GTD From the Top - Episode 4 - Next Action Associates

Welcome back to GTD® from the Top. In this series my goal is to boil down the core ideas behind the Getting Things Done® methodology into quickly digestible bites. I’m hoping that you’ll use this series to reflect on how GTD might better help you or your organisation to be as productive, fulfilled, and stress-free as you want to be.

Earlier in the series we explored the fundamental nature of our commitments, and the importance of both achieving and maintaining as concepts to understand our productivity. In the last edition I talked about the importance of envisioning outcomes as a way to influence both what happens in the future and to optimise our current engagement with our world.

Today I’d like to talk about the principles behind keeping track of all of the things that are important to you. In the 5-step Workflow model at the core of GTD, the topic here is the third step, Organising.

Episode 4: What would an ideal approach to organising look like?

Let’s start with a core principle here. The best place for an organisational system is not in your head. The human brain is, as David Allen says, “a crappy office”. Because of the limits of our short-term memory, and the fact that the brain is not built as an effective reminder system, if you are trying to keep everything organized in your head you are destined to fail, and to raise your stress levels. We want everything out of our heads; all of the commitments are externalised.

Beyond that, a good organisational system will have categories with “clean edges.” What this means is that the things that have the same meaning to you are found in the same place in your system, without overlap with other categories. Can you show me a list of the things you need to discuss with the boss at your next meeting? If so, then that’s an element of your system with clean edges.

Everyone will have their own ideas about which categories make sense, but some of the most popular ones include:

  • Agendas – these are topics you need to discuss with other people – team members, colleagues, the boss, or maybe family members. Keep your agendas organised so that when that next meeting comes around you can quickly see what you want to discuss.
  • Waiting Fors – these are reminders of things you’re waiting for other people to do for you. You’ve sent an important email and you’re waiting for a response? Having Waiting For reminders about such things allows you to follow up on them when that’s appropriate, and in the meantime to forget them.
  • Projects – these are the multi-step outcomes you want to get done in the next year or so. Having an inventory of projects is a great way to raise your sights and see your commitments at a higher level.
  • Technology-based actions – these might include things to do at your computer, tablet, or phone. Websites to visit, social media posts to make, or emails to send might be kept on this kind of list.

This is just a sample; a good system would also keep reference information, organised for quick retrieval. You might also want to keep track of your longer-term goals and vision for the next several years, along with other categories.

By the way, the driving idea behind these clean edges isn’t “tidiness”. Rather it’s about ensuring both that you’re optimising your productivity and your mental clarity at the same time. If you have that complete list of the things you need to discuss with the boss, then you know when you go into that meeting, you’re well prepared. You also know that, until that meeting, you don’t need to be having those things on your mind. Productivity and mental clarity go hand-in-hand.

You may have noticed that I’ve not recommended a particular system or app. In all of the work that we do, we strive to be technology agnostic. The key is that you have organisational tools that work well for you, whether they’re paper-based or the latest whiz-bang tech.

So have a think about your organisational system and how you use it. Are you keeping things out of your head, and do your organisational tools support you well in doing that? Does your system have clean edges? Is your experience of using your organisational system as friction-free as you would like it to be?

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