Let's take a moment to praise task management tools. We use them every day – even if you don't have a calendar application or a to-do list running behind (or in) your browser, you'll have some kind of scheduling system somewhere.
It could be a diary, a smattering of Post-It notes or even a pile of scribbled reminders on scraps of paper. But whether you're already using software to schedule your life or relying on a pocket-full of bus tickets, you can do better. You can start 'Getting Things Done' instead.
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Getting Things Done (GTD) is one man's attempt to sort out the glut of stuff people deal with every day. His book of the same name has sold 1.2 million copies, and the phrase is now an official trademark of Allen's company.
But the philosophy has grown beyond the book and into the public domain, with dedicated websites, online services, commercial software and open-source tools. It doesn't just cover business types; the same idea can apply to household chores, saving for the future or even planning some time off.
The core of the philosophy is that stress comes from carrying around unresolved chores in your head. GTD helps you to organise these tasks.
The five stages
To get the full gist of the technique, you'll have to buy the book, although you can get started at David Allen's website www.davidco.com. We recommend the free PDF article 'Five Ways of Mastering Workflow'.
The GTD technique outlines a workflow of five stages: collect, process, organise, review and do. Most task-management software concentrates on one or more of these stages to the detriment of the others.
Online calendars are great for organising and processing tasks, but it's rarely easy to enter (or 'collect') a lot of disparate data quickly. To-do lists are great for collecting data, but often lack the tools to process or categorise things.
By taking a structured approach to arranging your tasks, you're in a better position to work through them. That philosophy is illustrated in the first stage of the workflow, 'collect'. At this stage you simply make an exhaustive list of tasks: everything you have to do and everything you want to do.
They all go into an 'inbox' or 'bucket'. This excludes lots of standard task management tools immediately; many of them require you to enter due dates and categorise items as you add them. In GTD, that's done over the next two stages.
Starting from the top of the list, you categorise your bucketful of tasks into priorities. Some you'll be able to do straight away; others will have to wait. This is also the stage where you will arrange things by 'context'. In GTD lingo, that's where a task is carried out: at your computer, at home, in the office and so on.
'Reviewing' is an important part of the workflow: that means regularly checking your task list to see what needs to be done and adding items that aren't there.
Finally, you actually do what's on your list.
Since the book's publication in 2002, several desktop tools have been created, specifically aimed at helping people implement the Getting Things Done philosophy.
MyLife Organized is among our favourites, faithfully translating Allen's workflow into software while prioritising ease of use. As well as enabling you to quickly collect tasks and organise them with priorities and contexts, you can also designate project status to tasks, set due dates and explore your lists in various different ways.
There are three versions. The free download has restrictions: there are no reminders and limited ways to view to-do lists. The Standard version costs $50 and you'll get alerts, infinite contexts and drag-and-drop capability from Outlook. For just $10 more, the Professional edition includes project tracking tools and full Outlook synchronisation.
If £30 seems like too much to spend to sort your life out, stick with the free version of MyLife Organized, try one of the online solutions we've reviewed or give ThinkingRock a go.
THINKING ROCK: ThinkingRock's opening screen is a good illustration of the Getting Things Done workflow
Cross platform and built in Java, it too is inspired by GTD from the ground up. Many in corporate environments won't have the luxury of choosing their own scheduling tools, but one of the beauties of GTD is that you don't need a program specifically tailored to it. A simple spreadsheet could be used for the job.
If you're committed to Outlook, you can follow the process rules laid down in GTD. Just use the Task and Calendar sections to record action items, and you could install the official Getting Things Done Outlook add-in. This threads GTD commands throughout the Outlook interface, changing the way you deal with mail, tasks and events. The add-in costs $80 (about £50).
The online tools we've reviewed here are general scheduling and task management services, but they can all be used to implement a GTD workflow. The more open-ended the tool, the better it is for the GTD approach, enabling you to define your own contexts and projects.
And, if all else fails, there's always that stack of Post-It notes and the wall calendar.