Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Weekly Tip; Keep your GTD system water tight - not bomb proof

While working for npower, I used to send a Weekly Tip to an individual on a work-related, or sometimes non-work related subject. I promised to keep these going once I left the company, but instead of Emailing that person directly, I thought I would share... so as promised here's the first one;

Making your GTD System water tight - not bomb proof;
As a user of David Allen's GTD system, I used to have a lot of issues with managing my lists and projects. It used to feel bulky, complicated and hard to do.

I realised that the issue I was having, was that as I wrote an item down on a list, it would sometimes create another action, or, as I wrote Project Plans, they would be cluttered with actions that didn't really seem to add value and as a result, those Projects didn't get done as quickly. I thought that I was doing the right thing by writing everything down that could possibly be needed, but then I realised that the system needed to be water tight, and not bomb proof.

So on to the tip...

Make sure that any action you take (that is not "Job done"), you write down what the next action is at the time you complete that action (unless you are going to do the action straight away of course!). This makes things water tight (but not bomb proof).

For example;

I receive a refund cheque from the water company and have written on my errands list a reminder as follows;
@errands; Take refund cheque to the bank
***I deposit the cheque***
I then write on my @waiting list "Check online bank for water company cheque clearance"
***I check and it's all cleared***

This is a simple example, but can be useful in lots of other circumstances e.g. Have you ever heard the phrase, "Well, I sent you an Email about it" and you roll your eyes. This approach can help, as you may have an action on your Next Actions list of "Send X Report to Jane", and then, you can put an action in your calendar to say "Call Jane to confirm Report X is okay". This type of attention builds relationships and stops things slipping through the gaps. Makes things water tight as the desired outcome is that Jane can take action with the report, not that it's just been Emailed to her.

Some of you may be a GTD follower, and think, "All these actions should be on the project plan" (and therefore be bomb proof). By definition, in GTD speak, anything that requires 2 or more actions is a project, but I think setting up Projects for small things, will make your system appear bomb proof, but in reality it can often be a time wasting activity that actually delays getting things done.

Using the example above, if I were to do a "Water company refund project" There are then about 5 actions you will need to take e.g. 

  • Call water company requesting refund
  • Awaiting arrival of cheque of £X from water company
  • Process the cheque when it arrives (put the cheque in your wallet)
  • Take cheque to bank
  • Check statement for clearance.
But would you set up a project? Probably not, but writing down these actions as they are needed will help you keep things water tight. A bomb proof approach would have you write a complete plan like this one, as it could be argued that you may forget to write down the next action that is required, but I think a method of writing down actions when they are needed is much more realistic for many situations we face day to day.


  • Only use this technique if you are clear and confident that the scope of the action is unquestionable (if there may be some ambiguity, opening a project to clarify scope can be beneficial)
  • I use this for outcome I write in my projects plans e.g. a Finance project might have "Get refund from water company" - I would then go to my next action list and write "Call water company and request refund" without transcribing it on my Finance project actions list, or further detailing the additional required actions. This may seem a tenuous link between actions and projects but to get over this I number my projects e.g. 23. Finance Project, and then on the actions list next to the action I write a '23' with a circle around it to relate the action to the project. So although there isn't a direct link between the project plan outcome of "Get refund from water company", I can take a pretty good guess the majority of the time!! (water tight, not bomb proof remember!).

Glossary and useful info;

  • GTD = Getting things done, a time management system. See www.davidco.com
  • Use of @ in this post; I use these to denote lists, so in text files I can clearly see where my list starts e.g. @Next, @Calls, @Errands, @Waiting etc. If you are wondering why there are multiple lists, best look into GTD and www.davidco.com
  • Projects, in this context can be as simple or as detailed as required, but for GTD purposes, simple outcome statements and lists of key outcomes, maybe a few key stakeholder names, is what I had in mind when writing this post - not a full project plan/Gantt chart.
  • I don't use anything special to manage my 'system', on re-reading this, it may sound like I got some fancy software or something, so I want to make clear, I run my entire GTD system from a A5 moleskin notebook at home, and then write errands on a notepad on my iphone when I'm out and about (I used to try to carry an A6 notepad with me everywhere - fine in an office environment, but impractical for day-to-day management).

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