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My take on GTD (getting things done)

After coming back from my trip to Cuba, my inbox was pretty filled, as usual. But even after sorting out there were almost 70 emails left (not counting newsletters), that were still important in one way or another. And I noticed that I actually missed some stuff that was supposed to be finished already. This was when I decided, that using your inbox (+labels) wasn’t enough anymore to stay ahead of your work, if you have a job situation and personal projects similar to mine (research assistant). A colleague told me that he is using the method of Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen.

The gist of it is: Whenever you get an email (or anything else) do it immediately if it can be done fast, delete or delegate it, or file a task of it to be done when you have time for it. This way, you can concentrate on the task ahead while you can free your mind of currently unnecessary occupations. Now, with due-dates and priorities you can go to through your tasks step by step, always having exactly one goal in mind (of course this is a shortened version of the system, see google or wikipedia or the book for details).

So I started to convert my emails to tasks and actually liked that a lot. I wouldn’t miss important things anymore just because they were lost in my inbox somewhere and I could make a list of “next tasks” to focus on. Additionally, this is extremely well supported in http://www.toodledo.com, and there was a nice android app named got to do with full synchronisation support. However, that was still not the optimal solution. While it drastically improved the organization of work and helped with having an overview of the total amount of work to be done, I got lost fast due to the amount of tasks (75 currently) and I almost lost more time organising tasks than actually doing work. The main issue is on how to sort your tasks, my colleague used a different system than I, and we both were using different systems than David Allen. None of them was really fitting in my opinion.

David Allen’s system isn’t really suitable imho, if you have a lot of “private” taks (in my case, most of them stemming from my dissertation, as well as private projects) and you are not assigned to a small number of specific projects; I can’t make a specific project for every task, as in my job there are dozens of very different assignments. So I used a number of general projects like “work (general)”, “dissertation”, “teaching”, “project proposals”, “private projects” etc. And using due date for sorting tasks isn’t working either, as most points of my dissertation don’t have specific due dates – so will never be on top of the list and thus never be a “next task”. Manual sorting isn’t really cutting it either and priorities are too inflexibel. After about two weeks of using the system, I think I found a way which is somewhat suitable (and much better compared to simple note systems or just emails):

  • Every Sunday I sort out all tasks I want to finish next week and file them under the status of “next task”
  • All tasks get due dates; in case of unspecific tasks e.g. regarding my thesis, they get due dates when I want to have those finished at the latest. Task not to be done within the next week are marked as “active”
  • All other tasks, where I have not yet decided on a due date but need to be done are marked “planning”
  • Everything else which I just want to do when I’m in the mood or when there’s plenty of time (like learning something new) is marked as “someday”
  • I use priorities to sort tasks having the same due date, but that’s just a bonus
  • The order of sorting in Toodledo is thus: status → due date → priority (without pro subscription only two criteria are allowed, however that’s not a big deal)

I have two additional tips for the use with toodledo:

  • When using gmail, it’s easy to link tasks with permalinks. Just paste the gmail url and replace #mbox with #all, e.g.: https://mail.google.com/mail/#all/12c9d6c3d5a4e879
  • The stylish or greasemonkey plugin has a really nice layout enhancement for toodledo: http://userstyles.org/styles/27157
  • If you have the pro subscriptions, you can use subtasks, to avoid having to many projects/folders; all projects that are short-lived and have a small number of tasks (maybe three) are filed using subtasks instead of folders.

If you are using GTD or toodledoo, too, or have a job situation similar to mine, please let me know of your experiences, how you organise yourself or what way of sorting you prefer. I’d be really interested in that.

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