A couple of years ago I was promoted to head of the Computer engineering department in my university. Before that, I was a faculty member whose main task was teaching undergraduate classes.

Naturally, my responsibilities increased greatly. I became responsible for all the administrative tasks in the department, in addition to my teaching and research loads.

While I’ve always been involved in administrative work, my promotion to head of department meant that I was now overseeing everything occurring in the department.

My purview included everything from ordering office supplies to developing new educational programs for the department. Given the huge volume of work this involved, I was naturally worried that I would be overwhelmed.

This led me to research how to become organized. During my search, I found David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) philosophy and got hooked.

The central message of the philosophy, that keeping stuff to do in your head can only lead to stress and failure, resonated with me strongly.

David Allen’s central thesis of performing a “brain dump” where you write down all the things that you need to do is an immediate stress reliever. This is the first step of GTD.

I’m writing this off the top of my head, but GTD consist of five important steps

  1. Capture everything you need to do
  2. Clarify what you need to do
  3. Organize actionable todos according to context, category and priority
  4. Reflect on your todo list
  5. Engage with the todo list to actually perform the tasks and get things done

All steps are clear and easy to implement. Capturing everything that comes your way means that you need to have collection stations where you put everything. These collections stations can be physical in-trays or digital inboxes.

Regardless of the nature of the collection station (or stations), you need to form a habit of putting everything that comes your way there. What you put into your collection boxes can be magazines you read, notes you write yourself, mail you get at work, or anything else that you need to deal with in your life — this is the brain dump phase.

The second step is to clarify what you need to do. For this step, you need to go through your collection stations and determine, for each item you find, whether it is actionable, is reference material that need to be filed for later use, is actionable at a later date or should be discarded.

Once you have decided what you are going to do with an item in your collection system, you need to remove it from your inbox or in-tray. Putting it back in will undermine the purpose of the in-tray and bury potentially important information under a mountain of useless “stuff”.

We then move unto the next step, organize your actionable items. If, from any of the step above, you discover something that needs your action in order to be accomplished, you need to ask yourself two simple but important questions

  1. What needs to happen for me to consider this issue done?
  2. What is the next action that I need to take to move forward towards resolving this?

This first question allows you to clarify the endgame. You now know exactly what needs to happen for you to consider the issue resolved. For example, let us assume you want to get your mother a Mother’s Day present. Instead of just writing “mom” on your todo list, this exercise allows you to determine what would constitute success “give Mom a gift on so and so day at her home”.

Now that you have determined, clearly, what needs to happen for you to consider the issue done, you need to ask yourself, what next step would take me closer to this goalpost?

In this scenario, possible next actions may include

  • Call sister to brainstorm on gift ideas
  • Go to mom’s favorite perfume store and check if her favorite perfume is in stock

And so on. The next action should always move you closer to reaching the state in which you consider the issue resolved. After completing each next action, you should think about another next action that would move you along. Like, for example, buying gift wrapping paper to wrap that perfume you just bought.

The reflect stage refers to a weekly, or more frequent, review that you need to make of your todo list in order to make sure that you are coming up with appropriate next actions for all the projects you are working on, and that you remove any project that becomes obsolete or irrelevant.

Finally, you need to engage with your todo list to actually get things done. That’s it, this simple philosophy has saved me from many disasters.

Ever since I’ve adopted it, I’ve become more productive, less stressed and less forgetful. Of course, there is much more nuance to GTD than outlined above, but this is a sufficiently detailed high-level description that can get you going with the system.

I intend to write more posts about GTD and how I use it to increase my productivity. I’ll also dedicate a couple of posts to the apps I use to implement GTD. If you have any questions or comments, please let me know in the comments section.

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