I’ve been brutally disorganized most of my life. I really don’t know how I made it through college, but I do know that anything that didn’t have a deadline, usually didn’t happen very quickly (if at all).
After college I got OK at managing my work. There were todo lists and trello boards. After a year or two I became fascinated with task apps and settled on todoist, but over time I realized that a task app is only as good as your system for managing it.
My personal life was also still a mess. Until GTD.
Getting Things Done
I’d heard of Getting Things Done but it wasn’t until I listened to an episode of the Tim Ferriss show with David Allen, the founder of GTD, that I realized I needed to implement it. I won’t try to explain it all here (I highly recommend the GTD book for that), but I’ll highlight three of the habits that I found most useful.
Clear Your Mind with a Good Old Fashioned Mind Sweep
We all feel overwhelmed from time to time. You have too many emails sitting in your inbox, your manager needs you to finish this project ASAP, your mom needs help learning how to order groceries online, your trash is overflowing slightly, and so is the laundry. Plus, there’s a light bulb in the bathroom that’s been dead for a year at this point, and you’ve been thinking about taking French lessons for a year but haven’t done anything about it.
Worse, you don’t think about half of these things during your free hours in the evening. Somehow, you only remember all of the things once your head hits your pillow, which means you’re not sleeping well either. Yikes.
One of GTD’s core insights is that our brains are excellent processors and problem solvers, but terrible storers and multitaskers. Modern life has too many active threads, at too many different levels.
The solution is to get things out of your brain, and onto a piece of paper; what GTD calls a mind sweep. Here’s a trigger list straight from the source to help you get started. Don’t worry about what needs to be done or whether it’s actionable — if it’s on your mind, write it down.
The first time I did this, I remember feeling noticeably lighter and more relaxed. It’s amazing how much easier it is to go through life knowing that everything is written down — but you need to develop the habit of a weekly review to make that effective. Plus, it’s not enough just to write what’s on your mind: you have to find the next action.
Next actions are exactly what they sound like: the next physical action that needs to be done in order to move a task or project forward. In some cases, the task itself will be the next action, for example, ‘do laundry’. However, in other cases, like taking a family vacation, the next step would be, ‘google resorts in Hawaii.’
The key insight here is that even if we write our tasks and projects down, we get overwhelmed by the list unless we have clear, discrete next actions. Plus, there might be items on your list that don’t have a next action, in which case you can safely choose to not worry about it.
Getting into the habit of determining the next action will allow you to spend less time ‘spinning your wheels’ and more time achieving results in your career, side hustles, and relationships.
The Weekly Review is the other crucial habit that GTD stresses: once a week, for an hour (preferably two), you sit down to review your previous week and prepare for the week ahead. This involves clearing you inboxes, doing a mind sweep, looking over your calendar, and jotting down next actions that come up.
By doing a Weekly Review, you ensure that your list of next actions is never more than a week old — that it stays up to date. You ensure that all the various strands of your life, whether it’s your relationships, your side hustles, your career, or a hobby are constantly moving forward. You can take the time to put anything essential on the calendar. And if anything takes < 2 minutes, you can go ahead and get it done immediately.
GTD Is Only as Good as You Make It
By giving a brief overview of mind sweeps, next actions, and the weekly review, I hope that I’ve piqued your interest for GTD. As I’ve hinted, the system is more about the habits you develop than any software or app that you use: it’s constant work. I’m still struggling with it to this day — it’s Thursday and I still haven’t done the weekly review I was supposed to do Sunday 😱.
Still, I wanted to take the time to share an intro to GTD because in the year or two since I started taking it seriously I have seen a marked increase in performance in the areas of my life that I’d formerly let slide, mainly my distant relationships and various side projects. I find myself feeling overwhelmed less, and I have more time and attention to devote to the things that matter to me.
That’s getting things done with Getting Things Done.