Getting Things Done – a simple system with tremendous impact

Have you ever started a big project, felt like you were standing in front of this mountain of tasks and you had no idea where to start? I have. And I was only able to slowly but surely climb the mountain by completely changing the way I organize and manage myself using Getting Things Done.

I was just getting started on being the project lead for a huge relocation project at Bosch. The goal of the project was to analyze 5 different components that were, at that time, manufactured inhouse. Within 18 months we were to evaluate the cost saving potential as a result of relocation to suppliers or other plants, compare different options for the relocations, drive the decision, and – in case the decision was made to relocate – execute the relocation of the components.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was missing a self management system I could trust. I just felt overwhelmed. Up until that point in time I got by with some basic note taking and essentially flagging to-dos in my Email inbox. By chance, I stumbled upon a blog post about Getting Things Done. I read up on it and took a day out of my schedule to completely reorganize everything I was doing. I read the book and with some tweaks I have stuck with it ever since.

No other book had a bigger impact on my work life than David Allen’s Getting Things Done (although I have the suspicion that Deep Work by Cal Newport that I recently read may end up being just as impactful). 

There are some other classic books that had great influence like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Start With Why, or Thinking, Fast and Slow. None felt as impactful because I came across Getting Things Done at the perfect time and it completely changed how I organized my work. It had an immediate and tangible impact.

The Backlog is a bi-weekly newsletter about the undervalued and overlooked in modern product development. It covers product development, self organization, and productivity. I include methods, books, and write about my own experience. The target audience are Product Owners, Scrum Masters, Developers, and project leaders. The Backlog is about getting the most out of product development.
Subscribe to get new posts straight to your inbox. 

Why was it so impactful? 

For me personally there are a few key features that make it great. All of them deal with reducing the mental load on our brain.

  • Offloading commitments into a system
  • Comprehensive note taking
  • Regular reflection and emptying of the inbox
  • Focusing on the very next action 

The goal of the method is to offload the commitments you make with yourself and others, the things you need to do, into a robust system. Thus, you reduce mental load by not needing to focus on tracking those commitments, but can actually work on fulfilling them.

Part of Getting Things Done is to obsessively note down anything and then storing it within a very well-structured system. This means that I can – at least most of the time – very quickly find notes, thoughts, or commitments. Again, It removes stress from the brain, because I don’t have to remember myself.

Getting things done works with an inbox that you should regularly empty. With this you are automatically forced to reflect on the last period. This cleaning ritual somehow creates great calmness and peace of mind.

Finally, a key component is to always ask: What is the next required action. This is a very simple way of breaking down large, complex problems into very small, manageable steps. Again, this reduces anxiety.

How does Getting Things Done work

In my view, the main principle driving the method is the realization that the human mind is not great at remembering commitments. The main source of anxiety and stress in work is inappropriately managed commitments, having too many open loops and trying to keep track of them all. 

Getting Things Done proposes a very hands-on system or workflow where one can offload all this baggage. We can then focus mental energy on actually doing the work instead of trying to remember which work needs to be done. 

It is imperative that the system is robust and that you trust it to the fullest. You need to completely trust in its ability to remind you of commitments and trust that it is organized in such a way that you can easily find whatever is needed. As soon as you start to doubt that the system remembered everything, you are back to square one trying to remember yourself, putting the stress on your brain. 

The proposed system is technology agnostic. In fact, in the book the author mentions using actual physical folders. It doesn’t matter how it is implemented. The important thing is to follow the workflow.

What is the workflow?

The proposed system is fairly simple consisting of a handful of steps and a few folders for organization. 

Getting things done process

There should be one inbox where ALL “stuff” – open commitments, projects, meeting notes, research notes, etc.-  is captured. (By the way, the process of downloading the commitments from your brain for the first time is incredibly satisfying by itself). This is where everything goes first. I cannot stress this enough: EVERYTHING! As soon as you start not putting everything in, you start having to remember stuff, and you start not trusting your system.

You regularly empty the inbox using a few steps. First, clarify what it is you are looking at and determine if it is actionable. If it is not, the item is placed into one of three buckets: reference as the archive, someday/maybe if this is something that you are interested in and might do later,  or trash if it´s, well, trash.

In case whatever you are looking at is actionable, you must determine the next specific thing that you need to do. This action must be the actual smallest thing you need to do –  e.g. instead of the next step being Organize the workshop, the specific action could be Call Tom to book the company’s main conference room for the workshop). In case this action can be done in under a specified time (e.g. 2 minutes) do it right away! If it takes longer it should either be delegated or put into some sort of to-do bucket. 

Anything that requires more than one specific action is considered a project and is stored in a projects list. A project can be something big, like planning a workshop or something very simple like ordering lunch for the team. In the latter case the project could consist of only two steps: 

  1. Call the pizza place to order 5 Pizzas
  2. Pick up the pizza

The process of emptying the inbox and organizing stuff should be regularly repeated. I do this every Friday afternoon, for example. After this ritual I have a list of specific actions I need to take and during the following seven days I execute these. That’s essentially it!

Try it and adapt it to your needs

I am sure I missed to mention some important points that make Getting Things Done work. However, the above is what really stands out to me. I am of the opinion that we generally don’t think enough about how we manage ourselves. If you haven’t put too much thought into your own self-management, try Getting Things Done. This is a method I will recommend without any hesitation. 

As always for me I value pragmatism over dogma. So, I think it does make sense to adapt and tweak the system here and there to your needs. In my case for example I have two inboxes, instead of only one, one is my actual EMail inbox and the other is in the application I use for note taking, OneNote. There are other tweaks here and there which I will likely share in a follow up post explaining the exact way I implemented Getting Things Done. 

In the end it doesn´t really matter which method you use. The important thing is to actively decide how to manage yourself. See what works for you and adapt it to whatever your needs are!