A Simple Exercise to Help Make GTD Stick - Next Action Associates

Do you understand the basics of the Getting Things Done, but are struggling to find the time to implement it well? Have you been using GTD off and on for a while, but have recently “fallen off the wagon”? Here is a quick, simple diagnostic exercise that can help you determine how best to move forward. This exercise assumes that you are familiar with GTD, and that you have already picked a tool that will work for you to manage your project and action lists and have begun implementing some of the method using this tool.

The three-fold nature of work in GTD states that there are really only three types of knowledge work that you can do at any point in time: work as it shows up (unplanned), predefined work (planned), and the work of defining your work (planning).


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Work as it shows up could be anything from an idea that pops into your head to a “corporate drive-by” of someone passing by your desk, firing off new ideas like a machine gun. Predefined work is working from what is on your lists and in your calendar. You use the calendar for “hard landscape” like meetings and deadlines, as well as reminders and notes to self. For all the “white space” in your calendar (i.e. between meetings), you use your lists to guide you in how best to use your time. Finally, defining work is what we call “processing and organising” in GTD – the work of sifting out the projects, actions, reference and rubbish from your raw inputs.

So here is the first part of the exercise: reflect on the three types of work (unplanned, planned, planning) and divide up doing the planned work a bit further into working from your lists versus working from your calendar (i.e. meetings).

Write down these four categories on a piece of paper:

unplanned / interruptions: __%

planned work from lists: __%

calendar / meetings: __%

processing time: __%

Next, for each of these four categories, reflect on your job role. In this role, what is your sense of the ideal or optimal percentages for each of these four categories? How “should” you be spending your time according to the requirements of the job? Put a number beside each of the four categories (and make sure it all adds up to 100%).

Next, reflect on how you have been spending your time in actuality over the past four to six weeks. What has the real breakdown of your time been? Put a stroke next to each of the first numbers, and write this new number for the actual amount of time beside it.

Notice the differences. Most senior people I work with would say that they are spending more time in meetings than ideal, and less time processing and working from their lists than ideal. Beginners at GTD sometimes find out that they are spending loads of time processing in a kind of obsession with “inbox zero” at the expense of actual doing time. Rarely do people determine that they are not spending enough time on unplanned work or interruptions.

Whatever this little report-card-to-self shows you, ask yourself: is this actionable? What are my next actions and/or projects to move more toward an ideal allocation? It could be that you need to block time in your calendar for processing, or more time for working from lists. You may even need to escalate the situation to someone who helps manage your performance, seeking guidance on how best to renegotiate, reassign, or delegate so that you can stay on top of what is most important in your role.

Whatever you decide, be sure to get it captured in your GTD system, and get moving on it. This simple act–of reflecting on what’s ideal, what’s true, and what you can do about the gap between the two, will help you to turn the GTD method into a practical reality and your system into a key tool that you can trust, time and again, to help you spend your time wisely in a relaxed and focused way.

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