The Art of Getting the Right Things Done

Time is our scarcest resource. It runs out irretrievably. Already the ancient Romans gave the advice: Carpe diem! In the age of knowledge work with a thousand possibilities and just as many distractions, however, this is easier said than done. In about twenty years of knowledge work, I have tried out a few things and learned a lot about how to organize myself well.

Dur­ing the time of my doc­tor­ate, about 20 years ago, I was for the first time con­front­ed with the ques­tion of how to use my time well. In my stud­ies before, my time was still strong­ly struc­tured exter­nal­ly by cur­ric­u­la, exams and tests, but now orga­niz­ing well research, pub­li­ca­tions, the doc­tor­al the­sis and teach­ing respon­si­bil­i­ties along­side was a com­plete­ly new chal­lenge for me. It must have been at this time that I first came into con­tact with David Allen’s Get­ting Things Done (GTD) pro­duc­tiv­i­ty method, whose book on it appeared very fit­ting­ly for me in 2001.

GTD is explained quick­ly and as is often the case with seem­ing­ly sim­ple mod­els and sys­tems, there is a lengthy, rocky road between under­stand­ing and imple­men­ta­tion. At least that was the case for me and in fact I have been walk­ing away from the pure GTD doc­trine for some time now, or per­haps I nev­er quite got there. I am not alone in this expe­ri­ence, as Cal New­port points out in his arti­cle “The Rise and Fall of Get­ting Things Done” in the New York­er mag­a­zine, specif­i­cal­ly using the exam­ple of Mer­lin Mann, one of the ear­ly apol­o­gists of GTD.

Mind Like Water

The beau­ty of GTD for me has always been the desired state of men­tal clar­i­ty, which David Allen describes as “mind like water”. Orig­i­nal­ly this term comes from mar­tial arts and means the abil­i­ty to quick­ly return to a state of calm­ness after excite­ment or stress. Like the water of a lake, which is briefly set into waves by a stone thrown into it, but after a short time rests calm­ly just as before.

This is exact­ly what I need­ed. I want­ed to get away from the seem­ing­ly thou­sand things in my head that I want­ed to do, should do, could do. GTD promised to bring order to the chaos in my head so I could ful­ly use my brain for think­ing, instead of man­ag­ing and remem­ber­ing. That nir­vana of per­son­al pro­duc­tiv­i­ty is what I was look­ing for then — and what I’m still look­ing for today.

The basic idea of David Allen was to cap­ture loose ends (“open loops”). This refers to all the unset­tled things in our lives that keep our brain busy sim­ply because we do not want to and must not for­get them. Once all loose ends are cap­tured in one trust­ed sys­tem, the brain can let go and ful­ly con­cen­trate on the task at hand.

For this to work, dis­ci­pline is need­ed. On the one hand, the dis­ci­pline to keep every­thing in such a reli­able sys­tem, and on the oth­er hand, to also reg­u­lar­ly review the loose ends cap­tured in it, revise them, delete them, or tack­le them. For this rea­son, David Allen rec­om­mends emp­ty­ing the (dig­i­tal or ana­log) inbox­es on a dai­ly basis, which in the mean­time esca­lat­ed into a real “Inbox Zero” cult. In the week­ly revi­sion, the tasks are then con­sid­ered in their entire­ty, revised and placed in a larg­er con­text of longer-term goals. The brain can only let go when it is one hun­dred per­cent con­fi­dent that every­thing has been record­ed, makes sense and will be dealt with in due course.

In essence, I still fol­low these ideas today and strive for a mind like water, entrust­ing all loose ends in my life to a reli­able sys­tem with more or less self-dis­ci­pline. How­ev­er, the tech­ni­cal solu­tions I use for this vary. For the most part, I rely on Things on the iPhone and my per­son­al Mac (in the past, it was Omni­fo­cus for a long time, but that had too many fea­tures for me). In a pro­fes­sion­al con­text, it always depends on what sys­tems I find and can use. Often it’s just Out­look or, if things are going well, sys­tems for vir­tu­al task boards like Trel­lo or Wekan. In addi­tion to the var­i­ous dig­i­tal inbox­es, espe­cial­ly e‑mail, I use a very clas­sic ana­log note­book (usu­al­ly in A5 size and prefer­ably with dot­ted lines), espe­cial­ly in meetings.

Time blocking

While GTD describes pre­cise­ly how to work through your inbox­es and main­tain the lists in this reli­able sys­tem, David Allen remains rather vague when it comes to work­ing through these tasks. Of course, there are the so-called con­texts that allow me to bun­dle all the errands or show me every­thing I need to do in the office or at home. But beyond that, it’s up to me, my mood, my ener­gy, and my pri­or­i­ty, how­ev­er set, to find and com­plete the most impor­tant task at hand. It’s not uncom­mon for me to choose to do a few eas­i­er tasks first, so that I can quick­ly check some­thing off. Rarely was my apart­ment tidi­er than at the time I was sup­posed to be writ­ing my dissertation.

So, in order to use my time as wise­ly as pos­si­ble, I was always miss­ing some­thing with GTD, which I final­ly found with Cal New­port and his approach of plan­ning with time blocks (time-block­ing). The basic idea of time block­ing is appeal­ing­ly sim­ple: At the begin­ning of each day, all avail­able time blocks (for me, the gran­u­lar­i­ty is usu­al­ly half an hour) get spe­cif­ic tasks. So it’s pri­mar­i­ly about a plan­ful and inten­tion­al use of one’s time.

Cal New­port rec­om­mends per­son­al val­ues (who do I want to be and how do I want to be) and a long-term vision (what do I want to achieve and how do I want to real­ize my val­ues) as a basis and guide­line. This then feeds into strate­gic goals for a quar­ter (strate­gic plan), which lead to a week­ly plan or goals, which then form the basis for the con­crete use of the dai­ly avail­able time blocks.

For me, the added val­ue of this plan­ning with time blocks clear­ly lies in the fact that I can com­plete­ly sep­a­rate plan­ning and exe­cu­tion and thus ful­ly con­cen­trate on the respec­tive task in each time block. It is there­fore hard­ly sur­pris­ing that Cal New­port also presents and rec­om­mends this method in detail in his book “Deep Work”. He describes time block­ing in detail in this video about his Time-Block Plan­ner (which I tried out, but whose added val­ue com­pared to my note­book was not apparent):

In clas­sic GTD, the approach to pri­or­i­ti­za­tion would be instead to look through the tasks in the appro­pri­ate list at the spe­cif­ic moment and select the most sen­si­ble one depend­ing on con­text, ener­gy, avail­able time and pri­or­i­ty. How­ev­er, this sift­ing and weigh­ing alone is an addi­tion­al change of con­text that caus­es me men­tal fric­tion by bring­ing back to my mind tasks that still need to be done, which then block some capac­i­ty. In this respect, it is very ben­e­fi­cial for my men­tal peace to set out the upcom­ing tasks once a day on the basis of a week­ly plan. This way, I can con­cen­trate on the respec­tive work block and no longer have to wor­ry about oth­er tasks that are still pending.

Time block­ing thus ensures that the impor­tant things are not always dis­placed by the more urgent or per­haps just more pleas­ant ones. It cre­ates space for the long-term projects. Small­er and per­haps more admin­is­tra­tive tasks or even just answer­ing e‑mails I always bun­dle into sep­a­rate admin blocks, whose con­crete con­tent I then fill with tasks from my GTD lists. Obvi­ous­ly, all this needs its place, so that the brain can be sure that it will not be for­got­ten and I can con­cen­trate as well as pos­si­ble in the oth­er blocks. A bal­anced dai­ly sched­ule ensures just that.

So cap­tur­ing and man­ag­ing all the loose ends is still very sim­i­lar to clas­sic GTD for me, and not real­ly sig­nif­i­cant­ly dif­fer­ent for Cal New­port (he usu­al­ly rec­om­mends a task board like Trel­lo per role for this). Hav­ing a reli­able sys­tem so that your brain stays free to do tasks is a nec­es­sary con­di­tion for pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and Deep Work. How­ev­er, this sys­tem for man­ag­ing tasks alone is not suf­fi­cient, because it tempts too much to a reac­tive way of work­ing. Today, more than ever, we need a proac­tive, inten­tion­al approach to time as our most valu­able, because irre­triev­able, resource. This is exact­ly where time block­ing comes in.

If you don’t pri­or­i­tize your life, some­one else will.

Greg McK­e­own

Pho­to by Priscil­la Du Preez on Unsplash

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