A productivity guide for lazy procrastinators

I love David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” series. It’s logical, powerful and effective.

Trouble is, in order to make the system work, you need an unreasonable amount of virtue.

I’ve read all of the Getting Things Done books. And I’ve tried to implement Allen’s system. I really have. But after all these years, it’s still merely an aspiration of mine. I’ve never figured out how to stick to it day in and day out.

The reason is that I’m a lazy procrastinator. And while I can muster the self-discipline to maintain the Getting Things Done (GTD) system for a few days, I always backslide and slack off.

Admit it. So do you.

And that’s the problem with GTD and systems like it. They’re compatible with productivity. But they’re not compatible with human nature. Most of us aren’t anal-retentive enough to obsess over such a detailed system of workflow.

How Getting Things Done gets things done

Here’s my oversimplified description of the GTD system: The idea is that you have a “trusted system” for where to enter tasks and projects to be dealt with. It could be an email in-box or a physical in-basket.

Once items are entered into that system, they will be categorized and dealt with as the normal process of GTD workflow. When you follow the system, everything is reviewed on a daily or weekly basis, and acted upon according to the primacy of next actions, rather than highest priority. Getting Things Done involves constant recategorization, refinement, definition, delegation, re-evaluation and action. It also means constantly reviewing your purpose, vision, goals, areas of focus, projects and actions. The system involves moving items in and out of 43 — count ’em: 43 — folders!

GTD attempts to overcome the two main destructive modes of thinking that people tend to default to. The first is a Superman complex, where a delusional sap thinks he or she can do it all. The second is a paralyzing sense of feeling overwhelmed, where there is so much to do that it’s hard to know where to begin.

GTD is great at demonstrating that you don’t have enough time to do all the things you want to — kryptonite for your Superman complex — and so it helps you wisely delegate, say no, and generally be more realistic with your time. It also gets things out of your head and into your “trusted system,” so you don’t feel overwhelmed.

These are the right problems to solve. But GTD isn’t the right solution for most people. The reason is that GTD requires sustained, unflagging self-discipline. It’s also complicated.

Personally, I’m just not all that deep, and my life isn’t that complicated. I just want to make sure nothing falls through the cracks, and I don’t want to waste my time.

Of course, some people thrive with GTD. But I’ve asked a lot of people how they’ve fared with it and found that experiences like mine are common. Most of the people who buy the books and start GTD end up not really sticking to it.

And that’s why I’ve invented my own dumbed-down, lazier version. It’s less controlled. But it has one quality that GTD doesn’t have: It’s easy.

Two folders

In my system, there are only two kinds of tasks: Recurring tasks and one-off tasks. For example, I like to tidy up my desk every other day, so that’s a recurring task. I have daily, weekly, monthly and yearly recurring tasks. I put all of them into a free service called GoalStacker.

Each day, GoalStacker emails me a to-do list for the day.

When you think of a task or idea, just email a reminder to yourself. These reminders, combined with tasks other people send you, are the one-off tasks. Every new item enters the system as an email.

I use Gmail, and it works great. I enter things by typing them in or using Siri on my iPhone. (Before Siri came out, I used Dial2Do.)

Enter into your calendar application items that are date- and time-specific (I use Google’s Calendar service), and set them up so that you receive emails about them, thereby automating entry into your workflow at the appropriate time.

Go through your email each day as usual, and do any action that can be done in under two minutes. Convert the rest into items for your task list. (I use the Google Tasks feature of Gmail, which is under the Gmail More menu). And of course, respond as appropriate to nontask communications.

43 folders? Ha! My system has two folders: The email in-box and the task list.

Here’s the most important part: With each email item, figure out how to prevent such email from coming in the future. Of course, some email is desirable. But for the rest, block repeats. Unsubscribe (I use a service called http://dial2do.com/). Mark as spam. Set up a filter to auto-archive. Move conversations into Google+. Ask senders to take you off their lists or stop sending mail. Do whatever it takes to block all but the most necessary emails.

For many types of mail, you can set up filters or rules that archive mail so you never see it, but keep it in case you need to search for it later. I have hundreds of such filters.

The idea is that your in-box becomes like Teflon — nothing sticks to it. You move items out of it, and try to prevent new items from coming in.

Over time, you can reduce the flood of email you get each day to a trickle, and empty your in-box every day.

Once this system is set up, here’s how it works: You’ve got GoalStacker and Calendar, co-workers and yourself all feeding new items into your email in-box. And you’ve got one-off tasks over in your tasks list.

Make sure one of your recurring daily GoalStacker items is a reminder to do some fixed number of items each day in the Tasks list. My magic number is three. The number should be greater than the average number of incoming items on the task list, so you’re always reducing the number of items on that list.

Each day, start going through email, processing messages and tasks as described above. When you get to the GoalStacker email of recurring tasks, complete that list religiously. One of those items is to complete items from your Tasks list. You can pick any of these — the easiest ones, the most urgent — whichever pop out at you. Just make sure you skim the whole list every day and make sure nothing falls through the cracks.

When you’re done with this list, continue processing your email until your in-box is empty.

The beauty of this system is brain-dead simplicity. You just check your email and do what it tells you to do. You get stuff out of your in-box, and you try to prevent it from returning in the future. You complete your daily GoalStacker list, and the set number of Tasks every day. You get to pick any tasks, so there’s flexibility built in.

My productivity system is so easy to maintain that even dummies and lazy procrastinators (like me) can sustain it indefinitely.

I’ve tried a gazillion different tools and techniques for maximizing productivity. And after all these years, I’ve found that the most important feature of any personal workflow management system is not how powerful it is in theory, but how easy it is in practice.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike’s List.

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