Monday, May 16, 2011

Thinking Tactics to Get Things Done

I just finished an overhaul of my Getting Things Done system. After attending Jean Moroney's Thinking Tactics Workshop last weekend, I had some fresh ideas. I've been letting my system get more and more out of control over the past six months or so, and I was tempted to give it up entirely, but instead I decided to focus on David Allen's principles and to be more open-minded about how I apply them. Here is what I'm doing now:

  1. The Weekly Review does not work for me. I can't commit to spending a half hour to an hour once a week. But I can commit to spending a little bit of time every day, or at least on most days. So I'm doing a Daily Review, which is a combination of reviewing any leftovers from the previous day and planning for the current day, including reviewing any "waiting" items. In order to do this, I had to reduce the number of lists I keep because this needs to take about 5-10 minutes.

  2. I got rid of separate lists for "errands" "short next actions" and "long next actions" and put them all in one list of next actions. I use tags and time estimates (built into my Remember the Milk software) to sort when necessary, but the big change is that I'm going back to dating my tasks. I simply must have a prioritized list of tasks. I'm not really sure how anybody makes Allen's system work without any kind of prioritization. And if I want a list of errands or a list of tasks that take less than 5 minutes, I can sort it that way using the software.

  3. Putting dates back on my tasks allowed me to get rid of the 11 tickler lists I had been keeping to put future tasks in future months. Now I enter everything on my one list. Yes, I have to "postpone" tasks all the time, but that works for me. It's certainly less work than managing and reviewing 11 other lists! Yes, my list is much longer than it used to be, but I don't ever have to look at the whole thing - just the next few days. And it takes longer to enter tasks, but if I'm rushed, I just enter them with no date and put the extra information in the next day during my Daily Review.

  4. Putting dates back on my tasks also will allow me to stop what I had been doing to jury-rig the system - I had been putting things that really have to get done in the next day or two on my calendar, because otherwise they were lost amongst the dozens of other things on the lists. (And then I stopped looking at all of my Next Actions since I knew I had everything on my calendar done so I was okay!) I agree with David Allen that this is not a good way to use a calendar, which should be for appointments or anything that is set to occur at a specific date or time. But, using his system as suggested, I had no way to distinguish urgent (but not date-specific) tasks from tasks that could slide for weeks with no ill-effects. Am I the only one who has tasks like this? I doubt it.

  5. I eliminated my "projects" list. I think there is a huge error in Allen's system regarding projects. I agree with his principle about tasks being concrete actions, not projects. I agree that each task must be a simple, doable action item, with the thinking already accomplished. But there is a difference between a project and a multi-step goal. I have a few huge projects that require their own files and which generate action items. But I have many, many more things that are really just three- or four-step goals, and keeping them on a master project list is a total waste of time. And I can't do a Weekly Review so I completely lose all those projects. What I'm doing now is creating a task for the next clearly defined action item, and then putting the following actions into a note associated with the task. The only thing is that I have to be careful not to hit "complete" on that task, but instead to change it to the next action, or I'll lose the rest of the project. Don't laugh; I've done this before. But I decided it would be easier to train myself than to try to use Allen's system.

Jean Moroney's course is not about productivity, but about thinking skills. But her course is an excellent complement to Getting Things Done. I made these changes after doing about five minutes of clear thinking, using the skills I learned in her course, after having been bogged down for six months! If you're intrigued, she is giving a class the day after OCON in Ft. Lauderdale. Check it out at her web site!


  1. For comparison, here are my lists (all on one doc file, and read on my computer screen):
    1. Projects (Naggers): name of every project plus one or more action items for each that occur to me when I set up the project. Every "I should" or "I need to" goes here, if it take more than one immediate action to complete it.
    2. Do Now.
    3. Do by Calendar.
    4. Do Weekly (e.g., every Tuesday, 5 pm, attend Amy Peikoff's Koran Reading Group).
    5. Do Monthly (e.g., check credit card balance on the 20th).
    6. Do Daily (e.g., take the blue pill at lunch).
    7. Wait for.
    8. Do/read someday.

    The first is the master list, but not the one I spend the most time on. The second is things I want to do as soon as I can. Lists 3-5 include actions tied to particular days of the month, week, or year. List 6 is the one I spend most of my time looking at -- throughout the day, all the routine things I do to maintain my life. List 7 is where I park things I don't want to forget -- but don't want to worry about either; I check it only every few days . List 8 is a warehouse for things I barely look at.

    I store Manilla folders in two transparent plastic boxes (upcoming project folders and archived folders) designed to accept folders.

    Most helpful to me is my inbox and it really is a box, not a tray. If I have shoes to repair, I put the shoes in this box, along with books to read next and Manilla folders for current projects and unopened mail.

    I don't use any software or special products.

  2. Thanks for this! I'm reading GTD now and have just begun using Wunderlist, a fabulous cloud-based task management application for desktop and my mobile devices, and I think it's going to help me out a ton. I want to write a blog post myself about my system once I have it up and running.

  3. Amy, you are not alone. I often have tasks/projects that I'd like to resurface occasionally but aren't life or death. So in the software I use for tracking my lists (OmniFocus) I use the due-date field as a, "think about this thing again in 4 days."

    So I do have some mixture of items in there, things that are actually due on a day (pay some bill) and things that might not get done that day, but it gets cleaned up that morning when I plan my day.

    The biggest problem I've had with GTD, which I've used since 2003, is his method of breaking things up by context doesn't work for me. I always end up with a list that is 75 actions long that says @Computer and I can't look at a list longer than 5 - 10 and be able to choose with confidence the top thing to do. I've tried having sub-categories or more detailed contexts but that was more administrative work than was worth it. That is why I tend to use the day reminders for that and project list.

    First thing in the morning I can look at my calendar, due-today in OmniFocus and my project list and do a quick thinking on paper to plan my day (Yay Thinking Tactics!)

    One other thing I've been toying with lately is a more physical system. I've been using a bulletin board and index cards for my work projects and it rocks. I plan to write about it soon.

  4. Hello Amy! I've been using OmniFocus & GTD for a number of years now and have found it much to my liking. From the changes you're describing, I wonder if your prior system never really broke out of your old habits, and was therefore more of a drag than a help (being an uncomfortable mixture of two very different approaches). I've written a pretty extensive review of how I use OmniFocus and GTD on my website: . You may still find your own approach to be better suited for your needs, but there might be something there which is helpful.

  5. This is just a plug for Jean's class. Travis and I took it several years ago in Chicago and I thought it was great. I don't consciously use the skills I learned every day but when I find myself stuck on some problem of thinking I have found Jean's tactics to be invaluable.