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A Year of Getting Things Done: Part 1, The Good Stuff

I recently realized that this month marks one year since I started using Getting Things Done in earnest. With the calendar year closing, it seems like an apt time to look back at what’s worked, what hasn’t, and where I’d like to see GTD heading in the future.

(This is part one of three in a series that runs through Friday.)

The Good Stuff

The next action. It’s so all about the next action.

Far and away, my best takeaway has been the idea of the next action. Leaning to identify the absolute next physical action that will keep a project moving  has been a godsend to the way I think about, plan, and execute my work. When things get hectic, it’s affirming to know that all I need to do is one, single thing—the next thing—to get closer to completion. It also helps beat back one of my worst work habits: letting planning and fiddling with “my systems” become a backdoor procrastination (but more on that tomorrow).

Unwinding a tangled skein of “to-dos” into a list of atomic activities has benefits that go beyond gains in productivity and “effectiveness.” You can also lower stress and start to reclaim control of runaway projects just by looking in front of your nose.  Any time I start to feel swept away by work, I try to see whether I’ve accurately identified the things I can do right now (as well as everything else I don’t need to do right now). One step at a time, one foot in front of the other. The rest takes care of itself when you need it to (which is, of course, “when you get to it”).

I have one modest addition to the next action idea that might go without saying for most people. I try to ensure that any action I identify as a next action can be finished, front to back, in less than 20 minutes time—preferably in fewer than 10 minutes. So, for example, while “Write an article on GTD” is practically useless (that’s a project!), and “Draft ideas for GTD article” is a minor improvement, “Brainstorm six ideas for a 1000 word GTD article” is right in the sweet spot for me. Knowing that 20 minutes is my maximum allowable time for an action also provides a handy baseline for planning what I can accomplish over a given day or week.

For me, the next action has been the linchpin for making Getting Things Done work. Full stop.

Projects: Multi-task commitments to a desirable outcome

It’s amazing how many pointless projects look sensible and completely doable on their surface. You slap together a list of “action items,” plan a bunch of long-ass meetings, maybe even put up a wiki, and pretty soon you have a dynamite project on your hands, right? Nope. Unfortunately, in a lot of cases, it’s like having a perfectly detailed map of the wrong city.

GTD has helped me develop my own idea of what a project really is:

  1. It has more than one physical action.
  2. Its projected outcome is valuable, desirable, and well articulated (even if it needs to change or adapt as the project’s constraints evolve).
  3. Everyone involved in the project understands and agrees on the project’s value and desirable outcome (or, failing at that, they at least understand what their role in its envisionable success must be).
  4. It’s something to which I’ve made some kind of commitment—either a public commitment to others or even just a mental obligation I’ve made with myself. This is something in the world that I agree deserves my time and attention to the exclusion of other things.

No brainers, all? Maybe. But I’ve watched my share of projects become costly floaters because no one really understood why the project was happening or what their role in the project’s success needed to be. It's so easy to get lost.

I love the idea that, at the heart of it, a project is really just an agreement on what we all need to be doing next. It’s a very liberal arts approach: we’re here, and we want to be  there, so what steps do we all need to be taking to move things further in that direction? Natural planning can help make those steps organic, traceable, iterative, and amenable to the raft of changes, interruptions, and derails that inevitably arise—and all without The Big Plan. (Yeah, actually, some of that sounds a lot like Extreme Programming now that you mention it.)

But, the component of personal commitment is my favorite lesson from GTD project planning. It means I’ve knowingly agreed to let this thing become an acceptable interruption in my life. It means that other things might have to wait because of this, and that’s okay. Maybe most importantly though, commitment is the glue that binds your daily activities to your “higher altitudes”—it’s how you can make sure your values and your priorities in life are reflected in what you do every day.

Related Skills I’ve Picked Up via GTD

Learn the friendly, qualified “yes”

Related to the notion of “projects as commitment,” I’ve gotten better at evaluating how much time I’m willing to devote to a given project right upfront. The best example of this—one that most of my friends have now experienced at one point or another—is to fix boundaries and limits to almost every “yes” decision I make.

So, for deep background, back in the sepia days when web designers and graphic artists were scarce (yes, Virginia, there was a time), I would end up completely in the weeds with making my friends’ web sites, CD covers, and random art projects. It was all great stuff, and I always loved to pitch in, but it eventually stressed me out so bad that I started saying “no” a lot more than I liked. It became my necessary default response, but it’s certainly not a very fun way to go through life.

I have to credit GTD for the middle ground position that’s brought me back around. Now, I more often can say “yes” because I want to be involved, but I also provide a clear understanding of how much time and attention I can afford to devote (as well as, frankly, how many interruptions I can handle). So, what used to be “Sure, I’ll do your web site” is now more often “Sure, I’ll give you 10 hours and 3 calls over the next month to use however you want.” If nothing else, it helps everyone understand that time is a precious commodity, but it also gets me out of being the de facto manager for every aspect of a project I touch. So far, it seems to be working swell.

Keep things small (and learn what “almost done” looks like)

In a previous life as a producer and project manager for some good-sized web projects, I once approached my work with a completely baseless optimism and sense of possibility that I had absolutely no business feeling—let alone foisting off on others as way to guide big projects. Especially given how extravagantly long-range I now realize most of those projects’ aspirations really were. Yikes. Simpler times.

The reality is that projects change, and projects break; that’s what they do. It’s their job. The smaller your project is, and the shorter the distance there is between “here” and “there,” the less likely you are to have to chuck it and start over for reasons you couldn’t possibly have foreseen when you were knitting up them fancy GANTT charts for Q3/2007.

You know how it works with The Big Plan. Projects kick off, a series of heavy documents with 4-color covers is produced and distributed, everyone gets pumped for a week or two, and then somewhere, somehow, along the way, changes start to rain down, and the pretty, pretty plans for the next 3/6/9/12 months go completely to hell, often taking team morale and productivity right along with them. Say what you will about the volatility of go-go dotcoms and the nature of venture IT projects, but two bald facts won’t wipe away: things always change, and Big Project Plans make great door stops.

Since picking up GTD, I’ve gotten more comfortable with employing informal, “back of the envelope” planning to derive very short-term goals and actions. Clients in particular seem to really like this. It helps them keep a handle on the tab, plus they all enjoy seeing one piece of the work rolling out every month or so. All without the need for endless commitments, rosaries, or finger crossing.

Sure, the approach might be too boho for sending monkeys to the moon or curing bladder cancer, but it works astonishingly well in small business environments where things are constantly changing, warping, and turning upside down. In the end, I think it boils down to learning to watch for what a “done” project starts to look like, so you can ask interesting questions at the right time:

  • Have we reached a point where the results are starting to look like that thing we’d planned?
  • What’s still left to do for people to consider this done?
  • Would it be useful at this point to re-factor our plan or even move the finish line a bit?
  • Has this turned into another project yet? When will it, and what’s that mean for us?

Understand: I’m not saying there’s no place for long-term planning in business and the world of work—just that a series of modest, organic plans can actually chain together into a big set of results with a lot more flexibility (and reality) than The Big Plan can be scaled down and redirected three-quarters of the way in.

Anyhow, you’re your own best council on these things, but GTD’s natural planning model brings me back to my man, Eisenhower: “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” Pithy, eh?

What part of GTD has been working best for you? What pieces will endure in the way you work after the novelty wears off?

More on Getting Things Done

Tune in tomorrow morning for the second installment of “A Year of Getting Things Done.” In “The Stuff I Wish I Were Better At,”  warts are revealed, confessions are tendered, and we learn a wildly efficient method for wasting precious time under deadline.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
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