Wednesday, December 15, 2004

GTD Three Months Later

Three months ago today, I posted a detailed description of my brand-new implementation of David Allen's Getting Things Done system. It seems as though enough time has passed to get a little perspective and share some lessons, so here goes.

Setting it All Up

In the first two weeks, I bought the supplies, did the Big Collection, revamped my filing system to be purely alphabetical, streamlined my e-mail processing, and created my lists.

It took me most of a weekend to work my physical IN to empty (it was enough stuff to fill at least five classic "in" baskets), but it was a very satisfying activity.

The hardest part is establishing those new habits: Checking the right lists within the right context, looking in the tickler file, and checking the calendar (no, I never really checked my calendar before).

Solving Some Initial Problems

I kept having trouble with physical items from my IN basket that required more than two minutes (e.g. "Complete benefits enrollment forms"). Obviously I needed to add them to one of my electronic Next Action lists, but what to do with the physical item? I finally settled on the creation of a file folder labeled "Next Actions," which I placed in my Timbuk2 bag. All physical items attached to deferred next actions go in this folder. My bag is always with me, so I always have the items when I decide to actually do them.

I also had the problem that physical items might come to me somewhere other than at home, and I wanted to get them into "IN" back on my desk. I solved this in a similar fashion: I created another file folder labeled "IN" which resides in my Timbuk2 bag. Anything that needs to make its way into my GTD system while I'm away gets dropped in that folder (e.g. a business card, a travel brochure, mail I picked up from my P.O. box), and then I take all the stuff out of the folder when I get home and drop it in the IN basket.

It was obvious pretty early on that carrying my Powerbook around while shopping was not the best way to have access to my @errands list. I'm not willing to download my lists to yet another device (such as my never-used PalmOne Tungsten), so I decided to send my @errands list to the printer. I do this fairly often, and always carry the latest version in the back pocket of my Moleskine.

Benefits Realized After 3 Months

The counter stays clear in the kitchen. I always had a huge stack of accumulating mail on the kitchen counter. I didn't have a clear system for processing it, and would just wait until it was complete chaos to do anything. Now, everything goes into the IN basket on my desk, and I work it to empty often (it's fun!).

I am much more successful because I now can identify the true "next action." I've talked about this in previous posts, but this is a key improvement for me. In the past, I would often have items in my "to do" lists such as "Call Dr. for annual check up". I'd find myself siting somewhere waiting for my kids, look in my old Franklin Planner, and decide to do this task. Oops! I didn't have the phone number in my address book. Clearly, the next task for me should have been "Find Doctor's phone number." GTD has helped me focus on identifying the true next action.

I actually do my filing. Filing is a built-in part of emptying the IN basket, so it actually happens. I got rid of my "TO BE FILED" basket, which was always overflowing and had actually become the chronologically ordered filing system.

Everything is out of my head. Sure, I still worry about stuff, but it tends to be more conceptual things. I no longer have recurring urgent flashes like "Geez! I gotta remember to buy a surprise gift for my wife!" Instead, that's on my @errands list, which I look at every day.

Areas for Me to Improve

I'm really bad about checking my tickler file often enough. It's in my lower desk drawer, and suffers somewhat from the "out of sight, out of mind" syndrome. Unless I can create the habit of checking it on time, I'll need to abandon it (or I'll end up missing a bill due date). Does anyone have any ideas on this one?

I really need to empty my IN basket more often. Fortunately, it's not very big, so it fills quickly. This kinda forces the issue.

I still have not fully implemented a parallel GTD system at work. I use GTD to manage my personal tasks only, and this hasn't been a real problem since my work life is so much more straightforward than my personal life. Still, I know things will go better once I convert over.

Current System Limitation: Actions Lists Apply to Multiple Contexts

Some "next actions" belong to multiple contexts. There are clearly some contexts in which I find myself to which more than one action list applies.


  • When I'm sitting at my desk at work, the @online, @offline, @work, and @calls lists are all fair game.
  • When I'm at home in the evening, there are candidate actions on the@home, @online, and @offline lists.
  • When I'm waiting in my car while my daughter is in her cello lesson, I can choose actions from the @offline and @calls lists.

It seems that what I really want are super lists for each context which are really just groupings of multiple action lists. It's important that an action list can appear in multiple super lists. The alternative would be a tagging scheme, like that provided by Of course, it turns out that a number of people are experiencing this same problem, and there's a great thread going on over at the 43 Folders Google Group which is trying to address this very issue through the creation of a new tool. I'm keeping an eye on their progress.

I still hope to present a detailed posting containing my current lists, tools, etc.

Update: Merlin Mann has posted a terrific three-part series looking back over his first year of using GTD techniques: A Year of Getting Things Done.

I'm relieved to hear that even the founder of has a problem keeping up with his 43 folders (i.e., the tickler file).

And I STILL want a simple conduit which will take the text files I use as my lists (and edit it Smultron) and sync 'em with my Palm. Does anyone know of a tool?

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