I’m a software developer and trainer. My primary responsibility is designing, building, testing, and supporting the order processing, work delivery, and reporting software used by an entire division of my company. When I inherited this software, it was struggling to serve a single department. Outages and data loss were the norm. Since then, I’ve rebuilt it from the ground up and expanded its capabilities ten fold. It is now used by 6 times as many users, across a dozen departments in three countries and two continents.
By any reasonable measure, a piece of software with this scope, user base, and rapid expansion plan should have an entire team of developers assigned to it. I’ve done the thing solo for over three years.
In addition, I’ve written and deployed half a dozen other applications, acted as front line technical support for PC and software issues, stood in for my management team when they’re out of the office, and served as a certified expert on the applications that my team delivers to customers. I’ve also worked on dozens of other projects, both large and small.
In the average work day, I will receive the following:
- 100 – 150 emails – Roughly a quarter of those will require a response. Another quarter need no response, but contain information that I may well need to refer to in the future. A handful will contain feature requests or bug reports for one of the software applications that I administer. The rest is noise, but I often have to read it to figure that out.
- 3 – 5 unplanned phone calls – These may be software support requests, bug reports, or spur-of-the-moment requests for advice. Sometimes they are calls delivering information I’ve requested. In addition, because I act as the backup to my manager, they may be customer support calls from the field.
- 3 – 4 unplanned “drop-in” meetings – Folks stop by throughout the day to get questions answered, or to poll me for my opinion on an issue.
- 10 – 15 Instant Message conversations – From friendly banter to urgent request for help, I see it all.
All of that is fairly typical for a single work day. On top of that, I have the scheduled meetings and phone calls. I also have my existing workload. Currently, my project list for the primary software application that I’m in charge of is 12 pages long. I also have 6 other software development projects going, as well as goals I must hit for professional development.
What all that means is that if everything stopped, and absolutely nothing new was added, I have about 8 months of solid work on the books. But nothing stops. The emails, phone calls, meetings and unexpected interruptions will keep on happening. New demands on my time will continue to pile up, and at no time will it become acceptable to miss a deadline or forget a commitment.
And that’s just my day job. We haven’t even talked about the myriad of commitments, obligations and deadlines that private life brings with it. But I think you get the idea.
It all boils down to this. On any given day, I have more things to do than time to do them. And new demands on my time never stop arriving. So how do I keep up? How do I stay on time, on budget, and not lose track of any of the hundreds of separate commitments I have on the books at any given time?
Three little words: Getting Things Done.
Getting Things Done, or GTD for short, is a time management system created by David Allen. In his book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, Allen explains how to go from feeling overwhelmed and uncertain to living a life of stress-free productivity. Now before this turns into a full on infomercial, here is the super-concentrated, just the basics version of how GTD works.
David Allen says that everything that you are worrying about is just stuff. It might be a phone call you need to return, the dirty dishes that need washed, or putting the finishing touches on your world-changing business plan. As far as your brain is concerned, it’s all just stuff.
The problem with your brain is that it is really horrible about figuring out which stuff should matter, and when. It does really useful things like remember the question you need to ask your boss, but only after he’s left the office for the day. Or it will spend an absurd amount of time worrying about some small annoyance, while letting something much more importantly slip by unnoticed.
GTD provides a framework for getting all that stuff out of your head. Once you have it all out, your brain does a much better job of collecting, processing, organizing, and ultimately, completing whatever actions your stuff requires.
The Five Phases of GTD
1. Get your stuff together – Before you can act on all the stuff that is on your plate, you have to collect it all. Empty out your head. Put everything that you are worried or thinking about down on paper. Every project, phone call, meeting, and to-do. Collect together all the physical objects that are bothering you, or need some decision. If you can’t physically move it, then write it down on a piece of paper can collect that.
2. Process your stuff – Now we look at each piece of stuff and decide what it is, and if it’s actionable. Some things aren’t. For instance, you may have received a memo outlining a new policy at work. There is nothing for you to do with it, but you still want to have it around to refer to. In that case, you file it.
If it is actionable, then you have to decide how involved the process for completing it is. Some stuff is quick and easy. (Take out the garbage.) Some stuff is pretty complicated. (Buy a new house.) If a piece of stuff is something that can be completed within two minutes, you go ahead and do it right then.
Any of your stuff that requires more than one action to complete is called a project. When you process that kind of stuff, you write down the project on your project list, and then decide what is the next discrete action you can take to move that project towards completion, then you write it down.
3. Organize your stuff – Now we take all of those next actions we wrote down and give them a home on a context-based checklist. For instance, if you have several different actions which involve making a phone call, then you can put them on your @Phone list. Context based lists help you sort out your lists of actions so you aren’t left sorting through one long list of stuff to find something you can do while killing time on long flight. Obviously, the stuff on @Phone is probably out, but you might be able to knock a few off the @Read list!
4. Do your stuff – Now you execute all of those next actions you defined on your lists. Do your stuff in the order that best fits with your time, your energy level, and where and what you are doing at any given time.
5. Review your stuff – Mercilessly review and revise your lists. Check off completed actions, and where necessary, write down the next action to move each piece of stuff towards completion.
While I’ve only hit on the high spots, GTD really is a deceptively simple framework for managing your time and your life. It does a great job getting all the white noise out of your head. And once your brain doesn’t have to spend all of its time worrying about forgetting something you’ll be amazed at how much more effective it becomes at problem solving and creative thinking.
I try not to traipse into hyperbole often, but GTD really has changed my life. It allows me to be comfortable at any given moment with what I’m doing, and perhaps more importantly, with what I am not doing. I know what all my commitments are, and I know what I should be working on. I don’t have to spend hours trying to figure out what to do. I just hit a list and start knocking out action items. Frankly, it takes a lot of the work out of working.