May 24, 2010

Digital Media Project Manager Steve Dale on Gaining Time with Getting Things Done

I met Steve Dale through a mutual friend. Dale and I share some interests, like simple software (we both have Backpack accounts) and mobile technology (we’ve both done work for cell phone makers).

One notable difference is Dale’s use of GTD or Getting Things Done, the popular organizational method created by David Allen. I’ve heard and seen this method all over the media. In his Blogger’s Quest(ionnaire), Grain Edit’s Dave Cuzner mentioned his use of GTD as a plug-in for Outlook. And it turns out that Steve Dale has a history of practicing GTD. He shared his thoughts about the method in the endless pursuit of—needless to say—Getting Things Done.

Can you please tell a little bit about yourself?
Where are you from? What do you do for a living?
I grew up in the UK in the northern city of Sheffield. After poly (college), I lived and worked in London for twenty years but moved to the Windy City in 2009 to settle permanently with my wife, a native Chicagoan. For the last decade or so, I’ve somehow managed to pay the rent by working as a project manager for a variety of organisations, ranging from art museums to the world’s biggest mobile phone manufacturer. Right now I’m an interactive project manager for a consultancy firm, working with one of America’s most well-known companies.

How did you discover David Allen’s
organizational method of Getting Things Done?

It was an article, in The Guardian newspaper in late 2005, that first piqued my interest. Normally I have a strong aversion to any sort of management guru-ism or self-help manuals, but something about Getting Things Done, or GTD as it’s more commonly known, resonated with me. I was already fairly organised but felt that there was more I could be doing to be even more productive.

Plainly speaking, what is Getting Things Done?
GTD is David Allen’s method for achieving stress-free productivity in all aspects of your life. It’s likely you’re already using some of the techniques he describes, but GTD allows you to build on what you’re already doing well. What’s really interesting is that it doesn’t require fancy tools, complicated software, arcane terminology or a complex system for filing emails or paper. Much of it is common sense, but GTD also challenges conventional thinking about prioritisation and how to manage projects.

Allen points out that a great deal of stress comes from broken commitments, to ourselves or others. This often arises from trying to keep track of our commitments in our heads, which isn’t the most dependable storage place. GTD is about getting everything out of your head into a reliable system that will let you know, at the appropriate time, when things need to be done.

GTD considers any goal or outcome that takes two or more physical steps to achieve as a project. The next physical action towards achieving a project goes on one of a number of Next Action lists. The lists are named by context, e.g. @Home, @Office, @Errands and @Computer. GTD is built on the idea that you work on things based on context, time available and your energy level. For example, when you hit a slump after 4pm on a Friday, you can use your Next Action lists to work through a bunch of low energy tasks. Alternatively, if you’re in a situation with a few minutes to spare and have your @Calls list, you make some of those calls, which may result in new next actions to go on your lists.

One of GTD’s rules is that you should something right away if it’s going to take less than two minutes to complete. It’s surprising how many tasks can be dealt with in this amount of time.

GTD also offers practical advice about dealing with emails in such a way that you can regularly achieve ‘in-box zero’ (above image). Many people are overwhelmed by their email because they try to use it as their to-do list and their filing system, neither of which is a good idea (Mark Hurst’s book Bit Literacy has great tips on handling email and naming files and folders. A ‘must read’ for anyone who uses a computer). GTD encourages you to make quick decisions about what to do with each email so that you can get it out of your in-box. Achieving an empty in-box, particularly at the end of the week, is a great feeling.

The method also steers you away from making a new to-do list every day and also recommends using your calendar for ‘hard-edged’ commitments, i.e. something only goes on your calendar if it has to happen on that day. Your calendar shouldn’t be used as a to-do list manager or for vague reminders about when something needs to be done.

At a tactical level, GTD is about managing your inputs (i.e. the stuff that literally and metaphorically lands in your ‘in-box’ each day), making decisions and then acting, but it’s also about repeatedly getting everything out of your head into a system you can trust, which frees up ‘head space’ to think and act creatively.

When, where and why did you start practicing it?
I bought the GTD book shortly after reading The Guardian article and doing some more research on the web. I started practising some aspects of GTD immediately and others as I worked through the book. There have been times when I’ve ‘fallen off the wagon’ to some degree, but I’ve always managed to somehow get back on track. As long as I consistently capture and process all my inputs, the right things will get done at the right time. Usually!

I keep a notebook with me at all times and use a paid 37Signals’ Backpack subscription to manage my personal GTD system (above image). I’ve tried Evernote and have investigated other apps, but find a combination of pen, paper and Backpack works for me. I occasionally use Satchel, an iPhone app for Backpack, but pen and paper are usually quicker for capturing things when I’m not at a computer.

Were there other organization methods, personal
or not,
that you tried and what worked and what did not?
I’ve attended time management courses with previous employers and gained some useful techniques from these, such as blocking out ‘A-time’ to get work done, but GTD is the first approach I’ve come across that offers a coherent, pragmatic, achievable way of staying on top of the things that compete for my attention every day. I occasionally wonder what would happen if I let go of everything and didn’t use GTD, but I probably wouldn’t sleep at night for worrying about what I was overlooking.

What is the most rewarding part of practicing
Getting Things Done?

The time it frees up for other things. GTD helps to provide the time we all need to think creatively about what we’re doing. Allen uses the phrase ‘a mind like water’ to describe the mental state achieved when you’ve emptied your head of all the things filling up your ‘psychic RAM’. Being busy to the point of not having the time to stop and think is not conducive to creativity or productivity. GTD enhances your ability to react flexibly to changing demands. It also makes you highly sensitive to ‘busy work’ and the inefficient and ineffective ways of doing things in which much of modern corporate life seems to be mired. Possibly the only downside of GTD is that most of the world hasn’t yet caught on to it. It really should be taught in school.

Was there a part of the practice that was particularly trying?And how did you deal with it?
Conducting Weekly Reviews of all my projects and reviewing my goals from different elevations (runway, 10,000 ft., 30,000 ft. etc.) have been among the least ‘sticky’ parts of the method for me. Hardcore GTD-ers will point to the Weekly Review as a cornerstone of the system, and while I completely understand its value, I usually end up reviewing my projects on a less frequent basis, which I can live with. I deal with the shortcomings in my approach by acknowledging them, but try to take a pragmatic view. Even if my implementation of GTD isn’t ‘perfect’, the benefits I’ve gained from the parts I do practice well are significant. And it’s always nice to have some room for improvement!

What are some current projects
that you’re applying this method to?

This all-too-brief project called life. Which sounds horribly corny I know, but there really isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a separation between those parts of your life where you ‘do’ GTD and those that you don’t. If you adopt its basic principles, you do so across the board. You develop a useful set of habits for dealing with everything that work or your personal life throws at you. If you do it for long enough, you forget you’re practising GTD; it’s just how you do things.

How do you stay creative? Do you draw?
Or keep a journal?

As a child I would draw all the time (my mum still treasures an early masterpiece from age 18 months) and later painted posters for my school’s film club, which was a highly coveted task. One of the side effects of practising GTD is that it’s made me realise, in the words of Hugh MacLeod of, that ‘I want my crayons back’. In recent years I’ve done courses in creative Photoshop and film journalism, which I enjoyed a great deal. I’m about to become a dad and have plenty of video, photography and painting projects lined up to exercise my creative impulses.

What are some of your sources of inspiration?
Anyone who creates and puts something back into world, even if it’s only for themselves, has my admiration. In the web universe, I’m a fan of 37Signals’ products and philosophy, Merlin Mann of 43 Folders for his writing on creativity, time and attention, and Hugh Macleod’s Gaping Void blog and cartoons are simply brilliant.

What’s your advice to people who aspire
to get organized and stick to it?
If you’ve ever wanted to have more time to do the things you really care about, whatever that is, then you owe it to yourself to get organised. The idea that creativity and being organised are somehow mutually exclusive is completely false in my opinion. If you stick with it, GTD becomes a set of habits that helps you to spend more time on the things you’re passionate about. If you get too hung up on the method and peripheral issues such as having the right pen, notebook or file labeller, etc., you’ve fundamentally missed the point.

What would be the elevator pitch to persuade people
to practice Getting Things Done?
“Getting Things Done will help you get more done, with less stress, allowing you to spend more time with your loved ones and on the things you really care about.”

Whom do you recommend for people to look up because they practice Getting Things Done well?
David Allen’s website and GTD Times are both useful resources and there are official Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. There are plenty of other productivity or ‘life hacking’ sites out there for those who really want to geek out. Personally, I’m far more interested in the things that I have extra time to do outside work, because work is (mostly) contained to regular working hours, than in constantly refining my system. That said, I like to re-read the book every couple of years to refresh my knowledge. In terms of return on investment, it’s certainly the best money I’ve ever spent on a non-fiction book.

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At this posting, Dale became a Father. In checking the latest information at GTDTimes, there was the recent post called GTD for Moms. The piece didn’t deal with fatherhood but it was timely, a quality that the method Getting Things Done promotes.

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Update 7-7-2010: Big thanks to Backpack webapp creator 37signals for featuring the Interview!

Update 6-28-2010: Big thanks to GTD Times for featuring the Interview!

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Read previous Interview:
Marketing Strategist Seijen Takamura’s experience of PSFK Conference 2010

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