Hidden Lessons from “Getting Things Done”

gtdA few years ago, I first read David Allen’s seminal book on time management, Getting Things Done (here’s the skinny on what it’s all about). To put it bluntly, it was an epiphany for me.

Let me make it as clear as possible: without the insights from Getting Things Done, I would have never found the time to launch The Simple Dollar, nor would I have been as involved in my children’s life as I am today.

Since reading it the first time, I sit down about once a year and re-read Getting Things Done, hoping to add some new insights to my repertoire. On my first few readings, I mostly found value in reiterating the big points. Lately, though, I’ve found that the book contains a lot of hidden lessons that aren’t directly placed front and center.

Here are seven more subtle aspects of the book I’ve found useful in my life recently.

Seven Hidden Lessons I’ve Learned from “Getting Things Done”

1. The best way to get things done is to “pre-work”

The single biggest thing that constantly derails one’s effort to get to an empty inbox (i.e., to whack everything off of one’s to-do list) are deadlines. You have to get this item done by 4 PM today, so you toss aside all of the other stuff you might be working on – some of which is likely more useful than the task you’re doing – and get to work. At the end of the day, you have a full inbox/to-do list and you realize that this isn’t working too well.

Thus, one of the hidden goals of GTD is to pre-work – put in effort so that there are fewer and fewer of those urgent tasks that interrupt your work. The best way to do that is to “pre-work.” I do this by writing articles in advance. At my previous job, I used to fill out forms as early as I could, often filling them the rest of the way out with estimates, so that I wouldn’t be tied to the clock later on filling out that form. I’d write lots of “library” code that will likely have use in the future so that when the time came, I could quickly prototype things that were pretty nifty instead of burning the midnight oil.

“Pre-work” helps keep your schedule free of at least some interruptions and makes it much easier to bear down and focus on the more important tasks at hand, like the large projects that you’ve always wanted to accomplish.

2. Keep an active “someday” list – because “someday” arrives sooner than you think

I take special effort to write down every project idea that crosses my head. Once a week or so, I’ll go through them and toss out a few of the truly frivolous ones, but for the most part, I keep that list. It’s usually between 50 and 100 projects long at any given time – and I may or may not ever do any of them.

So what’s the point? The reason is that “someday” arrives more often than you think. If I’ve managed to work through my inbox and have an empty afternoon ahead of me, the first place I turn is my “someday” list – and there’s always something worthwhile to do on there. My “someday” list produced this and this and this, among many other things.

3. The more you delete, the better

I used to use services like Tumblr and Delicious to store piles upon piles of bookmarks for future reference. What I found, though, is that I rarely looked at them – and when I did think of trying to find something, it was like finding a needle in a haystack. It was far faster to just Google for it.

The same thing is true for paper documents. When I read a magazine, I toss it. I’ve stopped actively updating a recipe box since virtually any recipe I want is out there in the cloud. I don’t keep many books – I can just use PaperBackSwap to get any book I want again pretty quickly. Why store mountains of music when I can just use Pandora from pretty much anywhere? Sure, I keep a few of each type of thing – but why keep so much stuff when it’s easy to retrieve it again from the cloud when you want it.

Thus, I keep only the minimum amount of stuff – and it’s made my life far, far easier. Very little time is spent filing or organizing the stuff – and is instead spent getting stuff done. Erin’s right – clutter is the enemy of success.

4. Post-It notes as task reminders are useless

Whenever I see a person with Post-It notes all over the place with task reminders written on it, I usually expect to find that person is good-hearted but surprisingly disorganized. Why? Because Post-It notes wind up all over the place. There’s no consistent place to go to find the next task that needs to be done.

The fewer places you have to look for the next thing to be done, the more successful you’re going to be. Spreading your to-do list across a bunch of websites, notebooks, sticky notes, and other things does nothing more than ensure things will slip through the cracks and also that you’ll spend a lot of time just figuring out what to do next – both are enemies of getting things done.

A single system, even if it’s nowhere near the best system, is better than three or four great systems.

5. Hands-free collection of ideas and to-dos is a winner

I go back and forth between using a voice recorder and using a small microphone attached to my iPod Touch, but in either case, I find that having the ability to record thoughts while my hands are otherwise engaged (or at least one hand is) is absolutely amazing for productivity.

The key, though, is to make sure these thoughts are actually saved and processed somewhere. I listen to my voice recordings every day and jot them down in their appropriate place so that they don’t get lost in the shuffle.

What’s the benefit? Many of my best ideas come up out here:

The play equipment in our yard

I’m pushing one of my kids on the swing and an idea pops into my head. If I try to hold it there, I tend to forget it. If I stop pushing my kid to write it down, the moment is often broken and the child runs away to do something else. Instead, I just pull out that voice recorder with one hand, speak my thought, and keep going in the moment.

6. If you feel negative about something, address it immediately

Sometimes, I get the sense I’m forgetting something important. When that feeling comes up, I pay attention to it, because it’s usually right. I almost always stop, check my calendar and my inbox, and almost always, I find that there was something that needs to be taken care of.

Trust your instincts, particularly when you’re going through daily routines that are familiar to you. If something sets off your radar and gives you a feeling that something’s not right, listen to it. Address it now rather than later.

This is actually a great principle for life in general. If you feel like something’s wrong in a relationship, address it sooner rather than later. If you feel like something’s wrong with a larger project, spend some time evaluating the project as a whole now before a bunch of work goes to waste.

7. The mechanics of the system itself are not all-powerful

Every time I’ve run into problems with keeping track of the things I need to do, it’s because I’ve made things too complicated. For me, it’s simple. I jot down things I need to do wherever I’m at. When I’m at a computer, I record them all in one central place (I use Evernote). I keep an “inbox,” a calendar, a project list, and a “someday” list. And that’s it.

For some people, this is overkill. For others, this is not nearly enough. Everyone has a different level of organization that works. The point is if you find yourself fighting your system, then your system isn’t working. It’s either too simple or too complex – and I usually bet on too complex.

No system is all-powerful. No system is perfect for everyone. Instead, mix and match elements until you find what works for you.

Good luck!

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