One of the most popular tools for managing your to-do list is the Getting Things Done methodology (public library) developed by David Allen. His time management process has been widely influential, and it’s a useful tool that you can add to your productivity toolkit.
David Allen contends that much of the stress we feel during the day comes from unfinished tasks swimming around in our minds rather than stored in an external system. Capturing ideas is the party of the concept that I find to be most valuable. I picked up this practice, not knowing it came from his methodology, and have been applying it for years. I can vouch for that idea because knowing that everything vital that you need to accomplish is stored in a trusty to-do list management system will make all the difference.
David Allen sets out five steps to his process.
The first step is to collect everything on your mind – all the tasks, thoughts, and ideas floating around there. These elements could also include useful information or something interesting that you heard. The idea is to write them down either digitally or on paper.
David Allen suggests creating a set of files with different lists that you regularly update with your reference items and to-do tasks. After experimenting with his ideas and given the plethora of digital tools available today, I would suggest using apps to organize your information. Your lists will be easier to manage, as they are always available at your fingertips and are searchable. I recommend using a to-do list, like Todoist, or a project management app such as Trello, Wrike, or Asana. You can sort each of your tasks by type and then set due dates, which you can easily modify whenever needed. For reference items, I recommend Evernote. Here, you can save notes and articles and use folders, which you can organize and save.
In the next step, you clarify what each of these items you have gathered before means to you. Can you take action? If not, you can remove them, identify them as a reference item, or put them on standby for the future.
For those items where you can take action immediately, you have three options. If the task will take less than two minutes to complete, do it at that moment because storing it and managing it later will ultimately require more time. If it takes longer than two minutes, ask yourself if you are the best person to manage this task. If you are, then you would add it to a list to work on it later. If not, you can delegate it.
The third step is arranging the information into different lists that make sense to you. If, for example, a list item has more than one task, then it is a project. You might have, for example, a to-do for setting up a website. This item would therefore go into a separate “Projects” list.
He also proposes a “Waiting for” list for those items that depend on someone else. An example would include waiting for a report from someone. You will also have a “Calendar” list for appointments. Finally, you would have a “Next Actions” list for those items that are on your to-do list. This category can be further subdivided into other classifications such as to-do list items you do on the computer, others on the phone, and so on.
For the items that are not actionable right now, you would have two separate lists: one for reference and one that he calls “Someday/Maybe,” for those items that you would like to work on at a later date.
In step four, you review your lists consistently and update any of the information for greater clarity of the actions you will be taking. You will start every day by looking at your calendar to see how your day is scheduled. If your day is packed with meetings, it will be quite different from a day where your schedule is wide open. Also, check what you need to do on your “Next Actions” list. According to David Allen, the heart of the system is the weekly review where you clean up and review your plans to check off anything that has been done and move anything you need to migrate between lists. If you know you have a sound system, you can relax with the knowledge you have taken care of everything.
Finally, you act according to the lists you have already put together. In this step, you sit down and complete the items on your agenda. The idea is to take action based on your circumstances: the amount of time you have available, your energy levels, your priorities, and your location.
Even though I only use parts of his system, knowing the entire methodology is useful. The concept of gathering all to-dos and having a dependable system to reduce stress is invaluable. Just this part alone has changed how I manage my tasks and helped me significantly increase my productivity. I hope some of these ideas help you, too!
Allen, David. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity. Piatkus, March 17, 2015. E-book.