Quick Wins with GTD (Video Podcast) - Next Action Associates

While GTD® is a comprehensive, whole-life methodology, in this video Todd Brown and Robert Peake talk about some of the “quick wins” you can achieve by implementing key aspects of GTD.

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00:01 Robert Peake: Hello. Welcome everyone to another Change Your Game with GTD podcast. My name is Robert Peake. I’m here with Todd Brown.

00:08 Todd Brown: Hello, everyone.

00:09 RP: Hey, Todd. The purpose of this podcast series is to help you implement the Getting Things Done® methodology, GTD. Why would you wanna do that? Well, for a lot of people, it, yes, increases their productivity but also increases their overall well-being. So, getting less stress and more success in their daily lives, getting a little more present, a little more available to do their job and to implement, to utilize the skill of their job the way that they do best, rather than being buried in their inbox and so forth. If that sounds interesting, if you think that’s possible, stick around. We’ve been doing this for quite a while, and we often get nice email feedback. We love that.

01:01 RP: A reader, a listener, named Angela, wrote in recently and was asking if we’d do something on quick wins with GTD, so… Or saying rather than implementing every aspect of the methodology, which we recommend, we do recommend you do that. What are some components that you can implement quickly and relatively easily that will give you some success, will give you some of those wins. And she had a great example. She had the example of the mind-sweep, which, for those of you that don’t know, is really the process of answering the question, “What’s on your mind, or, “What has your attention,” with a piece of paper and a writing implement next to you. So, you’re literally writing down what’s on your mind, what has your attention in the spirit of brainstorming. And that, in itself, can be hugely helpful just to externalize periodically what’s on your mind. One of the fundamental premises of GTD being then, if it is on your mind, it’s in the wrong place, that externalizing. Creating systems is a great way to, again, increase your productivity and also increase your well-being.

02:08 RP: I thought that was a great example. That’s certainly been my experience. That’s one of the first things that led me to GTD, was doing a mind-sweep in a seminar, realizing how much was in there and realizing, “Wow, I need this, I need a better system than my own head to do this.” Todd, do you wanna kick off with just some thoughts on some of those quick wins you’ve either implemented early in your GTD journey or seen others implement that’s helped them in your many years of doing this?

02:37 TB: Sure, sure. And I had the same experience of GTD. I think the thing that drew me to it, in the first place, was this idea of getting ideas out of my head and doing capture, as we call it. So, I’m completely on board with the idea of the mind-sweep as a quick win. I think the other thing that comes to mind straight away is taking the things that we’ve captured, whether it’s an email, or whether it’s just something that was on our minds and we jot it down, or whether it’s a piece of postal mail, whatever it is. And if that thing is actionable, asking the question… And what I mean by actionable is it’s down to me to move it forward, there’s something I need to do here. If that’s the case, then asking the question, “What’s the next action,” and being as specific and as concrete about that next action as possible. I think, so often, I find in my own life and in the lives of the people that I work with, that things are stuck in their lives because they haven’t asked this question, “What’s the next action? What do I need to do to move things forward?”

03:43 TB: I’m reminded of a video that David Allen, who wrote the book, “Getting Things Done,” made years ago that I remember seeing where he talked about the fact that the people who are the biggest procrastinators are the most intelligent, creative, sensitive people. And I’m reminded of that because, if you haven’t asked the next action question, it may be that your brain is spinning all kinds of really unhelpful fantasies about what engaging with that thing is going to look like. It’s going to be overwhelming, it’s going to be dangerous, it’s going to be uncomfortable, it’s going to be whatever. And the more creative and the more sensitive and the more intelligent you are, I suppose, the more possible it is that you’re coming up with all kinds of scenarios that are not particularly attractive.

04:32 TB: So, yeah, I think asking the question, “What’s the next action,” and then… As they say, good next actions are, as we say, physical and visible, there are things we can see you do. “I’m gonna forward this email with my comments. I’m going to buy something at the store. I’m going to do some online research into this topic. I’m gonna have a conversation with someone, with the boss or with someone out of my personal life.” Those would all be examples of next actions. And again, whether you do, as it were, all of GTD or not, I think you can get a lot of mileage out of applying that kind of next action thinking.

05:11 RP: Yeah. I think that’s great. And I love the point you make about how, yeah, the dispassionate nature, in a way, of that question brings into focus, usually, most of the time, the fact that the next action is very doable once you identify what it is. And so often in coaching and in seminars, when we do the exercise with people, they have something written down that they think is the next action. And we say, “Well, do you have everything you need to do that right now? Could you just go work on that?” “Oh, no, no, no, I need to talk to so and so first.” “Oh, no, no, I’m waiting for some documents to come back.” “Oh, no, no, no I need to go to this… My storage facility and get the thing.” So, it’s amazing how really installing next action thinking can unstick some of this stuff and get people to realize, “Oh, the very next action is easy. It’s not so hard to do, but I wasn’t actually thinking of it. I was thinking of action three, four, or five down the road.” And that’s maybe part of why they were stuck. So, I think that’s great.

06:15 RP: Another one that I encourage people to do as a way to get started with GTD, we often build, help someone build their GTD system organically by using all of their real inputs to remind them of all the different things that they have committed to do, the artifacts, the, “Oh, I need to mail off dad’s Father’s Day card.” There it is, for example. But another way to approach this that’s, for a lot of people, maybe a little less intimidating and also get them going in a way that has a pretty high value, is to do something like a mind-sweep, very much focused on “What are your projects?” If you had to identify, even if it’s only half a dozen of the key projects that are on your mind. Just getting a list of a handful of the most important projects that are going in your world and then making sure, for every project, there’s a next action. Just that, I think, can keep a lot of the key things in your sights to help you move them forward and get them done, while you’re potentially building the rest of your system, while you’re potentially setting aside those increments of time you need to clear the email backlog, while you’re installing better physical reference filing, or whatever it is to get comprehensive.

07:38 RP: That’s a real nice stair-step for a lot of people, because then, whatever else they’ve been using to cope day to day, they can still do that, but they’re checking in, at least, with a good project list periodically. And seeing how that’s helpful, not only externalise it, as Angela said, through the mind-sweep, but then to check in with that list of some well-defined project outcomes periodically as well. I’ve seen that, how people make it less daunting to install a system, start to get some benefit from the system on at least those key things that are top of mind for them.

08:15 TB: Yeah. I think it’d be helpful, just for those of you who aren’t familiar with GTD, to talk briefly about what we mean by a project, ’cause that’s important. A project is… In GTD terms, a project is any multi-step outcome that you’re committed to achieving. So, a good project, as you’ve quite rightly implied, Robert, gives us a picture of a finish line. A good project might be, “I have a new mobile phone,” or, “I’ve hired a new assistant,” or, “I’ve got a flashy new car sitting in front of my house.” Whatever the outcome that you’re committed to is, that’s what we mean by a project. Again, for those of you who are not that familiar with GTD, it might be that that definition comes across as somewhat new, because a project is just this thing that I’m on that has a team and a budget, and has a whole bunch of things that it’s trying to create, and it’s a little bit more, possibly a little bit more squishy in terms of its definition. We use “project” in a very specific way.

09:18 TB: Again, a multi-step outcome you’re committed to doing, typically within a time frame of up to 12 months, and the time frame really is just because, for most of us, annual planning cycles are a regular thing. We develop budgets, we do performance goals, we do all kinds of planning in annual cycles, and that’s why we use that as a typical framework timeline.

09:46 RP: Thank you. Yes, very important to point that out.

09:49 TB: Yeah, no problem. No, not at all. I guess thinking about it then, if we roll out into other things that we might encourage people to do, I think thinking about observing, reflecting on your own organizational system, and how well it’s serving you, just asking yourself, “Where are the sources of friction in how I use my organizational system, and do I feel like whatever my organizational system is… ” So if it’s… If I’m working in… Gmail is my primary thing, then I’m working with Gmail and maybe Google Calendar, if I’m working in Outlook, and that’s where my stuff lives, or whatever toolset you’re using, are you set up so that you can be reminded about things when it’s helpful to be reminded about them and only then?

10:46 TB: And I think, for a lot of people, that… Well, first off, for a lot of people, they feel a bit so overwhelmed by the flood of things coming at them that they don’t take a lot of time to step back and ask those bigger questions about their organizational system. So, does it serve you generally? Does it feel like you can work with it in reasonably friction-free ways? As things come at you, again, whether they’re emails, or meeting notes, or postal mail, whatever it is, do you feel like you’ve got good ways of working that allow you to get clarity about what those things are? And then, as you generate reminders about what those things need to do… What you need to do about those things, that those can very easily be put in a place where you know you’ll be reminded about them in the future.

11:35 TB: We talk about the idea that a good organizational system has clean edges, so the things that mean one thing go in one place, and in that place are only those types of things. Again, it might get you started in thinking a little bit more deeply about what… It’s almost like the tools I could put off to one side, it’s sort of like, whatever the tool is, how well do I feel that it supports me when I find myself wanting to be productive?

12:08 RP: Yeah, that’s a great question, thinking about the starting block, thinking about the finish line, and thinking about where you’re gonna be when you wanna do what you wanna do, thinking about what we call your future self, being kind to that person. Here’s a really quick quick one that occurs to me, literally fast, about speed, is the two-minute rule. The two-minute rule is, if something comes into your world that reminds you of something you need to do, so it’s actionable, and it’s two minutes or less just to move that next action forward, just do it. Avoid the overhead of putting it into some system, getting it out of some system later. And avoid the overhead of marking it as unread again in your inbox and moving along. I think the temptation can be to say, “Okay, I’ll do that later, that’s not that important.” It’s not that important and you mark it unread, you’re gonna be scrolling past that thing, potentially dozens or even, if it languishes for quite a while, hundreds of times with that tiny little bit of nag and drag, that tiny little bit of friction that comes from looking at that thing, and then potentially re-parsing it, going, “Oh, yeah, oh, no, that wasn’t that important. Oh, yeah, oh, no, that wasn’t that important.” You could easily spend… It could add up easily to a couple of minutes or more, and then you haven’t still done the thing, you’ve spent that amount of psychic energy and not done it.

13:34 RP: So, two-minute rule has changed, I think, changed people’s lives, frankly, that they go, “Oh, yeah, I’m not gonna put it back in the inbox if it’s only a couple of minutes to move to the next step forward.” And now bear in mind that you need to really identify what the next step is, you need to have that next action thinking really installed so that you can be clear, “Oh, the next action is just to reply,” it is just go to a webpage and get the research and paste it in or whatever, that it is really… It is, A, really two minutes and, B, you really can do the next action right there and then. But that one’s helped… I think, a lot of people get their inboxes a little more unstuck in that sense.

14:18 TB: Yeah, I’m with you. Yeah, that completely… I’ve had a lot of feedback over the years that that’s a biggie, that people have… I had an email just in the last few days from a client saying that that’s the thing that really seems to have made a huge difference for her. The other thing I would mention around that is, or a similar idea is, are you tracking waiting for situations? In other words, are you… If you send an important email and you are then in the situation where, “Hey, I’m waiting for a response to this email that I’ve sent,” are you tracking that somehow? The setting up some sort of mechanism for keeping track of your waiting for situations is hugely helpful. And so many of us, I think, are distracted by the fact that we have these waiting for situations in our lives, but we don’t have any good way to track those waiting for, so we don’t have reminders about them. And what that means, of course, is that our brains try to take over the task of tracking those waiting for us, and for reasons that we talk about, the brain is not a very good reminder system.

15:28 TB: You can keep it really simple at the beginning. You could simply have a folder underneath your inbox, let’s say, that is… And every time you send a really important email, just blind copy yourself so it ends up back in your inbox, and then drag that into the waiting for folder. And then, every once in a while, have a look through that folder. We’d recommend it at a minimum of once a week. And anytime you come across an email where you think, “Actually, I haven’t heard back from this person, and it’s now appropriate that I should go and chase them,” you just hit “reply all” and you say, “Hey, boy, [chuckle] when can I hear back from you, please?” Yeah, again, I’ve had a lot of feedback over the years that that’s something… That that sort of waiting for situation is something that a lot of people, number one, have not implemented in their lives and, number two, that when they do then implement it, it makes a big difference.

16:24 RP: Yeah. That’s great, and I love that you can start with… You don’t have to clarify it perfectly and use the three-part format, and all of that, but get those important things that you’ve requested into one place, and you can make sure you don’t forget and they don’t forget, and it doesn’t get dropped if you care about it. That’s great. Another thing that occurs to me is being ruthless with reference, I think, is something that really can help a lot of people. I think a lot of people tend to hold on to both the stuff they need to refer to and the stuff they need to do stuff about in one place or in the same kinds of places. Just having a simple A through Z type filing system for your physical world and for your digital world, email, and usually your files on your computer, at minimum, just having labeled buckets then allows you to move that stuff off as quickly as possible. So, being able to create labeled buckets fast and being able to move them in there without going, “Oh, well, maybe I’ll leave that on here for,” whatever reason.

17:38 RP: A lot of what we see that comes at people these days is either rubbish or reference, having a reference system that’s fast to use. And again, the best practice, I think, is just whatever you’re gonna be thinking about when you might want it back, that’s the word or phrase you use when you file it away, and then it’s just alphabetical from there. But doing that, again, is shaving time off people’s lives in scrolling, giving them back days, weeks, months, who knows, of time spent scrolling through the stuff that’s clearly not actionable to get to, the stuff that is. It seems like a silly thing, but if you don’t have good reference, filing it just backs up from there. It’s like plumbing, frankly, get… [laughter] Sorry, bad metaphor, but you get the idea. You will not forget now that if the downstream connection to keep that stuff flowing is not working well, it just all backs up from there. Get your plumbing right, get your reference filing right.

18:40 TB: Apologies to all of those of you who are listening to this during meal time but, yes. [laughter] No, I’m with you completely. I think that’s well observed. And it’s interesting. I talked earlier about the importance of clean edges and having a system that if it serves you well… And one of the things, I think, that’s unique about GTD is that it also gives you frameworks for having clean edges in your thinking. And so what you’ve just mentioned about reference material implies that I have an understanding of what reference means, and therefore, if I’m going to file something for reference, what does that mean? And we would say, “Hey, look, reference material is anything that you wanna put away in case you need it in the future.” It may be you don’t refer to it in the future, and that at some point it just becomes irrelevant and you delete it, but in the moment that you decide it is reference material, you believe that there is a good chance that you might need it in the future, and therefore, you’re holding on to it.

19:45 TB: Again that’s just… Most people’s inboxes are such a smorgasbord of different things, and the things in their inboxes mean different things. “This is actionable. That’s old and it’s trash. That’s a bit more someday maybe, and I might do something about it some day but not today. That’s reference. Oh, yeah, that’s in there as a reminder that I’m waiting for somebody else to do something.” Most people use their email inboxes as just a general storage facility. And the downside to that is it means that every time I open up my inbox, I’ve gotta not just decide but re-decide about all of those things that are in there. To your point about scrolling, “I’ve looked at this email 84 times since it arrived in my inbox. I haven’t ever really made the decision about exactly what it means to me.” And so going back to your point about reference, knowing exactly what reference means. What is an email which… Or if it’s paper, it could be physical reference as well, but using the email example, what does reference mean? And then, just as importantly, once I’ve decided that something is reference, where does it go? Where do I put it in my system?

21:07 TB: You’ve mentioned tagging things or putting things in named folders, or depending on the software, you might be using labels, or you might be using folders or something. In digital platforms, I find people are as likely to say, “Hey, I don’t really wanna tag anything in advance. I’ll just search for it if I need it.” And so they’ll put it all in one place. They’ll have a folder called “email reference,” for example, and then everything just goes in there. And if they ever need it, they can search for it. That works fine for some people. I’m not a huge fan of it in my own system, but, yeah, whatever works best for you, I’d say, is what you should go with.

21:46 RP: Definitely. One area where people get hung up, I think, or at some point down the line in their GTD practice, have sometimes struggled with is a really important area, which is the weekly review. And if someone were to say to me, “I’m just not doing my weekly review,” as they often do, which is fine, it’s about getting back on your game and doing that, not being perfect about it. But in order to get back on, or in order to start, one of the things you can do is the five-minute weekly review. And so if there’s one place that you would wanna focus in in a weekly review, if you literally only had five minutes, I would go to the calendar and look back over the past week, get some closure with that, see if there’s anything you need to bring forward, or anything you forgot in the past week and look forward one week what’s coming at you, you need to prepare for, “What did I miss? What’s coming at me that I need to prepare for?” That can literally take five minutes.

22:53 RP: And because most people’s first trusted system as an adult is their calendar, most people recognize that, “I need to put things into slots in it for the time-based reality, because my head won’t do that effectively,” because that is your first trusted system, for most people, that’s a place where they can begin to build from in terms of creating better systems for themselves. And, look, if you don’t have five minutes in a week, you’re not in a job, you’re in a war zone, everybody has five minutes to reflect. [chuckle] It’s gotta be there. You can’t make that excuse anymore that, “I don’t have five minutes for a weekly review.” But if you start there, to me, I believe that’s probably the most beneficial place to hone in on, to establish that habit, to start to do that.

23:47 TB: I couldn’t agree more, and I think that’s a great suggestion. And for those of you who are familiar with GTD, if you’re struggling… Because, in the seminar, you were presented with the outline of a complete weekly review, as it were, then… Yeah, I love your idea of just having a look at the calendar. When I think back to my professional career pre-GTD, and I think of the number of times when I would come into the office of a morning and not really have a clue about what was going on on that day… And I’m not proud of that fact, but thinking back on how high my stress levels were and how much I had going on in my life, frankly it’s really not hugely surprising that I wasn’t engaging productively with all the elements in my world. But, yeah, when I first got into GTD, that was one of the first habits that I got into, was doing the calendar review.

24:41 TB: And as you say, just have a look back at the last couple of weeks, “Oh, yeah, that meeting that got cancelled at short notice, I need to reschedule it. Okay, great, so I’ve got that, I’ve got control of that. And this thing that’s coming at me, I’ve got a presentation in a week and a half’s time, how am I doing on that? Am I making the kind of progress that I need?” Going back to our point about what’s the next action, “If I was gonna get prepared for that, what would the next action be?” So, I think the calendar gives us a… Time, of course, is relentless and the march of time is relentless, and being reminded about our time-specific commitments can be a huge stress reliever, just knowing that we are prepared for the world, as we see it coming at us… In other words, for the stuff in your calendar, of course, doesn’t include the surprises, but it at least includes the things that you have high confidence are gonna happen, and so let’s just make sure that we’re prepared for those as best we can be. Makes sense?

25:41 RP: Excellent. Yeah. Great. We covered a lot of ground, the next action thinking, project thinking, being kind to your future self, the waiting for list, the great, great list, the two-minute rule, working on… Looking at your calendar as part of your weekly review, a bit on reference filing. I think any one of those, you could grab one of those, start there, and then add the second or third or fourth one as you go along, you’re gonna start building out a GTD system, but more importantly a GTD practice that I think could serve you for a while.

26:16 TB: Yeah. That’s a really important point. For those of you who are new to it or who maybe are not so new to it, but you’ve been struggling to get started with certain elements, take what we’ve been talking about today, pick the one that most resonated with you and just focus on that. Whether it’s a mind-sweep or whether it’s a waiting for list, or whatever it is, don’t try to over-implement until you really see the need, I would say. And I think, probably in the long term, you’ll be much more successful should you take that kind of gradual approach.

26:47 RP: Yeah. Excellent. All right. Well, I think we’re coming around about to time here. I’m curious, if you were starting all over, day one of… Fresh out of the seminar, which one would you pick, which one would you pick to get started, do you think?

27:03 TB: As I say, the one that spoke to me most in the moment was this idea of, if it’s in your head, it’s in the wrong place. And capture made the biggest difference. And to this day, I have to say, if I think about my own GTD practice, probably the thing that I am most careful and most consistent about is getting open loops out of my head. I have a hugely low tolerance for having open loops in my head, and that serves me really well. How about you?

27:33 RP: Right. I probably could pick any one. At the moment, it’s occurring to me the reference filing thing is a place where you can feel a physical result. There’s that sense of purge or spring cleaning, or what have you, that feels like a real tangible win, like, “Oh, yeah, there’s boxes forever, all these non-actionable stuff to go to, there’s places for it to flow to.” That just is a good empowered feeling. That’s why so many get organized-type techniques are out there. But then, of course, not stopping there. Then going into the clutter up here as well, but I think that’s a great place to start. Start with the physical and then move your way up into the more refined levels where clutter exists.

28:18 RP: Good stuff. Thanks, everyone, for tuning in to this. This was really prompted by a listener or a watcher, or maybe they read the transcript, someone who had thoughts, questions and ideas about what we’re doing. And so we’d love to hear those from you, info@next-action.eu, info@next-action.eu is the best place to reach us, that comes to us. I’d love to hear even if you don’t have a question, just that you’re out there, that you’re listening, any thoughts or reflection, it’s always good to be in touch. And if there’s anything we can do for you, pop over to the website. We do this all day long in a variety of capacities, helping people with this method. For now, from me, from Todd, go grab a step, get started. I think you’ll be really glad you did. Bye for now.

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