Jan 09

Getting Things Done

Getting Things DoneOne of the perennial challenges for anyone with problems with depression or mood swings, and perhaps for anyone in our increasingly busy and frantic world, is how to not get overwhelmed by work and personal tasks.

It is a challenge and we have historically relied on two sources of wisdom when we counsel people who are struggling with this:

1.  David Allen’s Getting Things Done book.  This is the source of much of the accepted wisdom on the topic.

2.  The series of books by Steven Covey, including Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

I recently went back and reread David Allen’s Getting Things Done book because I was working with a young woman who has just graduated from college and was trying to find a job, and at the same time adapt to the new world of business.

It was useful from two perspectives. I discovered:

1.  There’s so much wisdom in the book and it’s the kind of wisdom that derives from a meticulous attention to detail.  In other words, David’s genius is the ability to apply a set of organizing principles to the task very thoughtfully and to give the reader a number of important tips.

2.  The book is quite out of date, at least for those of us who are now managing information in a digital age.

I was surprised by the second discovery, because I know that David has revised his book over the years.  However, the fact of the matter is, it is a book that is profoundly rooted in a pen and paper mode and for many of us, the documents we need to review, the assignment that come our way, all of these live in the “cloud” and not on pieces of paper, and moving them from the cloud to paper makes no sense to me.

As a result, I have been thinking that it would be useful to try to extract the key observations from David’s book and from Steven Covey’s books and operationalize them in the new digital world.

A few key concepts:

Avoid handling tasks, or what David Allen calls “stuff” more than once.  

The key here is to categorize all of the e-mails and other ways you acquire tasks (documents sent to you for review, mail, projects assigned by your boss, projects that you know need to be done yourself, etc.) and give them an next action and the date for that action the 1st time you read them. Decide if the next step associated with the document is something that can be done in less than two minutes, in which case, do it right away, if not assign it to one of the following categories:

1. Something to consider in the future. A good idea but not one that is either urgent or important right now.

2. Something to be done in the future. Set a time for you to work on the project, and think briefly about how much time the overall task will take, most importantly, what the next step is going to be.

3. Delegate it or assign it to someone else to do who is in a better position to take care of the problem.

4. Archive it, or get rid of it. This would be if the email or document is just for information or if the next step that would be associated with it is not a good idea to pursue. The digital age makes it easier to do this because we don’t actually have to get rid of things we can just archive them.

Handling things only once (reading an email and deciding what to do) is one of the key aspects of David’s program. If you do this, you will find that you are able to worry about things, carry them in your mind and mull over them, much less.

Once you make a decision follow through.

A companion principle is that you have to truly commit to doing things when they are assigned. In other words, you get to not worry about things only if you can count on yourself to always take care of them on the date that they’re assigned. Here, the value of explicitly defining the next step is very important. At the moment when you are 1st reading it and deciding what to do you should make a note of what the next step is because you may not recall that decision when you sit down to take action.

Otherwise, you have to go back mentally through the entire process of assessing the items and re-determining what the next step is, and that will likely mean that you are less enthusiastic (or even capable) of doing all of the work that will need to be done.

It can be helpful to categorize the task by urgency and importance.

This is a good time to interject a key idea from Steven Covey. His concept is that tasks, or “stuff” can be categorized into four quadrants based on their importance and their urgency. You can see more about this concept in another post that I wrote.

In addition to choosing a next step and scheduling the time for that it is helpful to also categorize things into these four quadrants.

Part of the reason for this is that it will help you monitor the natural tendency that we all have to pay attention more to urgent things than things that are important. To have a truly rewarding life means to not just address urgent but less important things but also to devote time to things that are not urgent but are very important: for example improving one’s health or one’s relationships.

Making it work.

So, how does one go about operationalizing all of this in the digital age? Here’s how I do it – 

Use a task manager.

I have a digital task manager that is available to me on my computer and smart phone. I use this to assign dates and to describe next actions for all of the “stuff” that comes my way. I use “Remember the Milk” but others like “Wunderlist” or “Any.do.” Whatever system you choose make sure it is available on all your devices.

Store information in the cloud. 

Information and documents are all transferred into the “cloud” where I can more readily find what I need when I need it. This means that documents all get scanned. I used to have a system of indexing documents so that I could find them, but with the ability to search entire documents for keywords easily, I find that this is not necessary anymore.

I’ve always been intrigued by Evernote for this purpose, but for whatever reason it hasn’t turned out to be as useful as I would like.  For my purposes Google, with its excellent search capability and low cost, is a better place to store information.  If the information is connected to a task I then copy the URL for the document into the detail of the task in the task manager.

Set the due date and then forget the task.

The task manager has a date-due feature, as do most, and a very rudimentary priority system.  I use the date-due feature to assign the starting date for the task, which allows me to file the task in the future and avoid, therefore, worrying about it or paying attention to it until it’s time to actually take the next step.

It may be helpful to apply other labels to the task.

The task manager also allows me to categorize tasks by the location or type of next action.  For example, if it’s a shopping task, then I know that I will have to be able to use a car to take care of it, if it’s a phone task, I will have to have access to my phone, if it’s a computer task, then I’ll need to be at my desktop, it’s not something I can handle on a smartphone.

So there you have it, a very simple overview of how to apply the principles of David Allen’s book in the Digital Age.  A lot more could be written, but that would be a book rather than a blog post.  I would love to hear your thoughts and your strategies for success.


  1. Jason

    FWIW my approach is different. I actually like “handling” the tasks multiple times because 1) I find that my assessment of urgency/importance varies by mood, 2) Urgency/importance is sometimes trumped by simple, (again) mood-based drivers that make urgency/importance less relevant.

    Examples of those drivers are:

    – “low hanging fruit” (I want to get something done quickly that appears to be easy, even if it means distraction for the moment, ’cause I can get the momentary “high” of accomplishment)
    – “monkey work” (I need something brainless and rote to do right now)
    – “problem solving” (I need something really tricky to work on and don’t foresee being interrupted)
    – “social” (I’m feeling energized/extroverted so it’s a good time for a friendly social/informal reply)

    Also, task management tools should fit the unique nature of each person’s work style and toolset. For example since I’m a developer, I have specialized tools to manage development tasks. They may or may not generate emails. Sometimes emails are not the right visual representation and the tools themselves have dedicated user interfaces for managing tasks that are superior. Sometimes the email is just a notification to say, “Something’s new” and you go into the tool to see more.

    Ultimately email is the most important task manager for me, and I prefer to organize messages myself (usually threaded, sorted by arrival date, descending) rather than something automated like Google Inbox that attempts to “help” me. Years ago I tried routing rules for organizing emails into folders but found it’s a lot of work to create and maintain them, there are too many novel senders and subject lines, and they only make it harder to see the “big picture” of the current workload by ferreting messages away in easy-to-forget places vs. leaving them in the inbox.

  2. Kathy W

    I am still very much reliant on pen and paper. One of my biggest anxiety triggers is the worry that I’ve forgotten/will forget something important. I don’t typically use electronic reminders or apps because they require a charged battery and the device itself, not to mention the fact that the software could fail. I use a centrally located calendar in my home and lots of lists in my pockets, with electronic notes and reminders as backups. Now I feel like that elderly woman in the Geico commercial who posts all her vacation photos on her wall…..

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