Getting things done 101: Keeping your system functional

Reviewing your system on a regular basis and keeping it current and functional are prerequisites for maintaining complete control.

John Nordell / The Christian Science Monitor / File
This file photo from May 1998 shows a the face of a clock-tower clock in Newburyport, Mass. Scheduling tasks and taking the time to review what you've done so far is an important part of implementing a functional system.

This is the eighth 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.

So far, we’ve talked about three of the five major steps for getting things done: collecting all of the stuff you need to do, processing that stuff down, and organizing by putting all of that stuff into appropriate places. But how do you keep all of this running? Review. It’s the key element to making sure all of this works, in my opinion.

Allen makes the case for a review right off the bat, on page 181:

The purpose of this whole method of workflow management is not to let your brain become lax, but rather to enable it to move toward more elegant and productive activity. In order to earn that freedom, however, your brain must engage in some consistent basis with all your commitments and activities. You must be assured that you’re doing what you need to be doing, and that it’s OK to be not doing what you’re not doing. Reviewing the system on a regular basis and keeping it current and functional are prerequisites for that kind of control.

Here’s the truth of the matter. Our lives are incredibly busy – I can say for certain that my life is absolutely crazy at times. This means that sometimes, no matter how good the system is, things fall through the cracks. If enough things fall through the cracks, then the system ceases to work at all, which is a shame because when the system is pumping on all cylinders, it’s incredible.

The solution to this is to review things regularly. I do two distinct types of reviews to keep my system running.

Daily Review
I usually do this type of review at the start of each day. In the evening (particularly if I find myself in my office for some reason or another – usually due to children who can’t sleep, since my office is next to their bedroom), I’ll sometimes redo some of these pieces as I choose.

I check my calendar for the day. What do I have going on today? The first thing I look at is my calendar – in fact, Google Calendar is the homepage of my web browser, so I can’t help but see it pretty quickly after starting my work day. I usually set some alarms on my computer as well so that I’m alerted to coming events throughout the day.

I check my calendar for the next week, too. This sometimes causes me to add some things to my inbox, like a note about an upcoming birthday or anniversary that I need to get a gift or a card for, or a trip that I need to prepare for.

I fully process my inbox. I go through all of the stuff sitting in my inbox and do something with each item, as described in the “process” section from last week.

I reprioritize my “next action” list and print off a copy. What am I going to do today? I usually categorize the list with four colors – things I try to do each day, things that need to be done soon, things that are truly important but aren’t vital to do today, and “other.” I usually do them in roughly that order. This is my checklist for the day, and I cross off the items as I do them. The next day, I edit my “next action” list by getting rid of all of the stuff I crossed off from yesterday (except for the “every day” things).

Weekly Review
Once a week, I do a more thorough review of my entire system, just to make sure nothing has fallen through the cracks. I usually do this on Saturday or Sunday afternoon, depending on whether Sarah or I is on nap duty. Here’s what that entails.

I round up anything miscellaneous floating around and get it in my inbox. On page 185, Allen explains this clearly:

Pull out all miscellaneous scraps of paper, business cards, receipts, and so on that have crept into the crevices of your desk, clothing, and accessories. Put it all into your inbox for processing.

I don’t process yet, though.

I brain dump. At the start of the “collect” part of GTD, a person should sit down and toss everything that’s in their mind out onto paper so that it can be dealt with appropriately. I essentially do this each week. I just sit down with a pad of paper and start jotting down the things that are on my mind whether they’re already in the system or not. Yes, a lot of it is redundant, but those things that are repeated are big clues as to the things I need to get done because those are the things bothering me. They’re interfering with my mind flow.

I process my inbox and note everything that’s repeated. I then go through all of the stuff in my inbox. If I find stuff that’s repeated, I mark it as “important” on my “next actions” document because if it keeps popping up like this, I need to take care of it.

I file everything that’s unfiled. During the week, if I pull out a file folder, I often don’t file it again. I just toss it in a wire basket on top of my filing cabinet. At the end of the week, I put it all back so I can easily find it all again. If I don’t do this, the filing system begins to fall apart.

I take a look at each ongoing project and figure out what the next action is. As I mentioned earlier, I keep a folder for each major ongoing project I have in my life. During my weekly review, I go through each of these and figure out what the next action is to carry that project forward. A project can be anything from writing a novel to reorganizing the garage and closets.

I review my “next actions” list and set some priorities for the coming week. Mostly, this just involves upgrading the urgency of things already on my “next actions” list. Yes, I don’t necessarily empty out my “next actions” list in a given week. In fact, I can’t actually recall the last time it was completely empty.

I think about how everything I’m doing fits into my larger lifelong goals. I mostly just spend time thinking about where my life is going, what things that I wanted to do “someday” (things often saved on a list, actually) might actually be coming into focus, whether or not the things I’m doing right now are in line with what I want to be doing in my life, and so on.

Allen riffs on this at the end of the chapter, on pages 189 and 190:

What are your key goals and objectives in your work? What should you have in place a year or three years from now? How is your career going? Is this the life-style that is most fulfilling to you? Are you doing what you really want or need to do, from a deeper and longer-term perspective?

[..] As you increase the speed and agility with which you clear the “runway” and “10,000 feet” levels of your life and work, be sure to revisit the other levels you’re engaged in, now and then, to maintain a truly clear head.

How often you ought to challenge yourself with that type of wide-ranging review is something only you can know. The principle I must affirm at this juncture is this:

You need to assess your life and work at the appropriate horizons, amking the appropriate decisons, at the appropriated intervals, in order to really come clean.

Which brings us to the ultimate point and challenge of all of the personal collectiong, processing, organizing, and reviewing methodology: It’s 9:22 AM Wednesday morning – what do you do?

This, in my opinion, is the key point of this book. The whole reason for having a system like this is to make you more efficient at the little things you have to do (by keeping your mind clear of clutter) and keep it all organized in such a way that you can step back and seriously think about the big picture. It’s impossible to do this if your life is constantly chaotic with you running around putting out fires all the time and collapsing in a heap of exhaustion.

For me, the best way to do this is to focus on one area of my life each week. I do this by breaking my life down to a number of roles. What roles do I play? I am a writer. I am a friend. I am a father. I am a husband. I am a son. I am a gamer. I am a reader. I am a homeowner.

I have long term goals and short term goals in each of those areas. How do I want to fill that role? Each week, I focus for a while on one of those roles and just reflect on where I want to be in the future and what I can do now to move in that direction.

I look for some key actions for the following week that are in line with those big goals. I usually add several things to the least important section of the “next actions” list from the role I focused on, along with one or two more urgent things. For example, if I have the “I am a son” role in mind, I put things like “talk to my parents about their will” and “give my mom a long phone call” as a more important task for the coming week and “think of a great anniversary gift for them” and “plan ahead for a weekend vacation with them late this summer” as lesser things to do.

Next time, we’ll go through the final piece of the puzzle: doing stuff. How do you prioritize all of that stuff that’s on your “next action” list? How do you keep that in balance with your calendar? We’ll dig into that on Tuesday!

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