Here’s a six step process for building a time management routine based on the Getting Things Done(GTD) methodology.
I’m not an expert on GTD. I haven’t even read the book! However what I have done is take methods for implementing it, tried them out, had successes (and failures!) and built a slimmed-down, basic version that works for me.
I hope the method works for you too – at the very least, this guide will help you skip a lot of the experimentation that I did.
By the end of this guide you will have taken an A3 notepad and tailored it to contain all of your to-do list tasks. It will be a simple system for managing the things you need to do, taking all those tasks from your mind and storing them on paper. Everything is externalised, leaving your mind to think, rather than remember!
There are numerous ways to apply the GTD methodology, using both manual (pen and paper) and electronic methods. If you enjoy the feel on pen on paper, this is the method for you.
Why do it?
- Improved productivity
- Greater ability to keep track of tasks
- A system that can be trusted, reducing anxiety
What do you need?
- A notepad with dividers (A5 size with 4 dividers)
- A pen
So here we go – time to turn the notepad into a fully-fledged time management solution.
- The ‘inbox‘ is where you note down all those things that you just don’t want to forget – no more clogging your brain up with items to remember!
- The ‘now list‘ is a list of your current tasks – your current to-do list
- The ‘next list‘ is a list of items that will go onto your to-do list once the current items are complete. Aim for one task per project on this list
- The ‘someday list‘ is a list of things you want to do one day (and don’t want to forget about) but that have no actions to be taken now
- The ‘active projects list‘ is a list of all of your active projects. Defining your projects will come a little later!
The first step is to prepare the notepad.
You’ve got 4 dividers, which means you can divide the notepad into 5 sections:
- The first section (before the first divider) is your inbox
- Count in 25 pages and place the first divider here. Label the divider as now list – this section will contain your current to-do list
- Count in a further 25 pages and place the second divider here. Label this divider as next list
- Count in a further 25 pages and place the third divider here. Label this divider as someday list
- Finally count in a further 10 pages and place the fourth divider here. Label this divider as active projects list
The next step is to define your projects list.
The idea is that every task that requires multiple individual actions is now a project. Why? If you define each of these complex and time-consuming tasks as a project (and keep a list of those projects), you have a clear idea of what your current workload is and what you are looking to achieve.
I find it incredibly beneficial to know the full extent of my commitments. If I include everything on my projects list I can look at that list and know that there are no more tasks that I need to be worry about. A massive anxiety-reducer.
So how do you go about defining your projects list?
Grab a piece of paper (you’re not quite ready to write in the notepad yet) and start by spending 5 minutes listing every to-do list item and commitment that you can think of. You might not get everything right now and that’s fine – you can add to the projects list later.
Once you’ve listed every item that you can think of, assign them a project. Some items will be linked and can therefore go under the same project. List out the projects as you assign them. The final list is your project list.
You can now write this list up in the notepad. Go to the first page after the active projects list divider. Write the list on this page.
The idea is to have a single list with all your current projects, with projects crossed off the list as you complete them. The list will expand over time as projects get crossed off and new projects get added – that’s why you have 15 pages allocated to the active projects list.
Now it’s time to look in more detail at the tasks that you have on your to-do list.
The aim is as follows:
- for each project have a maximum of one task on your now list. This task should be the absolute next action you can take to move the project closer to its goal
- for each project also have one task on your next list
The key point to focus on here is that the tasks on your now list should be the absolute next action that you can take. The task should be small enough that you can pick it up without any procrastination or resistance – it shouldn’t be overwhelming.
So if, for example, your next step in a project is to find a suitable name for a new website, a bad next task would be ‘find a suitable name for the website’. That’s way too overwhelming (and vague)! The next task should be something like ‘spend 10 minutes writing down every website name that comes to mind’. Much easier to get started with.
You want to limit overwhelm – keep things basic. That’s why you also only want to list one task for each project on your next list. It’s perfectly reasonable to have a full plan of how to take your project from start to finish but you don’t want to be looking at that every time you get working on the project. Just have the next steps ready to be picked up – this limits procrastination.
So now it’s time to do that for yourself. Go to the first page after your ‘next list’ divider and write down one task for each project. Follow the guidance above and make sure the item is the absolute next action that you can take.
You have your next list covered – you know what action you need to take to move each of your projects forward. Now you need to populate your now list with the items that need to be completed today.
This is where personal preference will dictate which approach you take. I personally like being super focused and limiting the now list to items that absolutely have to be completed today. Once those items are completed (and crossed off from the now list), I’ll go back to my next list and pick one item to move to the now list. Once that’s done, I’ll repeat the process.
Another approach is to use the now list as a list of every item that you hope you complete today. This has the benefit of creating a finite list of things that you need to focus on today (and the satisfaction of getting them all ticked off) but I personally find it harder to focus on the task at hand when I have multiple other tasks looming.
The key is to experiment – pick a method that works for you and try it out!
Return quickly to the list you made of all the to-do list items that you could think of.
If there are items on there that aren’t reflected in your now or next lists, consider adding them to your someday list if they are items that you don’t need to complete now but would like to work on in the future.
All remaining items should fit one of the following criteria:
- They are standalone tasks that don’t require a project. If this is the case, add them to your now or next list as appropriate
- They are part of a project and are either reflected directly in the now or next lists or are tasks that will come later that don’t actually need to be listed yet
Check through and make sure that there’s nothing that you’ve missed.
The final step is to define your daily routine for managing your tasks. I complete mine each morning and it’s super simple:
- Review your inbox and store all reference items elsewhere (e.g. adding a bookmark for a website that you’ve been recommended). The remaining items should be actionable items. For each item, decide whether it fits into an existing project.
- If it does fit into an existing project, add it to either your now list (if it’s the next action to take), your next list or any external long-term plan you have for the project (if you have one)
- If it doesn’t fit into an existing project, decide whether it needs a project (e.g. if it will require multiple individual tasks). If it does, add the project to your active projects list and add the task to your now or next list. It it doesn’t, just add the standalone task to your now or next list
- Review your next list and move all appropriate items to your now list. Now add items to your next list so that you have one item on your next list for each project. I find this is a good habit to maintain as it means that you can just refer to your next list and immediately know what task comes next for a project – you don’t need to be thinking about your long-term plans for the project during the day
That’s it – simple!
The above steps should set you up with a time management routine that allows you to focus on actionable tasks and limit overwhelm from endless to-do lists. Most importantly, it should give you a routine that you can trust to keep track of your projects.
Trust can take time to build so make sure you give the method a chance. It’s normal to struggle with a new routine at first so don’t beat yourself up if you still find yourself scribbling things down on post-it notes or trying to remember things in your head. Just keep returning to this guide and reminding yourself of the basic steps.
It took me a while to develop the routine but once I did, I didn’t look back. Give it a go!
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