GTD Notes: Chapter 02 – Five Steps
This is a series of posts with reading notes of the book “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” by David Allen.
My notes about Chapter 02 – Getting Control of Your Life: The Five Steps of Mastering Workflow
This chapter presents the Five Steps and explains the main elements of each one.
In summary, the five steps represents the following workflow:
1. Capture what has our attention;
2. Clarify what each item means and what to do about it;
3. Organize the results, which presents the options we...
4. … Reflect on, which we then choose to...
5. … Engage with.
It’s very logical, and it cognitively resonates with my mind. I notice that if I skip some steps or try to do it all at once, I don’t have a clear understanding of what I need to do. And that leads to unclear next actions, a lack of clarity to determine what is the best use of my time, and complete overwhelm.
“I have discovered that one of the major reasons many people haven't had a lot of success with getting organized is simply that they have tried to do all five steps at one time.” — David Allen
Some major takeaways from this chapter
For each of the steps, there is a clear explanation of what they mean and what are the success factors for each one.
This is basically: write it down! Capture ideas, actions, reminders, wishes. Don’t try to solve any of these things, just acknowledge they’re out there, and know you’ll spend some time later clarifying what they are.
- Always get it all of your head: I tend to forget to do this. But it’s great when I do a brain dump in the middle of the day to clear things out. It really brings cognitive relief.
- Have collections tools available at all times: I keep small notepads and a pen at hand at my work desk, my home office desk, my nightstand, in the kitchen. But I often use my phone as a capture tool as well. I use the app Braintoss to capture things quickly.
- Minimize number of capture locations: I might have too many if I consider all my digital places. Apart from my emails and to-do list app, I have an “Inbox” folder in my work and personal cloud file services. I consider notes that are untagged in Standard Notes also as inbox. Maybe there’s some work to be done here.
- Empty them regularly: This is important. The longer I let things linger in inboxes, the more overwhelming the process of clarifying will be. The recommendation is to empty inboxes every 2 days, minimum (ideally, every day).
This step is where we look at each item we captured and try to make sense of it. After we clarify what they are, then we organize them.
There is an algorithm for clarifying. The more you practice, the better you get at it:
First, ask yourself: “What is it?” (an invitation? a task? a project? an idea?)
Second, “Is it actionable” (is there something I need to do with it?)
- If NO => You can either:
- Trash it: no longer needed.
- Incubate it: no action needed now, but might need to be done later.
- Reference: store as useful information for later.
- If YES, it is actionable, then:
- Is it a project? (something that requires multiple steps to complete) => if yes, add it to the Projects List.
- What’s the next action?
- Do it now: if it takes less than 2 minutes.
- Delegate: if you’re not the right person to do this.
- Defer it: add it to the Next Action list to be done as soon as possible.
This is where we organize things into their buckets. It’s my favourite step: putting everything in their pre-defined places.
For all actionable items, they will be in one of the following places:
- Calendar: for actions that have to happen at a specific time / day.
- Next Action List: those that need to be done as soon as possible.
- Waiting For list: things you are waiting for others to do.
All non-actionable items will go into one of the following:
- Trash: no potential future action or reference value.
- Incubation: Someday/Maybe list (for things you might want to do but not now) or a Tickler system (for things you don’t need or want to be reminded until a future date). The Calendar can serve as a Tickler system using all day reminders.
- Reference: information to be easily referred to when needed
Notes about the Calendar:
This chapter also explains how the Calendar should be considered a “hard landscape”: if it’s in there, it must get done that day or not at all. I took some time to realize the importance of the Calendar in my system.
There are only 3 things that go on the Calendar:
time-specific actions: appointments/meetings;
day-specific actions: to be done on a certain day, but not necessarily at a specific time;
day-specific information: directions for appointments, activities that other people will be involved in, events of interest, reminder to call somebody, reminder of due dates, reminder of start dates.
So the Calendar should not be used as a “wish list” of tasks to complete. Also, this approach is different from other productivity systems, in which you’d have daily to-do lists on the Calendar. In GTD, the Calendar is sacred territory. And the idea is to avoid having to rewrite to-do’s from one day to the next, if things don’t get completed that day.
I think that makes sense. I once used Todoist as my To-Do list app and because it is so focused on due dates, I started putting dates on all my tasks. The end result was a bunch of incomplete tasks at the end of the day that I would have to reschedule, making me feel frustrated.
This is the step where the famous Weekly Review is included. But we also do more frequent reviews, like:
- Reviewing the Calendar every day to start doing things that must be completed that day;
- Looking at the Next Action Lists to see the inventory of possible actions we can start working on.
Projects, Waiting For and Someday/Maybe lists need to be reviewed only as often as you think they have to be in order to stop you from wondering about them.— David Allen
The Weekly Review binds everything together, and it is considered a critical success factor. It’s when we:
- Gather and process all our stuff;
- Review our system;
- Update our lists;
- Get clean, clear, current and complete.
But how do we decide what we will do next? I usually have a hard time prioritizing things. And GTD provides 3 useful models to help making action choices.
First, it presents the Four-Criteria model for choosing actions in the moment:
- Context: a few actions can be done anywhere, some can only be done in a computer, or at home, or in a store.
- Time Available: how much time do you have until the next meeting? What can you do in the time available?
- Energy Available: how much energy do you have? Some actions will require more mental energy than others.
- Priority: Given your context, time and energy available, what action remaining of your options will you the highest payoff?
Second, it describes the Threefold Model for Identifying Daily Work:
- There are 3 different kinds of activities you can be engaged in:
- Doing predefined work - Working from your Next Actions Lists and Calendar, completing tasks that you have previously determined need to be done, or managing your workflow.
- Doing work as it shows up - Every day brings surprises, someone comes up at your office to talk about the new product launch
- Defining your work - Clearing up Inboxes, digital messages, meeting notes - Breaking down new projects into actionable steps - As you process inputs, you'll be taking care of some less-than-two-minute actions and filing things. Also identifying things that need to get done sometime, but not right away.
And third, this chapter introduces the horizons of focus, or The Six-Level Model for Reviewing Your Own Work:
- ▶️Ground => Current Actions - accumulated list of all the actions you need to take: phone call to make, errands to run, email to respond to, etc... - you'll have probably more than 100 items.
- 📂Horizon 1 => Current Projects - short-term outcomes. - you’ll probably have 30 to 100 of these.
- ⭐Horizon 2 => Areas of Focus and Accountabilities - Professional: strategic planning, staff development, market research, etc... - Personal: health, family, finances, recreation, etc. - Listing and reviewing those gives a more comprehensive framework for evaluating your inventory of projects.
- 🎯Horizon 3 => Goals
- What you want to be true in 1 to 2 years from now?
- This perspective can add important to certain aspects of life and diminish others.
- 🚀Horizon 4 => Vision
- What do you want to be true in 3 to 5 years from now?
- ❤️Horizon 5 => Purpose and Principles
- Big picture view.
- Why does your company exist?
- Why do you exist?
- What really matters to you, no matter what?
📝 That was a lot to digest! This chapter presents an overview of the whole system. I didn’t remember the book had that much information right from the start.
In summary, the building blocks of the system are:
- Projects List
- Next Action Lists
- Waiting For List
- Someday/Maybe List
- Reference Material archive
The next chapter will dive deeper into Projects, and ends Part 01 of the book. Part 2 is all about practical implementation (the fun part!).
By Noisy Deadlines Minimalist in progress, nerdy, introvert, skeptic. I don't leave without my e-reader.