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Nerd Show and Tell: Getting Things Done Is Awesome!

by Rob Madole


Getting Things Done (GTD) is a five-step storing, tracking, and retrieval system developed by productivity guru David Allen that helps professionals chart their work so they’re more efficient and effective. 

This is the story about how I became a nerd about GTD and my invitation to enlist you to become a nerd about it, too!

When I Discovered David Allen’s Getting Things Done

Early in my career, I worked for small companies doing web development. One of those operations later merged with a huge, 140,000 person organization known as Accenture

In my new job at Accenture, I suddenly had responsibilities I wasn’t used to. I was working at an office, in a leadership role, and panic started setting in when I realized how much work I had to do. Not only that, but my old system of keeping track of my work was failing.

That is until I listened to a David Allen seminar on GTD. It hooked me instantly. 

Welcome to my GTD Nerd Show and Tell! 

Without a Plan, Your Brain Naturally Hijacks Your Focus

Imagine it’s 10 a.m. on a Monday morning, and you’ve got a busy week ahead. You’re trying to focus hard on work and — bing! — you suddenly realize you almost forgot about an important appointment (the dog needs to go to the vet). Then three more things come to mind you need to tend to at home. Before you know it, your brain is hijacking your focus, destroying your productivity. 

The human brain is pretty impressive, but the thing is, it doesn’t care when you’re at work, and random, often unhelpful thoughts come and go as they please. Unfortunately, it’s at the cost of your work focus. 

We’ve all experienced being overwhelmed in our professional and home lives. Too much to do, too little time and resources. This is where David Allen’s GTD has been a lifesaver for me and why I’m a huge fan. 

Getting Things Done — A Down to Earth Approach 

One of the many strong points of GTD is that it’s a non-siloed, all-of-life approach. Not only do I track and organize work, I track home life too. Like family vacation planning, house repairs, and even when it’s time for the flashlights to get fresh batteries. Everything just goes into this one tool. 

On an even higher level, GTD accounts for human limitations. But rather than fight against the limitations, it makes space for it, and offers reliable tools. 

Brains don’t distinguish between work/life. 

One of the many strengths of Allen’s philosophy is his take on the default mode of the human brain — it holds onto things. It doesn’t matter if that thing is something at work or something at home, relational challenges with a loved one, or even something you do for fun. Your brain doesn’t distinguish between those different categories; it’s all the same. 

So, if I write down a to-do list, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “You know what, I’m probably going to lose this scrap of paper tomorrow,” the capturing of this thing has become worthless. My brain knows I’m probably going to lose my reminder, so it holds onto it. 

So not only have I wasted paper and pencil graphite, I’ve also wasted a bunch of brain energy I could be channeling in a productive way. 

Humans are fragile. 

In the first GTD seminar I watched, Allen opened with a simple claim — most to-do methods fail because they rely on willpower rather than a system. 

We humans can stick to something for one or two days. Some of us with willpower might even do well for a week. But inevitably low energy levels or simple lack of attention knocks us off track. That means that the system is only as strong as your willpower, and that’s no system at all. 

This rang true for me. Up until that point, I’d tried planners, paper to-do lists, and digital systems. They were all a mess. I had papers and crap all over my desk, and I’d lose track of things. 

At home, it was the same problem. My wife would ask me where something like the property tax receipt was, and I just didn’t know. I was losing stuff left and right. It was horrible, and it kept me stressed and frustrated.  

Getting thoughts out of your head to clear the chaos. 

In my opinion, one of the most valuable aspect of GTD is simply getting your thoughts out of your head, and recorded somewhere externally. that could be in a notebook, in an electronic file — it doesn’t really matter where. Then you can make a plan to tackle or file away each item for another day when the timing is right.  

The 5-Step GTD System in Outline 

GTD is based on a five-step storing, tracking, and retrieval system for everything we need to get done in life at work and home. 

But the reason we so often get stuck is we fail to plan, and our brain’s reminder systems aren’t reliable. To stay on track, we need a steady, external support system, so we’re taking the right actions at the right time. 

Here’s GTD in outline. (This step-by-step is a verbatim summary from the GTD site.

STEP 1 — Capture

Collect what has your attention. Write, record, or gather any and everything that has your attention into a collection tool.

STEP 2 — Clarify 

Process what it means. Is it actionable? If so, decide the next action and project (if more than one action is required). If not, decide if it is trash, reference, or something to put on hold.

STEP 3 — Organize

Put it where it belongs. Park reminders of your categorized content in appropriate places.

STEP 4 — Reflect 

Review frequently. Update and review all pertinent system contents to regain control and focus.

STEP 5 — Engage

Simply do. Use your trusted system to make action decisions with confidence and clarity.

GTD and Achieving a “Mind Like Water” 

At first glance, some of Allen’s underlying philosophy seems a little woo-woo, but if you can get past that, the principles make good sense. 

One example is the martial arts-like maxim, “mind like water,” which he defines as …

[A mind like water is] …a mental and emotional state in which your head is clear, able to create and respond freely, unencumbered with distractions and split focus.

Think again about the natural state of our minds. Imagine you’re working away on a Monday morning, trying hard to focus, and the dog vet appointment pops into your head out of nowhere. When your brain clogs up with to-dos or even ideas, there’s no telling when they’ll drop in for a surprise visit. Before you know it, your plans for productivity are sabotaged. 

One of the simplest and more impactful elements of GTD is getting your thoughts out of your head, so you can get closer to that “mind like water” state when you need it. And this alone was the big payoff for me. 

Once I started implementing GTD, my stress level came down. And once that stress level came down, it allowed me to regain some energy for all the important things in life I need to tend to.

How My Techie Side Helped GTD Stick

For a long time, GTD was a paper-based practice. David Allen even had physical materials you could buy. The problem is, I hate writing things by hand. But when I adopted GTD, the OmniFocus Group came out with an app that just so happened to coincide with the release of the (then) first gen iPhone. OmniFocus makes great software, and I love working digitally. 

Not only did I have my new iPhone toy, but OmniFocus had all the bells and whistles I wanted, which made it fun. 

The GTD Community 

So, now you might be thinking that GTD is a liiiittle culty. And well, you wouldn’t exactly be wrong. But you can dip your toe into the GTD world to get a feel for it, or jump all the way into the deep end. There are forums for folks who are working on their GTD black belt, and lots of resources for n00bs too. The GTD community helps folks get connected so they can glean hacks and best practices from others. 

GTD Will Help You Regain Your Sanity

Once I’d implemented GTD in my life, it helped calm down my stress and mild panic. Honestly, it saved my sanity and career. 

GTD creates a system of recording everything that comes to mind, and reviewing it later, so I can declutter my brain, and keep making progress. 

So now, whenever I ask someone about something work-related, and I see them scramble to add a to-do on a notepad, their phone, or a napkin, I instantly relate to that anxiety, and I know they could use GTD. 

My name is Rob Madole, and I’m a Getting Things Done Nerd. Thanks for coming to my Show and Tell. 

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