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GTD overview

I love the GTD system (“Getting Things Done”) but the book sucks (system’s amazing, the book just doesn’t explain it well). Apps are often over- or under-engineered for it or for what you need. Here is an overview of the system.

Three lists

You need three lists. Three pieces of paper is fine. Or text files or whatever list app.

An “inbox” of all the junk that comes across your desk and/or mind.

A list of “Projects” a.k.a. concrete goals. When is something done.

A list of “next actions”. What’s the very next thing you need to do on these? You don’t need to plan the whole thing out, just the next thing. Keep these concrete AF. “Open such-and-such file”, “Call so-and-so and talk about X”. It can help concreteness to have these sorted by context, like “at computer” or “in grocery store”. That used to be even more important back in the day before pocket online.

Processing the inbox

Then, for every item in the inbox, either


Upstream GTD suggests going through the inbox and clearing it down to zero (the projects and goals can have any length) every day, and then once a week going through each project and making sure they still each have a next action associated with them. There’s a lot of tweaks you can do on that, though. Like having some sort of org mode that automatically associates actions with projects or whatever.

My new filing technique is unstoppable

A lot of the time, the stuff that floats across our brains and desks are just informations. Stuff we need to know but don’t need to do anything about, like a phone number that you might need later. That’s why you also need a system for storing information so that you can find it, both digital and physical (or scan everything). The GTD book is pretty adamant about sorting alphabetically and it’s a classic. (I personally prefer sorting things by date; I’m more likely to remember “Oh, this was about the time I took that literature class” than “Hmm, I think I sorted it under O for Oven… or was it A for appliances?” but I’ve been told that most people work differently from me in htat regard so don’t try to be me, be you and find a way to sort and store information that works for you.)

Checklists are awesome

If you do similar projects all the time and those projects have many steps, a checklist can be great so you know that you’ve done everything. You can have a pretty detailed “action plan” for those. I had one for writing essays when I was in school. When I was stuck, I just checked the next step on my process checklist. I also had one for my kitchen cleaning routine, twelve concrete separate steps (from “pick up countertop trash” to “scrub countertop” and everything in between, such as the many steps involved in washing dishes), until I got good enough at washing dishes that I can now just go wash the dishes.

Two speed hacks

  1. If there’s something you can do right away (and you’re already in the perfect context for it) in under two minutes, and it’s something you know you want to do, do it right away instead of having to schlep out your entire system.

  2. If the project just has one single (very concrete) action, don’t bother putting it on the project list, just put that action on the next actions list.

Principles & habits

Bonus section: Now for my own hacks

I define “overhead” as time spent fiddling with your system instead of actually working (or resting).

These hacks reduce overhead.

Be careful with the first two of these hacks since you lose out on an opportunity to nope out that you would’ve had with the ordinary inbox processing workflow. Only use them for things that you are sure you want to do.

Two-hour rule

In upstream GTD, there is the two minute rule as mentioned above. In addition, I like the idea that if there is a category of stuff that you know you need to do, like you’re a student and you get these homework assignments, you can, for that category of stuff only, change it to a two hour rule instead (or twenty minutes or whatever fits you). You come home and instead of processing your homework inbox, you just do everything on it since you needed to do it anyway, unless it’s a bigger project that would take more than a few hours, in which case you break it down.

Put stuff in the correct place directly

Moving stuff from list to list can also be fiddly if it’s unnecessary. Sometimes things can be their own reminders. Leaning the briefcase against the door so you’ll remember it as opposed to putting that on a list is a great example of this sort of hack. Or, putting something on the projects and next actions list directly instead of inbox, if you happen to have the time and you know you wanna do it.

Like, for work, my GTD lists are super short because I am working from the ticket instead, with a note page of ideas on how to solve each ticket.

I make mindmaps and work from them directly by writing action boxes in them that I can check off or cross out. The reasons you would never normally do that in GTD are that you miss out on a chance to nope out, that you might miss out on more appropriate things to do in that same situation or context, and that you might want to review your overall direction in life from a higher altitude perspective. But since I already know that I am happy with this job, and that working on this ticket is the most appropriate way to spend time on the job, none of those three caveats apply. If stuff comes up on the mindmaps that need to be done in another context, like an errand, I can move those things to that list as as special case.

This is why “GTD is bad for deep work” is so much pish-posh. It’s a bookmark for everything else in my life so that I can set it aside.

Working from a subset

When the next action lists are huge, I like to put a dot in front of the handful or less of them that I wanna do next. That way I don’t have to go through the whole list.

The “actionable” symbol

I use a square box (maybe with a “do next” dot in it) everywhere. Even in a page of prose notes and mindmaps. X means wontfix, check mark means done, and / means moved to another list.

This also helps train our brains into separating “FIY” level stuff from “oh, I am actually expected to actually do this” level stuff.

I got those symbols from a post by Bill Westerman; later, Ryder Carroll came up with the more familiar Bullet Journal symbols. (I can’t use them since I write in Melin shorthand and those symbols collide with the symbols we use for Melin shorthand words. The box stands out in all kinds of text.)

The “chill time” list

I almost forgot to write about this one!

One huge breakthrough for me was when I created a separate category for chill time. Movies that seem cool, comics that are interesting, video games etc.

I have a completely different mindset for this stuff.

If I actually want to or need to get it done, it does not go on here. Books I need to read for school or work does not go on here.

The chill time stuff (I use a tree outline for it, which is great for sub categories like movies, non-scary movies etc) is something I know is always completely optional. It’s a menu of riches, not a spectre of obligations.

I don’t even have to look at it ever.

It’s just all gravy. If I feel like watching TV, I can pick something from here, or I can watch whatever I feel like, something that’s not on the list. Game streamers or opera or drama shows or listen to a favorite old record or just rest my eyes, it’s all the same. If it’s not, if it’s more important, it does not go on here.

Writing these posts on here is an example of a chill time activity. It’s not part of any list, it’s just chilltime for me. Writing helps me clear my mind. I do it during breaks and in my off time. I don’t have any “I need to make so-and-so many posts” policy.

If my mind wanders during chill time and I create something that I’m gonna have use of in my daily life or in my more directed efforts, like sanding down some edges in my Inktober posting scripts, for example, that’s OK, but not necessary. It can actually be kind of a bad thing if it leads me more tired and unrested when it’s time for more directed effort.

Having stuff on here means that my GTD lists proper can be way shorter and simpler.

It’s a way to separate relaxed entertainment from directed effort.