Personal productivity

In running teams and departments I have always been surprised at the variety of personal time planning approaches people adopt, ranging from the hugely organised to the completely event driven. I believe that personal organisation forms the bedrock for team productivity – for that reason I always encourage people to use some productivity approach and mentor them if they don’t.

There are a number, but the best in my view is still “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. It is the only approach to have a basis in formal theory, indeed philosophy. There is a website – in fact a minor industry – dedicated to GTD, I shall quickly summarise the basics.


Document all the tasks you need to accomplish in a system other than your memory. Include tasks to be worked now and in the future. Include both work and personal tasks.
Consult your lists often so you’ll make wise decisions about the next task on which to work.


Stress is reduced because you won’t have to worry that you forgot about important tasks, or that items have fallen down cracks.

You won’t forget about important tasks, and items won’t fall down cracks.

You will make better choices about what to do at any particular time, taking into account where you are and what resources you have available.

Managing Workflow

GTD is fairly straightforward. It consists of five stages:

1. collect inputs
2. process inputs
3. organize results
4. review options for next actions
5. carry out a next action.

GTD workflow copyright David Allen Co

Collect Inputs

Inputs include:

  • notes written on scrap paper, napkins, etc.
  • notebooks
  • email (the most common in our business obviously)
  • calendars
  • flyers/magazines
  • books
  • anything you’ve accumulated on your desk

Process Inputs

Here are the steps to follow when processing each of the collected inputs.

First determine whether some action needs to be taken at all.

If it does require action then determine the next action that is required. This must be a tangible activity. For example, instead of “update docs”, an action could be “produce quality strategy paper”.

1. Do it if it can be completed in two minutes or less.
2. Delegate it if you are not the right person to do it and it can be delegated to someone else then add it to your “Waiting For” list to track its completion.
3. Defer it by documenting it as something to be done later:

  • If it requires multiple actions, create a project for tracking the actions and document them (a project is just a task that requires more than one action to complete)
  • Document the required action(s) in either a calendar (for date/time-specific reminders) or a “Next Actions” list (for non-date/time-specific reminders).

If it doesn’t require action then select one of the following options.
1. Throw it away
2. Incubate it by adding it to your someday/maybe list
3. Store it in your reference filing system (ideally searchable such as Evernote).

Organise results

Information related to projects and tasks (actions) will be stored in the following locations.

  • project list
  • “next actions” list categorized by project and context
  • calendar for “hard” date or time specific actions that must be performed (for example appointments and meetings)
  • reference files
  • “waiting for” list list to track actions you are waiting for others to complete
  • “someday/maybe” list for actions which you will get to/ plan at some point but don’t want to forget

There are lots of ways you could maintain the lists and storage. The obvious for us is computer support.

Ah, but where to start? Google GTD and you will find hundreds (almost) of packages, advice, books on implementing GTD. Do whatever works for you, on the mac omnifocus and things are good, on windows I always found outlook great provided you created categories for NextActions, WaitingFor, Read/Review, Someday/Maybe and Projects.

Actions are also categorised by Context. A context describes a basic requirement that must be met in order to do an action. It can be

  • a location (such as home or office) where you need to be, or a meeting you need to be at
  • a specific tool (such as a phone or computer) that must be available
  • a person (such as your boss) that must be present

Review options for next actions

There are three techniques for deciding what task to perform at any given time.

Four-Criteria Model for Choosing Actions in the Moment

1. Only consider actions that can be performed in your current context (defined by your location and the set of resources available).
2. Only consider actions that can be completed in the amount of time you have available. Actions should be defined as small as possible and not require multiple steps.
3. Only consider actions that can be addressed given your current energy level.
4. Decide between the remaining actions based on their priority or payoff.

Threefold Model for Evaluating Daily Work

The next thing you do can be one of:

1. Do an action from your “Next Actions” list.
2. Do work as it shows up if it is more important than anything on your “Next Actions” list.
3. Define additional work (adding to your lists) based on new inputs in your in-basket, email, voicemail and meeting notes.

Carry out a next action

And away you go…


Reviews are what makes GTD work over time.

At least once per week, review all incomplete items in your lists and flag the ones that need to be addressed soon.

At least once per year review the content of all the folders in your reference filing system and throw out items that are no longer relevant.

Once a week or less, review your “Projects”, “Waiting For” and “Someday/Maybe” lists to see if anything in them needs to be addressed soon. This review can generate new items in the “Next Actions” list.

At least once per week but ideally daily, gather new inputs and add them to your system.

Six-Level Model for Reviewing Your Own Work

There are six perspectives from which to view tasks is order to assign priorities to them. Consider how completing a given task will help to achieve the following.

life goals
3-5 year goals
1-2 year goals
areas of responsibility
current projects
current tasks

So that’s it. Believe it or not, that’s a synopsis of the approach – for more information I recommend the book.

A word of warning. GTD and task management generally is easy to get sucked into and find yourself spending more time organising tasks than you do actually doing them (trust me, I’ve been there. It’s a geek thing).

But there is no doubt that in the fast paced business we are in you need some approach to organise our time. So find something that works for you. Then get on with the actual tasks you need to do!