"Getting Things Done" has taken over my life

By John Borwick

I spend most of my days in meetings. When I do have time to act, I try to be very efficient. To maximize my effficiency, last year I adopted David Allen's "Getting Things Done" approach to time management. I use this system for managing all my life--personal and professional.

The principal tools I use are pads, Windows CE, Outlook, Thunderbird, ticket-tracking software, and a home and a work paper inbox.

I record ideas, tasks, and promises in either my legal pad or my "voice recordings." If I'm in a meeting or doing something where it's embarassing to dictate, I use the pad. Each task on the pad gets marked with a horizontal line; I put these sheets of paper in a physical inbox. I cross through the horizontal line when the task has been "processed." If, on the other hand, I'm walking or otherwise encumbered, I hold down the voice-recording button on my Cingular 8125 Windows Mobile device and record the idea. I put all recordings get put in my "Recordings" notes folder.

Every day, I process all my paper tasks and voice recordings. As I evaluate each task, first I decide whether to discard it. If I want to keep it, I either do it immediately or record it in Outlook as a task. I assign these tasks a category: "Office," "Home," "Errands," "On-line," "Wait," or "Defer." If the task is due by a certain date, I include a due date. When appropriate I also assign a "start date" so I don't have to worry about the task right now. For some tasks, like the task "process voice recordings," I make the task recur and record how often it recurs in the task name: "process voice recordings (daily)" repeats each day. "Purchase tax software (yearly)" is due April 1 each year. I have at least fifty recurring tasks: everything from getting my hair cut each month to reviewing my resume each quarter to announcing Systems Administrator Appreciation Day to my co-workers.

If I get papers I need for a project, I file them in a "current projects" filing drawer in my desk. As projects close, in my weekly review I move these projects to my "all projects and information" filing cabinet.

For e-mail, I use the excellent blog article "Using Thunderbird to Get Things Done." I label each message as it comes in: (1) delete, (2) archive, (3) action required, (4) wait for another email, or (5) defer. I use four principal views: "next actions," emails tagged as (3), (4), or not tagged; "delete," messages to delete; "archive," messages to archive; and "defer," messages to defer. Every time I look at email I quickly glance at each unlabeled message and assign it a label. Then I refresh the "next actions" view so I see quickly how many emails I need to deal with.

Once per day I "process" all my next action email. I try to spend two minutes or less per message, but that's really hard to do. For each "next action" message, one of three things happens: I reply with my answer, I create a Help Desk ticket for their problem, or I create a task in Outlook and reply to the sender to say I'll contact them later. I delete all my "delete" messages and move all my "archive" messages to another folder called "archive." All my archived messages go in the same folder. To make sure I do this I have a recurring Outlook task: "process all work email (daily)."

If someone contacts me about a technical problem or request, I create a Help Desk ticket in our departmental ticket-tracking software. (I also use this system to enter technical tasks I think of that affect my whole group: I record needed server patches and server configuration changes, for example.) I "process" these tickets every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, by performing some sort of "action" on them, such as resolving the ticket, contacting the user, or contacting a vendor.

For my other "inboxes," such as voicemail, I discard the message, reply to it, or record it on a pad or in Outlook's tasks.

Outlook is the core repository for my life. I principally use Outlook's calendar, tasks, and notes. I use Outlook's tasks for all the "next actions" I can take, categorized by context. I use the category, summary, total work, notes (occasionally), start date, and due date fields and also a field I recently created called "Energy required." I have quite a few different Outlook "views" to see lists like my next work actions, my completed tasks, my deferred tasks, my "waiting" tasks, and other reports about what I need to do. My "work next actions" view is the most comprehensive, because I only use Outlook at work. This view shows tasks in the categories "Office" or "Now," grouped by category, then sorted by priority, due date, then total work required.

I also use Outlook tasks to record my "someday/maybe" tasks (category "Defer") and my "waiting" list (category "Wait"). For "Wait" tasks, I write the person's name and the date, followed by what I'm waiting on. For example, I might say "Joe Schmoe 5/5: Empire Strikes Back DVD" or "Jane Doe 4/28: can I charge limo fees on my corporate card." With this system I am an superb nag.

I use Outlook's notes for my projects. I have a few folders: "Projects--complete," "Projects--deferred," "Projects--delegated," "Projects--home," and "Projects--work." I create one note per project. Sometimes these notes are placeholders; sometimes they've got all the ideas I need to track about that project.

I also use the notes for my "contacts" list. I have a folder called "Contacts" with one note per person or group. I then list everything I need to communicate with that person or group the next time I see them. For example, I have a note for my boss where I keep the ever-growing list of items to discuss with him. In my weekly meeting, I review the list with him and purge it from the note.

My third use for the notes is for other lists of items. In my "Lists" folder I have a list of "Model and Brand Names" for things around the house that I need to know, like that our trash can is a mysterious 20 gallons in size. I have another called "Areas of Focus" that corresponds to GTD's areas of focus.

I also use Outlook's calendar. I track busy time and include pre-appointment reminders. I track things I may want to go to as "tentative" tasks. I track things I need to be aware of as "free" tasks. I note certain days, such as the days when I'm on call, as all-day appointments. No tasks go on this calendar: that's what the "due date" field is for in the tasks themselves. I do not let anyone else have access to this calendar: no one can put anything on my Outlook calendar.

All this Oracle data is synchronized to my Cingular 8125 mobile device, so I have it all with me all the time.

I perform weekly reviews on Tuesday afternoons, when my team status report is due. I find that this report on what I'm doing goes well with my conscious weekly review. Just this week I created a Visual Basic macro I run in Outlook to generate the ten review tasks: process my Cingular 8125 camera pictures, review all "deferred" tasks, review all "wait" tasks and contact people as appropriate, review all other tasks, review all "deferred" email, review all projects, review all other Outlook notes, review all upcoming meetings for possible next actions, review all physical folders in my "current projects" drawer, and put all meetings that start before 9 AM in my Outlook calendar with reminders so that I can get there on time.

Also, I have started using my Cingular 8125 as an alarm clock. This way if I have a task that I've forgotten about--say, to go to the doctor at 8 AM--I will hear the device beep on the one-hour reminder.

With this time management system I feel very confident that I never forget to do something that I commit to doing. I can report on my tasks to see what contexts have the most tasks available. Six months into using this system, I have noticed myself continually refining the system and I have noticed myself getting more and more satisfied that I am making the best use of my time, when I want to be busy. I can also watch movies and lounge around the house on the weekends without feeling like I should be doing something--because I can review my tasks and know that nothing's urgent.