I am constantly trying to become better at GTD. Blogging (and reading other blogs) has been one excellent way for me to do that. Thinking about how I did GTD in the very beginning and how I’m doing GTD right now, I have come up with no less than 18 tricks that I have successfully applied to my GTD system in order to make it more effective and more efficient. I have no doubt that these tricks will instantly improve your GTD system as well!
I have grouped the tricks by the 5 phases of the GTD workflow.
1. Capture the essence of each call and conversation before you move on to the next.
Talking to a couple of people one after the other, either on the phone or in person, can become much easier and more effective if you implement this trick. To prevent mixing up or forgetting about important parts of the conversation I either jot them down during or right after the conversation, or I create a quick voicememo with my mobile phone if I happen to be on the road. This clears your mind for the next meeting/conversation/call without running the risk of forgetting something you really should remember.
2. Make your ubiquitous capture tool really ubiquitous.
All GTDers use a capture tool. This could be a pen and paper or perhaps a digital device. A GTD capture tool is supposed to be ubiquitous, which means it should be quick and easy to use in any circumstances. Do you catch yourself not writing down something sometimes? Do you find yourself in situations without your capture tool? Chances are that you are (subconsciously) resisting to use your capture tool. Perhaps it is too bulky or too slow? Find out what the problem is and fix or change your capture tool to be really ubiquitous. Your mind will thank you for it!
3. Date/timestamp everything including voicememos.
This is a simple trick, but very powerful. Never write anything down and never create a voicememo without adding a datestamp (and optionally a timestamp). The few times you probably remember from past experiences in which you wish you had, will make this a valuable trick indeed. Don’t expect your mind to remember what happened when. Write it down with a proper datestamp instead.
4. Create your own shorthand and notational system.
While you’re writing things down you might as well do it as effectively as possible. Create symbols for things you know will be converted into a project or next action later. Create abbreviations for words, phrases or sentences that you use frequently. Your notes will become more structured, easier to read and much more effective to be processed into your GTD system later.
5. Filter in advance.
This trick ties in with the previous one. It doesn’t hurt to always realize that what you are capturing right now will be processed and organized into your GTD system in the very near future. Tune your mind to pick up next actions, projects, waiting fors and someday/maybes as they come along in a phone call or other conversation. It will make you more aware of the essence of the conversation, it will make your notes more focused and it will make processing them much easier.
6. Always work on a clean desk with one item in front of you.
Don’t let anything distract you while processing your in-basket(s). Eliminate all unnecessary things from your desk, take exactly one item from your in-basket and focus completely on processing this single item. Then move on to the next. Repeat. Be very strict about this to yourself and you will soon find yourself processing all your stuff much faster.
7. Literally use a two-minute timer.
Two minutes is not as much as it seems. In some cases it is also much more than you would expect. Stop guessing about how much time processing each item takes, start using a two-minute timer! I use my mobile phone for this purpose, but a quick search on the internet will reveal custom made programs for just this purpose. Get a feeling for how long two minutes really is and be strict to yourself about the two-minute rule.
8. Always capture the outcome of your decision making and thinking.
During the processing phase you will make many decisions. Should something be written down in your calendar, should it be stored in one of your lists, should it be filed in your reference system? Don’t make the mistake of having to make this decision more than once. Capture the outcome of your thinking and decision making so you can use this information in the organizing phase. One way to do this is to just scribble on an item from your in-basket what exactly should be done with it. Or use a sticky note.
9. Have all tools and supplies at the ready and within an arm’s reach.
During the processing phase you were working on a clean desk. The trick is to do the same in the organizing phase, but to also make sure that every tool (stapler, labeler, folders, etc) is ready for use and close at hand. It is frustrating and ineffective to find yourself without staples or without a fresh folder!
10. Track down the bottlenecks in your setup.
Keep track of the steps and movements you have to make to get everything processed into your GTD system. Make a note of all the things that don’t seem to go very efficiently or smoothly. These bottlenecks should be eliminated. Perhaps you catch yourself creating a stack of folders “to be archived later”? This could be a sure sign that your reference system is not up to the task at hand. Fix it and make sure you can store and retrieve any piece of information as fast and easy as possible.
11. Be strict about projects, tickler and someday/maybe items.
Don’t clutter your lists with unnecessary items. They will become overwhelming very quickly. Organizing things could become such an automatic process that you basically stop being strict and critical about what should NOT be added to them. Are you sure that next action is what you are going to do as soon as possible? Are you sure you want to be doing that in the future? Use your mind and be honest to yourself. Throw away items whenever you can. Don’t add items to any of your lists unless you’re sure you’re going to do something with it later.
12. Always work from a checklist.
Doing a weekly review can take up to a few hours. The trick to spend these hours in the most effective way without forgetting anything in your review is to always work from a checklist. This checklist is customized to your situation and typically includes items like: tickler, calendar, someday/maybe list, project support material and so on. Not using a checklist is a sure way to forget something during your review or to find yourself dwelling on something for too long.
13. Create an appointment with yourself every week.
The importance of the weekly review is a much discussed subject. From my own experience I know it is easy to just skip your weekly review and do something else instead. A trick that might work for you in order to prevent this is to literally create an appointment in your calendar with yourself for a couple of hours, say, on Sunday afternoon to do your weekly review. This trick is especially effective in combination with the following trick.
14. Reward yourself for doing an excellent review.
If you’ve kept the appointment with yourself and you’ve worked through every item on your weekly review checklist, go ahead and reward yourself for doing an excellent job. Do something with your family. Watch your favorite show on television. Anything that motivates you to actually do the weekly review is fine. But only allow yourself to do that particular thing when you have successfully finished your weekly review!
15. Perform daily mini-reviews.
I have found that doing a weekly review can seem less of a burden if you are strict about doing mini-reviews every single day, preferably at the end of the day. If you empty your in-basket daily and keep your lists up to date on a daily basis, you will have less things to do in your weekly review and what’s more, you can focus on the bigger, more important things in your weekly review.
16. Mark and group next actions before you start your day.
You basically use your intuition and the criteria outlined by David Allen to decide which next action to do at any given time. However, I use the following trick at the start of each day (or at the end of the previous day). I like to plan my day a little bit in advance. Not down to the minute but I like to have an idea about which next actions I’m going to strike off my list the upcoming day. During a daily mini-review I mark and group certain next actions that I really want to get done the next day. I then make it a goal for myself to finish these next actions and then some!
17. Batch process similar actions.
Sometimes I find myself in a “computer mood” or an “e-mail mood” or a “phone call mood”. I take advantage (or even create) these moods to strike off a whole bunch of next actions from my list by batch processing a couple of e-mails I need to write, or make a couple of phone calls one right after the other, et cetera. The sense of accomplishment from working in this fashion can be very satisfying.
18. Always “eat that frog” first.
Last but not least, I have stressed before that doing the most difficult, most important task (your frog!) as the very first thing for your day, is the most effective way to get that sense of accomplishment and put you in a mood to get some more things done.