Words by c.z.robertson

Explaining GTD

2007-01-04 22:44:17 GMT/BST

I've been using David Allen's Getting Things Done system for a couple of years now and I sometimes find myself having to give a quick summary of it in conversation. It's quite a subtle set of concepts though and, so far, I haven't been able to do that to my satisfaction. I recently re-read it, so while the book is fresh in my mind I'll try to dump some of my thoughts about it here:

The obvious place to start describing the system is with the structure of lists that David Allen recommends. An obvious place but probably a bad place, since that will get you bogged down in details very quickly.

I think that a better starting point would be the principle of ubiquitous capture: that every commitment you make with yourself should be captured in a system that you can trust outside your head. Why can't they be held in your head? Because you forget things, and you don't even realise when you've forgotten something. Your head can't be trusted.

(I was talking to a friend the other day who asked me if the GTD system could be implemented by using those amazing memory techniques that you hear about. Well, I guess if you were willing to go to all that effort and you knew that your memory techniques could be trusted then yes, you could implement it in your head. But do you really want to spend all that time coming up with visualisations or stories to contain items like "buy milk"? Personally, I'd rather just write that stuff down and save the cool memory techniques for impressing pretty women at parties. Also, you can only hold 72 things in your short-term memory simultaneously, which would make reviewing your lists awkward.)

And why capture everything? David Allen's argument here is that if you haven't captured everything, you won't know how much you haven't captured. And you won't be able to use your system to prioritise your actions because the most important thing you need to do might be one of those uncaptured tasks.

The rest of the system is an implementation detail for that fundamental concept. It is, though, a brilliant implementation. The focus on next actions ensures that projects don't linger without the necessary decisions being made. The Someday/Maybe list allows you to feel ok about the things you're not doing as well as the things you are.

But if I had thirty seconds to explain GTD to someone who knew nothing about it then I'd tell them that it's about capturing every commitment that you make into a system that supports your thinking about all of it and allows you to be sure that whatever you're doing with your time is the best possible thing that you could be doing with your time.