Longtime readers of TidBITS and listeners of MacNotables probably recall Adam mentioning that he and Tonya have been users of David Allen’s "Getting Things Done" method of personal organization. For those of you who are new to it, GTD (as it is frequently abbreviated) is not merely the eponymous book, or an organizational method. GTD is a cult, or at least it sounds like one if you listen to many of the thousands of people online who practice it. And like any self-respecting cult, it aims to reorganize your basic life principles, and even the way you think, with the ultimate goal of making you happier – while funneling some amount of your money to worthy product manufacturers. I’m a very happy cultist myself.
Most of you are already a member of a productivity cult which may be less than fully functional – how many email messages are in your inbox? finish your to-do list today? – and GTD works very well for those of us with computer-centric personalities. Perhaps more importantly, it’s one of the few systems which makes it easy to fall off the bandwagon, and then get back on.
This article will share some tricks I’ve learned setting up my own system on my Macs, but I’ll start by briefly summarizing the principles of GTD, which is based on procedures rather than specific mechanisms. Each adherent has his own idiosyncratic way of setting up an implementation; I’ll talk about mine and a few other popular methods. I’ll wrap up with an overview of the best GTD-related resources on the Internet, so if you choose to join the party you’ll have a regular supply of new ideas. As a companion to this article, I’m posting a set of AppleScript scripts on my Web site which provide me some of the mindless automation that makes any GTD system hum.
GTD, the Short Version — The premise of GTD is that we all fill our lives with "open loops," promises we make to ourselves to get something done later on. The problem is that our brains aren’t built for this kind of work; if you remember you need milk only when your cereal is dry, or you need to send an email message when you’re in bed staring at the ceiling at 4 AM, you can’t actually fix the issue at that moment. These open loops create a sort of psychic backlog, since all you can do at that point is worry about things, not do them.
The GTD method has five steps: collect, process, organize, review, and do.
Collect simply means that you note these items in specific places; i.e., a dry-erase marker on the kitchen fridge, or a voice recorder by your bed, for the examples I mentioned above.
Process takes all of the items you’ve collected and determines what needs to be done next, such as "buy more milk."
Organize puts all of these actions into "contexts," so you’ll complete them more easily; when you buy your milk you can also buy bread, but you can’t usually send an email message.
Review places these organized lists back into your brain, at least enough so that you have the lists you need, when you need them.
And finally, you actually do the things on these lists, when you’re ready to do them with the least effort and the most effectiveness.
Simple, no? Note that this approach doesn’t include saying that sending email is more important than buying milk and hence goes on the Priority B list, and filling the gas tank doesn’t get written down on the Tuesday calendar. Instead, the benefit of this organizational process is that it clears your mind of small items to allow you to focus on important issues – a state Allen calls "mind like water."
Crucial to the system is the concept of the "next action," which is the very next physical thing to do in order to get something done. I’ll use a ridiculous example that other self-employed people will recognize: let’s say the problem you need to solve is, "I’m hungry and the fridge is empty." Most to-do systems would have you write down, "decide on lunch." But your next action might very well be "put on pants," unless restaurants in your neighborhood are more Bohemian than mine. I also find that I tend to decide between Thai and a burrito automatically by the time I’ve gotten to my shoes; in any case, my next action after being properly dressed would be "choose a direction to walk," which influences the choice of restaurant as well as the next steps in my afternoon.
The distinction is between specific choices and vague ones; thinking about a plate of pad thai is likely to cause 15 minutes of daydreaming out the window, which importantly has not moved you any closer to eating lunch. A next action is always concrete. More importantly, since next actions are always very small and immediate, they lead you to consider how one action might impact multiple to-do items. "Have lunch" is not a next action, because it requires more thought; "go to the restaurants next to the post office and see what the daily specials are" is a next action.
Listmania — The core of a good GTD system is a stack of lists. These lists are organized and frequently reviewed, and each task on them is a specific next action which is usually connected to some larger project.
The first stumbling block for Mac users is the question of where to keep these lists. We’re so spoiled for choice that this option can be paralyzing; any software that can accept text can be used to make lists. It’s important to note that GTD can be implemented with pen and paper, or with judicious use of TextEdit documents. But many GTD practitioners want software that will sort and puree their lists automatically. Here, therefore, are the principles that I developed when choosing mine:
Quick processing: I want to use a system that allows me to organize collected items as quickly as possible.
Flexibility: sometimes it makes sense to have everything in one place, other times I want to break things down into separate files and document types.
Self-categorization: whenever possible, I don’t want to type in "Review Software X" when it’s easier just to drag the application somewhere and let it be its own reminder. Likewise with URLs, documents, media, or anything else I might come across.
Ubiquity: in addition to the ability to collect at any time, I want to be able to access my lists at any time. In my case, that meant synchronization to my PDA; for others, that just means a good printout.
The core of your processing system is going to be some kind of master list; you might have a hundred different lists (especially if you’re primarily working with paper), but you need the One List to Rule Them All. For example, I start my day, every day, reviewing my Routine list; most of these items are brainless but necessary recurring tasks that are especially suited to when I haven’t yet fired enough caffeine into my cranium. I come back to this list throughout my day, hopefully emptying it before bedtime.
My Routine list is also my master list; it made sense to me because I routinely need to "do work." So "tackle the Work list" shows up on a daily basis; in a similar fashion my Routine list points me both to other lists I’ve made (such as "geektime" projects that aren’t too important), or to other places where things collect for me (a reminder to check voicemail).
Over time, this becomes your trusted system; once you’ve added your tasks or projects to the appropriate place, your mind allows itself to relax, because your subconscious knows it doesn’t have to nag you about upcoming tasks or events anymore. Anything can be made into a GTD collection or review list, from your laptop to your glove compartment; all you have to do is have your master list remind you to look there, and means of organizing what you keep there.
Software for The One True List — This review skips a crucial preliminary step to setting up your GTD system, which is the point where you take the existing mass of chaos in your life and process all of it into GTD. GTD will fail if you attempt to modularize only part of your life into it; the psychological returns that fuel the system only work if you have nothing outside of GTD to worry about. Allen documents that process in his book, and I suggest you read it to get the idea of "putting everything into the inbox;" once you’ve done that, you can take advantage of these suggestions for using your Mac to process it all.
If you haven’t read the book, the crucial thing to remember as we discuss building these lists is that we’re talking about processing, organizing, and reviewing. Your collecting is done elsewhere, and sometimes for you: your email, your voicemail, your notes from Friday’s meeting. Likewise, you don’t actually do these things while you’re in these stages; it’s possible to process 2,000 email messages and 400 files on your Desktop, so long as you have a quick system for processing. The doing comes later.
I still use Life Balance from Llamagraphics to manage my master list, which I reviewed in TidBITS in 2004; its implementation of "places" is very similar to GTD’s "contexts," which is how I narrow myself down to just my brainless Routine list every morning. Life Balance also has a Palm component, so anything that’s in my master list is automatically transferred to my Palm when I synchronize it.
A popular alternative is OmniOutliner, which may be the best outliner software available for the Macintosh. One advantage it has over Life Balance is its ability to accept any file that is dropped into one of its document windows, which is a great way of organizing and annotating a bunch of files into a project hierarchy. If you use OmniOutliner Pro, you have the additional option of using the freeware Kinkless GTD template. Kinkless GTD is a set of AppleScript scripts which, like Life Balance, takes an outline of your tasks and breaks it down into a flat list of things to do. If you’re already a fan of OmniOutliner, you’re likely to be quite happy in this system; I might be using it myself were I not already comfortable with Life Balance. But others comment that the Kinkless software feels bolted-on to OmniOutliner (which, in fact, it is), and not seamless enough to provide the best user experience.
It’s also possible that both OmniOutliner and Life Balance are overkill for your needs; many people maintain their GTD systems with a series of plain text files, and others set up all of their next actions in iCal to-do lists. iCal calendar groups in Mac OS X 10.4 are a particularly good way to organize your tasks by context. The most common failing of these systems, though, is their inability to create recurring tasks without jumping through extra hoops; it’s much easier using both Life Balance and Kinkless to say, "I’ve done that now, but tell me again tomorrow." That being said, I still use iCal to-dos in addition to Life Balance, which I’ll return to in part 2 of this article.
I can’t make a recommendation for which one will work for you; this is the most individualized choice in setting up your own GTD system. All of the above options have free trials (and some of them are entirely free), so go ahead and kick the tires. The best suggestion I can make is that you already have a model in your head for how complex your life is; you want a system that will accept your life model without using shoehorns and battering rams. Like the man said, "As simple as possible, but no simpler."
The danger to watch for is that most of us find it more stimulating to play with our organizational software than to actually do stuff. In the words of Merlin Mann, "Like a short-order cook, you want to stay focused on making sandwiches, not on putting the orders into pretty piles." Pick a system that works well enough to start; then, if you wish, make improving (and perhaps radically revamping) your system a GTD project which you can prioritize along with everything else. That way, you won’t fall into the trap of making pretty piles while the sandwiches are burning. I can personally vouch that I’ve used dozens of organization systems and software packages, read four score and seven books, and have literally spent weeks writing custom FileMaker Pro databases which I later abandoned. Try not to waste as much time as I did being "productive."
In part 2 of this article, I’ll dig into the specifics of setting up a GTD system on your Mac, using a little-known, but effective, organizational tool: the Finder.
[Jeff Porten is an Internet consultant in Washington, DC. He practices maybe three out of seven effective habits.]
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