Do you have a fuzzy collection of "stuff to do" in your mind that distracts you from the work you're supposed to be doing? Do you ever forget to complete important tasks? Or do you feel like you're drowning in responsibilities?
If so, you're not alone. Overwhelm is such a common phenomenon in today's world that productivity experts have developed systems for dealing with it. One of the most popular is Getting Things Done (GTD). Let's take a look at how it works—and how you can implement it in your own life.
Open Loops, The Problem GTD Solves
In the 1920s, Lituanian-born graduate student Bluma Zeigarnik sat in a restaurant—as many graduate students do—contemplating what to write about in her doctoral thesis. She noticed that the waiters had a knack for remembering complex orders. This allowed them to deliver the right food to the right tables and to submit checks after the customers had finished their meals.
Zeigarnik also observed that once an order had been completed and paid for, it seemed to drop from the waiter's mind. If a customer returned with a query about a meal they'd had at the restaurant, the waiters struggled to recall it.
From observing this, Zeigarnik developed a theory: our mental energy is drawn to incomplete tasks. Once a task is dealt with, we drop it from our minds. Laboratory studies confirmed Zeigarnik's thesis. The notion that our attention is distracted by incomplete tasks became know as the Zeigarnik Effect.
David Allen, creator of the GTD system, calls these tasks that distract us "open loops." Allen defines open loops as:
anything pulling at our attention that doesn't belong where it is, the way it is.
Open loops, Allen says, can be to-do list items as big as "end world hunger" or as small as "replace electric pencil sharpener." The point is this:
Even [people] who are not consciously 'stressed out' will invariably experience greater relaxation, better focus, and increased productive energy when they learn more effectively to control the 'open loops' of their lives.
In essence, GTD is a system for controlling open loops, so you can better focus on the task at hand. Obviously, it doesn't enable you to complete all the open loops in your life—after all, no one has yet found a workable solution to world hunger. But it does give you peace of mind that you're dealing with all the open loops in some way. And because that makes you more productive, you'll end up closing more of them.
When you're using GTD, every open loop in your life will have a place. In effect, it's a filing cabinet for all your open loops. Some of your files—or open loops—will be stashed away for you to return to later, at an appropriate time. Others will be placed in the top drawer, ready for you to access and tackle as soon as you can.
On top of that, GTD also provides a system for deciding what to do next. So instead of being distracted by the thought, "What should I do next?", you always know the next action to take.
The full GTD system is explored in David Allen's book Getting Things Done. An article such as this can outline its basic structure, but that's more than enough to get you started.
Ready to learn the basics? Then let's dig in.
Step 1: Collect
The first stage of the GTD system is to collect your open loops. You can do this with a range of tools, known as collection buckets. Your collection buckets could be:
- a physical in-basket
- paper and pen
- note-taking apps
- a dictaphone
Many open loops you collect will come from your own thoughts. Others will be external, such as an email or phone call from a client.
The collection stage functions according to three basic principles:
- Every open loop must be in your collection system and out of your head.
- You must have as few collection buckets as you can get by with.
- You must empty them regularly.
Keeping every open loop in your collection system is vital. No matter how trivial or overwhelming a task seems, if it's on your mind, write it down. Otherwise, it's distracting you. Allen writes:
When will you know how much you have left in your head to collect? Only when there's nothing left. If some part of you is even vaguely aware that you don't have it all, you can't really know what percentage you have collected.
The collection buckets you chose are up to you and based on your personal circumstances. However, it's worth bearing in mind that email in particular is multifunctional. There's nothing to stop you sending yourself emails with tasks to be completed instead of having a separate app to note them down.
Now, let's turn to how you can empty your collection buckets once you've filled them.
Step 2: Empty the Buckets
As we noted in the introduction, it's impossible to complete all your open loops. So if you can't do all the tasks you've noted down, how can you keep your collection buckets empty? According to Allen, this part of the GTD process "is perhaps the most critical improvement I have made for virtually all the people I have worked with." There are several sub-steps to this process.
Step 2a: Identify the Item
When you take an item out of one of your collection buckets to process it, first ask, "What is it?"
This is especially helpful for items that come from other people—such as emails and letters. Only by figuring out what they are can you decide what tasks you need to do to close the open loop or whether you need to do anything about it at all.
Step 2b: Ask Yourself: "Do I Need to Take Action on This?"
If you answer this question "no," then you can do one of three things to process the item:
- Put it in the trash.
- File it as "someday/maybe." (This is for anything you might want to do in the future, but can't do or don't want to do now.)
- File it as "reference." You don't need to take action on it, but you might need the information later. It's a good idea to have an organized system for filing reference items.
If the answer is "yes, in the future," then to process the item you should set up an automatic reminder, such as an alert in your calendar, for when action needs to be taken.
For any of the above outcomes, you've dealt with the item and it can be removed from your collection system.,
Note: Chances are that the majority of items in your collection buckets will get no further than this step. It's the most important step of the GTD process, as it allows you to "park" open loops rather than let them block your attention.
If the answer is "yes, as soon as possible," then you can move on to step 2c.
Step 2c: Ask yourself: "What's the Next Action I Need to Take on This?"
You've decided you need to take action. Now you need to decide what that action will be.
The action must be the next logical action towards closing the open loop. If only one action is needed, continue on to Step 2d.
If closing the loop is going to require more than one task, then you need two things:
- Add the item to your projects list.
- Break the item down into a group of smaller tasks, then put these tasks into your collection buckets.
Note: A projects list is a list of any open loops that require more than one task to be completed. Allen recommends keeping a projects list as a way of tracking the open loops you are still working on. Once all the sub-tasks of a project have been completed, it can be removed from the project list.
Step 2d: Take Action on Small Tasks
This stage is to ask yourself: "Could I complete this task in one action taking less than two minutes?"
Small tasks like this could be:
- Sending a one-sentence email.
- Signing a letter.
- Printing and filing a short document.
If the answer to this question is "yes," then go ahead and complete the action. If not, move on to the next step.
Step 2e: Delegate Where Possible
Now ask yourself: "Do I need to do this, or could I delegate it to someone else?"
If you can delegate the task, do so. If it's something you need to do yourself, then continue to the next step.
Step 2f: Add It to Your Next Actions List or Your Calendar
Your task now gets added to one of two places:
- Your Next Actions List. A next actions list is essentially a to-do list of tasks.
- Your Calendar. If the task requires you to do something at a specific time or on a specific day, then schedule it on your calendar.
So far in this tutorial, you've come across a next actions list and a projects list. What are these lists, in practical terms? According to Allen, lists are:
some sort of renewable set of reminders, which could be lists on notebook paper or in some computer program or even file folders holding separate pieces of paper for each item.
Step 3: Organize Your Next Actions List
If you have under 30 items on your next actions list, you can jump straight ahead to Step 4.
If, however, (like most people) you have significantly more than 30 items on your next actions list, then it's a good idea to organize your list.
You can organize your list in two ways: by context and by priority. It's a good idea to organize your list by context first, then organize each context sub-list you create by priority.
To organize your list by context, ask yourself, "Where do I need to be to do this task?" Contexts can be physical locations, such as in your office, at home, or at the supermarket. They can also bee specific situations, such as "processing emails," "making phone calls," or "at the weekly team meeting."
For each potential context, you create a sub-list of next actions.
Organizing by context means that whatever you're doing, you can look at your next actions list and see what you need to do.
Allen provides limited guidance on how to prioritize tasks. He recommends asking the question:
Given [my] context, time, and energy available, what will give [me] the highest payoff?
His other advice is to consider the tasks you do in terms of your long-term life goals rather than constantly searching for fires to put out. This is similar to the approach of the Eisenhower Matrix, which helps you prioritize tasks according to their urgency and importance.
Alternatively, you could prioritize your to-do list using the Eat that Frog method, which advocates doing the task you least want to do first. The idea is that getting the worst tasks out of the way gives you a burst of productive energy.
Or you could try Mark Forster's Final Version, where you prioritize tasks by what you most feel list doing, and thus what you have the most energy for.
You can find out more about Eat that Frog and Final Version in Step 3 of this Business Tuts+ tutorial.
Step 4: Get Things Done!
Now that you've created your next actions list, and you've organized the list by context and priority, you're ready to get to work.
Remember, you'll also have tasks that come up on your calendar, so allow time for these, too.
If anything distracts you or disturbs your focus, write it down, and add it to your collection buckets. That way, you can process it later.
Step 5: Review Your Lists
The final stage of GTD is reviewing your lists. Three types of review are key:
- The New Context Review. Whenever you are in a new context, check your next actions list. This creates the habit of working on your top priorities whatever context you're in.
- The Daily Calendar Review. Every morning check your calendar and notice what scheduled tasks you need to complete in the day ahead.
- The Weekly Lists and Bucket Review. Allen says the weekly review is "critical" to the success of the GTD system.
During your weekly review, you should do the following:
- Empty your collection buckets. Ideally, you should do this as often as possible. Your weekly review ensures they get emptied at least once per week.
- Review your system. This involves looking at where GTD is working for you and where it could be improved. Are your collection buckets available when you need them? Could you reduce your number of collection buckets? Do you need to add more contexts to your system? How well organized are your reference files? If you need to tweak anything based on your review, do so.
- Clear and update your lists. Start a fresh next actions list, transferring the tasks that still need completing from your previous week's list and adding new items from your collection buckets. Additionally, review your project list, and remove any projects for which all tasks are completed.
That's Getting Things Done
That's the GTD system in a nutshell. Why not give it a try and see if parking and closing your open loops improves your focus?
Editorial Note: This content was originally published in 2014. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.
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