It was about 2 months ago that I started using the Getting Things Done system. First I bought the book, then I got the software, then I organized my life and now I'm a lot happier for it.

LauraJ just wrote a post on how GTD has impacted her, and Marc's blog has many useful posts on the subject. I feel almost exactly the same was Laura does, so read her post and then come back to mine. Also check out some of Marc's articles:

First of all, if you are like me you used to have a work style where you were constantly scanning your inbox for things to do (and then procrastinating because it was overwhelming). You thought you had everything you needed to do stored away in your head and you've been fairly successful "Getting Things Done" but at the end of the day you were constantly assessing what was in your head, what was in your inbox, things you needed to do... always thinking about things you needed to do. This leads to stress and constantly being on mail. In a culture like Microsoft where people one office over will e-mail you before walking to your office (we have these strange device on our desks where you can speak to some one far away and they speak back, but no one uses them).

I didn't realize how badly my "system" was this was till I read the book. The analogy is that you are keeping all this stuff in RAM, and constantly looking for it. You end up feeling guilty when you don't get to something because you feel like you've broken a "contract" with yourself. A better way to do things is to store them away in a secure system. By secure I mean a system that you trust will capture every single actions you need to take for any given project. It's trustworthy because you no longer have to remember the actions you need to do, and know that they are being managed by software or whatever.

Here are aspects of the GTD philosophy that have really worked well for me. I love the software because it makes it easy for me to use the system, and in some senses kind of fun. Checking off tasks that are really e-mails underneath (actionable e-mails) is kind of fun. And that small amount of fun makes me actually continue to use the system.

Email - using the GTD software for Outlook + Outlook2OneNote

  • Deal with any piece of e-mail that takes less than 2 minutes. Just take care of it right there and then.
  • Delegate anything that you should and create a task for follow up.
  • Creating tasks that are actionable for anything else that needs to get done at some point (not time critical)
  • Creating calendar events for anything else that needs to get done before or on a certain date.
  • Creating someday tasks for interesting e-mails to follow up on some day (you don't need to do these things, but you want a place to store them and act on later one). You get rid of the e-mail this way. I had tons of these things in my inbox before.
  • Create a page in OneNote or file any other reference type material. This is where my Outlook2OneNote PowerToy comes in handy (and why I created it). Make it easy to find later by organizing it in a project or subject based folder or section in Outlook or OneNote.

Paper, Files, Mail anything else

Based on techniques described in the book, I went out and bought a top of the line Brother Label Maker that can make Manila style labels. I bought 200 or so manila envelopes and filed every single piece of loose paper as well as tossed every hanging file folder I had and replaced them with manila files. It's amazing how much more you'll tend to file something if it takes less than 1 minute to do so. That's not possible with the hanging file folders, and that is what makes the system work so well. Plus you can store many more manila files in a drawer than a hanging file folders, they are also easier to transport.

Every manila file is placed alphabetically in my file cabinet. I don't hesitate to file a single piece of paper if I need to. I just grab the label maker and do it. It feels great knowing that the barrier to being organized is so low. I was very ad-hoc about this before and again, it was another system that I didn't trust.

I did this both in my home office and at work. My desks are empty, no lose papers, and it just feels good.

Results

The end result of this is that I feel less stressed. I know what I have to do and I no longer remember it. Each week or so I scan my task list and figure out when and how I am going to do things based on context. This concept is explained in the book so I won't go into it here. The beauty of the system for me is that it really only took a little bit of structure, and a little bit of software, and I have a system that makes me feel less stressed out, allows me to think and plan better, and generally frees up my brain to do better things than constantly assessing the same things over and over. Even better is that it helps me use the tools I know and love (a Personal Information Manager) to use a task list and a calendar in a manner I never did before. Why shouldn't you make appointments with yourself to do certain tasks? At ms where we use free/busy a lot it's a good way to tell people not to make any appointments with you at this time. The task list was something I never used before (tried to many times and failed). Not that e-mail = task and there is a strong correlation between the two they are more actionable and granular. My old tasks were like "finish project". Not actionable and they stick around for ever.

Lastly, I can't express how amazing it is to go home every day with fewer than 10 items in my inbox. I used to be consistently in the 100-300 messages range. The book only costs like $15 bucks and doesn't take long to read. It will pay for itself very quickly.