How I use GTD

I started using Things in February when my coworker Jay Patel recommended it. I found it useful immediately, but my friend Alan Levin told me I had to read Getting Things Done to really understand how to use Things. He was right.

GTD is all about organizing actions so you notice them when they are possible. The book is full of great structures and tips for doing this, but I've taken advantage of the flexibility as much as the suggested structures.

My contexts

I use three sets of contexts to help me remember things where they are relevant.

  • Frequent contexts: "home", "office", "errands". I use these not only to remember things at the right time, but also to plan rounds of errands and decide whether to go into the office on Fridays.
  • Rare contexts: "Mozilla all-hands", "in Los Angeles".
  • Anti-contexts: "read", "listen". These items are best saved for when I am disconnected, e.g. on an airplane or in a hotel room.

These contexts account for most of my tags in Things. I also make heavy use of the "scheduled items" feature to get stuff out of my way until it becomes relevant.

Multi-part projects

"Do taxes" crossed multiple contexts, so I had to break it down into individual actions. For example, faxing the forms was tagged as "office", because that's where I have easy access to a fax machine.

One tricky thing to categorize was waiting for my tax forms to arrive in the mail. GTD recommends having a special "Waiting For" list and checking it weekly, but I find it more relaxing to decide up front how long I'm willing to wait. Then I schedule a conditional item: "If I haven't received the tax forms by today, ask for a faxed copy".

Energy and concentration

The hardest actions for me to organize are the ones I can do anywhere I have my laptop and Internet access. Unfortunately, they're also the most numerous.

I tag these with the length of concentration required to make progress. This can be hard to estimate, but it's more relevant than knowing how long something will take in total. Processing my inbox took very little concentration, so despite being a large undertaking, it was a good thing to tackle while waiting for a phone call or just before lunch. In contrast, designing and implementing a new software tool takes concentration; if I start just before a meeting, I'll have wasted most of that time.

Weekly review

To keep myself from worrying that I'll forget about something that turns out to be important, I try to take some time on Friday afternoon to reorient myself. My weekly review checklist is mostly the same as the one in the book, customized for my inputs. The only unusual item on my checklist reflects my coding ability and flexible work environment:

Am I doing anything inefficiently? Can I automate it, improve my workflow, or delegate it?

Benefits

  • Using GTD has unleashed more creative energy than I thought I had in me. You can see some of this in my last few months of blog posts. I believe this is a common experience for people who start using GTD, but I don't understand why.
  • My anxiety seems to have decreased quite a bit, to the point where I might be able to get away with 5mg less Lexapro.
  • It's possible for me to keep my inbox empty, which makes checking for new email less of a distraction.
  • Processing all my stuff led me to discover five separate lists of movies I want to see. Now that I have a single list, it might finally make sense to sign up for Netflix.
  • Instead of being bored while I'm on a train or airplane, I'm reasonably productive.
  • If I get sick, I can stay home and still find meaningful work to do.
  • The GTD workflow is simpler than the procrastinator's workflow.

Drawbacks

  • It feels impersonal to manage every part of my life in the same system.
  • I haven't figured out how to make priorities mesh with GTD. I can tag items as "saves me time" or "only useful if done soon", but I don't tend to look at those tags. Some people invent fake deadlines, but that seems dangerous.
  • I'm still not good at setting aside time for projects that require significant amounts of concentration. Perhaps I need to create a habit of setting aside one day a week for that kind of thing, and make sure I have all the little things out of the way before that day.
  • I now cringe every time I hear someone say "it's on my mental list".
  • I have gained a new enemy: tools that impose bad workflows.

3 Responses to “How I use GTD”

  1. Ben Brooks Says:

    I too am a things user and have found it to be an excellent program. Sometimes it is hard to sort out priorities. I tend to put actions into the Today view that are most important, then I sort them with the utmost important at the top of the list.

    I do admit that I also pose fake deadlines, but rather than thinking of them as fake deadlines, I think of them as commitments to myself.

  2. Productivity, Motivation, and Personal Development Links - 26th April 2009 - DIGTD - Making You More Productive Says:

    [...] fourth link is a link from Jesse Ruderman on how he uses GTD. Jesse is pretty new to GTD and started out after using Things on his Mac to Get Things Done. This [...]

  3. Abi Says:

    Some great points in this post! I’ve been using Things for more than a year but haven’t finished reading GTD yet. I probably should soon. :|

    One of my problems with Things is that it lacks a lists feature or something similar to collect information other than TODOs. I believe this is what David Allen calls the reference file. However, I’ve tried other todo/gtd apps but Things is way better. Just wondering what you use to collect such information/ideas?