Three essentials of GTD

Getting Things Done or GTD is a fantastic framework for managing a business written and developed by David Allen.

I use it selectively. In essence I retain the bits that are of practical use to me, the parts that can and have integrated into my habits and everyday working.

The essential principles that I retain are as follows:

  • Next Action
  • Weekly Review
  • Desired outcome

As an underlying principle I cherish the idea of natural planning. So while I believe in and use tools to plan, I recognise their limits and the limits of planning itself.

I would like to describe each of these areas which I think are the most relevant and easily applicable. I recall that David Allen himself said that if there was at least just one principle that you retain it is that of Next Action and that if you are not doing weekly reviews, you’re not doing GTD.

Next Action

This idea of next action is the embodiment of natural planning in that while it is interesting to plan all of the possible steps that you think you need to achieve to get to your goal the most important one is the very next thing that you do. It highlights the idea also that you can only really determine the action after the next action, once the next action has been done.

In practice then you may spend a lot of time planning a whole bunch of steps, only to find that once you have executed the first step for the first few steps that the whole plan changes and you need to replan. We accept this and the idea of next action is not mutually exclusive to planning, it just puts on the on the very next thing you need to do.

So it also helps to distinguish actions from objectives. It is too easy to set yourself objectives and then to wonder why you’re not achieving them. This may well be because you have not correctly or completely translated your objectives into actions. So what is the difference between an objective and an action? Well an objective is the endpoint that you want to get to, but the action is something you can actually do. You cannot do an objective.

So as an example your objective may be to lose weight, but you cannot actually do “lose weight” you can only eat less, measure your calorie intake, eat more carbohydrates, eat less protein etc.

So this idea of next action in the context of GTD again is not next thing to do “lose weight” but eat some cereal, on the understanding that if you do that thing consistently, you will lose weight and therefore achieve your objective.

So while you should not stop retro planning because you need to establish a series of steps between now and the desired outcome, but you need to focus clearly on things that you can really do in the real world (or have done), because it is only by doing things that you can get things done.

Weekly Review

Everyone needs to develop their own weekly review, but I have mine, and it is the thing that reminds me on a regular basis that I do want to achieve things, that I have actually achieved some things and invites me to establish some next actions to keep going and to focus or refocus my efforts in the direction of where I want to go (desired outcome).

GTD weekly review grid

So above is my central GTD review grid. I have tried to keep it quite succinct rather like a dashboard. It is divided into three main areas: productivity, sales and financial and strategy.

This is a rough mix between areas of current focus, key measures and horizon 4 / 5: long-term / life goals.

Obviously everyone’s GTD review will be different because every business is different and everyone has specific areas that they want to monitor on a regular basis.

For me, it is important to produce and in my day job as a translator, the
financial result comes from the number of words translated and the hours worked. So in the second section sales and financial, I try to correlate effort with financial result.

It is more difficult to plan the future, this is a particular area where i need to improve, to determine a specific desired outcome. Indeed I realise that I now need to establish a task to establish a desired outcome to which I can feel committed. Instead of just more of what I’m doing today.

So the weekly review is an opportunity to establish objectives in each area, evaluate whether actions are taking me towards my stated objectives and to establish next actions which either correct the trajectory or are simply next actions which continue the positive progress.

My key measures include things like average price, number of orders, average order value, turnover and costs, hourly rate, monthly salary. These things all seem relevant to measure as a self-employed person. I measure turnover, cost and profit.

I am measuring in effect the effort that it takes me to achieve these results and my basis for continuous improvement is the idea that I would like to spend less effort to achieve the same or better results. My next actions ideally will focus on improvements that I can make to go in this direction.

My cashflow summarises income and cost. I measure the number of hours worked, the number of tasks done and the number of orders completed. I keep a qualitative I on the websites that I manage and (obviously) establish next actions to improve them.

Desired outcome

Desired outcome. This is the key. It also equates rather nicely to the idea of purpose, the long-term vision to which all actions should eventually lead. It should keep in mind when you wonder where you are going and what you want to achieve.

If the desired outcome does not feel right, change it. But before you do think carefully whether you are changing it because you do not have the staying power, you think the outcome is unachievable, or whether you simply need a series of actions to get you on track.

Try to keep in mind your level of commitment to your desired outcome and determine how you would feel if you let it go.

Getting Things Done

So getting things done is a useful toolbox of principles which can help change your attitude to tasks and to work in general. Instead of thinking about objectives that you are not achieving, think about next actions. It’s much simpler to think about what you can do in the real world to get back on track and achieve, learn to think about all those things you’re not achieving.

Name things. It is vital to express tasks, things you want to do, objectives and actions to getting things done. If you can’t express it you can’t get it done. But importantly, if you spend some time expressing what you want to get done and what needs to get done, you will have won half the battle because you know more clearly what you need to do.

Key to implementing the principles of next action, are the tools which embody these things.

Tools to get things done

I use Trello to embody actions and next actions.
I use Evernote to hold my GTD review
(the actual grid above is in a Google Sheet)
I feed the review with statistics from Trello Plus.
I store, manage and report on orders and invoices in Odoo.

These tools help with the reporting review and in the end help move forward on a daily basis. Ultimately, they create that production capacity which keeps me in business.

I often see this whole arrangement as a sort of game, chess if you will: arranging the pieces to be in a best configuration. But there is important psychological stuff going on here. The fact that I have a model of my reality enables me to stand back from it, to be objective and at least in theory to manipulate it in an ideal configuration.

However I understand fundamentally that to get things done, I still have to actually do things! It is obviously not sufficient just to arrange the pieces, I also have to move them across the board. Sometimes I even repaint the board in different colours. It is for you to decide whether you want just to get to the other side of the board, stalemate or checkmate.

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