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Productivity Made Simple: The 7 Main Elements of GTD

Productivity Made Simple: The 7 Main Elements of GTD

    Just like the five elements (Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood), GTD has its own elements. Only there are seven instead of five…and not nearly as epic.

    In the previous parts of this series we were talking about things like how to select what to do next, and how to compile your projects list (and your next tasks list). Today it’s time to get deeper into this topic, and explain the main elements a little more in detail.

    Not to keep you hanging any longer…let me tell you what the seven main elements of GTD are:

    • Projects List
    • Next Tasks List
    • Future/maybe List
    • Calendar
    • “Waiting for” List
    • Resource Files
    • The Intangible One (wait for it…)

    Being familiar with these elements, knowing how to use them, and understanding their purpose is key to implementing GTD successfully.

    I know that it sounds like a lot of work, and that some of the elements are not clear at this point, but I assure you, it’s much easier than it seems.

    Let’s take it from the top, and talk about the first element on the list:

    Projects List

    We briefly talked about this one in the previous post — Selecting What to Do Next with GTD. Feel free to check it out if you haven’t already. The post also explains the meaning of projects as defined in GTD.

    In essence, your Projects List is where all of your current projects are listed.

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    Each project has its own section in the Projects List. Each section is a somewhat complete collection of various things regarding a project.

    Such a project section usually contains things like:

    • A short description of the project. This is helpful when you want to come back to a given project after a while of inactivity, and you can’t remember what the project was about exactly.
    • A list of tasks that need to be done to complete the project.
    • References to other materials that might come handy when working on the project.

    The first element is pretty self explanatory. The second one has been explained in the previous post. So we’re left with the last one – references to other materials. The truth is that whenever you’re working on something, you need a set of different things for reference (or other information that will help you to get the project done).

    Let’s use the simplest of examples just to explain this briefly – our car fixing example. Some references to other materials might include: listing of all professional garages in your area, phone numbers, important paperwork for the car.

    Of course, every project has different characteristics, so there’s no universal template for those references, but I’m sure you get the idea.

    Next Tasks List

    Like I was saying in the previous post, this is where you spend most of your time when working with GTD.

    Essentially, Next Tasks List contains only one task from each of your projects. Not more, just one single task.

    Again, the previous post (Selecting What to Do Next with GTD) explains the purpose and the construction of the Next Tasks List in detail.

    Future/Maybe List

    This is a new element. We haven’t talked about it yet.

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    The purpose of this list is very simple in nature. It contains everything that you know you won’t be able to take action on right now ( Future), or things that you’re not yet sure if you’re going to take action on them ever (Maybe).

    The purpose of this list is to give you a place to store all your ideas, possible projects, things that simply seem interesting, things you don’t want to forget about, etc.

    The construction of the list is not defined exactly, so anything you want can find its place there. In particular, things like:

    • Short descriptions of new projects.
    • Single tasks you’re thinking about doing.
    • Random, yet actionable thoughts on anything.
    • Things (requests, projects, tasks) other people have sent you.
    • Summaries of interesting articles/posts you might want to take action on in the future.

    Virtually, everything that’s worthy of keeping for possible future actions finds its place in the Future/Maybe List. There are no other rules more important than this one.

    Calendar

    A calendar seems like a pretty obvious thing. But it’s not. Many people fall into a trap of putting everything in a calendar. It’s a habit. And it’s a bad one.

    The biggest problem with a calendar is that we often use it to list some things we think we’re going to be able to do on a given day. So we end up with tens of tasks, one on top of the other, each not done on the desired day. This also makes it really easy to overlook some tasks that absolutely need to be done on a given day.

    Your calendar is sacred. The real purpose of a GTD calendar is to let you know that if you put something in it, it means that this specific thing can only be done on the exact date you’ve picked…or NEVER.

    I’m serious. It really is your only chance of doing the thing. After you miss it, it’s lost for eternity.

    What’s the purpose of all this? It’s simple. It’s for so that all of the truly time-sensitive tasks don’t get overlooked.

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    Let’s say you’ve got a doctor’s appointment. Such appointments are always set to a specific date and hour. If you miss it, well, you missed it, and you have to make another appointment. You can’t just show up the next day and say “Sorry, I’m late.” This won’t work.

    The doctor’s example is actually perfect for explaining the purpose of a GTD calendar. It really is a sacred place. If something gets put into the calendar there’s no way of rescheduling it, or postponing it. It’s like it’s been written in stone.

    What’s the main benefit? You’ll be amazed how little things you’ll have in your calendar once you implement this.

    “Waiting for” List

    This is a new element too. Quite simply, this list contains all the things you are waiting for.

    “Things you are waiting for” is a vague explanation so let me give you some examples:

    • Emails you’re waiting for other people to send you.
    • A call your real estate agent was supposed to make to you.
    • The price of Mexican Peso to go down so you can buy some currency for your vacation.
    • Your car to be fixed so you can pick it up.
    • Your post to be published on Lifehack.org.

    This list is a place for all things that are somewhat independent of your actions, yet you are still waiting for them to happen.

    What’s the purpose? Simply not to forget about the fact that someone was supposed to do something for you, and they’re late. It’s so you don’t wake up one day and say, “Wait a minute, my article was supposed to be published like 2 months ago!

    Resource Files

    Resource Files contain every piece of information you might need to get on with your projects, work, and…essentially…life. ”Resource Files” isn’t the best name in the world, so let’s show some examples:

    • Articles that might come handy.
    • Blog posts you’ve read (or written).
    • Your directory of tabs and notes (if you’re a guitarist, for example).
    • Your notebook of contacts.
    • Your list of the best restaurants in the city.
    • Certain books you want to review.
    • Every piece of important information that’s stored on your computer’s hard drive.
    • Pictures from your last holiday.
    • and so on…

    I guess that the only rule is to store everything that isn’t actionable in any way, but you want to keep it nevertheless.

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    As you’d imagine, this is probably the biggest element in volume of them all. Nothing else comes even close to your Resource File. Thankfully, these days we’re doing most of our stuff on a computer, so we don’t have to play around with tons of paper.

    The Intangible Element

    This is the final and most important element of them all. It’s the intangible one: Trust.

    If you don’t have trust for GTD then nothing else can make the system work for you. If you want GTD to help you make your life and work more organized you have to trust that GTD can indeed do that for you.

    Trust is not that important for other, simpler methodologies. But GTD is different. It is somewhat complex. It hasn’t been invented overnight. It’s a result of years of work and experience of its author – David Allen. It is not accidental. And that is why it works.

    But to make it work you have to trust it, or – as some like to call it – suspend your disbelief while you learn GTD. It will pay off soon.

    There have been three parts of the Productivity Made Simple series already. At this point, do you trust that it can change the way you work? Share your thoughts in the comments.

    (Photo credit: Tutorial or Advice Concept via Shutterstock)

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    Karol Krol

    Blogger, published author, and founder of a site that's all about delivering online business advice

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

    More About Goals Setting

    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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