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David Allen’s productivity book, Getting Things Done, has made me a better person.

Getting Things Done

After using its methods for years, I’m even more convinced it can help anybody in IT. Today, I’m going to explain how I worked before GTD, and how I work with it now.

How I Handled Tasks Before GTD

Years ago, I tracked my to-do list in a text file. I broke the file up into two sections, Work and Home. My Work section looked something like this:

ASAP:
 - Make nightly sales import job faster
 - Help Sharepoint team install new SQL cluster

ASAP Done:
 + Fix the backups on SQLPROD1

Other:
 - Call Microsoft to schedule data warehouse health check
 - Test email notification setups on all servers
 - Find out why SQL users can't log in when any DC reboots
 - Move remaining applications off SQL 2000

Other Done:
 + Install maintenance scripts on new 3rd party vendor server
 + Retrofit IBM x346s with remote administration card
 + Inventory RSA IP addresses

Everything I did was tactical – it was all about putting out fires. I arranged tasks in order of priority, with the first tasks being the most urgent. When someone walked into my cube with a new task, I would open my text file and say, “Where does this new task fit in with my priorities?” We would agree upon a position, and I’d add their task to my list.

I used this same approach with all incoming tasks – whether email, phone calls, or in person. Sometimes I’d send my actual text file, and sometimes I’d just walk them through it verbally over the phone. Upon seeing my task list, more often than not their eyes would bug out and they’d shake their heads. “Sorry – I need it fast, but it looks like you’re pretty busy. I’ll go bother someone else,” they’d say. That worked really well for me!

As I completed tasks, I changed the minus sign to a plus and moved it to the top of the “Done” section. Every now and then, when my manager asked what I’d been up to lately, I could whip out my trusty text file and copy/paste the appropriate sections into an email.

While that helped keep unimportant new tasks out of my way, it didn’t stop me from spending my time firefighting. My tasks were determined by what other people wanted from me. There’s nothing wrong with pleasing your customers, but – well, actually, there is something wrong with it. It’s the cliched movie character who focuses on making everybody else happy, yet never stops to take care of themselves.

GTD and the Big Picture

Unlike productivity methods like Franklin Covey that revolve around your ability to shell out big bucks for paper day planners, GTD is system-agnostic. If you’d like to track your GTD tasks with a text file, and if it works for you, that’s totally fine. There’s a bunch of ways you can accomplish GTD.

GTD wants you to get from Point A to Point B. It doesn’t dwell on whether you drive a Maserati, take a bus, or hoof it. Instead, it just focuses you on Point B.

GTD separates the means from the end, because you’ve probably lost focus on the end already.  GTD asks you to build a set of 50,000 foot goals for yourself – things that you ultimately want to accomplish before you die. Preferably, long then. The best way to illustrate it is to share my own 50k goals, which aren’t in any particular order because they’re all equally important:

  • Be very financially secure.
  • Be a fantastic partner for Erika.
  • Enjoy life while I can.
  • Be strong and healthy.
  • Be a good son and brother.
  • Be a good Catholic.

The more ambitious GTD practitioners create a set of 40,000 foot goals that map up to the 50k ones, and then a set of 30k foot goals. For example, under my “Be very financially secure” goal, my 40k foot goals are:

  • Increase my income. These are tasks that, when performed, result in money in my bank account shortly thereafter. 30k goals under here might include taking on side consulting work, but during the day, being a good employee matters here. I have to make my managers and internal customers happy if I want to get a raise. If I was really anal, I could map out a set of 20k goals like keeping my manager updated, staying abreast of the company’s overall goals, and so forth, but I’m not quite that serious about GTD (yet).
  • Increase my marketability. These are tasks that might not pay off tomorrow, but they have a high likelihood of putting me in a good position down the road. Blogging falls into this category, as does helping other people.
  • Reduce my expenses. Budgeting, rereading Dave Ramsey’s books, avoiding gadget purchases, and improving my credit rating all come into play here.
  • Improve my financial position. Tasks here might include increasing my savings, being properly insured, and meeting with a financial advisor.

That’s just the financial one. It might seem common-sense, but here’s where it gets interesting.

When I get a new idea or an assigned task, I line it up to one (or more) of these goals. If something doesn’t line up with these goals, it doesn’t get into my task list. If something conflicts with these goals, it doesn’t get into my task list. The rejected tasks are either delegated to someone else or politely refused.

That’s the theory, anyway.

Periodically Revisiting Goals and Tasks

In practice, I get distracted by bright shiny things. Some sexy new technology comes out, or I think somebody’s got a brilliant idea, or I don’t want to let somebody down, and next thing you know it I’ve got a couple of bad tasks in my list. I don’t realize it right away because I’m so enchanted with the idea itself, and I’m perfectly content to let it sit in the list.

I confuse “I can” with “I should.”

David Allen instructs GTD practitioners to periodically revisit their 50k goals and their task list to make sure everything lines up. I do this once per quarter on a long plane flight, and sure enough, I come up with things that have weaseled into my task list despite my best intentions. For example, this quarter I built a Twitter bot account to randomly spout off random jokes every couple of hours just because it was an interesting technical exercise. I don’t pull my hair out and wail about the time I put into it, but it’s just an example of how I got sidetracked by something fun. All work and no play does make Brent a dull guy, but it’s not like I don’t have enough fun stuff planned in the pipeline.

I use a hybrid of systems to manage my GTD goals and tasks. I track my 50k and 40k goals in a text file, and I keep my day-to-day tactical to-dos in RememberTheMilk.com. RememberTheMilk’s Pro level ($25/year) has a slick iPhone app that syncs over the air, and it works when disconnected too, like on planes. I can review my tasks on the plane, make changes to them, and RTM automatically syncs them when I’m back on the ground.

To do my quarterly review, I pull up my 50k/40k text file and save it with a new name for the new quarter, like GTD2009Q4.txt. I review these big-picture goals and make very small tweaks where necessary. After a few quarters, I’m surprised that these still adapt and evolve over time as I learn more about myself and what I want from life. After updating my goals, I leave those up on the screen and get out the iPhone. I scan through my tasks in RememberTheMilk and make sure they each line up to one of my 50k/40k goals, and that they’re in the right priority order.

I only prioritize things that I think I’m going to accomplish in the next couple of weeks. Generally I find that I get enough incoming fires to keep me pretty busy, and I don’t need to prioritize more than a dozen or so tasks at a time. The rest just stay in a murky pool at the bottom – I’ll get to ‘em when I’ll get to ‘em.

The Result: Peaceful Focus and Productivity

When I step off the plane, I know where I’m going – and I don’t mean baggage claim. I know what I need to do, and I’m perfectly comfortable with the volume of tasks. I know I can only accomplish a limited amount of things in the time I have each day, and I believe I’ve made the best choices possible given my long-term priorities.

GTD helps me to do a better job of saying no. I’m acutely aware of the opportunity cost of taking on new tasks, and I know what’s most important to me. For example, I can’t take on more work if it means spending less time with the ones I love, or if it causes me to sacrifice my health. Because I’m freshly aware of my big-picture goals, it’s that much easier for me to explain to myself why I wouldn’t take on a particular task.

GTD helps me to do a better job of saying yes, too. When something is truly important and lines up with my priorities, I’m more able to push things around in order to accomplish it. When someone comes up with an emergency task, I can do a much better job of being the guy to fix it, because I know exactly what I have to push aside in order to do it. For example, I can more easily say, “I’ll help you fix this, but I need you to get Sam to handle these three tasks for me right now.” When managers see someone so on top of their priority lists and make great tradeoff decisions, they’re more likely to give you the backup you need. If you just say, “But boss, I don’t want to work late again!” they’re more likely to tell you to suck it up.

I don’t think I’m a better employee due to Getting Things Done, but overall, I’m a much better person.

I’m certainly not done with my 50k tasks – I have one hell of a lot of work to do. However, every time I do a quarterly review, I’m pleasantly happy with any progress I’ve made. After all, before GTD, I didn’t even SEE those 50k goals!

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  1. Great post Brent. This will be very useful for me as I have many goals that I want to accomplish in the next couple of years. Daily fires and tasks always seem to get in the way but you have given me hope that their is a system out there that I can effectively follow to reach these goals.

    Thanks.

    ManuelRdgz

  2. Good stuff as always Brent! I really need to dust off the copy of GTD that I have in the drawer of my nightstand and read it.

  3. Great post. Personally I use Chandler to organise all my tasks in to a triage status. I used to outline my 50k goals, but over time I have lost track of how my day to day activity relates to them. I know I need to revisit this and get a plan in place like your quarterly one. Thanks.

  4. Why oh why would thou use a text file ? :)

    • Ha! Fair question. Because it’s easily portable, doesn’t require any specialized editors, is accessible over the network, easy to print, easy to edit, doesn’t require any overhead when open, doesn’t violate any software use rules at different companies, easy to copy/paste into an email, etc., etc.

    • Although I should clarify something – my quick bang-off of reasons makes it sound like it was a slam dunk and had no compromises. Using a text file was the best of the worst options available, hahaha. It definitely sucked to use! I’m super-thankful for http://www.RememberTheMilk.com now.

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  6. Great post! Two things:

    1. I used to use RTM but found ToodleDo’s web interface to be better. Since I’m inside the firewall as an MSFT employee, I ended up just going back to Outlook Tasks at the end of the day. But RTM’s web interface bugged me.

    2. I bet this *does* make you a better employee. Anything that clarifies your life objectives AND makes it easier to check things off a list can only be goodness. Saying no is a good thing! :)

    BTW, I just started a series on vision/goals on http://www.refocuser.com you may be interested in.

  7. I wanted to say – Great post – but now I see that’s what every comment begins with:) So it’s really great) What I liked the most – it’s not about instruments, software and all the stuff that is not as important as it seems.
    “GTD wants you to get from Point A to Point B. It doesn’t dwell on whether you drive a Maserati, take a bus, or hoof it” – is my favourite quote now!

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  9. Nice post. I have created and achieved lots of goals that seemed really big, but were short term over the past 12 years. I will pick up a copy of this book.

  10. I’ve never had a list of 50,000 foot goals as I couldn’t see the point of them. This post has helped ne to see their value.

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  12. Pingback: Productivity, Motivation, and Personal Development Links – 9th May 2010 - DIGTD - Making You More Productive

  13. this really helped me, thanks. especially only prioritizing the day to day stuff.

    i’ve struggled with combining gtd with projects for some time, as it seems to suggest prioritising is a bad thing!? but project planning is all about prioritising tasks. i wonder how you go about managing projects? do you use Gantt charts etc, as i do?

    • Bobby – I don’t manage projects anymore for clients, just my own internal stuff, and I use a simple text file with indented bullets. None of my project plans span multiple people these days.

  14. Thanks for the post. I have 50k foot goals but I found your examples very well written. You energized me to go back and re-think my 5 year old 50k foot goals and rewrite them to make them more articulate.

    Thanks for the motivation.

  15. Hey, great post!
    I have a question:
    what if my 50,000 feet purpose/principle is: “Be an Anarchist?” Will GTD apply to make it happen?
    I mean I really tried to be as you are, and I really tried through applying your same principles. Never worked and always being put back at square 1.
    No increase in earnings, but loss. I was a good partner, lost it. I always been a good family member helping out everybody. Got my personal will lost into a limbo.
    I guess after flying high at the very top of the “philosophizing” cloud, I’ve met the real question: “why are we here?”.
    The bible hasn’t gave me the answers, thought I tried with therapy. It worked through to give me some of the answer, though it was costing me a bunch of money.
    I finally understood that I ought sovereign this system and revert it to the old ancient one, under the Roman Empire or at the Greek’s state-cities time.
    I guess I’ll be just addressed as a terrorist by your kind.

    • Anon – hmm, I don’t have personal experience with leveraging GTD to be a better anarchist. Sorry that I can’t be more help there. Enjoy the journey!

  16. Great post!
    At times I’ve found the hurdle to be knowing if you are really making progress. For example – if your 50k goal of being financially secure means clearing $100k vs clearing $1M/year – that has different implications on your 40k and 30k goals. Do you do anything to keep measurable track?

    • Yep, once a quarter I go through my goals, figure out where I’m making progress, and adjust other goals. That regular review is part of the GTD process.

  17. Sure – I got that from your original post. But what GTD lacks is the ‘how’. If you are currently making $20k/yr and your goal is to be ‘financially secure’ — ‘how’ do you know if you are actually getting there in the long run? for example a) I am assuming you actually make concrete metrics beside what ‘financially secure’ means such as $1M free cashflow/yr, no more than 5% debt, Assets totaling $5M etc. but then b) you need to know if you are actually making enough progress each quarter or year to actually make it. if you increase your income from $20k to $40k in a year, are you making sufficient progress? GTD is too abstract in this. I have some tools that I use, but curious as to what others use.

  18. Well this was not helpful at all… It’s like saying I use Excel to manage stock portfolios as opposed to saying I monitor the P/E ratio, the EPS, PEG. Who cares if you use Excel, notepad, or even just keep it in your head. it’s the metrics that I was curious about – not excel nor the pie in the sky vision statements. thanks though.

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