Getting Things Done

I have over 50 books queued up on my iPad, but I was too lazy to decide what to read next, so I downloaded a list of recommendations from my public library e-media account. First up was David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

I don’t usually write book reviews, but there are a few useful lessons from this book that are worth remembering.

1. There is no reason ever to have the same thought twice.

Thinking is hard work. Thinking about looming tasks is especially hard work. For example, my dirtbike needs an oil change. It’s needed an oil change for over a year now. Every time I look at it, I think to myself, shit, my bike needs an oil change. Then I picture myself changing the oil, and I’m exhausted before I even lift a finger.

The brain has a tendency to come back to unresolved thoughts. Resolve these thoughts by Doing them, Delegating them, or Deferring them. Then never think about them again until execution time.

2. Create a plan of action using baby steps.

Okay, I’m not going to Do my oil change right now, because I don’t feel like it. I have no one to whom I can Delegate this task, so I will Defer it by putting it on my To-Do list. But I can’t just put “Dirtbike needs an oil change” on my To-Do list, because that looks big and daunting. Instead, I put the following actions on my To-Do list:

  • Go to dumpster and retrieve a container to use as an oil drain pan.
  • Take oil and funnel out of grey box.
  • Put bike on stand.
  • Drain oil.

There, now the task is far easier to digest. And I now see that the real reason I’ve been putting it off so long is because the first step is particularly unpleasant. But once I get that out of the way, everything else is easy.

These action agendas need to be done for everything. I had to create step-by-step action lists for everything from “Do my taxes” to “Write android app”. I also created a list of all the books I have saved on my iPad, in the order that I would like to read them. Now I’ll never wonder what I should read next.

3. Keep a tickler file.

I have a lot of Deferred tasks that need to be completed at some future time. These get scheduled in a “tickler” file – 31 folders for each day of the next month, plus another 12 folders for each month of the next year. I put the first step of my oil change into the March 16 folder. If March 16 rolls around and I don’t get around to doing that step, then I will refile it in a later folder.

The tickler file is also useful for action items that have external dependencies. For example, I borrowed a trailer, but haven’t returned it yet because the owner hasn’t called me back regarding when to drop it off. So I chose a folder for a week from now, and added “Return trailer or call again.”

Last night, I had a fleeting thought: I want to go to Alaska. The monthly folders are useful for vague future plans. I put “Plan a trip to Alaska” in my June 2013 folder. There, now that thought will never creep into my mind ever again.

Creating the filing system and action lists requires a sizeable initial investment. The goal is to remove clutter from the mind and organize it on paper. Then we never have to waste brainpower thinking about what to do next. When we are unsure about what to do next, we end up loading Facebook or playing Angry Birds.


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