While I love Getting Things Done (GTD) as one of the best time management systems around, many of its user struggle to implement its recommendations.

The reason? GTD was developed in the 1990′s at a time when email volumes were low, mobile email access was limited, there was no such thing as tweeting and 2 people weren’t forced to do the job of 8. It was invented for a simpler time, and taught users to create lists of tasks tagged by “contexts,” which were mostly determined by a combination of one’s physical location and proximity to required tools.

Things have certainly changed, and today, some of those who are inspired by GTD’s rules are taking a new approach in order to keep up with life in 2011.

In the first place, they are, according to Sven Fechner, abandoning the old notion that work is defined by location. Tags such as @Blackberry or @iPad obviously have little meaning due to the mobility of these devices, @Computer seems like a quaint reminder of the days when email was only received at your desk, and with the advent of cloud computing and mobile technology, @Home has become the functional equivalent of @Work.

Today, users of GTD have different problems: they are struggling (like everyone else) to keep up with the increasing amount of stuff they want to do in the limited time available. Luckily, there is a solution inherent in GTD’s principles, but it can only be understood by looking at the way strict GTD’ers manages their tasks.

At the start of any activity, a user of GTD contextual tagging follows this process:
1. Determine my current context e.g. @Computer
2. Scan the list of items that are tagged with that particular context
3. Decide which task to act on first
4. At the end of the task, go back to step 1

Frequently, a GTD user must also conduct a “Weekly Review” of all their tasks to make sure that they are appropriately tagged.

It’s a sequence that’s easy to understand and implement, and the key to making it work is to have every single task tagged with the right context. This approach has worked fine for many, but there are a growing number who are complaining about their inability and unwillingness to conduct an effective Weekly Review.

What’s happened is simple to explain. As the number of tasks, messages, communication channels and mobile devices has increased, the process of scanning every item on each list has become overwhelming. It is taking too long, they complain: a tedious chore that is not worth the effort.

Mental vs. Explicit Schedules

Something else has also added to the feeling of being burdened.

All effective knowledge workers engage in some form of active time-planning at certain critical moments in the week: before starting work each morning, on Sunday nights before the week starts, just before they agree to accept a new assignment, and when a breakdown of some kind occurs. At these moments. they quickly scan their mental calendars, and start moving items around in their heads to ensure that they can complete the most important tasks before they are due.

This juggling act is especially essential for complex activities, such as paying one’s taxes by the April 15th deadline. Most people don’t think only about the big day itself, but also focus on carving out time to complete the preparatory work some weeks and even months ahead of the due date in order to prevent a last minute panic.

As you might imagine, the most organized professionals don’t do these tasks on their own. They use planning tools such as paper calendars, tablets, laptops, smartphones and web services to help them manipulate due dates, durations and deliverables in an explicit schedule, unknowingly adopting some of the established best practices in project management.

Curiously however, GTD famously discourages its users from transferring these mental schedules out of their minds. Its most rigorous users only use these planning tools to track appointments that cannot be moved, such as the non-negotiable April 15th due date. Any and all activities that can take place on flexible dates before then, do not belong in a calendar. They wouldn’t, for example, set time aside in their schedules to find bills, purchase software, consult past records and consult tax tables.

I’m not sure if this is what the author of GTD intended, but the effect on GTD users on a whole is that they walk around with almost-empty calendars, but very complex mental schedules. Once again, this wasn’t a problem when GTD was developed in the 1990′s. However, in today’s workplace, trying to keep complex and ever-changing calendars in one’s mind has lead to feelings of overwhelm and burden as users are forced to build, remember and recall mental schedules that stretch over several months.

About 5 years ago, I also thought that my electronic calendar was the problem and tried following the GTD approach to task planning. When more of my commitments starting falling through the cracks, I didn’t understand why, but now I do — it’s too hard to keep a mental calendar in today’s world of ever-increasing tasks.

The answer, thankfully is not to abandon GTD, but instead to tweak it.

The Tweak

The purpose behind tagging tasks with a context is to provide a filter that gives the user a small, manageable range of tasks to choose from. Now that we have more demands on our time, we need different filters than the ones described in the book.

Today, the key resource constraint is time, and there are already some users who are using temporal tags to help them do this filtering. For example, imagine that you’re in the middle of a tense meeting at 9:30am and you receive a message from your Nanny: “Pick up the milk on the way home from work.”

What used to be “@GroceryStore — Pick Up Milk” now becomes “@Mon evening — Pick Up Milk” or even “@6pm — Pick up Milk.”

In this example, the biggest challenge for working professionals is not remembering what to do once they are at the grocery store. Instead, it lies in remembering to make the detour to the store at 6pm after a day of tough meetings Those who are most likely to “remember” don’t in fact use memory. They use tools like smartphone calendars to make sure they don’t have any conflicts, before placing the item in the 6pm time-slot along with a notifier such as a buzzer, beep or vibration.

While this solution seems simple enough, the fact is that electronic calendars weren’t built for this purpose, and need to be customized to meet each user’s needs. If you decide to do make this upgrade, it’s a good idea to keep experimenting to see if life does improve by asking the following:
Question 1 – Am I better off managing my activities in a tool rather than in my memory?
Question 2 – Am I using the tool in a way that is increasing the odds of picking up the milk?
Question 3 – Am I able to reduce the Weekly Review by scanning tasks scheduled for the near future?

These shouldn’t be abstract questions — they should be answered as you experiment with your upgrade to see whether or not further changes are needed, or even a rollback.

The fact is, there is no longer any one-size fits all, permanent solution to managing our commitments, and we need to keep tinkering to find new ways to get better. Upgrading our systems and the way we use GTD’s recommendations can be fun as we discover new ways to be productive, but we must be willing to change with the times.

 

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