3 Things About To-Do Lists That David Allen Would Tell You

Productivity guru David Allen didn't invent the To-Do List, but he certainly created a process to use them for successful living.

I've been using my own version of his Getting Things Done (GTD) system, and it has made a big difference in my life. However, there are times when the system breaks down. But it's not the system's fault... It's my fault.

The beauty of GTD is in the mind-lifting freedom you feel when you no longer worry and fret about remembering all the things you need or want to do as they slip around the catacombs of your wet-brain. Capture your things-to-do in a GTD system, work the system, and live a nearly stress-free life.

In theory...

In his Productive Living newsletter, Allan shared these three ways that the GTD system can fail, and what you should do about it:

  1. Consistency -Keep all of your To-Do items in the same place, in the same kind of media. DON'T put some reminders on paper lists, others on sticky-notes, and still others on your smartphone. That creates confusion. You want simple. When you need to capture a To-Do item, you don't want your first question to be "Where do I put this?" The "where" should always be one place, one media. I have one list that is stored in the cloud on my Google Tasks list that I have sync'ed to the GoTasks app on my iPod (it would be on my iPhone if I had one, but I don't even have a smartphone). My iPod is almost always in my pocket, so my To-Do list is always with me. If I need to do a lot of data entry or revision work, I'll open up Google Tasks on my desktop computer. Otherwise, I manage it all on my iPod.
  2. Currency - Keep your list up-to-date. You must TRUST your list, and the only way your brain will trust it is if you keep it current. When I look at my GoTasks app on my iPod, I know everything is in there.  I want to open that app because it is my KEY to remembering everything. I keep the list current by visiting it for 10 minutes every morning. Once a week I'll spend a longer session with it, going through everything and culling what I know I don't need any more, and raising the urgency of the items that have evolved. Some may say my GTD system has taken over my life. I would say it is my partner in a life well lived.
  3. Contextual Availability - Each sub-list in your GTD system needs a context relating to either the "how you're thinking about something" and the "where you do something." My GTD system has three main sub-list contexts: Managing Objectives; Strategic Projects; Next Action Items. Next actions map to Projects. Projects map to Objectives. Objectives are the who and what I want to be in life. Projects are the multi-step Big Ideas that I need to execute to become my Objective self. Next Action items are the individual steps in those Projects. When it gets right down to the bitty-gritty of what I do from moment-to-moment, I'm working on my Next Actions. And those I categorize with a place or activity context, like "Desk", "Phone", "Errands". When I'm sitting at my desk, I just need to look at my "Desk" list to know everything that can and should be done while I'm sitting there. If I'm blocking off some time to make phone calls, I only need to look at the "Phone" list to know who needs calling, and what I need to discuss with them. If I'm leaving the house, I can batch many small errands together on trip by looking at my "Errands" list. When I'm doing some Big Idea thinking, I'll only open my Strategic Projects list, review what I've got there, and create a new project if a Big Idea really speaks to me. And when I'm really trying to keep the overall integrity intact of the vision of the life I'm trying to lead, I only need to read through my Managing Objectives. My longer once-a-week "Currency" session mentioned above is really all about keeping the mapping intact among these three main sub-list contexts.
If you haven't already done so, I highly recommend grabbing a copy of Allen's seminal book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.

By Kevin Rokosh

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