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How do you do "The Do" part of GTD?

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  • How do you do "The Do" part of GTD?

    Hi Folks,

    I wish to start a discussion on one part of GTD that I and countless others have struggled with. Out of the 5 phases of GTD, all work well until the final one -- doing your next actions. David provides the three models for detemining what to do at any point in time with the most cited being context, time available, energy, and then priority. He says use your intuition or decide on the fly, of by the seat of your pants. And here is where I and others struggle. SO we have these context lists with all of these next actions. Everytime one completes something, it is time to rescan and select the next one. If you have several actions -- like most very busy professionals do -- then it is tedious, tiring, and somewhat depressing to do this so many times each day. A solution? People start creating daily focus lists, closed lists, etc. to work off of -- preplanning as it were -- to provide necessary structure to the day. But it seems to me that this brings us full circle to having a daily to-do list, and that is something that has been stressed over and over in the GTD dogma that it does not work. I do like the seeming flexibility of being able to choose on the fly, but there are times when having a bit more structure and a pre-plan in place to make ones day move smoother and NOT have to decide so many times from long context lists of what to do next.

    I have tried and am still experimenting with Mark Forster's closed list approach. One major problem that I have encountered is that I am still receiving a lot of new work unexpected that does indeed need to be done this day -- and it was not on my closed list. I am a professor of a large research lab with two NIH grants and another large Foundation grant, and a large group of Post-Docs, graduate students, research assistants, etc. They need to interact with me a lot and I cannot anticipate many of the questions, urgencies, etc, that arise on a daily basis. One thing that I have not liked by the closed list approach is all of a sudden I react to interruptions by my people with some hostility -- I can't deal with this today -- I must complete my closed list of actions! I don't like that feeling and it seems I am becomming a slave to my closed lists -- too much emphasis to getting them done and almost all new input should be put off until tomorrow.

    What am I asking here? I would like to hear from all of the GTD experienced people that thrive on GTD and context lists how they make the "doing" part work. How can one enjoy the flexibilty of the context lists approach but yet not flounder when there are no interruptions and it is hard to choose what to do next so many times a day.

    Please share your experiences people -- I do believe this is an issue that so many people do indeed struggle with.

    Best regards,
    -Longstreet

  • #2
    Start at the top and work down.

    If you don't need to do it "as soon as possible," it shouldn't be on the Next Action list in the first place, it should be in the Tickler, or on the Someday/Maybe list.

    So just do it.

    Yes, a certain amount of common sense is necessary. If the next item on your list will take two hours, but you only have fifteen minutes before a meeting, you might want to pick something else. If your boss has been bothering you about one of his priorities, you might want to do that item first.

    But in general, I find that it's just not that hard. If my lists are current (Weekly Review!), and nothing is flagged as a must do (Calendar!), then just working through the list in order is about as effective as any other algorithm I could come up with. Plus, as they say, a good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow. At some point, fretting about doing The Very Best NA is just another form of procrastination.

    Katherine

    Comment


    • #3
      Knowing what you're not working on

      Originally posted by Longstreet View Post
      Everytime one completes something, it is time to rescan and select the next one. If you have several actions -- like most very busy professionals do -- then it is tedious, tiring, and somewhat depressing to do this so many times each day.
      Hello, what I am finding interesting is that while scanning the context lists many times a day may be somewhat tedious, I don't find it at all tiring or depressing. On the contrary, I am relieved that I know what I'm choosing not to do next; this way I know that I have made the best choice in what to work on next.

      If I didn't have the lists, I'd still have to choose what to do next the same number of times per day, but with the lists, I don't have to mentally recall everything that I have to do each time I need to make that decision. When I was doign it all in my head, I was always very unsure that there wasn't something more important that I should be doing.

      The confidence that I'm working on the right thing instead of just the right thign out of the things I could remember at the time brings quite the opposite of tiredness and drepression.

      Jake

      Comment


      • #4
        I Totally Understand How You Feel!

        I was thinking this same exact thing today. I have this long long long list of NAs, I had a free time, access to a computer and a phone and a number of other resources. So, I go to my lists. There are any number of potential NAs that I could be doing, some more important than others though. Going through and just doing the next thing on my list just wasn't working.

        #2 on my list, while important, is not as important as, say, #8. And, hey, when I think about it, I really could do #2 on Thursday, but I'd like to have #8 done by tomorrow (no specific deadline, just would because I know that I may have free time) - and on and on like that.

        I'm almost ready to jump ship on GTD - but not entirely. I've found that, for me, it's simply more effective if I sit down and make a To-Do list for that specific day. I don't want to look over my long long lists. I want to pick my 5 things for that day and do them and not worry about the rest of my list. If I leave it to my NA list, well, things just seem to fall through the cracks.

        Once I complete those 5 things for the day, I go back to my main list and update it (notes under projects, erase what's completed, etc.). The next day, I sit down with my NA list again and look through it and see what's feasible to do today.

        Every time I'm in a new context (say, at my computer), going over that entire context list is just a PIA. Sometimes, I'm just not in the mood to do what's next (say, make a grocery list). I want to do that 4th thing (say, write a letter to an old friend) cause I'm in the right frame of mind. Or, I know I'm probably not going grocery shopping until this weekend, so why work on that list now when I'd rather get this email over to my friend so she can get it when she gets home from work tonight? No deadlines here, nothing to put on my calendar per se, but, well, I'd rather write my letter first.

        So, I'm slowly developing a GTD based system (that's obviously not pure GTD) that's working well for me and accommodates the way my brain works, the way my office flows, the way my family functions, etc.

        Comment


        • #5
          I work in a combination of manners:

          A. I highlight a few (maybe 3) from my NA printout, and write down a project or two that is at the top of my list. This is very informal, not "closed", and is thrown out at the end of the day. I do this first thing in the morning; others do that at the end of the day.

          B. Often when I start with an NA, I will frequently move further into the project. I love completing projects - a direct result of GTD.

          C. I also enjoy just working down the NA list. For example, I was waiting in the doctor's office and made tons of notes, completing quite a few NAs.

          A few strategies that help me include:

          1) diligently doing my weekly review,
          2) keeping my NA lists up-to-date as much as possible,
          3) scanning (quickly) my NA lists and my project list daily. I agree with Dragynox - I really enjoy it as well.
          4) just doing it without thinking about it too much in advance - a problem I have. My HOFs help tremendously. As I continue to develop my HOFs, I think I'll get even better in this area.
          5) I capture everything, so that its out of my head.

          A concern I have about the Forster closed list approach is to once again work with daily task lists that I will inevitably, considering all my interruptions, fall behind on. On one post here I read that one can fall behind, so that one has "open" past closed lists. I couldn't function with that. I work best if I know I'm on top of things and my lists are current now, which I am and they are with GTD. I work poorly if I think I'm behind. (Please don't take this comment too seriously, since I have not read Forster's book. I was thinking about reviewing the book, but am concerned it'll harm my current level of productivity.)

          Comment


          • #6
            I think the "how do you figure out what to do?" part of GTD is a major weakness. Though GTD gives you the sense that you can "widgetize" your work to the point where you just crank through your actions, many of us (myself included) are left feeling lost and procrastinating, with a vague sense that we're not doing it right. I don't have an answer to the problem, but I think Barry Schwartz's research on choice (which I heard about from Tim Ferriss) gives us some insight into our dissatisfaction. Here's a fascinating lecture he gave on the subject:

            http://video.google.com/videoplay?do...50043200&hl=en

            I was just thinking about this question this morning. Thanks for starting this thread.

            Comment


            • #7
              GTD is not a motivational system

              I've probably written it here before, but one of my main points about GTD is that it is not a motivational system. It's great for managing workflow -- making sure you know what all the moving parts on your projects are and what the next steps are -- but it doesn't provide any mechanism to kick you in the butt and get you to do anything.

              This is not a weakness in GTD, it's just something that's outside its scope -- and it's how I finally came to face to face with my procrastination.

              When I adopted GTD a few years ago, having all that workflow stuff actually managed got a lot of things unstuck. Eventually the novelty and its motivation wore off, and my nice neat lists of next actions got longer and longer. I was using GTD, but I wasn't getting things done.

              What works for me? Keeping my lists short. If I have a list of 5 things to do, I'll work my way through the list and get them all done. If I have a list of 15 things to do, I'll dither about which one is the perfect match for the moment and not get any of them done. (Your experience may vary, of course.)

              How do I keep my lists short? I have a few methods. The first is pretty obvious -- I review my lists in the morning and make a "today" list, which I work from. The second method is to simply purge some of the things on my lists -- if it's been on my next action list for a long time, it's clearly okay that it's not getting done. Some items may go to Someday/Maybe instead of being purged, but the effect is the same: a shorter list of things to do right now.

              Some people have success with the semi-heretical practice of scheduling tasks -- after all, it's not going to get done until you decide when to do it. Some people get enough lasting motivation from the workflow-management benefits of GTD that they never face these problems.

              David Allen says we should trust our gut and just do the right thing from our lists of actions when we look at them. Lots of us clearly have guts that need help.

              Comment


              • #8
                I GTD video on youtube by someone (not David) describing their system and I think he said he divides actions into:

                --today
                --this week
                --later

                II I put today things on calendar, use my next action list ONLY FOR THINGS I EXPECT TO WORK ON THIS WEEK, and use

                @someday for things that are NOT THIS WEEK

                and @maybe for things I may want to do.

                or


                III just make a daily list realizing that it is a list of higher priority things knowing that you might not get it all done.

                Comment


                • #9
                  Originally posted by kewms View Post
                  Start at the top and work down.

                  If you don't need to do it "as soon as possible," it shouldn't be on the Next Action list in the first place, it should be in the Tickler, or on the Someday/Maybe list.

                  So just do it.
                  . . .

                  If my lists are current (Weekly Review!), and nothing is flagged as a must do (Calendar!), then just working through the list in order is about as effective as any other algorithm I could come up with. Plus, as they say, a good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow. At some point, fretting about doing The Very Best NA is just another form of procrastination.

                  Katherine
                  Katherine's said this so many times and yet it can't be repeated too often. It represents a radical revision of the GTD orthodoxy in the book. But it is the most elegant solution to the problem that so many of us face: massively daunting lists.

                  Katherine's list is the dreaded, verboten, to-do list. But a to-do list is for a 1-day period. Katherine's NA list is for a 7-day period. And Katherine's list can be added to.

                  For many of us, filtering by context is not enough to get our lists down to a manageable size. We need to filter by time. There are 3- to 5-year lists (40,000 feet), 1- to 2-year lists (20,000 feet), and 7-day lists. And, if we need them, there are 1-day lists.

                  I don't see GTD as opposed to to-do lists. The major argument that David makes against to-do lists is that stuff changes real fast, as Longstreet says. But that doesn't stop us from making 5-year plans. (Who knows what will happen to me in the next five years.)

                  Not having read Forster's book, I will go out on a limb and say that in the kind of environment Longstreet is in, and I am in, closed lists do not make sense, if by closed lists, we mean that we cannot add or subtract from them.

                  David is 100% correct as far as my work context goes. I could lock the door and tell everyone that I will not be available every day from 1-3pm. But I choose not to and I have decided my business is the better for it. So, I add to and subtract from my list as the day moves along.

                  There is one quibble I have with what Katherine wrote. I am of the "bookmark" school of NA lists. That is, even the most finely grained project plans don't list every action. I work on a project, I complete a NA and then continue working until I decide to stop. At that point, I enter a (or some) new NA to that project. So, I do not just work off a list of NAs because many NAs are the start of a long chain of actions. If I worked directly off my NA list I might be skipping from one project to another. Rather, I often do the NA and then do what is now the next NA for that project, but it is a NA that I did not enter into my system the last time I did a Weekly Review.

                  I think in GTD Fast, David says something like he only thinks once a week and he spends the rest of the week just working off the list of actions he wrote down in the Weekly Review. That would not be the case if you, as I, belong to the Bookmark school of GTD. A bookmark is a placeholder. It tells you the next page to read in the book. But it does not tell you to stop after you've read that page. You keep reading until you decide to stop. Then you place the bookmark on the new Next Page.

                  Working off a prewritten NA list would be like reading one page from Book A, then putting Book A down and reading 1 page from Book B, then putting Book B down, the reading . . .

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by moises View Post
                    There is one quibble I have with what Katherine wrote. I am of the "bookmark" school of NA lists. That is, even the most finely grained project plans don't list every action. I work on a project, I complete a NA and then continue working until I decide to stop. At that point, I enter a (or some) new NA to that project. So, I do not just work off a list of NAs because many NAs are the start of a long chain of actions. If I worked directly off my NA list I might be skipping from one project to another. Rather, I often do the NA and then do what is now the next NA for that project, but it is a NA that I did not enter into my system the last time I did a Weekly Review.
                    Oh, me too. In fact most of my work is project-focused.

                    But if I'm in project mode, I already know what I'm going to do next -- work on the project -- so the original poster's question about scanning NA lists doesn't come up.

                    Katherine

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      I second Katherine:

                      - Start with Calendar items first thing in the morning
                      - When nothing planned work NAs one by one
                      - Stop in any particular Project for as long as you like and till:
                      - other activity in your Calendar
                      - new stuff drops into your Inbox and you need to re-calibrate
                      - you've got to some stop point (i.e. Waiting For smth)

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Full blown plain NA list actually helped!

                        In one of my earlier posts I had said that I select a few NAs as critical. Later on I even made the list separate. But I noticed that if my energy level was low, and I looked at my lists, I could not perhaps do any of the critical ones. The other ones were not worth doing right then, since they were not critical. So finally I ended up doing less.

                        So I decided to try the opposite a week ago: I actually rewrote the lists by randomizing and made no action special. I was still doubtful whether it would cause leaks. On the contrary, it seems to be working better for me. I just have to follow certain conventions: First quickly scan the list for any actions which will turn out to be time-bombs if not done. If there are any, I start upon them immediately (depending upon a mix of energy and priority: basically intuition). If not, I just pick up whatever I like at that time, and start upon it. Intermittently, I have to check whether I am avoiding some of the actions due to resistance. In that case I have to ask myself why it is there on my list in order to motivate myself. Sometimes I may discover that it's not really a crystal clear next action. Then I write it into my "in" section so that I can process it in the next processing.

                        Some of my actions, like Katherine, are "Work on XXX". I like to keep them on a separate list, so that I can look at them when I have big time-chunks available to me, and they don't interfere when I have time only for widget-cranking.

                        In conclusion, it seems I am happy having a long NA list without priority marks on it, and have stopped making any version of daily lists. I don't know whether it will work for others with a different nature of job or different mind set, or even for me two months down the line, but I thought I just should record my experience.

                        Abhay

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Use the lists

                          Hi!

                          For some time now I have tried making a daily todo-list with 3 na's. It doesn't work for me, mainly because I rarely completed any of them. This very easily leads into a stressed feeling about the lists.

                          I think one of the reasons why I felt that I needed a daily to-do list was that I didn't look at my lists often enough. I think for GTD to really "take off" we need to look at our next actions-lists AND project-lists pretty often.

                          So, in the future, I'll check my calendar and list of projects in the morning. That way I'll probably get a pretty good feeling about which single project I should start the day with. Then during the day pick actions from the next action lists, and probably take a look at the project list a couple of times.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            "If you don't need to do it "as soon as possible," it shouldn't be on the Next Action list in the first place, it should be in the Tickler, or on the Someday/Maybe list." (Katherine)

                            I am finding the "do" part is gradually becoming easier because I keep reducing the size of my NA lists. Most of what were NA's are now on a probably-too-long Someday/Maybe list, which I have started to break up into sub-lists (Someday/Maybe - Purchase, Someday/Maybe - Get Together (list of people I see regularly but infrequently), etc.).

                            I am worrying less and less about items not on my "immediate" NA lists -- knowing they are down the page on the S/M lists and I can always bring them up on a given day or before a weekly review. I still consider myself a newbie and I actually seem to be doing a nightly review, but just lately finding I can to 2-3 days. This is good!

                            It is amazing how paring down the NA content seems to improve my productivity. The former-NA's or soon-to-be-NA's are still there in "writing" and sometimes I find I have actually done them without having promoted them "above the line" so to speak. I fairly regularly seem to go over to the project list and as others describe, do a bunch of things within a project that ends up progressing it past what would have been its next one or two NA's. Still working it all out but overall happy with the amount I seem to be getting accomplished i.e. actually doing each day -- and my days are often crazy with a lot of new stuff coming in all the time, as you describe.
                            Last edited by GTD Sydney; 02-27-2008, 04:44 AM.

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                            • #15
                              I work from my NA list if there is a small window of opportunity that opens up: my colleague lets me know that he will be 15 minutes late for our lunch appointment, meeting ended sooner than expected, waiting 5 minutes for my secretary to retreive a document, ... .
                              In these cases, I no longer need to think about all the things that I am working and what could be done in this 5/10/15 minute interval. I just take the list and call my dentist to make an appoitment, brainstorm on some ideas to improve our cash flow report, ... .

                              At the end of the day (or in the morning), I list some big rocks that I need to work on. These are usually not next actions, but projects.
                              This list is derived from my 3 week rolling forecast; indeed, every week I list the things that I want to work on the coming three weeks (it is a review of the next 2 weeks and defining the 3d week). This is all not so strict GTD, but I found that doing the 3 week rolling forecast goes much quicker than doing a weekly review. (I found this on a GTD-related blog, unfortunately I do not find the link now).
                              If I would be able to do my weekly review weekly and if I would use my someday/maybe list more often, I could let go of the rolling forecast. But I am not there yet.


                              When I start working on a project, I look up the next action and start from there. I keep on working on the project until I get interrupted/hungry or until meeting starts, .... . I then write down the new next action and I deal with the interruption.

                              Conclusion:
                              I define my priority projects for the next 3 weeks.
                              Every day, I focus on 1 or 2 of these priorities.
                              When I want to start working on one of these projects, I look at my NA-lists to get me started.
                              In between the big chunks, I use my NA-lists to fill up the time.

                              my 2 cents.

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