Getting Things Done

Things have been a little chaotic around here lately. We recently launched the new Cool Classroom web site and 18 teachers are now piloting its Hudson Plume unit. But there is still a lot of coding required to make the site fully functional and many more lessons to write. Our Pulse of the Planet series is going strong with 4 lectures completed and 4 more to go. We’re also running a COSIA class, working on reenergizing the RTD community, preparing for Ocean Sciences, and of course, trying to keep COSEE-NOW moving.

With all these vastly different activities going on, it’s been hard to keep track of what needs to be accomplished. I now have several pages of to-dos, dozens of notes and assorted other pieces of scrap paper with task outlines on my desk. The problem is, some of my tasks are large and some are small, and it has become difficult to prioritize.

So I’ve been looking for a new solution. And I know I’m not alone.

It turns out, there is a popular movement aptly called Getting Things Done that is gaining momentum in a variety of circles. Yesterday, I ran across a great Google Talks presentation by the architect of the movement, David Allen. If you have 45 minutes, it’s a good introduction to the GTD concept. He’s a good presenter, though I’d wager to say this wasn’t his best presentation, and for some reason the ending is a bit abrupt, but overall it’s worth watching if you’re bogged down in the endless spiral of unaccomplished tasks.

I think one of the most profound perspectives of GTD is that it calls for establishing tasks based not on long-term priorities or objectives, but rather on what you need to get done now. David reiterates this in his talk and it is also mentioned on the Wikipedia page. You won’t get far, GTD claims, by starting with priorities to establish tasks. Your brain will remain caught up in the big picture and will keep nagging you about what needs to get done rather than getting to work. The solution then is to list out all the tasks you know you have to accomplish. From this list you can then process your tasks and structure them back into your larger projects and goals.

This is a rather radical approach to task management, especially for those of use used to Iterative Design Processes and Logic Models. It’s a 180 degree change in perspective. However, I believe the point is we need both. Logic Models are great for structuring grant proposals and for providing long-term perspectives to a team. But for individuals, GTD offers a way to stay on track and keep the long-term tasks in their proper perspectives, while ensuring the day-to-day projects get accomplished.

I’ve always been very good at keeping my inbox clean, leaving only those messages in there I need to act on. (Right now I’m at 6, and 3 of them are just materials I need to read through.) So in a sense, when it comes to my mailbox, I’ve already developed a good set of GTD skills. For me, it’s keeping my task lists at bay I need help with, especially given the variety of projects (i.e. distractions) we work on.

For some reason, while the movement supposedly originated in PC community, lately it seems to have gained a lot of traction in the Mac community. Maybe the appeal of usability and good design that attracts Mac users also attracts them to yearn for better organization and structure in their lives. One of the most popular GTD disciples is Merlin Mann, and if you pay attention to the Mac community at all, you’ll run into him.

Several new applications are being written with GTD in mind. Perhaps one of the most elegant Mac implementations is OmniFocus. I’ve decided to take the plunge and try OmniFocus myself for the free 2 week trail to see if it can improve my workflow.

I’ll let you know how I make out, just as soon as I add that to my to-do list.


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