beneficial. It wasn’t quite bad enough for a “Hoarders” episode, but still a significant issue.

    Looking forward to the rest of the series, I plan on printing out the entire series (with comments) and hopefully sitting down and discussing some of the strategies with my friend.

  11. Debbie M says:

    This all makes sense, but I think I would like one additional step, which might be called Archive.

    You mentioned having a log in your piano folder – filling in that log would be one of the things to do in this step. You could also log eating, exercising, housework, spending, or anything else where motivation could use a little boost. Maybe add to the graph of your weight or net worth or credit score.

    Also, keep track of records that could come in handy later such as car and house maintenance, dental and doctor visits and test results, electricity usage, gas mileage.

    After trying a recipe, add notes on what worked and what you’d like to change for next time, maybe take a picture, maybe e-mail the recipe to your friends, maybe put a copy of the recipe in your book of tried-and-true recipes.

    When returning from a vacation, get any pictures together and create the scrap book or blog entries or family newsletter or whatever helps you maximize the experience.

    When you buy something new, find a place for it. Wash it or assemble it if needed. Add it to your house inventory list–perhaps with a picture–or to library thing or anything else you’re keeping track with. If you get rid of something old every time you bring something new in, pick out your something old to get rid of. If it’s digital media, you might make a copy on your computer. If it has an owner’s manual, look through that, attach the receipt, and file it.

    I don’t do this step as often as I’d like, but when I do, it makes a big difference. This little extra step after doing things enriches the experience. It makes me feel less like I’m just running around playing Tetras with the things on my to-do list.

  12. Jane says:

    When will someone point out that David Allen clearly has an obsessive compulsive disorder. Hearing him speak on NPR was a nightmare – as if his organizational obsessivness is a route to nirvana – give me a break. He sounds like a hoarder with ADD.

    Just simplify. Buy less. Throw stuff out fearlessly. Say No. Just breathe and be aware of your surroundings and it takes care of itself. Start by filng his book in the round file. It only adds to one’s anxiety – which is the real purpose, because then you need more or HIS crap and books and systems and on and on.

  13. Elisabeth says:

    Trent, you don’t have to throw away junk mail. Recycle it! Otherwise, great series. I am currently reading the book (from the library) and it helps to read how one person puts it in action.

  14. AndreaS says:

    I think my life is not so complicated that I need to use a box system. Like many people I work with a list, which I think mostly does the same thing. I don’t like to have a lot of things hanging over me… if I have more than three things to do, I feel overwhelmed. I start to lay awake nights thinking about all I needed to get done. It helps to get up and write out a list, and then I can go back to sleep.
    We’ve been renovating a starter home for our daughter. It was an unlivable disaster… literally every surface needed something. She and her husband work and go to college, and had little time to contribute. My husband and I have loads of free time and skills. But mostly it fell to me to act as the manager of this enormous undertaking. We had help from relatives, but this was an unpredictable resource, which added to the chaos. It was overwhelming and I started losing sleep.
    So I got up one night and started a notebook. In this I wrote out a list of tasks that could be done immediately. Next to each task I listed the tools and/or materials we would need to complete the task, so I would remember to take those things to her house when we went to work the following morning. In this manner, when volunteers showed up, I was able to match that person to a task based on their skills and available time. Without making this list I was lost… was not always able to immediately take advantage of volunteer time because I was unable to remember the various tasks that needed to be done. It was also nice to show the volunteer the list, and allow them to choose the things they wanted to do. Throughout my days, whenever I thought of a task someone could do, I would add it to my list. It was satisfying to look at my list at the end of the day and see what tasks got crossed off.
    As some tasks were completed, it was then possible to do other tasks. For example, once my husband repaired door trims, they could then be painted. So every few days I started a new list. I carried over old tasks that had not yet been completed, and also added the new ones we could now do.
    In the way Trent said, some tasks require just minutes to do, and so we wanted to tackle those immediately so that we would feel relaxed that there were fewer items on our list.
    One of the ways in which we prioritized was recognizing some helpers were just more valuable than others. Mostly, this was my husband who possesses the highest skill level, and also less hours to offer than me. In general, I never allowed him to do a task that could be done by a less skilled person… unless on a given day he had nothing else that he could do. Next to my husband, I was probably the most skilled as I have before done renovation work. So if I had less skilled helpers there, I didn’t do tasks that these folks could do. Even if helpers were not there, I specifically saved some of these lower-skilled tasks, in case a volunteer came.
    I used my notebook for other information. A relative donated a set of used kitchen cabinets. So I added to my task list inventorying these cabinets. I took measurements of all the cabinets, and added these to my notebook along with simple sketches of each unit. Then later, I could work from these sketches to figure out how to make them work. I also had dimensions of rooms. I inventoried the lumber we saved for reuse from when we dismantled things. I also wrote phone numbers down from folks on craigslist that were selling items we needed. And so on.
    Mostly I used this notebook in the early phase of this project when it was most chaotic and overwhelming. We’re now on the home stretch with few tasks remaining, so we no longer do these lists.
    So this is on example of how a list was used. I have before made lists for myself. If I have several things I want to get accomplished in a day, I make a list, then cross each thing off as it is done… it is a great motivator. I have sometimes made lists of handyman tasks for my husband to do… small things that need to get fixed but have been accumulating for a while. Similar lists can be made for kids… for example special tasks they can do to earn money.

  15. Melissa says:

    I’m just echoing others, but it really REALLY helps to have the concrete examples. Great post.

  16. Bart says:

    I’m so happy to see you spreading the GTD gospel. I’ve been practicing it for 3 1/2 years. As a corporate manager with many commitments outside the office as well, it’s changed my life more than any single book outside the Scriptures.

  17. Really enjoying this series and looking forward to trying out some of the techniques for myself. Thanks for putting the work into doing such an in-depth review.

  18. Luke says:

    Thank you for going into such detail on this process. I’ve realized that I incorporate a lot of these tactics already without recognizing it as a “GTD” system, but you putting them into context of an overall productivity system is really helpful.

  19. Lynn says:

    Thanks so much Trent. I have tried to implement GTD in the past but I just couldn’t understand it all. Your examples are perfect! I am going to try this again, this time following your explanations as you review the book.

  20. Prasanth says:

    Trent,

    I read GTD about a year ago but never got around to really thinking about the ideas in the book. Your series on GTD is an eye opener. Thank you

  21. Suresh says:

    Trent,

    Great series.

    How do you collect & process your Evernote’s?

  22. Pat says:

    Trent, Can you share your kids’ literature list? I have some kids and am always interested in more resources.

  23. Trent, this is a great series, thank you for making it so approachable. I first got started with GTD about 2 years ago, and mostly consisted of me getting a filing system (with label maker) put together and working.

    What really turned the corner for me, this year, was David’s new book, “Making it all work.” It got me re-started in working on my systems. I’m expecting that your series is going to support me on my journey to “trustify” my GTD systems.

  24. Great post. I also suggest getting an adderral prescription. Will get you productive for sure!

  25. Jen says:

    I’m also enjoying this series immensely at a time when I need it so much. But I second the request for the list of children’s literature by ages. I’d love to have that as my oldest becomes a reader.

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