On choosing a GTD workflow... and sticking with it
The point of GTD is pretty simple: get things accomplished effectively and efficiently. How you do that is by 1) making sure you are collecting everything you need to do, 2) managing the lists of to-do's and supporting materials, 3) acting upon the items on the lists in an efficient way. Simple in concept, and devilishly complex in action. It's that big, gray fuzzy area people have so much trouble with, since GTD is a process with a set of tools, not a paint-by-numbers exercise. Over the coming months I'll keep tweaking my workflow and reporting what I've found. We'll take a look at some popular systems, and ways to craft your own in different configurations.
As I said, everyone works a certain way, and there's no one-size-fits-all approach. I'll try to take into account the various approaches to GTD. Contexts, for example, are a variable for many people. Contexts in GTD refer to the "where" you're likely to do something. You don't need to see your "buy milk" to do at work, do you? Contexts help keep lists separate. Some people like a broad set of contexts, like @work and @home and perhaps a couple more. Other folks are meticulous with contexts and creating numerous sub-tasks with proper tags within each.
This week I'll lay out some ground rules for those of you looking to get started with GTD quickly, and what you can expect when choosing a set of tools. But most importantly, what are the things you need to do to ensure you'll actually use whatever system you choose?
Whether you are doing this for work or personal reasons, if you plan to try on a few services, I highly recommend scheduling time for the testing. Think of it like a conference or workshop -- you are training yourself and getting your act together. Workshops can get messy, so you should plan to get deep into your workflow and data and possibly mangle things a bit. This leads me to my first rule of evaluating GTD tools:
1. Be prepared to nuke data. It will happen, especially when you are testing things. Plan ahead.
This means making backups if you don't already. A great many calendars died to bring you this information today, but I still have the exports of every single calendar I nuked while trying to massage a sync between iCal and Google Calendar (I'll detail this in a future installment). Also, don't freak out; if you have backups, you can still get to your data. Print your calendar if you must.
2. Have a fallback option.
While I was testing Toodledo they experienced an unusual run of downtime when Rackspace also suffered downtime. That's rare, but for anyone who has been unable to access their Gmail account at times, I can tell you that being unable to access your "system" (even a local one -- like if your app keeps crashing) is a stressor. Like having a backup of your data, have a backup plan for managing your processing. If it means going back to a pen and paper for a bit, so be it. I keep some notecards handy in case my iPhone-based capture system is battery-deprived.
Now back to my original point, which becomes rule #3:
3. Schedule time to learn the basics.
Schedule additional time each week to learn one new thing about whatever you're using -- maybe just 15 minutes a day. I started slow with Toodledo, and as I was moving Tasks from Gmail to the service, thought "hey, I wish I could just forward and email and make it a task." Lo and behold, Toodledo has this feature, but you have to enable it.
Use the system in parallel to whatever crummy system you're using now, but don't give up until you've put the thing through at least a month of dedicated use. Unless it really sucks. Then go to your backups and recover.
Like any product or service, if you don't know how things work you'll never get anywhere. Most productivity tools are user friendly, but it's near impossible to surface all the functionality in an easy-to-use palette. There's always a learning curve. Just accept it and move on. And schedule time on your calendar for "training" if you have to, but any system worth using is worth learning first. If you don't learn it, you are much more likely to drop it and go back to your slacking ways, too.
If you keep these three things in mind, you'll be off to a good start. Back up your data, have a plan B (since the work likely never stops for you) and take time to learn what you're doing... sounds like rules for life, right? Well that's the beauty of GTD: if you do it right you really will live a better life. By taking away the worry of what you might have missed, you'll know what you have to look forward to -- even a stack of work! David Allen calls it "mind like water" and others call it Zen. It's simply knowing you can handle whatever comes your way.
My own scenario is a work-at-home dad with chores, occasional errands and a need for flexibility and portability. It's a complex scenario, in fact, because the normal contexts of "work" and "home" are blurred. Could I clean the gutters at lunch? Should I tackle that project at midnight from the couch? With these questions in mind, next week we'll take a look at some of the popular systems out to see what fits. While there may not be a one-size-fits all, there are certainly solutions with more flexibility and options than others. Tune in to see what we find.