Brandon's Notepad

July 2, 2009

Getting Things Done @Work (Part 1)

Filed under: GTD — Brandon @ 12:21 am
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Home > My Research > Improvement > Getting Things Done > @Work (Part 1)


These notes are a direct product of my application of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” philosophy at one particular place of employment beginning in the year 2009. What follows is a litany of lessons learned during the process. I decided not to categorize these lessons, because each builds upon the ones prior — it is best to read them in sequence, as a story.


The Problem. At first, I didn’t know if there would be a place for GTD at my workplace — I work in a highly structured environment as it is. Most of my job entails creating and enhancing business work flows to handle changes to computer systems. The rest of my job involves using those work flows myself to approve requests and track activities. Nonetheless, there always seemed to be clutter on my desk that kept me from seeing what was important and what could wait. Admittedly, some things weren’t getting done.

Room For Improvement. Collection was not a big problem, but processing and organization were major areas of improvement. Reviewing and doing were victims of the prior, but shaped up on their own once processing and organization issues were resolved.

Group Inboxes. Regarding Collection, almost all items, actionable or not, arrive via two channels: as e-mail in my team’s shared inbox or in papers or folders in the team’s physical inbox. Delivery of items to specific team members is generally discouraged for the sake of expediency. Processing our normal work items is, for the most part, standardized.

My Chair Isn’t “In”. The biggest collection change was the addition of a physical inbox to my desk. I’ve asked my coworkers to place papers and file folders there — whether I’m at my desk or not — instead of handing them to me or leaving them in my desk chair. In the past, I always preferred the “chair” method because it forced me to look at things as soon as I return to my desk. The problem with that method is that papers and folders would be automatically transferred to some other stack upon my arrival just so I could sit down! They would be “out-of-mind” in short order.

A Right & Proper Inbox. Placement of the physical inbox is key! I purchased a low-profile, black-wire-mesh letter tray and placed it between the two monitors on my desk, just behind my keyboard and slightly raised. This accomplished two important goals. first, it made the inbox almost invisible to anyone but those who know to put things there — remember, official items go to the team’s physical inbox. Second, the inbox is front-and-center, but not in-the-way, so I don’t miss things that need my attention. I’ve noticed that having paper in the inbox bugs me, which prompts me to keep it empty.

The Book Of Record. For some time now, I’ve used a bound record book for taking meeting notes. Before GTD, the book would also contain information in all stages (collected, in-process, etc.). I now treat all such notes as inbox material and, once processed, entries are marked very visibly as “DONE” with a rubber stamp.

Group Processing. As mentioned above, the processing of items in the team’s inboxes is fairly uniform. For e-mail, we use color-coded Categories (was “colored flags” before Outlook 2007) to identify “ownership” of messages and check marks to indicate which messages no longer require any action or conversation on our part. In other words, when someone checks off a message, it’s been processed. A reply is the simplest less-than-two-minute “next physical step” possible.

Group Organizing & Doing. Most e-mail and all paper we receive prompt some action in our workflow-management system. This is how we organize and do most of our work. An informational item usually becomes a note to an existing request or ticket, whereas a sign-off moves the request or item to the next state in the workflow.

Personal Processing. I still receive “official” paper in my personal inbox, so that processing doesn’t deviate from the above. I have parallel methods for handling paper and electronic items that pertain to only me.

The Right Contexts. I am finally comfortable with the contexts I have chosen. It’s not the number of contexts, but the frequency with which you can place yourself into those contexts that is most important. I force myself to enter each context at least once weekly, thereby forcing a weekly review for everything automatically. Mine are:

  • @Desk: stuff I can do when at my desk (very fluid).
  • @Rounds: stuff I need when I walk around talking to others (daily if possible).
  • @WeeklyPlanning: stuff I need to plan and report the team’s weekly activities (weekly).
  • @StaffMeeting: stuff I need to take to the staff meeting (weekly).

Outlook Tasks In Context. In my opinion, Outlook 2007 greatly improved the usability of Tasks and Categories. I starting using Tasks to record my open loops and their next steps. Contexts are assigned using Categories. Of course, I use a parallel set of context folders for paper items.

Paperless…Almost. I try to use Outlook Tasks as much as possible, but sometimes, it actually makes the most sense for me to print an e-mail, stamp it with the date, organize the paper in the proper context folder and mark it in my e-mail client as processed with a check mark.

Delete Stuff! A major hurdle was getting out of a constant “archival” mode and into a constant “reduction” mode. I’ve learnt that things often need not be saved if the important info can be scraped off or summarized. Unfortunately, the corporate culture dictates that we should keep everything just in case we need it to justify what we decided to do. So, the freedom to throw things away does come at a cost — the time, energy and soul-searching required to confidently decide that an item will, indeed, never be needed again.

Don’t Delete Everything! I have to respect the “sacred ground” of the team’s e-mail inbox and archives. All unprocessed items live in the Inbox. Completed (checked) items are archived in a mass e-mail grave periodically. I only have the freedom to ’empty in’ or at least to move in that direction in my personal e-mail inbox.

Two-Minute Warning. In my experience, Allen’s two-minute processing heuristic isn’t realistic. This is due to the nature of my work. A ten-minute rule, however, is practicable. If it can’t be done in ten minutes or less, it gets queued for ‘doing’ later.

The Tickler File. The tickler file is the most fascinating piece of under-used innovation on my desk. Mine is a set of plain file folders sporting the appropriate labels and stored in a cardboard file box that makes it very easy to flip through the contents. I (strive to) use it daily, but things are so structured and electronic already, I find that I have little to put into it. Like the Inbox, I have placed the tickler file box immediately to the left of the leftmost monitor, so it is always in my face, demanding to be kept current.

The General Reference. I created a “general reference” file as recommended, but not quite as described in the book. In my home directory is a folder that contains many text files with important bits of information. There are several benefits with this implementation:

  • Reference items are automatically alphabetized.
  • Contents can be easily searched electronically with tools like grep (hey, I’m a Unix guy, ok!?).
  • The information can be easily incorporated into e-mails and such without retyping.
  • Files can be backed up regularly without a photocopier.
  • The lack of paper makes for a more comfortable workspace.

Filed amongst the text files are other types of files as well, such as PDFs, graphics files (e.g. screenshots), exported e-mails (technically still qualifies as text, but…), spreadsheets, etc.

My Gear. I’ve place all of the office supplies I use daily within an arm’s reach: hole punch, stapler, coffee can full of pens and pencils, another coffee can full of highlighters, sticky notepads, regular notepads, dry-erase markers, various rubber stamps, paper shredder and telephone.

No Papers Left Behind. To stay organized, I’ve adopted a clean-desk policy and (strive to) stick to it. All papers are filed somewhere (other than the Inbox) at the end of the workday. Of course, it helps that the physical inbox, file box and office gear are all “in my face” — I have no more room for clutter. This also prompts me to record things electronically as often as possible.


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