Reorganising Everything Part 1: Getting Things Done
_This is the first part of a seven part series where I talk about reorganising my digital and physical life and activities in order to try and feel more sane and at peace. Part 1 - Getting Things Done Part 2 - Email Part 3 - Calendars: Paper vs Digital Part 4 - Devices and Notifications: Focus Modes Part 5 - Stripping Back: The Return of RSS Part 6 - Non-Actionable Items Part 7 - The Review _
Before we start, let's get the obvious out of the way.
I'm under no delusions that the chaos of life cannot be fully controlled. Things can and will pop up on a daily basis that will knock all of my carefully aligned plans out completely. Maybe it'll come later in the day, maybe it's first thing in the morning. I cannot control this occurrence entirely, just what is in my control, and while that core in me likes to tell me I can control everything relating to my personal circumstances at all times, I cannot, and that's that.1
With that in my, there are things I can control. More importantly, there are things that I need to control. While the benefits of just letting go and living with whatever life takes me may sound attractive, the fact is my default is to eat myself into an early grave, unless the depression takes me first. There are things that I'd like to do, places I'd like to explore, a life to provide for me and my wife, and potentially any kids we end up having2. I can't do these things whilst gorging myself under a weighted blanket.
Then there is the depression, the ever present vulture waiting for me to finally succumb to my fate. While it's improved to the point where I'm slowly reducing my meds, I still have my moments, made worse when I don't have a clear mind. Getting all of my open loops out, organising them, and regularly reviewing and checking them off helps enormously with that. Some people need to declutter their homes to feel better; I need to declutter my mind, and all of the distractions that come with it.
So, with that in mind, let's start with the main methodology I'll be focusing on to achieve this.
Getting Things Done
I mentioned David Allen's Getting Things Done methodology before in my Year of Intentionality post at the start of the year. It's fallen a bit out of favour in recent times, but it's one I return to time and again when in need or sorting my junk out.
The basis of it is that our stress isn't necessarily caused by too many items on our plate, but by having too many incomplete tasks running around in our head. That bag of pet food we need to buy, that call we need to make, that job vacancy you want to go for. Our lives are busy, we get distracted, but the items never go away, popping up when we least expect it. GTD is about managing these items, getting everything out and clarified, and helping us become accountable for what we choose to do and not do.
The method consists of five stages:
- Capture everything; every incomplete task in your head, every loose sheet of paper with something on to do or read or action, every note you've left yourself. All in one big pile.
- Clarify each item one by one. This has a whole chapter in his book, but it all boils down to this flow chart.
- Organise your items into projects, lists, and folders.
- Reflect and review as regularly as needed. The general recommendation is a weekly review of your next action, waiting for, and projects lists, with a higher level view of your long term goals as and when required.3
- Do: the cornerstone of every task management system. Whether you make your decision by time, energy, context, or priority, choose the way that makes sense for you and run with it.
The other key aspect of Do is choosing what not to do. Maybe the item isn't actually what's next on the project, or else your mind was placing an importance on it that on reflection it didn't deserve or require, and you instead choose another action. The key is that it's not just rattling around your head as a thing you really 'need' to do; you're looked at it, reviewed it, and decided that it doesn't need doing right now. While everything else helps me make sense of my head and life, this particular point helps keep me sane.
I've tried many different ways of implements this system. Paper became too unwieldy and not particularly useful on the move4. Todoist has a great deal of functionality, but I often have issues with the UI, and in particular how slow it can be across devices. TickTick doesn't allow for sub-projects, has less useful date processing, and again can get a bit clunky. OmniFocus is a system I've enjoyed in the past but gets pricey, and Things is great but controversially I prefer the subscription pricing model over buy an iPad, iPhone, and MacOS version separately and then watch as they release a new version.
After reviewing it all again, I've landed on Nirvana, a much touted pure GTD app. I was a little put off by and absence of widgets and Shortcut integrations, but then I realised that I never found either particularly useful elsewhere, so why would I need it here? Instead, I'm rewarded with a clean UI, ubiquitous across devices, with the ability to chose a project as either parallel or sequential and thus auto generating next action lists5, with built in reference list functionality, and a clear and easy way to delineate areas of focus and switch between them. It also has built-in waiting for, someday/maybe, and later lists, and easy and simple way to convert items from tasks, to projects, and to reference items, and mark them as active or inactive. Sort of OmniFocus lite, but half the price.
The one feature it's missing that I used quite heavily was a tiered priority system. TickTick and ToDoist let you essentially prioritise each task with a rating of high, medium, low, or none. With a next action list some 50 items long, it was easier for to me to rank them in advance and work my way through. I can use tags on Nirvana to achieve this, but again, that feels clunky, so instead I'm going to try and rely on another feature of GTD: contexts.
It's pretty simple. For tasks you can only do at home, you'd give the task the 'home' context. If you need to be the office, use the 'office' tasks. Errands, laptop, deep work, calls, the list of contexts is really down to you and your needs. Nirvana has time required and energy required built into the app, so you don't need to use tags for those. This way, when I'm going through my next actions list on my 15 minute break, I might see an action to 'call vets re repeat prescription', see that it's a low energy, 5 minute task, and prioritise that over 'write blog post' which will take a lot longer than 15 minutes and a lot more energy that a quick phone call.
I was already kind of doing this previously without actually following the steps. I might scan my list, see a two or three medium priority tasks that I should do but didn't actually have the energy for, and instead cleared a few lower priority tasks that were quick and easy. When I cam to review, I was able to rationalise this, but, it didn't feel good to have high priority tasks there when lower priority tasks were being done. Contexts might add an extra step when processing, but it might make me feel better about my decisions, whilst highlighting any tasks I'm putting off due to energy requirements that I might need to purposefully block out some time on to prevent further procrastination6.
Getting Things Done is more than just tasks though. There's your long term visions, what Allen calls your horizons. There's the never ending deluge of emails or and ever growing stack of reference papers, from bills to contracts, articles to reviews and menus. There's dates and appointments to remember, notes on tasks and projects to clarify and store somewhere. And then beyond all of this, beyond the methodology, there's how this all fits together, digital and analogue. The non-actionable items, notes and reference items, checklists, calendars, and how I manage it all across my devices and especially notification creep.
That's what I'll be exploring and clarifying over the coming weeks, starting with the biggest problem: email.
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I'm yet to come across an argument as to why I should like this, but I have been forced to accept it, both through circumstance and by people that are smarter than me.↩
Or even better, the dogs that we'll eventually have. Not quite ready for more than one, but looking forward to the day we are. Much, much more preferable to screaming, pooping, tiny little monsters. At least, for now.↩
I use a monthly review to review against my short term goals; a quarterly review against my yearly theme; and my annual review against both my theme and where I want to be in the next five years.↩
Plus my handwriting is pretty bad, and when I'm rushing to write my next actions lists out and really just scribbling on an index card, it gets real awkward when I'm trying to decide what to do.↩
Whereas with TickTick and ToDoist I was having to use tags to denote which item was next on the project and generate a next action list that way. This just added to the clunky feel of them; adding the extra step made the process longer, less enjoyable, and then ultimately not followed.↩
For example, blog post writing.↩