As part of the preparations for the revamping of this website, I have consolidated all my writings on David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) as links into a few new entries. This one summarises the five phases of mastering workflow at the heart of GTD.
Would you like to have more energy, be more relaxed, and get a lot more done with much less effort? Who wouldn’t? If the answer’s “yes” then David Allen’s Getting Things Done systematic approach to the “game of work” and the “business of life” is for you.
When I first came across David’s work in 1987, he was still, I believe, refining the practices that he later synthesised into Getting Things Done which he published in 2001 and remains an international best-seller. In 2001 I bought the book and started implementing, or rather transforming, the time management system I was then using into what is now known as the GTD systematic approach.
It was 2006 before I was able to attend one of David Allen’s seminars, which by then had become the GTD The RoadMap. At this I met David and was pleased to find him friendly, approachable and inquisitive about how I came across GTD and how I’d implemented the system.
Since then David has published Ready For Anything (in 2003) and his latest book, Making It All Work, was published in 2008. He is reported to be working on a revision of the original Getting Things Done book that will incorporate what he has learned over 12 years of experiences with the original approach which is largely unchanged.
What is GTD?
GTD is shorthand for Getting Things Done, a systematic approach to achieving higher productivity and reducing the stress in you life.
The approach was first explained in David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity and there’s no better first step than getting his book and then working systematically through it.
However, here’s a simple guide to his five step process:
- COLLECT everything that has your attention
- PROCESS what has your attention to define what each means to you, what outcome you want to achieve and the next physical action you need to take to move it forward.
- ORGANISE reminders in an appropriate way so that you’re reminded what needs to get done, when and where you need to be reminded.
- REVIEW your whole system on a regular basis (at least weekly) to keep it current.
- DO the next physical actions you’ve processed and organised, according to the context, time and energy available, and priority.
To get started you’ll need to:
- Set aside the time (particularly for the initial COLLECT phase) – a couple of hours should get you well on your way.
- Set up the space – a nice clear area, desk, kitchen table, the bench at the bottom of the garden or even a corner down your local coffee shop!
- Get the tools you need – you don’t need any sophisticated software or other expensive tools – just pen and paper.
- Get everything else out of the way – make sure you’ve got no interruptions!
In the meantime, get an overview of the Five Phases of Mastering Workflow from David Allen’s site for free
COLLECT is the phase where you need to capture everything that has your attention in leakproof in-baskets.
Your in-baskets can be:
- physical in-trays
- email inboxes
- your head!
Get one physical in-basket and put them all in there. For your emails, print each single email off and put it in your physical in-basket.
The rule is – one item per piece of paper. No lists! Break them down into single items and one per sheet of paper. I know this sounds wasteful but you’ll find it easier to process them that way – trust me!
What you may find is that you need to do what is called a full mindsweep. There may be things on your mind that you don’t know are on your mind. What’s in that cupboard? What’s in that box? What about all that stuff in the garage? If you need help with this try going through this trigger list to remind you of things you need to deal with.
Take a walk round your house. Start in one corner at the bottom, left-most corner near the front of your property and cover the whole house until you’re at the top, right hand corner. Write everything down that you see needs your attention.
You will end up with a very long list but that’s the only way to get everything that’s cluttering up your mind out of your head and down on paper.
You’ll start to feel what it’s like to have nothing on your mind.
Next we can start to PROCESS what you’ve collected!
Before you can get ORGANISEd, you need to PROCESS the information that you have COLLECTed.
You need to decide what each item means to you by asking firstly – “Is it actionable?” – that is, is it something that you need to take action on, or do something about?
1. NOT ACTIONABLE
- Is it reference material? If so file it as reference material in an A-Z Filing System. We will come back to the best ways to do this at a later date. For now if you don’t have a filing system put it in another in-tray labelled “Reference”.
- Is it something you don’t need to do anything about just now but you’d like to be reminded of it at a later date? For example, menus for Christmas or New Year meal that you may want to book. These sort of items go into a Bring Forward (or Tickler File). Again we will talk more about these at a later date. For now put them in another in-tray labelled “Bring Forward” or “Tickler”.
- Finally, in the Non-Actionable, is it something you no longer need? In this case bin it now!
- Is this something you can defer until a later date – a reminder to pay a bill for example. This can then go into your Bring Forward file to be actioned on that date.
- Is this something you can delegate to someone else to do? If it is put it in a pile labelled “Delegate to”.
- Is this something you need to do? If it is you have two choices. 1. If it will take less than two minutes to do then do it now because it will take more time to write it down and pcik it up again! 2. If it will take longer than two minutes then what’s the next physical action you need to take on this to move it forward? Write this down on a list as an action, for example, “Call Fred about Jane’s school report”.
In dealing with the ACTIONABLE items, think about what outcome you seek for the item that you originally COLLECTed. What does DONE look like? The next physical action is about DOING something that will get something DONE.
If that one next physical action will get the item done then you can discard the item you COLLECTed. But if it will take more than one action to get something done then you have a PROJECT and as well as listing the next physical action on a list you need to put the PROJECT on a list of PROJECTs so that you’re reminded that it’s not finished yet. Then you can discard the COLLECTed item.
Next we’ll look at ORGANISE where you put the items you COLLECT and PROCESSed into a trusted system that will help you with Getting Things Done
Now that you’ve COLLECTed everything that was on your mind and PROCESSed everything so that you know what each item means to you (what’s the expected outcome and what’s the next physical action to move it forward) we can start to get ORGANISEd!
Most people, when they try to implement GTD, have a problem with separating PROCESSing from getting ORGANISEd. But this is a key step because in ORGANISE you build the trusted system that will allow you to release all the stuff that’s clogging up your brain and allow you to reach the GTD “nirvana” of being totally buried by the amount of things you need to do but having nothing on your mind – what David Allen calls a “mind like water”.
But you’re not there yet!
First you need to group all the results of what you’ve PROCESSed into appropriate categories so that you can retrieve and REVIEW them when you need to – remember that REVIEW is the next phase of mastering workflow.
The four key categories are:
- PROJECTS – projects you are committed to finish that will take more than one action
- CALENDAR – actions that must occur on a specific day or specific time
- NEXT ACTIONS – actions that need to be done as soon as possible
- WAITING FOR – projects and actions that you’re waiting for someone else to do
For each of these categories you need to make a list of each item you’ve PROCESSed that falls under that category. For CALENDAR items that’s easy – they go on your CALENDAR.
A list of PROJECTS is just that.
A list of WAITING FORs is also relatively simple to compile.
The lists of NEXT ACTIONS should be broken down into separate lists depending on the context in which the action will take place. This is a key principle of GTD that differs from other activity management systems – listing actions according to where they happen.
Typical CONTEXTS are:
- AGENDAS – lists of the people you need to communicate with, and meetings planned, with the topics you need to discuss
- ANYWHERE – list of actions that have no restrictions on where they can be carried out
- CALLS – list of calls you need to make, by type of phone (mobile, landline, etc.) if that’s appropriate
- COMPUTER – list of actions that require a computer
- ERRANDS – list of things you need to do whilst you are out and about
- HOME – list of actions that need to be done whilst you’re in your home environment
- OFFICE – list of actions that require you to be in your office
- READ – list of articles, books, etc that you’ve decided to read
- SOMEDAY/MAYBE – list of items and actions that you might wat to do at some point but not now
So now, armed with your lists of NEXT ACTIONS for each of the CONTEXTs above plus your list of WAITING FORs and PROJECTs you’re ready to go into action. But before we do that, next we’ll look at the REVIEW phase that’s key to GTD – how you keep your lists up to date.
The REVIEW is the most important of the 5 phases of mastering workflow but it’s the one most people struggle to do.
However, it’s essential, once you’ve got all your open loops under control, that you keep them that way otherwise you’ll lapse back into your old ways and get completely out of shape!
How often you do a REVIEW is up to you but the oprimal frequency is weekly – it’s usually referred to as the WEEKLY REVIEW.
There are three parts to the REVIEW:
- Get CLEAR
- Get CURRENT
- Get CREATIVE
Get CLEAR means:
- get all the loose papers, receipts, etc. that have accumulated since your last REVIEW into you in-basket ready to PROCESS (this is a mini-COLLECT!)
- get anything that’s in your head out and written down an in your in-basket
- PROCESS all outstanding items in your in-basket
Get CURRENT means:
- review all your NEXT ACTION lists and cross off anything that’s done and add any new NEXT ACTIONs that this triggers
- look back over your calendar since your last Weekly REVIEW for any remaining NEXT ACTIONs and add to your NEXT ACTIONs lists
- look forward over your calendar for the next few weeks and capture any NEXT ACTIONs triggered by this
- review your WAITING FOR list checking off completed items and look for any needed follow-up on these and other items and capture any NEXT ACTIONs on your lists
- evaluate the status of all your PROJECTs making sure that you’ve at least one NEXT ACTION on each
Get CREATIVE means:
- review your SOMEDAY/MAYBE list and transfer any PROJECTs that have now become active to your PROJECTS list and delete any SOMEDAY/MAYBE items that are no longer of interest
- think of any new things you want to be doing that you can add to your GTD system
One of the key tricks with the REVIEW is finding the time and space to do it justice. Book a meeting with yourself or take all your lists to your favourite coffee shop and shut out the rest of the world whilst you put your world into order.
Next we’ll look at DO, the final phase of mastering workflow.
DO is the final phase of the Five Phases of Mastering Workflow.
Now that you’ve COLLECTed and PROCESSed everything that has your attention, ORGANISEd all the open loops to make sure that OUTCOMEs and NEXT ACTIONs have been decided on and REVIEWed everything to ensure that it’s current, you now have to decide what to DO.
To make the right choices, you need to think about where you are (CONTEXT), how much time you have (CALENDAR), how much energy you have, and what your priorities are.
If you’ve listed your NEXT ACTIONs according to CONTEXT as we discussed in ORGANISE, it should be easy to identify what actions you could accomplish by looking at the appropriate list. Pick something off the appropriate list that you have the time and energy to DO.
We will return to priority at some future date when we look at the HORIZONS OF FOCUS but for now we’ll just identify what these horizons are:-
- RUNWAY – Your current NEXT ACTIONs (look at these daily)
- 10,000 FEET – Your PROJECTS (look at these weekly)
- 20,000 FEET – Your responsibilities (look at these monthly)
- 30,000 FEET – one to two-year goals (look at these quarterly)
- 40,000 FEET – three to five-year goals (look at these annually)
- 50,000 FEET – career, purpose, lifestyle (look at these annually)
This has been a very quick run through the Five Phases, so feel free to post any questions as comments. In the meantime take a look at the Five Phases of Mastering Workflow from David Allen’s site for free and don’t forget the basic manual on how GTD works in David Allen’s Getting Things Done.