Getting things done — one analyst's approach

[Posted by Steven Noble]

OK, I admit it — I'm addicted to the Getting Things Done (GTD) method of managing tasks. However, I've tailored the system heavily for my work as an interactive marketing analyst, and this affects how I interact with other people, including those who want input into my research agenda.

My overall approach
Basically, I manage most of my work electronically. I use email/Outlook tasks for almost everything I should do, RSS for almost everything I should know, and social networks for professional and social interaction.

Why? To answer this properly, it's important to understand GTD concepts, starting with the concept of contexts.

The concept of contexts
A context is a situation in which you complete a task. For example, being at home with your power tools is a context. Being at work in your boss's office is a context. In each context, certain tasks are feasible and others are not. One of the ways in which GTD makes you more productive is by only showing you the tasks you can complete in your current context.

As an analyst, I regularly work from home and I almost always work with my laptop and smartphone. Basically, I can do almost anything almost anywhere, so I have very few contexts in my GTD system.

Naturally, I separate out @home so I'm not thinking about personal tasks during the day, @music for whenever I feel like staying up late cruising garage rock websites, and @books for when I'm shopping for something to read. However, when I'm in work mode, I'm not a heavy user of contexts, which means I foresake one of GTD's most powerful principles.

The concept of projects
The second major organising principle in GTD is projects. Every research report I'm working on is one project, as is every speaking engagement — and so on and so forth. But most of the actions in my to-do list are not tied to specific projects.

The concept of next action
So, I have few contexts and plenty of my tasks without projects. This means my task list is long and unstructured, so it's essential that it be usable. Thanks to the GTD concept of next actions, it is.

A next action is the next specific thing that you must do to move closer to achieving an outcome. For example, you may receive a long email. It may contain a mix of information, ideas and requests. In response, you could do 1000 things — or be so paralysed that you do nothing at all. According to GTD, you should quickly process this email by converting it into an action — the one specific thing that must do next to bring you closer to an objective.

Once I go through this quick mental process of identifying the next action triggered by each email, software takes care of the rest — automatically creating the Outlook task and filing the email where I don't see it but I can retrieve it with one click. The process is quick, painless and powerful.

What does this mean?
This clearly affects how I respond to communication.

When communication is designed to motivate me to take an action, then it's best to send me email. Direct messages on Twitter or Facebook or IM or the phone are just not productive for most day-to-day work correspondence. The only way to convert them into an Outlook task is with tedious copy-pasting and manual rewriting.

Of course if the action you're after is a briefing, the best option is to use Forrester's briefing page. If you go through that system, then our briefings team will send me email that identifies my next action on my behalf. Sweet.

On the other hand, when communication is designed to just keep me informed, then I'm with Read/Write Web — RSS is by far the best option. I can absorb the information in RSS feeds quickly. I can search them later using Google Reader. They go into the brain bank. It works.

And as for social networks? Well, no surprises — they're best for socialising and networking. Kinda makes sense.


re: Getting things done — one analyst's approach

Thanks for the practical advice on how to get things done! I especially can relate to your example of a large task paralyzing one--so much so that nothing gets done. Smart to break it down and simply take action.Suzanne

re: Getting things done — one analyst's approach

Hi Steven,I'm intrigued with your GTD setup... a year or so ago, I wrote a blog post for my former company about using GTD with Outlook 2007.Now, thank god, I am on a Mac. There are a lot better tools for the Mac and my company does not use Outlook.I'd love to hear what you think about (ugh, the term) Web 2.0-type tools. For instance, I have gotten in to using Jott to send myself tasks when it's not convenient to write it down on my iPhone, etc. So, I have been using Remember the Milk, even though it's not satisfying me completely.I do talk about contexts for people like us who work all day on computers, so @computer is a fairly useless context.-Josh

re: Getting things done — one analyst's approach

For implementing GTD you might try out this new web-based application:http://www.gtdagenda.comYou can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.A mobile version is available too.Hope you like it.

re: Getting things done — one analyst's approach

@Suzanne: Hope it's useful. It's all in the book (ISBN 9780670889068). Cheers.@Josh & @Dan: Personally I use Outlook for work email, hence I use the Outlook plug-in for GTD.If I used a SaaS solution for work email, then I'd be looking at an integrated SaaS for GTD too. I'm sure others who are in that situation already are keen to understand the alternatives.

re: Getting things done — one analyst's approach

It's refreshing to hear these concepts I've been using for years are actually a system now. 8-)Seriously, I love this digital outlook to work flow. However I'll challenge you a bit on the separation of life tasks part.I also work at home now. And I'm finding more and more that separating work time from home time not only negatively impacts performance, it also negates one of the prime advantages of working at home in the first place.For me it comes down to whether I love what I do. If I love my job, it becomes part of the fun. And as long as I'm diligent and get my work done, it doesn't matter whether I stay focused in a burst or come to it again and again between chores or playing with my family.The more I do this, the more I think that the old model is just that — "old."Now I understand that when there's a team depending on me elsewhere, I need to stay available, which is the primary reason traditional offices require workers to all be on site during business hours. But think of all the wasted time many workers experience "waiting" for project team mates. Why shouldn't I be hiking with my daughter during that time and just remain connected via mobile phone? Thus when the baton is passed, I'm more engaged, refreshed and ready to jump in.I think people are afraid of this idea of blending work and life. So many want to separate the two out of an antiquated notion that one is anathema to the other. But to me the problem is more one of balance and not letting one intrude too greatly on the other.Hope this makes sense. Just flinging this post off the cuff. I also hope this isn't coming off as critical. I just want to extend the conversation.Bob

re: Getting things done — one analyst's approach

Like somebody here i use Outlook for my agenda and my tasks, and i'm very satisfied because i don't need too complicated software for thatsimple and clean is okregards

re: Getting things done — one analyst's approach

@Bob: I get what you're saying. Starting work at 5.30am each day means I don't feel guilty about taking a 1.5hr lunch to squeeze in a workout. Working at the office means that my microbreaks are spent with the family rather than around the watercooler. And just as my smartphone usage bleeds into the weekend, so my family conversations can occur through the workday. But I still find it useful -- and, as an employee, responsible -- to have my non-work tasks marked as such in Outlook.

re: Getting things done — one analyst's approach

Nice post. Like others I also use outlook for sending message and receiving. Sometime my outlook was corrupt and some of my message was not receive. In my work I need the outlook and for me I think this is helpful and a useful tool.