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The art and science of Getting Things Done

Have you ever tried to describe a dream to someone? One moment, it’s all right there. The images and the sounds are so vivid, it’s almost real. But when you try to describe it to someone, you need words. And then the image fades. The harder you try, the quicker it fades — like desperately trying to hold sand in your hands. The act of expressing in language that which was until then only an idea, kills the idea. And the same thing happens to something much more mundane: the to do list.

The surprising difficulty of using to do lists

The to do list is simple: write down what you need to do, do it, then cross it off. What goes on the list? David Allen tells us in Getting Things Done that we think of all the outcomes we want to achieve, and then write down all the physical steps needed to achieve them. Sometimes, that’s a single to do item. Sometimes (most of the time) it takes multiple steps. We call that a project. Again: write it down. Do it. Cross it off the list.

But getting things done is hard. You will notice friction:

  • to do items linger on the list;
  • open loops remain in your head;
  • you’re spending your days working on tasks that weren’t on your list in the first place;
  • you start ignoring the list as something that “just doesn’t work for you”

A system like GTD is supposed to give you peace of mind because you trust you’re spending your time and energy on the right things. But developing that trust is hard, because translating ideas into words is hard.

Making to do items actionable

I have found the primary reason for tasks on a list not getting done, and for tasks not being on the list at all, is that they are not actionable. And they’re not actionable, because the underlying commitment has not been properly put into words yet.

A good to do item starts with a verb and is specific enough to require no further decision making to do it. If you need to think about exactly what to do, or how to do it, you are putting up obstacles to your future self. Remember, future you will have to decide between doing this task or getting another free dopamine shot from scrolling through Instagram some more. You had better make it as easy as possible.

So, make the necessary decisions up front. Do it early in the morning, on Sunday afternoon or whenever you are not suffering from decision fatigue. Write tasks starting with a verb, even if it makes for an awkward sentence (you’re not in it to win literary prizes).

Sometimes, writing an actionable task is not possible yet. There is thinking to be done! Don’t let that stop you from capturing your open loops; instead, add a to do item for thinking it through. As meta as it sounds, I’ve found it works well. Don’t worry, your mind will keep processing it for you. At some point, you’re taking a walk or in the shower and it will hit you. You’ll know what needs to be decided. Make the decision, add the to do items you need and carry on.

Tend to your to do list in the weekly review

Second, tasks remain undone because we do not write down all we need to do. Either we don’t accept our commitments yet, or we do accept them but can’t put them to actionable words yet. Also, sometimes we put them in the wrong words. Whatever it is, a to do list is a flexible, ever-changing inventory of intentions, ambitions and commitments. We should write them down in full knowledge that they might change at any time.

The act of writing a to do item does not create a commitment, it only makes it visible. When the commitment changes or disappears, the to do item follows. I delete to do items all the time. It’s a signal to myself that I’m accepting that I no longer have that commitment. It feels great! I rewrite items. I defer them, split them or combine them. It takes some work. It takes some text wrangling and editing effort — but it’s a nice ritual.

The weekly review is the primary place for updating the to do list. Although I try to do my weekly review every Monday morning, I also sometimes do it in the weekend or sometimes during the week. It takes somewhere between 15 and 45 minutes, and involves the following steps:

  • Making a brain dump of everything that is on my mind in my primary inbox in Things.
  • Going over all my “next” items and refining them where necessary. Especially when items age, I ask myself what’s keeping me from completing them.
  • Going over all my “someday” items and have a quick glance of anything needs to be moved to “next”.
  • Process my inbox into new actionable to do items and projects.

While I’m at it, I also go over various other inboxes (mail, Twitter, Basecamp projects, Slack channels, etc) to capture what I missed during the week.

The weekly review is arguably the most important aspect of Getting Things Done, since this is where we bring deliberate attention to our open commitments. All other aspects of GTD build one this one foundation.

The art and science of the humble to do list

Getting things done is a skill you have to develop. This is part a science: writing actionable steps and regularly reviewing your lists. But there’s also an art in writing steps that reduce your own personal friction and procrastination. Practice it enough and you’ll find you can approximate your ideas and commitments with words closely enough to feel confident you’re working on the right things on the right time.

  • gtd
Arjan van der Gaag

Arjan van der Gaag

A thirtysomething software developer, historian and all-round geek. This is his blog about Ruby, Rails, Javascript, Git, CSS, software and the web. Back to all talks and articles?


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