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GTD Task List Management: 5 Steps For Busy People.

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GTD Task List Management:
5 Steps For Busy People.
Life gets busier...

...and the busier you are, the more you need to have a sound process to control and manage not just your work but your personal life too.

Despite this fact, very few of us ever spend the time necessary to put in place an effective task management process.

Some of us try to get on top of things by writing irregular ‘To Do’ lists. But even if you use traditional To Do list software to help you, constantly having to update and maintain what is, after all, a basic productivity tool, takes time and effort.

Instead, what most of us require is a more robust and reliable productivity boosting system that gives us a mechanism for dealing with everything we have to do. One such technique is Getting Things Done (GTD).

Devised by task management expert, David Allen, GTD brings tasks into a comprehensive process, so they are never just ‘things to do’ on list, but instead are seen as part of something bigger.

The 5 central elements to the GTD process.

The first of these is to identify and collect every one of the unfinished tasks you are faced with.

By capturing all this information you will not only get a complete overview of what you have on our plate, but also remove the psychological burden of feeling that you ‘have so many things to do’, which comes from carrying around too much in your head. This process clears the mind and in itself is remarkably stress relieving.

To begin, gather together every piece of paper in your office, home, briefcase, car or anywhere else that may contain information on a task undone. Go through notebooks, sticky notes, business cards, files, folders, correspondence, even pin boards and leaflets.

Repeat the process by clearing out your ‘electronic cupboards’ – email inbox, sent mail, computer desktop, electronic notes, word processed documents, Dictaphone notes, answer machine messages, voicemails and texts – making a note of the ‘incompletes’ you find.

If others are involved with your projects, ask them to identify open loops.

Finally, interrogate your memory for anything else you know about and which may not yet have made its way onto paper or computer.

This may take a few hours, or a few days, but the initial effort will be worth it - once these items are in the system, you will only have new ones to process each week.

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The Power of Projects.

The next step in GTD is to process this information by answering two questions about every incomplete task. The first question is: ‘What project does this help complete?’

While there are one-off tasks, most will be part of a larger project. In GTD terms, projects don’t need to be large affairs, just something that requires more than two actions to complete.

So, as you process each item, attach it to a project, identifying not just current projects, but also those on the horizon, as well as all those ‘dream projects’ you’d like to get around to one day.

Very soon you will have built up a ‘Project List’ of 30 or 40, perhaps even a hundred items. This is an invaluable, ‘at a glance tool’ for keeping sight of all the bigger things you want or need to do in life.

Process Your Tasks.

Now you should be able to attach all of your outstanding incomplete items to a project. 

  • If the item is reference material, place it either physically or electronically in a physical file or electronic folder labeled with the project name.
  • If it has little value or purpose dump or delete it.
  • If someone else has the capacity and ability to do it, delegate it to them.
  • If, for one reason or another, it can’t be allocated just yet, defer it to a later date.
  • If it can be done in less than two minutes do it.
  • If it will take longer, determine if it needs to be done at a particular time and schedule it accordingly.
  • If it is not time or date-specific, decide whether the task needs to be done daily, now, soon, later or just someday and categorise it accordingly.

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There’s Always a Next Action.

Now that you have organized all your open loops, it’s time for the fourth stage - to ask GTD’s second ‘power’ question: ‘What is the very ‘Next Action’ I need to take to move this task or project forward?’

Answering this single question every time you have something to do will dramatically increase your productivity because it will force you to unpack larger jobs into their component parts – the small action steps that make up even the largest project. This in itself will help overcome the feeling of overwhelm that leads to procrastination when we’re faced with large projects.

The Final Step: Creating a 'Living List'.

The final step in the GTD process is to group all your tasks by ‘context’.  While many tasks are ‘universal’, some can be only be done when you are in the right place (home, office, town); have the right equipment (phone, computer); or can connect with right person (husband, wife, colleague, boss).

So, while a traditional list may contain a ‘mixed bag’ of To Dos, by sorting your Next Actions by context you will always have a filtered list of jobs that are just right for the circumstances, whether you are at your desk, meeting a colleague or out on errands in town. What’s more, by doing similar jobs together you will also work effectively than when you leap from one type of task to another.

While this article doesn’t describe the complete GTD system, it has hopefully introduced you to the core elements of what is one of the most effective ways to manage not just your day-to-day tasks, but also those that are part of more important and bigger projects. Take the time to learn and apply its methods consistently and you will see your productivity soar.

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