David Allen’s productivity book, Getting Things Done, has made me a better person.
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:
- Make nightly sales import job faster
- Help Sharepoint team install new SQL cluster
+ Fix the backups on SQLPROD1
- 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
+ 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!