No More Waking Up To ‘Oh crap, I forgot to …”

I have a reputation at work as someone who “gets shit done”, but that wasn’t always the way for me. I was horrible about forgetting to do things, being very disorganized, and waking up in the middle of the night remembering that I hadn’t returned a phone call, or worse, hadn’t paid a bill. You can go ahead an admit that you’ve had that whole middle of the night thing happen to you. I’m sure most people have.

For me, this all started to change about 12 years ago. I was nearing the end of completing my masters degree and had just started a new full-time job. I had to track several work projects, complete my masters project, while not completely ignoring my marriage, social life, and still remember to pay bills. It was a lot to try to keep in my head, which was my big mistake.

I’ve always been one for lists, but often found my “to-do” lists to be growing faster than I could get things done and I spent more time worrying about the list than knocking things off of it. I’m also a fan of technology so when I hit a bit of a breaking point with my to-do lists 12 years ago, I went looking for a technological solution. I found a few tools out there, but it wasn’t the tools that caught my attention as much as that in the descriptions of may of them they seemed to be repeatedly mentioning a book by David Allen called Getting Things Done, and that the tools could be used for implementing “GTD”. And because I didn’t have enough that I was trying to get done, I went out and bought the book, and I’m glad I did.

GTD is based on a few simple principles including getting to-dos and ideas out of your head and clearing out your various “inboxes”, figuring out what those to-dos and ideas mean and how they fit in with your priorities, what you need to do with them, and then getting things done.

I need to get all of my to-dos and ideas out of my head so that I don’t forget them and my brain doesn’t try to remind me of them at inopportune time like while I’m trying to sleep or in the middle of driving and I can’t do anything about them. Omnifocus, which is the app I’ve used to implement GTD for the past seven or eight years, makes it easy to put something into my “Inbox” either through the quick entry functions or using Siri (it’s an Apple only product, but there are other similar tools that are cross-platform). I also carry a small notebook in my bag or jacket and keep another one on my nightstand. To-dos and ideas also come to me through email, Twitter, text, and other digital means, but also through papers my daughter brings home from school.

Then I have to figure out what those things mean to me. For many years of applying GTD I felt like I was getting a lot done, but I didn’t always feel like I was getting the right things done. I never understood how to apply the “Areas of Focus” that David Allen talks about in the book, but then a couple of years ago I put some careful thought in the important parts of my life and came up with my list that I wrote about in an earlier post. Add in my personal manifesto, and I’m now able to look at everything that lands in my various inboxes and determine how they do or don’t fit in my life.

Once I know how something fits (or doesn’t) into my life, then I can easily figure out whether it’s part of an existing project, a new one, or a single action that I need to take. Even if it is part of project, I still need to figure out the next action I need to take or nothing is going to get done. Do I need to look up a phone number so I can call someone, make a reservation for dinner with my wife, speak with somebody at work to get information to take the next step? Or maybe I need to put something on my calendar, ask somebody else to handle this to-do, or just file something away for future reference. There’s a handy flow chart that I have hanging by my desk at work that acts as a reminder of all of this while I’m making my way through email, and because of this, I’m now one of those annoying people who usually has no emails just sitting in my inbox.

All of this leaves me with a clear picture of what I need to get done so I now I rarely spend time worrying that I’ve forgotten something, which means I have more time and focus to get things done. Occasionally I get moving too fast and forget to put something on my calendar or book a room for a meeting, but I’m working on slowing down and part of this is doing a weekly review. A weekly review is the final key component of GTD. Regardless of what system you use, even if it’s just keeping paper to-do lists, if you don’t review what you have in your system on a regular basis, things will get missed, you won’t trust your system, and you won’t get the things done that really matter to you or simply must get done.

The point of this post isn’t to get you all to run out and buy the book or try Omnifocus (there are far simpler apps for non-techy people), but rather to encourage you to figure out what really works, not just sort of works, but really works for you to feel like you’re in control of what you have on your plate on a regular basis. The way that I use GTD works for me. Is what you’re doing right now working for you? If not, what might make it better? Has something else worked for you in the past? You deserve a good nights sleep and a clearer head. Now I’m off to do my weekly review.

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