GTD workflow, breakthroughs, and the big picture

Since about 2009 I've been using David Allen's basic methodology (Getting Things Done, or GTD) for my general organizational workflow. I've had different revisions of my implementation over the years, and many hiccups/struggles. I'll spare you much of the details and I'm going to focus on a couple key areas of struggle and breakthrough for me.

As an aside, if you're unfamiliar with GTD here's (very briefly) what it entails:

  • Capturing anything and everything that has your attention
  • Defining actionable things discretely into outcomes and concrete next steps
  • Organizing reminders and information in the most streamlined way, in appropriate categories, based on how and when you need to access them
  • Keeping current and "on your game" with appropriately frequent reviews of the six horizons of your commitments (purpose, vision, goals, areas of focus, projects, and actions)

- David Allen / Making It All Work (p. 26)

Experimentation and Starting Over

One main struggle I've had with my system is keeping it from going stale, and managing an overwhelming amount of information. David Allen's philosophy is get everything out of your head and into a system. There is a method to the madness, but depending on how you manage it, it can get overwhelming quickly. I found myself periodically creating projects and lists that I would let linger too long. My views became cluttered and I would start ignoring portions of my system and not using it in it's entirety.

I realized finally that I needed to cut out the cruft---regularly and as soon as I know it's no longer relevant. There is a benefit to keeping most things in your system (I use Omnifocus)---it keeps your mind clear from worrying about all those random loose ends. But when it's irrelevant and unmanageable it has little benefit. Now, as part of my weekly review process, I regularly review what's working in my setup and what's not. I may have a new idea, a new project, or a new way to organize and approach attacking a longer term problem or goal---sometimes it's great, often it's not. I've realized if I'm just not feeling it, or if it's not working, scrap it. Continue trying new things, but don't be afraid of experimenting and letting things go. Reflect on what works and what doesn't. This has helped tremendously. It reduces clutter, reduces the burden of the clutter, and it helps me stay engaged with my entire workflow.

Gaining Clarity with Perspective

One of my favorite things from David Allen is his perspective model. He calls this Horizons of Focus: purpose (or the 50k feet view), vision (40k ft.), goals (30k ft.), areas of focus (20k ft.), projects (10k ft.), and actions (runway). The whole idea is that when you get---when you really get---your larger vision and purpose, when you know what drives you, what motivates you, what you're good at, what you want, the little things in life will fall into place. You'll be able to make those smaller daily decisions with much more clarity when you have greater perspective. This goes with everything from "what am I doing here on earth?" to "what are we trying to accomplish this month/week?" Gaining greater clarity on this and feeling it bleed into the daily tasks has, and often is, a struggle (not to mention that gaining a personal perspective on life is quite a lifelong task!). I recently switched things up here and am doing a few things that I think help solve some of the pain I've had here. Apart from keeping a list of these perspectives, as well as constantly updating them, to merge them in to my daily frame of mind I do the following:

Reflect on the greater perspective at the start of each day. Before I really start my day I will try to, at least for a few moments, reflect on my larger values and vision. When I get into work mode I'll: check the calendar; check emails; jot down anything that's on my mind I need to take care of; review big three for a few seconds; review a few weekly goals that I create at the beginning of the week; check what I want to do for the day; and then I just kill it (e.g. rock it... or get shit done)! I'm not dogmatic about it, but I do try to do this everyday. I believe it helps.

Organize projects in relation to these bigger perspectives. At work, for instance, we have our quarterly big three. It's fairly simple, but I have three folders in my Omnifocus todo system each labeled with the big three topic, then I organize projects inside of those.* So every day I have a visual reminder of how my projects/tasks are relating to the big picture. I try to do this with my personal projects as well. This is a subtle change but it does help put things in... perspective... pretty well actually.

Do a weekly review. This is a critical part of David Allen's approach. I check all my projects (personal and work), create any tasks/projects I need to, and remove any cruft that's getting in the way or became irrelevant. I ask myself how the process is going, what's working, what's not working. Then I do a review of my larger goals, and set some weekly goals that attempt to move these forward. Lately I've been doing this on Monday. It takes about 30 minutes to 2 hours depending on what's going on.

And that's it! Those are just a few things that I've tweaked in the last year that I've found helpful for my productivity and helpful to keep my daily tasks in perspective to the larger picture.

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