This 5 part series covers the 5 stages of Getting Things Done or GTD, a personal organization system developed by David Allen and released as a book in 2001. In our first part we discussed the philosophy of GTD and stage 1: Collecting. The second part covered stage 2: Processing. Now lets get into stage 3.
Organizing is where we take the Outcomes and Next Actions we created during Processing and give them a place to live. This constitutes the functional piece of the system that you will refer to as you Do your many tasks and complete your projects. While I will focus on the content of this system, the form it takes is up to you. Any virtual or physical system that can keep lists or reference material can be a part of the system. The important piece is that you trust your system and are able to access it quickly when actually getting your things done. I will describe my system in detail in a future post.
The Organization system has four components:
- Project lists and materials
- Lists of Next Actions (Contexts and Waiting for)
- Your calendar
- A reference file
You need two separate lists for your projects: Active Projects and Someday/Maybe. The outcomes that you are working toward in the next week go on your Active Projects list. Each item on your Active Projects list should have a corresponding Next Action on your context lists or a Waiting For item. The Someday/Maybe list acts as a master repository that holds all the things you have committed to but aren’t currently working on or that you may want to work on in the future. As in the processing step, I find it helpful to write my Project names in the form of “What will be true when this is complete”. So instead of writing “Mom’s Birthday” I would put “Mom has a present and card on her birthday.” This continues the focus on the outcome and helps you move to this result.
The second part of the project system is the project support files. These are planning and reference materials for all of your projects. They should hold all of the information you need to actually work on your projects and any future planning you have done. This can included both physical paper files and digital documents or notes relating to the project. I sometimes have both a folder on my computer and a real folder for each project. Out of these project plans you can extract your Next Actions as the project progresses.
The Next Action lists are separated into “contexts”. These contexts are based on the location or resources that you need to complete your actions. Standard examples include “At Computer” for actions you need a computer to complete, or “At Work” for things that can only be done at your workplace. These are often expressed as @Computer or @Work. This way you can filter your actions to only those that you can do given your current contexts. You don’t want to look at task like ‘scrub oven’ or ‘collect the old newspapers in the garage’ when you are at work. Thats why they have different contexts, so that the only tasks you are looking at are ones you can actually do right then. You can also have context lists for people, David calls them “Agendas”, where you can record the things you need to discuss with that person when you have an opportunity.
As you work, your Next Actions become a set of bookmarks or reminders of the state of your Projects. You don’t need to capture and check off each step as you are working on them. Only when you stop working on a given Project do you need to capture the Next Action. This gives you an easy way to restart that chain without needing to review the project each time. Just as in Processing, be as specific as possible when wording your Next Actions. What is the next physical act, that you are not doing right now, that will move toward the Project’s outcome? That is what you capture as a Next Action, and be sure to put it into the proper context. If the reason you can’t do that action right now is your lack of a computer, then put it into your @Computer context.
The Waiting For list represents a special context and stores reminders of things that others have committed to, so you can follow up with them. Any Active Project that for which the Next Action isn’t yours should have a place holder on your Waiting For list. This can be captured as the name of the person and the deliverable you are expecting from them. For example “John W: Report on 3rd quarter shipping figures for the NE region.” or “Tabitha A: List of broken dishes from last week’s party.” both make great Waiting For items. This format makes it easy to follow up with each person and remind them what it is you are expecting them to deliver or do.
Your calendar finds it’s place in GTD as, what David calls, the “Hard Landscape”. This reserves the calendar for only the items that need to happen on a certain time and day. This is what calendars are supposed to be for. Unfortunately, many people also use them as daily task lists or reminders for things that need to be done, but not on a specific day or time. So your meeting on Tuesday, at 4 P.M. would be on the calendar, but running to the car wash wouldn’t unless you have an appointment. For many this detaches the calendar as the center of your personal organization. Removing these semi-scheduled items from your calendar elevates the remaining appointments to a sacred decree. These are things that have to be done at the prescribed time. Therefore everything not on your calendar can be done at anytime you are in the appropriate context.
Finally you need a reference file for all of the non-actionable Stuff you have collected. This reference file is often a set of Drawers with a single, Alphabetic filing system. It is important to optimize this system for ease of filing not ease of retrieving. The harder it is to file something or the more you have to think about it then the less likely you are to actually file things immediately. You then end up with a pile labeled “To be Filed” and it becomes another project. You will have to become comfortable putting a single piece of paper into a folder and giving it a label. If it’s not something that relates to what you are actively working on then it should be filed. As long as you are consistent in your filing methods, you should be able to retrieve things quickly.
Contexts lists and your Active Projects list really form the working core of your GTD system. They are the parts you will return to many times a day to recenter and refocus your self. After each new distraction or burst of activity you can review the context lists that are currently applicable and pick a Next Action to work on. Or you can review your Active Projects and see if any new Next Actions need to be captured. This review is continuous, as is processing new items captured into your inboxes. But we still need another, regularly scheduled, review to bring everything up to date and make sure that nothing is being missed. In our next part we will cover step 4, the Review. If you would like to dive in you can pick up a copy of Getting Things Done on Amazon.