Zombie Zen

My Story of Getting Things Done

It was a packed day: all meetings that required my attendance. The only breaks were for breakfast and lunch and a lone 30-minute break between other meetings. I had to meet with my remote manager, my new product manager, one of my team members, and customer liaisons for a new customer we were hoping to work with. On top of that, it was Agile sprint planning day — I had to run the task planning meeting and moderate two design discussion meetings. In between all that, I needed to write up my top accomplishments to my manager for performance review. The previous night, I realized that one of my mentoring meetings tomorrow didn’t have enough time to actually accomplish my mentee’s goals. All the while, a wave of emails and pings were crashing in. How was I going to get this all done?

While this was certainly not a typical day for me (I wouldn’t keep doing this if it was!), I think we’ve all experienced times in our lives where there’s things we want to do, but just don’t know how we would get there. I certainly have, even when things were far less busy. I would write things down on post-its on my monitor, but it was hit-or-miss whether I’d be remembering everything. Even when I did get everything done, it would seem like an accident. I would forget to do things. A constant source of background anxiety would be the question: “is there something else I forgot to do?” Things that I wanted to do — sharing photos I took, checking out a new video game, keeping up with friends, and so forth — would pile up too. At the end of most days, I would be exhausted, my brain buzzing with all the things I wasn’t doing instead of the things I did.

But the first week of August, everything changed: I read Getting Things Done by David Allen. This was a book on my radar for years, ever since my dad started using the workflow. I had just launched a product at work, so there were a bunch of threads of work that I was struggling to keep up with. The Getting Things Done methodology is composed of five activities: Capture, Clarify, Organize, Reflect, and Engage. The first step, Capture, is to gather “stuff” that is pulling on your attention. When you have time in the next few days, you Clarify what you want to do about each thing (perhaps nothing!). As you do this, you Organize the next actions so that you can find them later when you can Engage with them — actually doing things. Periodically, you Reflect on the projects you have assembled out of these actions to ensure you are doing the right things. I hoped that Getting Things Done would help with landing my product launch. What I got was far more.

As I read the book, I could see the direct path from where I was now to a better sustained state, unlike other “life hacks” and temporary fixes. Allen is quite upfront: adopting Getting Things Done requires a fair chunk of time to get your own system set up. Since the objective is to close all the open loops you’ve accumulated, Allen’s guidance is to dump any organization system you had before and then clarify and organize them. This includes documents, memorabilia, and reminders. Everything that is pulling on you. I found that this took me the better part of a weekend. I dumped out all my paper files and random bins of stuff that had accumulated over the years. I just never had “enough time” to deal with them before. A large amount of it had outlived its usefulness, but there was a significant portion that I wanted to keep or do something about. I then wrote down clear, actionable next steps in Todoist for that which remained, categorizing the steps with labels like “Home” or “30 minutes”. The labels weren’t perfect at first, but as I reviewed them and I organized more things, they got better as I got more clarity on how to separate each of these things.

Within a few weeks, I was already seeing benefits. Instead of being wildly reactive and worrying about missing things, I was confident that my system already had all the things. When I sat down to work, I could look at exactly the set of things that I could actually do instead of being cluttered with a bunch of things that I couldn’t do. If you were to look at the sequence of what I do, it wouldn’t be logically connected other than “well these two things both needed to happen on the computer”. And that’s precisely why I’m doing them: it’s advancing something forward while I’m still in that mode. And I’m adapting and switching activities depending on what I can do at a given time. Echoing Allen here: all these elements I already did (keeping a calendar) or knew how to do (organize by home or work), but I never combined them in this way.

Going back to my packed day, what did I end up doing? I knew that I wasn’t going to have time to capture any of the new inputs (email, pings, etc.), so I focused on fitting in the actions I had on my “Today” list in the time blocks I had. Since the calendar meeting could be moved quickly, I did that first. As I met with people during the day, I pulled up the list I had for each person and checked in about all the things I needed to with them. When they would tell me about new things, I’d make a note and put it in my ever-growing in tray. I wrote up and emailed my performance accomplishments — building on top of the outline I brainstormed the day before — during the only 30-minute break I had. I even got a few more things done than I expected: I checked in with my manager about a referral candidate, brainstormed project plans for 2019, called customer service about the balance of a gift card that I had found in my apartment the night before, and rescheduled a meeting with a new hire. My breakfast and lunch were unperturbed: I needed them to relax. In random moments and on my bus ride home, I cleared my inbox to zero by clarifying and organizing the next steps needed for each. In short, everything that I could do, I did, and you know what? At the end of the day, I was energized and proud of what I accomplished, not tired and stressed.

Getting Things Done transformed how I work and live. I’m happier, I exercise more (I have a daily reminder), I work more efficiently, and I spend more time with the people I care about. Overall, I’m just more present and relaxed. When my mind wanders to something else, I can jot down the other thought and then return to what I want to be doing now. I’m focused in meetings and social gatherings. When something comes up, I can prioritize it quickly and decide whether it can wait or not and be sure that I will do it when the time is right. Having the system around is like having the sort of quest system you’d find in a video game: everything is clear and laid out, and doing the things becomes enjoyable.

I’ve written up this post because I don’t think the benefits in the Getting Things Done approach are unique to me. I see Getting Things Done as a fantastic tool for addressing the stress brought on by everyday life. I’m not getting paid for this; my hope is that by sharing my story that it can help others who are struggling with the same problems. And I think it will: when I’ve talked with people about the problems I was facing, their eyes lit up and couldn’t ask questions fast enough. If, like them, you’ve read this far and you’re curious to know more details about how I’ve set up Getting Things Done, check out my follow-up blog post.