My personal GTD actions and to-do management system
Like for most people, my personal and professional life has become increasingly busy. I’ve got a busy family life with a lovely wife and two beautiful daughters. My Field CTO role at ITQ is keeping me pretty busy, mostly during office hours. I picked up teaching as a freelance IT docent at the Novi Hogeschool in Utrecht. I want to get back in shape, so I picked up playing basketball, running and going the gym, and I also have some dormant ambitions in terms of study and education. In other words, a busy but very enjoyable life :-). I have recently set up Getting Things Done (GTD) in Outlook and To-Do with Braintoss as my capture tool to help manage my actions and to-dos.
I’ve been out on summer holiday and that gave me some time to reflect and think of ways to better organize my “stuff”. I decided to start writing this non-technical blogpost to get some thoughts in writing. I put it away and picked it back up a number of times so there might be some inconsistency here and there. It’s also pretty long for a single blogpost, but I decided to keep it this way for readability purposes…
My full schedule requires a routine and way of working to stay on top of things. Above all, I need a system to keep track of all my actions and to-dos. My brain can no longer keep track of everything, so I need an external system I can rely on. I’ve been intrigued by time management and self-management systems and methods, and I tried various over time. Using everything I’ve read and learned along the way, I created an easy to use and fairly simple system for myself in which I basically cherrypicked bits and pieces. Maybe this blogpost helps or inspires others and I might even find ways to improve my own system by trying to explain it in this blogpost.
Getting Things Done (GTD) as the foundation
I really like the fundamental concepts of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD). I highly recommend his book and there is a ton of information available on the internet. There is a huge GTD community out there. There are excellent guides out there but everyone needs to find a personal way of working and system. I decided to set up Getting Things Done (GTD) in Outlook and To-Do after some experimentation.
Personal vs Work?
With a work/life balance under pressure and our ‘always connected’ industry, I decided not to differentiate between work life and personal life in my system. It’s not like I can switch between a personal and work brain. Important work stuff pop up in my head in personal time and vice versa.
Of course, I can plan when and where I want to take on personal actions and work actions, but my system is set up as a single system with all my actions and to-do’s in one place/system.
Capturing EVERYTHING in a Single Inbox
I like the concept of having a single “Inbox” (or in-tray in GTD speak) for all the stuff that gets thrown at me throughout the day (or I throw at myself). This can be work-related, personal, things that pop up in my head (often at the most impractical times), emails, phone calls, messages on Slack/Teams, stuff I read, social media, etc. etc. I want an easy way to capture it all.
After experimenting with various tools and apps I have now set up Getting Things Done (GTD) in Outlook and To-Do, with my Outlook Inbox as my “Inbox”. Most work-related stuff and a lot of personal stuff is coming in via e-mail anyway and there are simple ways to capture random stuff using email. The unified Inbox in Outlook nicely consolidates every account’s inbox to a single inbox.
I’m using the app Braintoss to quickly capture stuff that pops up in my head using a quick note or an audio clip (really handy when driving!). I also capture stuff online using Braintoss, and I can quickly snap pictures of physical items. When I scan my Twitter timeline, for example, I often come across something interesting and I don’t have the time or energy to digest it at that moment. So, I quickly capture it in Braintoss. Braintoss automatically sends everything to my email Inbox. Our brain works in curious ways and random stuff that needs to be done at some specific time or location pops up in the most inconvenient times and places. Braintoss allows me to capture the chaos.
Dealing with the Inbox with GTD
With an easy system in place to capture everything in my Inbox, we now need to set up a routine to frequently go through all the items in the inbox. At set times or whenever I feel like it, I open my Inbox and go through all the stuff in there. I then decide what to do with it. The GTD system provides a great workflow for doing this:
It looks labour intensive but it’s really simple: does the item require me to do anything? In other words, is it actionable? If the answer is no, I basically decide if I want to trash it or file (reference) it. Let’s say I bought some tickets for the movies. I don’t need them right away and there isn’t really something I need to do with them except filing them somewhere I can easily find them when I’m going to the movies. I use Evernote as my digital personal archive. I store all my important personal stuff there. The indexing is great and you can even search text in PDFs. The Scannable app allows me to easily scan snail mail using my iPhone and the macOS integration allows me to easily archive digital stuff into Evernote. All my work-related important stuff is securely stored on ITQ’s Office 365.
If the item IS actionable, GTD tells you to do it immediately if it takes less than 2 minutes. The time it takes to plan it is probably longer. Although I like the completeness of the GTD workflow, I typically don’t bother explicitly with the other steps. If it’s actionable, I create a Task that goes into Microsoft To-Do. This means I capture all my stuff in Outlook but all my actionable items go into To-Do, which is much better equipped to handle tasks than Outlook is. This way of working also ensures my e-mail inbox is almost always empty or near empty, which is a really big plus and stress relief now I set up Getting Things Done (GTD) in Outlook and To-Do.
Setting up Microsoft To-Do for GTD
We now have a system that allows me to quickly capture everything in my Inbox, I can archive important personal stuff in Evernote and important work stuff in Office 365 at ITQ. We can easily create actionable tasks by right-clicking an email message in Outlook and selecting Create –> Task:
Now, do yourself a favor and try to be clear and concise when describing a task. Force yourself to start the task with a verb. That helps. Don’t create a task called “Important John” because you are likely to forget what was important regarding John if you look at it a week later. Instead, say “Call John about project XYZ to discuss deadline”. Takes you 10 seconds longer but nothing is more frustrating than knowing something important is in your next actions list, but you can’t remember what needs to be done.
I set up Getting Things Done (GTD) in Outlook and To-Do as a kind of “GTD lite” system. I didn’t create all the folders that GTD uses. I created the following folders and lists:
If I’m waiting for someone before I can complete my task, I move my action into this list. If I left John a voicemail message for example to call me back, I want to make sure to keep track of it. Here I use hashtags in To-Do to keep track of who I’m waiting for. Hashtags allow you to easily search through all your actions:
The term project is a bit ambiguous in GTD. It doesn’t mean it needs to be a formal project. It simply means something needs 2 actions or more. You don’t want to have big fuzzy projects in your system as a single task like “Finish new website”. You need to break this down into smaller actionable items and decide what the next physical action should be to move this “project” ahead. So, work projects go onto the work projects list and personal projects on the personal project list.
My setup relies heavily on lists in To-Do. The next-actions folder is probably the most important and holds my most frequently used lists.
[I tried OmniFocus for a while and I liked the use of contexts/tags and how its is fully built around GTD, but there isn’t a proper integration with Outlook so I decided to drop it.]
Certain actions can only be completed at a specific time or location. If I need to record a Lightboard video for ITQ for example, I need to physically be at the ITQ office. Most personal stuff can, and of course should, only be done at home. In practice, a lot of my tasks are online/digital and can be done from every place and every time. So, most of my actions go into the Anywhere list. Remember, just because I’m filing an action in a certain list doesn’t say anything about when I’m going to work on it. It’s just saying I am not constrained to a certain location, time or thing.
The Calls list contains all the people I need to call, obviously. This is a handy list before jumping in the car! Remember to be explicit about who you should call about what topic.
You can get really creative with these next-action lists. I’ve seen people organize their tasks based on the required level of effort (low, medium and high) and/or energy level. If you have 20 minutes to spare between meetings you probably don’t want to take on something complex and challenging. You can simply pick something from the “low energy” list.
A fair deal of my time is consumed by recurring meetings. In my role as Field CTO I need to align with numerous people at ITQ on a regular base. I also have a number of different team meetings. I created lists for all of them so I can easily capture agenda items or topics to discuss. Let’s say I have a monthly meeting with John. During the weeks in between meetings, several topics can come up which I need to discuss with John during our 1:1. They all go on the list “John”. The same goes for team meetings. If I want to address something in the upcoming sales meeting, I capture it on the list “Sales”.
I’m getting a bit lazy by using this system, so I created a number of checklists for recurring things. I have a travel checklist which captures everything I need to pack and prepare when going on business travel (no more forgetting my US/UK travel adapter or my passport). Yes, it even reminds me to pack underwear and socks. Another one is for filing my taxes for example. Every year I was going through all the documents I need to send my accountant and always wondering if I wasn’t forgetting anything important. Really handy to create a checklist!
This one is also straight out of GTD. There can be stuff I would like to do but there really isn’t a commitment, deadline, or anything related. That goes on this list. Once every while I go through it and delete a bunch of stuff or move it to my next-action lists or projects.
Summary of tools:
- Braintoss to capture stuff
- Outlook as my Inbox
- Microsoft To-Do to handle tasks/actions
- Evernote as my personal digital archive
- Scannable to scan physical documents into Evernote
- Office 365 as my work digital archive
Areas of improvement
As you might have noticed, this blogpost describes how I capture all my tasks and handle them. I don’t share anything about prioritizing. This is something I need to get a better grip on. Based on some excellent feedback and coaching from my manager and ITQ CEO, Robert Hellings, I am going to identify weekly and monthly goals for myself. By articulating what’s important to ME and my own responsibilities, I can better prioritize. This will prevent a system overload in which I’m constantly chasing other people’s priorities. This definitely needs soms attention!
As I mentioned in my intro, my weeks are pretty full. I have different responsibilities at work and in my personal life. I started to create a weekly routine/schedule in which I want to take on and plan different types of “tasks”. This means planning time for running, going to the gym, and playing basketball outside of office hours, but also when I’m doing different types of tasks at ITQ. It will not always be possible to stick to my routine but at least I have some solid guidelines.
External task management systems
One thing I need to work on, is how I’m going to deal with external task management systems. At ITQ we often work with MS Planner for example. Tasks assigned to me drop into To-Do, but I can’t pull them into my system of next-action lists. I also work for customers and they often also have a system set up, like Jira or Trello for example. I definitely don’t want to duplicate everything and keep track of stuff in multiple places but I also don’t want to have to deal with multiple systems. I need to think this over a bit…
That’s is for now. This is how I set up Getting Things Done (GTD) in Outlook and To-Do using Braintoss as my main capture tool. I’m really excited to start working on my routine and improving my system. When things get hectic it’s tempting to cut some corners but I’m really going to try to stick with my system. In the long rong, I’m convinced it will save me a lot of time and stress.
If you have a similar system set up or have thoughts about improving mine, please reach out to me on Twitter.