Yesterday’s long long long long to-do list gave me a perfect opportunity to see whether David Allen’s Getting Things Done system (GTD) would really be an improvement over the classic time management system I have known and loved lo these many years.

Because Allen does in fact claim that his approach is different and better. The thing that I had already taken up from his system (and I no longer remember where I encountered his system, but I am now reading the book rather than just other people’s reviews of it) was the idea of Ubiquitous Capture: all the things that race around in your mind must be written down.

I was reviewing Microsoft Outlook 2007 for Amazon Vine, and found that you can type things into the to-do list willynilly and then later you can color-code them, which seems perfect for people like me who are usually at the computer. However, there are plenty of times when I am not at the computer, so I am also still using paper. Allen advocates an in-basket for papers, including sheets of paper on which you’ve written a thought, but I prefer to put thoughts in a planner and trash or file papers immediately, and an in-basket for me would just be mess. I don’t know what I’ll end up with, but it seems true to me that it is a great waste of time to think repeatedly “Oh, I need to get hold of Donna about that fund-raiser” or “I mustn’t forget to pay the gas bill.” As Allen puts it, “There is no reason ever to have the same thought twice, unless you like having that thought.”

Once you’ve gotten the habit of collecting things, you need to make them part of your planning. And in planning, Allen is unusual. Where the classic time management systems focus on determining your highest principles and your long-range plans, and then deciding how to get there from where you are, Allen goes in the opposite direction. He looks at actions.

You build time for processing the stuff you’ve captured into your day or week. Everything you think of — mental stuff — and every bit of paper or other physical stuff — goes through a processing flow chart. First, do you need to do something about it? If not, you can file it for reference or throw it away. If it requires action, then you determine whether it takes more than two steps or not. If there are multiple steps required, it’s a project. You make a list of projects. If there’s just one step involved, you decide whether that single step will take longer than 2 minutes. If it can be done in 2 minutes or less, you do it right then and cross it off. If not, then you put it onto your calendar at the point at which it needs to be done, or onto the “next actions” list (what you and I might call a to-do list) or onto your “waiting for” list if it has to be delegated or is waiting for someone else’s action. So that’s the gas bill taken care of.

Then there are projects. Donna’s fund-raiser (she doesn’t want to think about it till after Spring Break) and Easter dinner and the Pentecost service and my unfinished table runner and the upcoming college visit road trip and the curriculum units I’m writing are all equally in that category. All should be listed as projects, and then all need to have their next physical action defined. So for the Easter meal, there is housework to be done, and deciding what to eat, and shopping for the food and cooking the food and planning the table setting and centerpiece, and I can put all that onto a mind map or project page or what have you, but I also have to come up with the very next carrot cakesphysical action to be taken and put that on my to-do list.

So instead of “Easter dinner” on my to-do list, I have “look through cookbooks and choose recipes.” Having decided to make these very cute little cakes, I then naturally have the next step “add ingredients to shopping list” which can be done in 2 minutes, so I just do it. Buying ingredients is obviously the next step after that, but I can put that on my calendar and not think about it any more.

This really is different. Instead of looking at my role as homemaker and determining that planning and preparing the Easter celebration is the highest priority goal in that area for the week and then writing down all the steps involved in doing that, I just have the next action.

For all projects, you have the next action. When you review your next action steps in the morning or on Monday or whenever works best for you, you just do them or put them on the calendar at the time when they are to be done. When you review your projects, you visualize what a wildly successful outcome would be and brainstorm all the things involved in that, but all you are dealing with on a daily basis is the next action step. If there’s a deadline, the action steps are on your calendar at the times they need to be done.

As I read this section of the book, I wondered whether you don’t lose sight of the big picture this way — but in fact, that is just the point. You don’t want to have the Big Picture in your mind all the time, unless you like to think about it. You don’t need to think about the goal of moving into post-modern worship without distressing the congregation every day when actually all you need to do today is find someone to lead the processional.

Allen would say that if you have trouble with an action step, you should ask yourself why you’re doing it. At that point, any difficulties with the Big Picture would come to light. “Why am I going to this meeting?” you will ask yourself, and you will answer, “Blessed if I know” and see that it doesn’t fit your goals.

Well, I have read the “collection” and “processing” parts of the book, and I was indeed able to get through my to-do list yesterday — with some items moving over to a Projects List with Next Action Steps on the calendar. Next comes the “Organizing” section. However, I am at the store today and in rehearsal tonight, so it may be that I will have to make do with just collecting and processing for today.