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Turning Your Life into a Factory

I’m in the midst of learning the system Getting Things Done (GTD), based on David Allen’s book by the same name. I’ve been learning GTD for a few years and wanted to pass on how I understand it today. This is the summary I wish I’d seen two years ago. If I’m successful this might convince you to try it out.

A System of Hacks

GTD is a system of hacks to make my life easier. They empty my mind of clutter and give me a way to deal with that clutter elsewhere.

A simple hack is remembering to take a box to work. The hack is I put the box in front of my door at night so I see it in the morning before I leave home.

And that’s all GTD is: I make a decision to do something, I move that decision outside of my mind into the external world, and I stumble across it later and get it done.

Life is complicated and it’s not always clear what I need to do next. It’s easy to get stuck in endless loops checking email or Facebook. Sometimes I wish I worked in a factory where all I had to do was stamp widgets. The hacks of GTD let me turn my world into a factory. I spend some time at the beginning of the day deciding what to do and setting up the production lines, then I just mindlessly stamp widgets and my life moves forward.

Turning your life into a factory

Below are the basic steps to turn your life into a factory.

1. Exporting

The first step of GTD is you write down everything on your mind that you want get done. All the emails to respond to, projects to finish, things to clean, people to see, movies to watch, books to read, places to visit. All the scenarios of the life you want. (This is called your inbox).

At first you’ll end up writing down what’s at the top of your mind. That check you need to write, the friend to call back, the email to respond to from your boss. But as you move down the page your mind gets clear of what needs to get done this hour or this day and you start writing things that are really far out in your future: connecting with old friends, buying a house, buying a car, moving to a different state, switching jobs, switching careers. The simple fact that you've put this on paper or into a computer, outside of your mind, frees your mind to dream big about things that are really far from completion.

2. Processing

Now you have this big list of outcomes and you look at it. You’re overwhelmed because it’s four pages long and you don’t even know where to start. You think: I need to send that email this week. I can call my friend back right now. But you also think: How can I buy a car when I don’t even have a license? How can I buy a house without 20% down?

You sift through this insane list of dreams (GTD calls these projects) and find the next widget to stamp to keep each dream moving forward. You write minimal instructions to your future self to stamp the widget (GTD calls these next actions).

If the project is to host a party, the next action is to check your calendar for a good night to host. If the project is to buy a car, the next action is to check your bank account and see how much money you have. If the project is to take a vacation in Japan in September, the next action is to find out if your passport is expired.

3. Acting

Your big lists of projects is now broken down into a much simpler list of tiny actions. You don’t have to think about the huge project. You just have to make that phone call, check your bank account balance, or dig out your passport.

The magic is that you now have a list of phone calls you need to make that’s always with you in your phone. When you’re stuck waiting at the DMV with nothing else to do you dig out that list of phone calls and make five of them at once. Now five of your projects have moved forward.

That’s it. That’s your factory.

What’s the rest?

That’s basically it. Every time something comes to mind that you want to get done drop it into your inbox. Periodically you take everything in your inbox and write out the next action. You then assign each of these next actions a context like “phone call” or “email.”

Then you act. When you’re at your phone you make phone calls. When you’re at your computer you send the emails. Having these lists of tiny things to do frees your mind to stop thinking about the big picture and just stamp widgets.

Really, that’s it?

No, I lied. GTD is contains a bunch of other hacks that you can read about in the book.

  • Mail projects to yourself in the future with a “Tickler file.”
  • Move projects you can’t do today into a “Someday/Maybe” list that you deal with in the future.
  • Maintain a reference list of restaurants, movies and places to see that you might want to check out in the future.
  • Label boxes and drawers in your apartment so everything has a natural place and you never forget where something is.
  • Learn to throw things away that you don’t need anymore.
  • Learn to review your whole system every week so you begin to trust it, and as you trust it you offload more and more of your life into it and free up more of your mind.
  • Learn to tackle huge projects without stressing over them.
  • Learn to align your day to day life with your long term dreams and moral values.

So this is just a task list?

No, tasks lists are fundamentally broken and they rarely work. This ends up being a constantly evolving plan for your whole life. It goes a lot deeper than a task list because once this is out of your short term memory you're free to expand and expand to really capture long term dreams.

One of my projects is to "Fix my knee." This is probably a year long process of regular doctor's visits and daily stretching. I have a project for a visit to Japan later this year, a few projects to make sure I see certain friends for lunch, and a saved list of things I wish I'd brought last time I went camping (that I'll never forget again!). There are, of course, a bunch of projects related to my day to day work.

As of today I have 151 projects and 733 actions. About half the projects are in motion and half are stalled out waiting on a future date or waiting for someone to get back to me.

OmniFocus Screenshot

Doesn’t this take a lot of time?

It does and it doesn’t. The initial payoff is mostly immediate and it gets better the more you invest in it. If you have a personality like mine it's also really fun.

More Reading

For more details I suggest buying the book.

The book describes how to do this on paper, which is kind of antiquated, so you might want to use OmniFocus instead. OmniFocus is awesome because it syncs between my Mac and my iPhone, so my external GTD mind is always with me. Practical advice on using OmniFocus can be found in the book Creating Flow with OmniFocus.

If you really want to make sure this sticks I find that continual exposure to the ideas helps me. I get all my inspiration from Merlin Mann’s excellent podcast Back to Work.