The Getting Things Done approach

The question still stands: what is the best way to tackle a task? In other words, what do you do when a task comes your way? The Getting Things Done system by David Allen offers a simple and practical approach to this.

From Getting Things Done by David Allen.

When something comes in on your plate, you need to ask the question, “What is it?” and “Is it actionable?” or in other words, “Can I act on this?”

If it is actionable, you need to ask, “What’s the next action?”

If the next action takes less than 2 minutes, you need to do it now. This may sound strange, but it is immensely helpful. If you do quick tasks immediately after they come onto your plate, you make sure you don’t get drowned in small to-do’s later. I often make sure to send that email now instead of leaving it until later. It takes so little time and is a huge load off my mind.

If the task takes more than 2 minutes to complete, you can try to delegate it. Not all tasks are suitable for delegation, but if it is, that’s a great option. In that case, you can email, message, or call the person to inform them of the task. Crucially, after you’ve done this, you need to make a note of it in a “Waiting For” list or under the project heading where the delegated task belongs. We often forget what we asked someone to do for us, and things can sometimes slip out of our control when we delegate them to someone else. That’s why it’s useful to have a way to keep track of what we are waiting for from someone else.

If you can’t delegate the task and you can’t do it right now, you can defer it to a future point in time. You can put it on your calendar, so you will do this task on a specific date and time. For example, I will wash my car on Saturday at 10:00. I don’t have to do it now, but I know it will get done.

You can also put it under a project heading (i.e., in the list of tasks belonging to a certain project) for you to do as soon as you can. This means that you don’t have to do the task on a specific date and at a specific time, but you will get to it when the time comes.

Every time you work on a certain project, you revisit your list of tasks for that project and tackle the task at the top of the list. In this way, you know that the tasks you put on there will get done and won’t be forgotten. Let’s say you want to change a light bulb in your house. You don’t want to do it now and there isn’t really a deadline for when it needs to get done. So you put it on your list of Home tasks. Next time you’re at home and have some time to do housework, you can take a look at your list and change that light bulb.

If the task that comes your way consists of multiple steps, then it may in fact be a project. If it is a project, then make a separate project heading for it with a list of tasks under it. If it’s smaller than a project but requires multiple steps, you can put the task under your already-defined project heading and include a list of sub-tasks that need to be completed. Then you treat each sub-task as described in the previous paragraphs and either do it, delegate it, or defer it.

Let’s say you want to buy a new washing machine. It’s not quite a project because it’s not that big (it belongs to the Improve Home project), but it’s a multi-step task. I’d identify the following sub-tasks: look for washing machines online, pick 3 washing machines, go to a store to see them, order a washing machine, install the new washing machine, remove the old washing machine. Then I would schedule “look for washing machines online” on my calendar and proceed from there.

If the task is not actionable, i.e., you can’t act on it now, you can include it as a reference. This means you can look at it later when/if you need to. It’s good if such a folder or system is organized by topic or is searchable in order to facilitate easy discovery of materials. I often use this for interesting articles, videos, web pages, etc.

Alternatively, you can incubate the task or idea as a possible later action. It’s nice to have this collection of possible later actions, for instance, for future work projects, trips you could take, or books you’d like to read.

Finally, you can consider deleting the incoming task. If it’s not important or interesting enough to end up in your reference materials or in your possible future actions, then it’s probably fine to just delete it.

This is a brief summary of the Getting Things Done system. It offers a practical approach to any task that might come your way and while in reality it may not always be easy to decide which category a task belongs to, you can always ask yourself the right questions, make a choice, and enter the task in your pipeline. In this way, nothing slips through your fingers and you end up tackling tasks one way or the other.

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