Getting Things Done: Setting Up the Right Buckets

This is the seventh entry in a fourteen part series discussing the time management classic Getting Things Done by David Allen. New entries in this series will appear on Tuesday afternoons and Friday mornings through July 16.

gtdSo far, we’ve talked about two of the five major steps for getting things done: collecting all of the stuff you need to do and processing that stuff down. Today, the focus is on organizing – or where the stuff goes when you’re processing it.

Allen suggests that there are seven specific destinations for stuff when we’re processing it. Although this looks complicated, all you really need for this is a trash can, some folders, and some paper.

This is pretty straightforward. The stuff you don’t intend to keep goes in the trash can. The notes you’ve written to yourself and then processed go straight in the trash can. Envelopes? Trash can. You’d be surprised how large of a portion of your inbox goes straight into the trash can when you’re processing it.

“Maybe/Someday” refers to a collection of lists. I keep all of these in a single folder on my computer so I can easily find them.

What do I mean by this? I have a list of books I’d like to read someday. I have a list of projects I’d like to take up in the future. I have a list of people I regularly buy Christmas gifts for. I have a list of movies I’d like to view someday.

Each of these lists is just that – a computer document listing all of the items that fall under that specific category. If you prefer, of course, you can use pen and paper and a series of folders.

Whenever I have an item in my inbox that refers to a book to read or a movie to watch or a big project I’m thinking about, I add these to those lists – and I usually date them. Then, during my weekly reviews (I’ll talk about this more in the next entry in this series), I pull out these lists and look them over. I usually study the most recent entries more specifically so I can decide whether I should do something with those items right now, like request them from the library. I sometimes add notes to the items on the list, too.

Reference materials refers to things that I’m going to want to keep, like tax statements or car titles or other things like that. If I think there’s a solid chance I’m going to want to refer to such an item in the future – or if there’s a slim chance but that slim chance absolutely requires the document, I keep it.

For magazines (which we subscribe to in bulk), I’ll often just tear out the articles I want to keep over the long term and throw away the rest. I have a few file folders jammed with potential articles that I might talk about on Money360 in the future, for example, and I also have a fat folder full of recipes.

I really don’t worry too much about a filing system. I put things into folders under a name that makes sense to me and organize those folders A-Z and then 0-9. I can always find what I want pretty quickly in that scheme, with only a guess or two needed to find anything at all.

Projects and Project Support Material
Some of the things I work on are ongoing “projects” – meaning big tasks that break down into lots of pieces. For each of these “projects,” I keep a folder in a separate part of my filing cabinet. I actually have a single drawer for “projects,” to tell the truth.

Again, I organize these by A-Z and 0-9 based on the title I decide on. This makes it easy to find them when I need them. I also keep a master “project list” just for my own reference – this makes things much easier when I do my review of projects.

What’s in each folder? Whenever I conceive of a new project, I usually brainstorm big time with a sheet or two of paper in front of me, then I come up with a rough outline of what needs to be done for the project (all of the steps from beginning to end, broken down into the smallest chunks I can), with lots of spaces between the items for additional steps and notes. I usually do the outline on my computer, save it, then print it out. The brainstorming and the outline are saved in the folder.

When I do my weekly “review,” I usually update each folder (if I haven’t already during the week) and then add the next step for each project to my “next actions” list (which I’ll talk about in a bit).

There are obviously some things that require “waiting” for some unspecified time for someone else to come through for you. For example, if I’m working on a collaborative project with another writer and I send her a draft, I don’t know for sure when I’ll get a response from her.

For most of these things, I just wait for the response, but some of these things do require me to hold onto things. I just keep a “waiting” folder in amongst my projects to handle any such things.

If something needs to be done on a specific date and/or time, I add it to my calendar. My calendar is the first thing I look at each day – I maintain it with Google Calendar and it is, in fact, my browser home page.

What should go on a calendar? Allen specifies on page 142:

[There] are two basic kinds of actions: those that must be done on a certain day and/or at a particular time, and those that just need to be done as soon as you can get ot them, around your other calendared items. Calendared action items can be either time-specific (e.g., “4:00-5:00 meet with Jim”) or day-specific (“Call Rachel Tuesday to see if she got the proposal.”)

In other words, all time-specific actions should go on your calendar. Allen goes on to discuss some things that shouldn’t be on your calendar, on page 143:

What many people want to do, however, based on old habits of writing daily to-do lists, is put actions on the calendar that they think they’d really like to get done next Monday, say, but that then actually might not, and that might then have to be taken over to following days. Resist this impulse. You need to trust your calendar as sacred territory, reflecting the exact hard edges of your day’s commitments, which should be niticeable at a glance while you’re on the run.

Here’s a great example. I want to practice piano every single day, but there might be days where I’m simply not able to get around to it. Should I write the piano practice on my calendar every day? No. It should be on my “next actions” list for me to prioritize as I wish. The same is true if I want to clean the house on a given day or something like that – if I can miss it without causing devastation, it shouldn’t be on the calendar. Only the things at specific times that I can’t miss should be on the calendar.

“Next Actions”
What’s left after all of that? Surprisingly, all that’s left is the specific stuff you need to do that takes longer than two minutes (remember, you do all of the two-minutes-or-less tasks when processing it all).

For me, the “next actions” takes the form of a long list. Whenever I’m buckling down to get stuff done, whether it’s professional work or otherwise, I look through the list, pick out something, and just do it.

This is the point when the system really shines. All of the stuff above seems like a lot of overhead, but you make up for all of it and much, much more when you’re actually pushing through your pile of “next actions.” Why? Everything you need to do is right there in front of you. The only thing that matters is your next appointment, and you can set an alarm for that. Until then, the only thing on your mind is your current action. You don’t need to remember anything. If something floats into your mind, just jot it down and move on with your task.

This freedom of mind enables you to get into “the zone” (or flow state or whatever you like to call it) very easily. It turns out – and this is the big advantage of GTD – that the biggest thing that keeps people from getting into that flow state is the number of things they’re trying to keep in their head while working. If you can write it all down and have a trusted system in place where you can just toss that idea – whatever it is – and know it’s handled, then you don’t have to waste so many brain cycles keeping track of all of it.

When the system is running well for me, I can get into “the flow” for a long time every day. Without it, I would never be able to create this much material for Money360 all of the responsibilities of having three young children ongoing attempts at other endeavors. It just wouldn’t happen.

What about prioritizing? Obviously, some things on the list have a higher priority than others. The way I handle it is pretty simple. I just keep my list in a document on my computer and print it off occasionally. Before I start in with a work session (where I intend to knock several items off the list), I make an effort to roughly prioritize the list. I move the ones that I’d most like to get done up to the top so that they’re found first. That doesn’t mean I won’t change things up as I’m going along, of course; it just gives me some help as I go.

Next time, we’ll go through the fourth piece of the puzzle: a weekly review. I actually find that a weekly review (and patch-up) is perhaps the most essential part of this entire system. Without it, it would eventually fall apart.

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