Friday, October 9, 2009

A Story About Getting Things Done: Part 3

by Dan Frank

In parts one and two I talked about the state of affairs leading up to my introduction to the book “Getting Things Done” by David Allen and the circumstances surrounding my finally diving in and reading it. In this post I will talk about my experience with implementing the processes.

Over the next few days I finished the book. I began to implement a lot of the process and refine those that were already in place and by that Friday I was ready for a full weekend of implementation. The first thing that you do once you have your systems in place is to collect all of the open loops, or “stuff”, in your life. Anything that isn’t where it belongs goes into your inbox (or in pile in my case) and anything that is in your head gets written on a piece of paper and put in the inbox as well. If you take this seriously, which I did, you go through every inch of your world and every corner of your head. Every drawer and shelf, the garage, the closest, the corners of your mind and the depths of your soul; all of it get cleared out. If something is too big to move it is represented by a piece of paper.

Once you have collected all of the “stuff” you begin processing your inbox. Processing consists of picking up each item and not putting it down until you have made a decision about it. Is it actionable? If not it gets tossed, filed for reference or put on the someday/maybe list for future action. If it is actionable and takes less than two minutes you do it right then (this gets a lot of stuff out of the way before it ever makes it into the system). If it will take more than two minutes can it be delegated, and if so you delegate it right then and put it on your waiting for list. If it cannot be delegated and will take more than two minutes it goes into the system. Many of the things in the inbox are more than just an action; a lot of them are projects. GTD defines a project as anything that takes more than a single action to complete. All projects go on a list of their own and every project has to have a next actionable item in the system.

My inbox during collection.
On Saturday after finishing the book I had big plans for Jess and I both to have a weekend of GTD. We got up early and started collecting everything in our worlds. A lot of stuff went into Jess’ inbox and a lot went into mine. We spent most of the next 8 hours or so collecting open loops and misplaced stuff. We then spent much of that night and a lot of Sunday processing those inboxes. After a long weekend of collecting and processing Jess and I both had just about everything in our world collected and processed into the system and ready for action. In just five short days I had been completely sold on the GTD system and had fully implemented it in my life.

As promised I felt a huge weight lifted. I was able to clearly think about things that needed to be done because I didn’t have to think about what needed to be done. Everything was out of my head and into a simple system that I felt like I could trust. And none too soon either. Over the next week the system was put to the test and enabled me to do what I probably could not have otherwise done.

As I mentioned before, up to this point I was more or less succeeding out of sheer will power and long hours. This process has really made me wonder about peoples different time management systems and how they manage their lives. Before this system I had never really seen a huge need for any sort of formal system to manage my tasks and time. I would pretty much just do what had to get done when it had to get done and throw some heroics in when necessary and that was it. It never even occurred to me that I would need a formal system to manage my time and efforts more efficiently and frankly I am amazed that I made it as long as I did without it.

As I write this I go back and forth wondering first how many people will be saying “I can’t believe he didn’t have a time management system in place, what an amateur” and then wondering how many people will be saying “what does he need a formal system for, can’t he just do his job”. To my discredit I would have been one of the latter had I read this post by someone else six months ago. I would have wondered why someone would need to have a formal system in place to manage their lives. Isn’t that what the brain is for? As it turns out, no; at least not mine.

Jess' inbox after collection.
Ok, so enough rabbit trails. I will try and wrap up the story. We are now at the Monday after implementing the system about two weeks ago. I had just the week before had a conversation with my boss about how I wasn’t sure how I would get everything done in the time I had. I felt like I didn’t have any time during the day between the endless meetings and the on the fly aspects of my job to do the list of fixed tasks that were piling up. So I had my first daily review that Monday morning. I looked at my calendar, looked at my list, identified the priorities, planned my day and started executing tasks. When I went to a meeting and it started 10 minutes late I grabbed the first task on my list for the “At Work Computer” context that would take 10 minute and did that task. If a meeting got canceled I took advantage of that time and grabbed the first task on my list that needed an hour to complete. The first thing I noticed was how much you can get done in 10 minutes or an hour when you don’t have anything else on your mind accept what you are doing, when you’re only thought is getting that task done and you don’t have to worry about or use brain cycles thinking about the other things that have to get done or trying to keep it all straight. That is what the system is for. When I had time I would grab a task. When something came up I wrote it down and when I had a few seconds I would process those new items into the system. I trusted that nothing was getting lost and everything was being presented to me for action when it needed to be done.

By Tuesday that week I was actually ahead of where I had hoped to be. I was able to plan little chunks of time here and there to do things that had to be done within a certain time frame and additional weird chunks of time that came up during the day were used to pull items off the list that didn’t have a specific time constraints but needed to be done as soon as possible. By Wednesday I was actually back to project level planning and was able to get out ahead of some of the situations that were really starting to step on my heels. By Friday I was ready for the weekend and had completed, or felt good about not completing, all of the items that were critical for that week and a lot that were just hanging around causing me stress. I had a plan for moving forward on every one of my 30 or so projects (remember that a project is anything that will take more than on actionable item to complete) and I realized that there actually was enough time in the day to do my job after all.

Now the really interesting thing to me and the ultimate point of this really long story is that this process didn’t lead to my having a bunch of extra time. What it did was allow me to realize that with His help I would be able to do everything that God had put on my plate and not an ounce more or less. As I look at my system now it would be easy to get overwhelmed, especially if all of this stuff was still in my head. Even with all of the efficiency gains (and they have been considerable) I average about 10 hours a day at work and every second has to be used effectively to stay afloat. The point is not that I have less to do, the point is that I can actually do all that I have to do and that I don’t have to worry about what has to be done, I just have to do it.

I truly believe that the very week in question was the potential tipping point in my new role at work and in some ways the direction of my life. Had God not been so faithful as to use the preceding weeks and months to slowly prepare me for, and then with perfect timing lead me to, a life changing book I would have sunk during that week. Many of the most important and high visibility tasks to this point in my career would have slipped. At least one major potential disaster would not have been avoided and a lot of the trust and credibility I have built over the last three years would have been greatly diminished.

And ultimately even that really isn’t the point of the system. The potential that really excites me now is that I will have more time to spend with my family without worrying about what I should be doing or the stresses of my job. The other extremely exciting thing to me is that as I turn more and more over to God and trust more and more in Him a force multiplier will be applied to all of this. He is the one that is leading me through this journey and He is the one that makes it all possible. As thankful as I am to David Allen for putting this system together it is just God’s wisdom and there is more of that available to us than we can even dream if we only ask Him.

I still have a lot to learn and I will continue to refine the system over time. I fully expect to see the same efficiency gains and stress reductions over the next six months that I have seen within the past three weeks. The system does not rely on technology but technology can really simplify things if used correctly and will definitely help with the concept of putting the information you need in front of you when you need it. I had a lot of the pieces of that puzzle in place but have just over the last few days gotten it tuned to the point that I have my entire life (work, office, mobile) synced up and accessible wherever I am.

One of the keys to the system is the review process. Daily reviews for making sure those things that need to get done area accounted for and planning for how to get them done. Weekly reviews to make sure that you are tracking all of your projects and that they each have a next actionable item assigned so that they are moving forward and in the right direction. Then bi-weekly or monthly reviews to help keep sight of your higher level goals and make sure that all of your projects are leading you towards those. I am still in the process of figuring out the best time to do each of those and trying to make sure the time is allocated for them. It is definitely an important piece of the puzzle. When I make the time to do the reviews, especially the weekly review, I can tell a big difference in my efficiency and stress level.

I fully intend to continue implementing the system and refining the process. I will report back in a couple of months on where I am and whether it has been as life changing as I suspect. In the mean time I would recommend that anyone who is struggling with keeping all of the “Stuff” in your life straight check out the book. That and read your bible!

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