Time Management, Simplified: How to Be Productive With No Worries

This guest post was written by Leo Babauta of the Zen Habits blog.

time management simplified how to be productive with no worriesI’m a big fan of Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen, and adopted the system wholeheartedly a year and a half ago. This year, I’ve written a number of posts on GTD, but one of my habits is to take whatever I do and try to simplify it.

Slowly, I’ve been reducing my time management system (based on GTD) to its barest minimum.

And you know what? It’s not only simpler, I’ve found that it’s so much more productive, less hassle, and more stress-free than the official GTD system, or even other time-management systems I’ve tried.

Before I get into simplification, let’s look at the main elements of GTD:

  • Capture – write everything down as you think of it.
  • Process – process your notes and inboxes, putting everything in its appropriate place.
  • Contexts – break your to-do list into several lists based on the context you’re in and what you can actually do right now.
  • Projects – Anything that takes more than one physical action is a project.
  • Workflow – This is really fluid in GTD … you can do whatever tasks right now that your context, time or energy allow. Basically, you decide what to do from moment to moment.
  • Weekly Review – This is the key to GTD — making sure you have everything in your system, and that it’s in the right place. By reviewing it weekly, you can ensure that you are in working order.
  • Tickler – A way to remind yourself about things coming up. Allen suggests using a system of folders, 12 for the months and 31 for the days of the month (43 total).
  • Filing – He recommends a simple alphabetical system, easy to use so that you actually file right away.
  • Someday/maybe & waiting on – Two additional lists that are very useful for parking projects you don’t plan to do now and for following up on stuff you’re waiting for from other people.
  • Goals – Not very emphasized in GTD — it does talk about higher altitudes, where you look at things like goals, and those should be done during the Weekly Review, but it doesn’t seem very important to the main thrust of GTD, which is more focused on daily actions.

Those are the basics — there are other stuff, but I think I’ve outlined the system fairly well. And let me say — it works very well, and if you adopt this system you will most likely become more productive (unless you focus (obsess) too much on the tools and keep revising your system instead of getting things done).

Simplifying the System
As you can see, GTD is a lot of things to implement and keep track of, which is why the Weekly Review is so necessary. But it can be made simpler, and by doing so, you will reduce what you need to do and the time you spend maintaining the system. Here’s how:

  1. Reduce your tasks. My philosophy with everything is this: before you organize, reduce. If you only have three things to organize, instead of 20, you actually don’t need to organize. How can you apply that to time management? Reduce what you need to do. You can eliminate tasks, delegate them, postpone them, get out of commitments. For more on this topic read posts I’ve written elsewhere: on Zen Habits, FreelanceSwitch, and Lifehack.
  2. Capture. I think this is one of the most valuable tools of GTD. Write down ideas as they come to you, tasks that you need to do, before you forget about them. Get it out of your head. I carry around a small Moleskine pocket notebook and write things down in that.
  3. MITs. Of all the stuff you need to do, which are the three Most Important Tasks (MITs) you need to do today? Write those on the top of your little notebook (or on your computer) and only those. Those are the three tasks you are going to focus on. Single-task and don’t get distracted from them. If you get only these three things done today, you’ve been very productive.
  4. Batch process. Besides your MITs, there are a lot of little tasks you need to do throughout the day. Don’t let them interrupt the more important stuff. To be more productive, batch them up and do them all at once, preferably towards the end of the day. Batch like things together — do all your email once a day, at 4 p.m., instead of throughout the day. Do all your paperwork at once. Process your physical inbox to empty. Don’t do them throughout the day. I keep a little list of batch process tasks at the bottom of my notebook page (MITs are at the top).
  5. Goals. I think goals are very important. But having too many can cause you to lose focus, and you’ll end up not doing any of them. Instead, use a simple goal system: choose one goal to focus on this year, and a smaller sub-goal of your one-year goal to accomplish in 6 months. Then choose a smaller sub-goal to accomplish within the next week or two, and each day, work towards that short-term goal. Your MITs for today should include at least one task to move you forward towards your short-term goal. Focus on one goal, not many, and you will make it happen.

That’s it. That’s about as simplified as you can get while still getting stuff off your mind. This system allows you to focus on what’s important, to limit your workload to something a bit more sane, and to increase your effectiveness by focusing less on the busy work and more on the high-powered tasks.

Some notes on my simple system:

  • Tools. I recommend a simple pocket notebook, and that’s it. You can use this notebook to capture everything as you think of it, to write down your MITs and batch process tasks for today, and to write down your one goal. If you only have one tool, you don’t need to worry about it too much.
  • Weekly Review. It’s not really necessary if you don’t have a lot of tasks to process. However, if you want to do a short 10-minute review of your tasks for this coming week, and to be sure that you are re-focused on your One Goal, that would probably be a good use of your time.
  • Someday/maybe, Projects, Waiting for. If you want to add these lists to my simple system, they could be helpful. I don’t use them at the current time, as I’ve simplified my tasks and projects and system and daily life so that they’re not absolutely necessary, but I don’t see anything wrong with them.
  • Filing. I don’t really file anymore. I try to keep everything online, using Google Docs and Gmail and Picasa, and with all of those tools I just archive and search if I need to find anything. For paper documents at work, I still have my simple filing system, but I rarely use it.
  • Tickler. I don’t think a system of 43 folders is necessary if you don’t have much to remember. Simplify your commitments, and you don’t need a tickler system. I use Gcal for hard landscape tasks, but I try to schedule as little as possible. Basically I use it for my kids’ activities and dental and doctor appointments.

Conclusion
The fewer tasks you have, the less you have to do to organize them. Focus only on those tasks that give you the absolute most return on your time investment, and you will become more productive and have less to do. You will need only the simplest tools and system, and you will be much less stressed. I think that’s a winning combination.

Focus always on simplifying, reducing, eliminating. And keep your focus on what’s important. Everything else is easy.

Leave a Comment

{ 64 comments… add one }
  • David Baker July 2, 2007, 12:07 pm

    I too have been using GTD for the last year or so and have simplified mine down to a similar system as yours. The difference is I tend to carry around a few 3X5 cards to Capture ideas. I also use a pocket mod book http://pocketmod.com to carry around in my money clip for my MIT and to call list.

    This has certainly lessoned my load and let me concentrate on what I need to do.

    Reply
  • Jonathan Peterson July 2, 2007, 1:18 pm

    I’ve got a hybrid between you and David.

    A moleskine pocket, with 1/2 the pockets removed to make it skinnier, stuffed full of 3×5 cards with a nice mechanical pencil in the spine.

    Reply
  • Smarmy July 2, 2007, 4:29 pm

    David Allen should write a GTD book on GTD.

    Reply
  • Andrew Mason July 3, 2007, 12:00 am

    Hi,

    Great post, helps simplify the GTD process.

    Keep up the good work!

    Reply
  • Michael Vu July 3, 2007, 1:06 am

    Thanks for the refreshing tips. I need to seriously simplify my system.

    Reply
  • William Profet from OneJobTwoSalaries.com July 4, 2007, 4:57 pm

    Leo,

    I have bought the book of David Allen (GTD, of course) because of you! :))

    I think I am already a fan of GTD and will see if it will work for me!

    Best regards and good luck!
    William

    Reply
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  • MA July 13, 2007, 9:39 am

    GTD is a great way to measure your effectiveness. I really believe in organizing things and focusing in on the more important items.

    Reply
  • Matthew Cornell August 25, 2007, 5:08 pm

    Interesting! A few points, meant to be constructive. First, your summary misses some major concepts, and highlights others that are secondary. For example, major: figuring out action. Minor: contexts.

    Second, it seems like your simplified system doesn’t have a place for everything that comes up, which is a major consideration in clearing your mind. For example, if an idea occurs to you, but you’re not ready to act on it, you need a place to store it. Otherwise, it’ll still be on your mind. I don’t see where it would go in your system…

    Thanks for the stimulating post – I like the direction you’re taking!

    Reply
  • pete September 9, 2007, 4:42 pm

    Everytime I hear the words time management it makes me shudder, my wife must be the worst person at time management on the planet

    Reply
  • apsoftgy September 22, 2007, 3:38 am

    Good site!

    Reply
  • Gabriel Moldovan October 21, 2007, 5:42 am

    :P

    Reply
  • Abralbricle December 3, 2007, 3:08 am

    Thankiossk
    Cool!

    Reply
  • HearoMono December 6, 2007, 11:26 am

    lol
    thankiossp!

    Reply
  • male hung hunks December 18, 2007, 2:18 pm

    I haven’t gotten much done these days. I’ve just been staying at home waiting for something to happen, but whatever. I guess it doesn’t bother me. I’ve pretty much been doing nothing to speak of, but it’s not important.

    Reply
  • twink feet December 18, 2007, 4:58 pm

    I’ve just been hanging out doing nothing. Basically nothing seems important. I’ve basically been doing nothing to speak of, but eh.

    Reply
  • twink pictures December 19, 2007, 10:47 am

    I’ve more or less been doing nothing. Eh. I’ve just been letting everything pass me by lately, but so it goes. I haven’t gotten anything done today. Today was a complete loss. I’ve just been sitting around doing nothing.

    Reply
  • musclehunks com December 19, 2007, 6:25 pm

    I’ve just been staying at home waiting for something to happen. I just don’t have anything to say right now. My life’s been basically unremarkable , but eh. I can’t be bothered with anything recently.

    Reply
  • time management January 15, 2008, 5:55 am

    that will come in very usefull, thanks

    Reply
  • Dan May 15, 2008, 4:15 am

    For implementing GTD and ZTD you might try out this web-based application:

    Gtdagenda

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use
    checklists, schedules and a calendar.
    A mobile version is available too.

    As with the last update, now Gtdagenda has full Someday/Maybe functionality, you can easily move your tasks and projects between “Active”, “Someday/Maybe” and “Archive”. This will clear your mind, and will boost your productivity.

    Hope you like it.

    Reply
  • Self Improvement Advice July 22, 2008, 9:49 pm

    Excellent post. I’ve been reading many time management books before because I want to maximize my time in an abundant manner in a simple scheme but I only learned it all the way from GTD by David Allen.

    -Jan

    Reply
  • facebook-714151566 November 18, 2009, 6:21 am

    Thank U for the GTD summary :)

    Reply
  • facebook-714151566 November 18, 2009, 11:21 am

    Thank U for the GTD summary :)

    Reply