Does GTD work?
June 17, 2010 4:38 AM   Subscribe

Does David Allen's personal management system, Getting Things Done, really work? Is there a better organizational system for a teacher?

I am really interested in starting an organizational system that helps me focus the myriad shards of information and little tasks of my teacher life (and personal life) into some clear, focused system that makes me feel confident that I have a handle on everything that needs to get done. More than believing that things will get done in a system, I need to see my email inbox diminish. I need to have the stacks of miscellaneous paper around on my desk and near my computer sorted through and dealt with. I need to eliminate the anxiety of knowing that I have to complete several tasks at the same time with no real order to proceed. I want to stop apologizing to people for issues related to my lack of organization. However, I don't want to start a system that sounds good but doesn't really deliver.

So GTD gurus, I have read the first chapter of David Allen's book. Is it for real? Does anyone really last more than a year with this system? Have you switched to another more sensible system after trying GTD? Is there something newer and better? I am committed to trying a system and sticking with it, but I want to make sure that the system that I choose has at least worked for someone out there. Any other advice anyone? Thanks.
posted by boots77 to Work & Money (21 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think the type of system matters so much as picking a system and staying with it for awhile. I've done GTD, and it works to remove clutter for sure, because it gives you an action to perform with every piece of information you get.

However, I can see other systems working just as well. The hardest part is making the system into a habit at first, and staying with it after the shiny-newness of it has worn off after a few weeks.
posted by xingcat at 4:46 AM on June 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Does anyone really last more than a year with this system?

I think the point is having a system that works for you, rather than a particular system that's better/worse. You play around for a little while and find a way that works for your particular organizational challenges.

The majority of people simply don't think about how they organize their life, and so any system is really better than willy-nilly. I stuck with GTD, but I know a lot of people branch out and find something better because it suits them better. I don't stick straight to the GTD philosophy, and instead have personalized some of the methods to suit my life/job/situation and I think that's made it a lot more effective than simply reading the book as gospel.
posted by Hiker at 5:02 AM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty well a walking advertisement for adult add. There's no doubt really at this point, and it just gets worse. However, by training, experience, or kismet---I am a program manager. The job I have right now requires that I speak with a whole lot of people, but most of them about 10-20 times in a 2 week period, and then I move on to the next, and whole ton of tasks (minor and major) done in the middle.

I use a fun variation of strategies to get done what I have to get done, and it works really well (for me.)

So for all my clients, I made a database. We'll ignore that mostly because it's highly job specific.
I do use the ACTION/WAITING/TEMPORARY/FINISHED folders. To wit, those are the 4 folders on my computer desktop, and the first 4 folders in my desk file cabinet. I've got a jillion others, but those are my key folders. I used to use GTD Gmail, but the most recent versions are really more of a pain than a help.

I also keep 2 sheets of paper on my desk all the time. One is a phone contact sheet. Literally every voice mail, or every time I talk to someone on the phone, they go on the sheet. It holds about 7 entries. Name/number and a note to myself who they are. The second one is a tasks sheet. If I need to do something, it goes on that sheet. It's two columns, one with a description, and one with a space for a checkmark.

The checkmarks are important. Contacts on the contact sheet get a big blue checkmark when they're done, tasks on the task sheet get one too. Super simple to know if something's done. Now here's the key---once a sheet is full (or a week is over), the sheet gets filed in a file called "completed communication". I don't know how many times I've been able to dig through that folder and find a contact from a month or 5 ago, their phone number, etc.

I forget my lunch in the fridge, my wallet in my desk, to take out the trash, etc. But everythign on my lists gets rocked, and it's great---because if I'm sitting here at 7:45 knowing I need to call Bill Randomdude today, but I know I can't call him now, I can write it on my list and later today I'll get it done.

So...I process flow stuff as much as possible. I make routines and I automate as much as I can. Between routine-ing everything and my 2 magic sheets, I'm the very model of productivity.

IDK how much would apply to a teacher, but I'm a big fan of ACTION/WAITING folders at least. The rest get to be a little superfluous for me.
posted by TomMelee at 5:18 AM on June 17, 2010 [6 favorites]

Hi. I found GTD too complicated e.g. I like paper and found I would be rewriting lists all the time.

I like the autofocus system, which is a list with an algorithm for how you do jobs.

If version 4 is not quite right, there are some older versions which are slightly different.
posted by Not Supplied at 5:32 AM on June 17, 2010

I found GTD very helpful when I had papers and ideas piled everywhere and no filing or processing system at all. I used its methods to set up a functional desk area and file drawer, and to purge a lot of unnecessary crap from my life. I have not been especially disciplined about staying on top of things at all times, but it's still very helpful to have those tools in mind and to know that I can get everything whipped into shape rather quickly when I realize I've let myself backslide for a bit too long.

Disorganization is often, for me, a way of procrastinating. Tim Pychyl, in his iProcrastinate podcast, periodically makes the point that tips and tricks and methods and strategies can only get you so far when dealing with procrastination, and that tolerating the discomfort of getting started on something you're not excited to start is a critical ability to cultivate.

As I recall, though it's been a few years since I read it, GTD offers excellent step-by-step processes for dealing with bits of paper and small details, but only vague suggestions for how to make sure the things you're working on are in line with your personal values and goals. He talks about periodic reviews and looking down on your life from high altitudes, but these suggestions can be hard to follow if looking at the big picture is uncomfortable for some reason, e.g. you don't feel good about your job or your relationships or you feel somehow trapped. Those emotional issues are a critical piece of the puzzle; without tackling them, any system or strategy tends to fall apart.
posted by jon1270 at 5:41 AM on June 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't follow the GTD system step-by-step. However, I learned a lot from reading the book and adopted several new behaviors as a result. There's no doubt that I'm more organized than I was before I read the book.

GTD describes an ideal. It would be very rare for someone to follow the system perfectly. But that's not the point. The point is to do enough that your life feels under control and well-managed. GTD can certainly help you attain that.
posted by alms at 5:54 AM on June 17, 2010

Does anyone really last more than a year with this system?

I've never lasted more than a few months with the system, but I revert back to it whenever I feel tasks are starting to overwhelm me. It can be great for clearing out a ton of tasks in a relatively short time.
posted by Astro Zombie at 5:58 AM on June 17, 2010

I doubt anyone follows this system to a T (other than the people who were organized enough not to not really need a system in the first place) but I have found the Someday/Maybe list and the weekly review to be invaluable at keeping on top of projects I'd need/like to get to eventually. Circumstances are always changing as are priorities so it really helps to have a place to put ancillary/low priority projects that I might have forgotten about if I didn't have the list. For example, I had a host of things that needed to be fixed in my house piling up on the Someday/Maybe list then I decided to refinance which entailed an appraisal so instead of searching through the house for all the little things that needed to be fixed I already had a list at the ready as well as solutions connected to each task because I've been reminded to think about it every week for months. Motivation is not always there but it's a great feeling to be prepared once it's shows up!
posted by any major dude at 7:24 AM on June 17, 2010

I read GTD in late 04 and it was amazingly useful in giving me a complete system that I trusted to manage the things I wanted to do. Not that I was disorganised before but I was always aware of a kind of lack of clarity about what I wanted to do - lots of bits of paper with ideas on but no real way to turn them into actions. So I used the system pretty religiously for a while and it worked really well for me.

Since then I'd say I've integrated it into a "what works for me" version, like several people have said above. That current system owes a lot to GTD though.

Jon1270s comment rang true for me too. After I had been using GTD for a while I realised that the lack of clarity I was feeling was covering up deeper dissatisfactions. So although GTD doesn't give "top down" guidance, it may remove your excuses for not thinking about those bigger goals.
posted by crocomancer at 7:42 AM on June 17, 2010

I am a high school teacher and this is my system:
  • Student-info/parent-contact binder (largest binder available with dividers for each class)
  • Moleskine 18-month agenda
  • Electronic gradebook (district provided, hosted, managed, etc).
  • Two-shelf inbox-outbox that I empty every day. Each class has two folders: To grade, To return; the To grade folders are usually in the Inbox and the To return in the Outbox, etc.
  • I keep pre-written dismissal notices (from class) for my reliably disruptive students in a nice plastic envelope that also serves as a receptacle for blank detention slips. I move this plastic envelope to my substitute binder when I am going to be sick.
  • I also have your standard filing cabinets which I use for all curricular and semester assessments. Every student has a folder and I use some cheap cardboard magazine holders from Ikea to sort the folders by class.
  • I have a six-pocket folder for new handouts. If someone is absent, I write their name at the top of the handout and the date. I then place this item back in the new handout folder in their class pocket.
  • I keep a smaller one-inch binder with my weekly lesson plans, seating charts, and most importantly, blank grade rosters for each class. Each class has its own dividers and I use each blank space as a different day for (German) speaking participation. I also note in the blank A if they are absent.
I write everything down in a moleskine 18-month planner. I have a nice laptop for work that I don’t take home, however. At the end of each week (usually Friday afternoon), I transfer all of my written notes, such as for phone calls home, discipline issues, etc. into the appropriate locations.

I don’t keep a digital copy of most of this information because my school isn’t equipped/set-up to accept this information in that format. For example, we are required to submit written documentation of parent-contact. I also put the detention and dismissal forms into the student-info binder, which can be quite helpful during conferences.

For me the most important aspect of this whole system is that when I leave for the day, my desk is completely clear: the only thing on it is the empty tray. The side table has a few Ikea magazine holders with the curricular materials, empty To grade/To return folders, the new handout folder, and a few tasteful decorations (a bust of Karl Marx, a Knut Eisbär figurine, etc). I also deal with all of my email as soon as I get it. I do not let things sit around.
posted by vkxmai at 7:53 AM on June 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

GTD really changed my professional life. I followed it religiously for 6 months and it played a huge role in my becoming better at my job and feeling less overwhelmed by the mountains of little stuff.

I now practice a less anal version on a day to day basis, but kick back in to anal mode when I feel like I need to get a better handle on things. I've been doing it this way for about 2 years and love it.
posted by bluejayway at 7:53 AM on June 17, 2010

GTD is designed for executives and managers. Doing GTD literally is going to be a bit difficult for a teacher, because one of the tenets is "delegate it." If you're a teacher, to whom will you delegate?

That said, what I found most useful about GTD is the initial jump off of clearing the Inbox, and the notion of the weekly review.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:09 AM on June 17, 2010

I love GTD. It's not a typical self-help book.

I kind of cherry-pick from it; it would be complicated to use the entire system up-front. But the longer I go, the more GTD-like my own organizational stuff becomes.

I highly reccommend it.
posted by teatime at 9:18 AM on June 17, 2010

Sorry to double-post. I'm really busy and I'm sorry I can't give a more thought-out answer.

I suffer from ADD, and GTD is the single most helpful systems I've tried.

One of the key points of GTD is, if I remember the details correctly:

* When you have something you need to do, you constantly remember it, even if you can't act on it just then. This adds a bit of stress to your life.

* If you move those action items to a trusted external system, your brain will stop bringing it to your attention, so that bit of stress is relieved.

* However, if your system isn't reliable, your brain realizes this, and keeps reminding you of your action items.

There's so much truth to this. GTD is more useful to me for these sorts of bits of wisdom. The specific techniques it contains are designed around his unique perspective on organization and stress-management, but they aren't the most important part of the book to me.

And yes, I've been doing things the GTD way for many years now. Sometimes I slack off, but I always end up realizing that it's a mistake, and re-reading GTD, and my stress factor is much lower afterward.
posted by teatime at 9:52 AM on June 17, 2010

I've been exposed to the ideas in GTD for 3-4 years. Here are the ideas I hold on through waxing and waning:
  • Don't store abstract tasks, store projects and actions. Projects are things you want to accomplish, akin to traditional 8220;tasks8221;; actions dumb it down enough that you can go do them without having to think a lot. 8220;Grade papers8221; is too vague; you8217;ll find yourself asking 8220;well, what8217;s most important to grade? Where8217;s the stuff I need to grade? Do I have an internet connection to input the grades when I8217;m done?8221; 8220;Get out and start grading last week8217;s math benchmarks8221; is a lot clearer, because you don8217;t have a bunch of questions to answer. Another way of thinking about a next action is the following question: 8220;What8217;s the minimum I need to be reminded of to pick this up where I left it off?8221; I have a project right now to build a Mac Mini Media Center; one of my actions there is 8220;Run the Xcode installer in ~/Downloads8221;. When I see that, it8217;s enough to remind me that I need to install Xcode8230; so that I can install a VPN package, so I can continue with remote access, etc, etc. I8217;m smart enough to make those connections once I8217;m reminded of the first step, but if I have to re-think through what the first step is every time it just makes me numb.
  • It really helps me to have an overhead view of everything I need to be thinking about. Allen calls this the Projects List. I keep mine grouped by somewhat general Areas of Responsibility, such as work, personal, startup business, etc. (And I keep it in OmniFocus on the Mac, which allows me to also see what the next action(s) are on each project. That8217;s huge for me.)
  • Get really good at the 8220;capturing/processing8221; phase. When a thing shows up in your life, whether it8217;s an email from a parent, a jacket left in the classroom, or a voicemail from another teacher on your team, ask yourself 8220;Do I need to do something about this?8221; If so, get it into that 8220;system8221; that Allen8217;s always talking about; if not, file it somewhere, or let it roll off like water off a duck8217;s back. Get to know the 8220;delete8221; keys in your life.
  • The more thinking you do when you put something in the system, the less you have to think to do something with it. The problem with most to-do lists is that people don8217;t think when they put things in, so you end up with tasks like 8220;uh8230; garage8221; on the list. Then, every time you look through the list, you have to figure out what the hell 8220;uh8230; garage8221; means. If you do the thinking up front, you only have to do it once; then, your action lists become more like triggers for your built-in reflexes than minefields of ambiguous stuff.

posted by cebailey at 11:05 AM on June 17, 2010

(Sorry, preview made it look like my Markdown'ed document was going to be fine. I can repost with proper quotes.)
posted by cebailey at 11:06 AM on June 17, 2010

I've kinda run a stripped down system of GTD for a while now... is it perfect, no; is my life suddenly perfect, no; do I still procrastinate, yes fairly often. However it has taken a lot of stress out of my life and it does make things a lot easier.

Doing a few things from it made a massive amount of difference for me - having an physical and electronic intray, filing away reference material, having projects and know what the next step in each of them is, doing trivial tasks straight away, having a weekly review.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 12:18 PM on June 17, 2010

I teach technology.

GTD is amazing. But it (you) can stumble for a couple of reasons.

• I don't believe you can pick and choose. Or at least, I don't think you can pick and choose and then criticize it. It's something you should commit to 100%
• I wish that I had a mentor with it. I learned it 100% myself.
• This system isn't just for work - you should put everything into it.
• The biggest 'stumble' people make is regularly reviewing.

Basically, everything that you spend time 'remembering' eats up some of your energy.
GTD is about getting it ALL out of your head.

When you do get it out of your head (onto lists) - you need to figure out "Is this a project or is this an action?"
If it's a project - what are the actual multiple steps to get the best outcome for the project.
Where do you actually do a specific action? At the computer? on the phone? email?

You end up with basically two sets of your shit.
One project based (mostly for reviews)
One context based (ex: these are the emails I need to do.)
posted by filmgeek at 3:01 PM on June 17, 2010

GTD is a bunch of tricks, that's not disparaging to say David Allen says so himself. The key is finding which tricks work for you.

For example: The tickler file is great thing if you can use it. I can't. When I need to be reminded of a specific thing in the future - it goes in the calendar and the supporting docs are pulled out where they are filed.

The context based list is silly for me. I have one context - @ home. It's not even really worth worrying about. If something needs to happen while I am out and about - a reminder of that thing goes into my briefcase.

With a snapscan and evernote (or hell even spotlight on OS X) there is no need to have a filing system or a label maker.

Project lists aren't really needed for me, all my projects have their own folders where the paper that belongs to those products live. (The only thing paperless about my office is my document archive which is in evernote.) I use a modified version of Martin Ternouth's system described in this forum.

I have one list, I use a homegrown version of autofocus.

The things that I have kept from GTD are:

1. The two minute rule - for me is a five minute rule.
2. Next actions, always be aware of what they are for each project.
3. Weekly review of projects, sometimes daily.
4. Keeping my inboxes clean and using only inboxes as inboxes (your desk is not an inbox, and only one task should be on it.)
5. Maybe Later file (in evernote) - there is just so much stuff that seems like a good idea!

GTD is just one guys way of handling these things:

1) Tasks
2) Projects
3) Paper, files
4) Inputs (email, phone calls, orders, conversations)
5) Planning
6) Working

The standard GTD system isn't perfect for me in any of these ways. There is just too much management of the system. My tasks are all on one list, which is reviewed all the damn time - it grows organically. My projects don't need to be organized, everything is just right there, where it needs to be. My inputs are always put in the proper place as soon as I process them. The GTD done planning model is a bit simplistic. And working, in itself is different for everyone - there is no system that can be applied to all people. Even people in the same profession work differently.

The crux of task / project management is having the right things in the right place all the time. Every time something new comes in, just ask yourself "What is the right place for this (next action, piece of paper, order, email)?" and you'll build your own system and it will work wonderfully because it is yours.

Once everything is in it's place, you just have to work. Then next problem that GTD'ers usually deal with is procrastination. For procrastination, I recommend having a look at time boxing. The Pomodoro is a complete time boxing strategy.

Good luck!
posted by Brent Parker at 11:49 PM on June 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm another one who followed it religiously for several years, until I found that I didn't really need it anymore. I used GTD to clear a backlog of Stuff and Things that had built up over the years, and had a system for dealing with incoming Stuff. Whenever I get a bit snowed under or know I've got a busy time coming up, I get back into GTD mode. But nowadays I find that the general principles of writing things down instead of trying to remember them, getting rid of small tasks ASAP, and thinking of my to-do list in terms of next actions/results rather than "argh my spare room is a mess" works well enough for everyday. I don't think that I'd be able to have this loose system now if I hadn't done the hard work of the strict GTD system earlier.

If you're a natural list-maker, GTD can work really well. If not, you'll still probably gain some good ideas. It's worth reading the book to glean what you can from it, even if you decide not to go ahead with the whole shebang.

If your email is an immediate problem, it'd be worth looking at Merlin Mann's Inbox Zero stuff. It's extrapolated from GTD principles and could be useful if you want to get the email problem sorted out before you start anything else.
posted by harriet vane at 12:38 AM on June 18, 2010

If it's not bad etiquette, I'll repeat my comment from this thread:

GTD is pretty good for the "Getting Things" part of the problem. If you have productivity problems that stem from forgetting/not knowing what tasks you need to do and when you need to do them, then David Allen has a bunch of systems and tips that might help. These basically boil down to:

1. Set up various kinds of "inboxes" to ensure that as soon as a task arrives in your life, this fact is recorded somewhere. Now you're not trying to remember your to-do list, and not worrying about having forgotten something.
2. Spend a block of time paying close attention to the way you organise your notes, reminders and associated documents, and then set things up so that you don't have to pay close attention to it in future. Your organisational system should become habitual and invisible, in the same way that, for example, you don't have to figure out anew every day where dirty plates should be put.

A lot of people have these kinds of problems, and a lot of people swear by David Allen's proposed solutions to them. However, despite the title, GTD only helps in the "Getting Things" phase of the process -- it helps you get things onto your to-do list, but you're on your own when it comes time to getting them Done. If your problems are motivational or procrastinational, being told "Now do the next thing on your to-do list" isn't much help. And if your problem is that you're too easily distracted by tweaking systems and details instead of doing productive work, something like GTD will be nothing but a great big sticky spider-web.
posted by logopetria at 10:51 AM on June 18, 2010

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