This academic historian pledges to Get Things Done

After reading the new edition of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD), and with a year or two’s distance from my first imperfect implementation, I’ve decided to embrace the system whole heartedly, rather than just adopt a few of the ideas. Because I’m a nerd historian, first time around I focused on the digital calendar/task list (aka Pocket Informant). It has been very helpful in allowing me to capture all my projects and ideas, but I didn’t really implement the other stages of clarifying, organizing and reflecting on my projects and tasks. I clearly need to focus on the mental side of the equation: applying the two-minute rule, asking “What’s the next action I need to take?”, phrasing projects as outcomes I want to achieve, making tasks actionable, deciding which tasks to perform (horizontal thinking) based off of my Next Action list, and reviewing my system regularly – I ended up doing about 4 weekly reviews last year, which is suboptimal. So, yeah, I was kinda using GTD before, but not the most important parts.

For those living under various rocks (i.e. most of us in the humanities), GTD is a comprehensive, flexible, generic system to organize and manage your various commitments. In my reading, the fundamental question that Allen wants everyone to ask and answer is: “Why am I doing this, how does this relate to what do I want to be doing, and how do I achieve that?” If we have a robust system that allows us to acquire a significant degree of control over the hurly-burly of our daily activities, we will have the time to make informed reflections on what we are doing and what we want to do, whether you’re assessing your life at 10,000-foot increments, or using different horizons of perspective, or whatever life-work metaphor you want to use.

The system is much more concrete and practical than the previous sentences might suggest, however. You use categorized lists of projects and tasks (pointing to reference materials you store digitally or on paper) to see which tasks you can choose to do at any given time in any given context (horizontal thinking), and to plan any specific project (vertical thinking) in as much detail as you’d like. You sort your lists with the metadata, using it to decide which actions to perform at any given moment, as well as to review and plan during your Weekly Reviews. If you capture, clarify and organize all your projects in the right kind of system, you’ll be able to align the projects you’re working on with what you want to be working on. As Allen describes it: you externalize all your projects into a trusted system to get your head clear (capture), you then clarify the meaning and importance of those projects by dividing them into discrete tasks (clarify), you organize your lists to help you decide which tasks to perform when (organize), and assess your progress on a regular basis (reflect).

Most of the details of his system are self-evident and his suggestions seem obvious when you read them, but we humans are really bad at being consistently self-aware and following through on good ideas, particularly when we have lots of things competing for our attention. GTD is a rationalized system for our monkey minds, in other words.

HAVE BLOG, WILL ARGUE

Various internauts have debated whether GTD is even relevant for academics or “knowledge workers” or “creatives.” I’ll let others hash that out (see for example here and here and here), but I will briefly summarize my own thoughts:

  • Many parts of the system can be adopted piecemeal without going whole-hog.  Just capturing all the ideas floating around in my head about things I’d like to do in months or years, and facilitating a quick check of my projects anytime concern wells up in my mind, has alone been worth it.
  • GTD is probably less useful/less necessary in the summer, if you’re an academic like myself who has the summer “off”, when it’s easier to find large blocks of time and there isn’t the pressure of teaching and serving and administering. But maybe GTD is even more important then, because it’s too easy to waste away the summer without external obligations forcing deadlines upon you.
  • GTD is probably less useful (given laptops, smartphones and the Cloud) than it was 10 years ago, but it’s still extremely useful, and managing all those lists is even easier with apps. Some IT-types undoubtedly have all their tools with them at all times or only work from home. But I, like most academics, teach in some contexts and not others, have certain equipment and software only in specific contexts (what I can do on a plane vs. in my home office vs. in the library), have certain documents and books one place but not another, and so on.
  • All that said, GTD is more useful for academics than our idealized view of ourselves as thinkers might lead us to believe. Much of life isn’t about research; much academic work isn’t research (especially if you’re at a teaching school); and a surprising amount of research is busywork rather than thinking deep thoughts.
  • It turns out GTD is based on the same principles that I’ve been trying to practice (and preach, in class and on this blog) for a few decades, with tools like argument mapping and note-taking systems like Devonthink. It doesn’t hurt that a lot of the recent cognitive research about the human mind backs up the main principles (the new edition has a chapter on that). To wit: At least start thinking about whatever’s worrying you. Externalize. Organize. Avoid multi-tasking. Convert unknown unknowns and known unknowns into known knowns, by converting a project into an outcome with concrete tasks to perform.
  • At the least, GTD allows you to see how many and what kinds of research projects you need to decide to do (or not do), and how these research projects relate to all the other projects in your life.

I’m not particularly concerned about enforcing a GTD orthodoxy or debating whether David Allen first developed each of these points, much less what the core of his “system” exactly is. The only important question is whether the system (in part or in toto) achieves its stated goal, assuming you’re busy enough to even need that goal: do you feel more in control, cope with your obligations better, and have a better perspective on your life? To the extent GTD lets you do this, use part of it or all of it. If it does most of it, tweak it where you want while trying to stay consistent with the broad principles (e.g. getting clear by avoiding using your brain to rethink what you’ve already thought and avoiding using your brain as the main memory place…). Or ignore it altogether. As always, I’d recommend reading the (new edition) of the book – it’s cheap – before relying too much on what people online say about it.

Next up: my system as implemented in Pocket Informant.
After that: a variety of checklists (implemented in PI but broadly applicable) that I’ve made for common academic tasks, teaching and research particularly.

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2 responses to “This academic historian pledges to Get Things Done”

  1. jsmickey says :

    I wrote an excessive response to this article. Please forgive me. But I personally believe that the GTD framework is even more applicable to the digital world.

    In the physical world, accumulated unprocessed information manifests in the surrounding space and demands action. Digitally, we can accumulate as much as possible and switch organization systems by installing a new program and no one is the wiser. Like Dorian Gray we appear spotless to the world while our digital lives decay. Today it is Evernote, tomorrow OneNote, then Google Docs…

    None of these programs state, “This is an inbox,” “this is a filing cabinet.” Instead, developers bleed functionality. Evernote has reminders and bills itself as a text editor, Omnifocus lets you attach documents, Outlook has so many bells and whistles… The programs available have confused purposes and do not teach the users good practice.

    GTD helps us determine what the purpose of each application is and provides the key structural decision for inputs: Do I archive, act now, delegate (rare for academics) or store for action later? How do I maintain one system for each of these actions?

    Very relevant for academics, who typically have complete control of their workflow and little oversight or guidance.

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