A couple of years ago, I was asked to submit a post for a fledgling crime analysis blog. That blog is now defunct but I still think there is some value in the post, so I am reposting it here.
Over the years, people have devised a number of systems to deal with their tasks. When computers became commonplace in the office, a whole new category of productivity software wasn't far behind. Unfortunately, many of them aren't much more advanced than a handwritten 'To Do list' on a piece of notebook paper. But, the solution is not always a fancy piece of software. In fact, a systematic approach to the problem is probably required to keep up with the huge volume of stuff we are being bombarded with daily.
A couple of years ago I began searching for a better way to approach task management. I was reading a tech blog that referred to David Allen and his book Getting Things Done or GTD. I went out and purchased a copy of the book and read it. I was so excited by it, I immediately read it again, this time with a pencil in hand and filled my copy with underlines and notes throughout the relevant parts.
It’s not possible in this post to adequately cover Allen’s approach to workflow, focus or planning. However, Wikipedia has a pretty good synopsis of GTD which I would encourage you to read. Hopefully, this will whet your appetite and cause you to read Allen's book yourself.
The premise behind GTD is that your ability to do the many tasks that come your way is compromised when you are struggling to remember all these tasks and trying ensure that nothing slips through the cracks. By using an efficient systematized approach to recording them, responding to them and ensuring they will get accomplished, you can then take your focus off remembering, and devote your focus to accomplishing them.
The All Important Inbox
Part of what makes GTD effective is the defining an appropriate inbox for all your incoming items. If you get a request asking you to do something, it needs to go into your inbox immediately. Your inbox can take almost any form, a physical inbox, a folder in your email client, etc. The only rule is that it be the one place where all this incoming stuff gets put. This is part of what makes it reliable. It’s also important that it be convenient to drop stuff in so there will be no hesitancy to putting things there. You can have an inbox for each context; let’s say one for email, one for papers and one to jot down those items that don’t come in via email or snail mail. You should however, keep them to the least number you need to capture it all.
Then once a day you go through your inbox, if something can be done in 2 minutes or less, then do it right then. If not, it needs to be properly categorized and recorded in your task list. The reason for Allen’s two minute rule is that if it can be done in less than two minutes, it would likely take that long to properly record it on your task list.
Adapting For My Needs
There are a number of ways to 'do GTD'. I have adapted and somewhat simplified my GTD system in order to have it work best for me. At first, I was a little hesitant to do this. GTD is spoken of with a zealous and near reverential awe in some circles. This caused me to wonder, if I changed it up would it still work? Would it cause a huge explosion? Well, probably not. In fact, what I ended up with has worked so well for me I have continued to use and refine it for a number of years.
First, I stick to the same GTD workflow steps as outlined by Allen. In collection, there are three usual ways for my tasks to come into the system, email, paper or in person. Correspondingly, I have identical categories set up in my email client, a set of desktop hanging files and a spreadsheet file on the computer. If an item comes into my inbox, it gets processed and categorized into one of these categories:
The main list is kept in as a spreadsheet on my computer. If an item comes in from any source, it gets jotted down in the spreadsheet. This works well for me because I spend most of my workday at the computer. If for instance it came in via email, after it gets put on the list, the corresponding email is moved to the relevant category folder on my email client. The same with relevant paper documents, they go to the appropriate file folder so they can be found when needed.
The important thing is to devise a “list” that is relevant to how you work best, computer, notepad, index cards, and that it is readily available at all times during your workday. You can only get things off your mind if you have a reliable place to put them. That way you can focus your energies on completing the items on your list rather than trying to keep up with what you need to do and when. And if your shop is anything like mine, you can use all the mental energy you can get to stay on top of all the things that need doing.