“Getting Things Done” is the internet’s favorite productivity system — its rabid devotees have filled the internet with suggestions for implementing it. But it’s complicated as fuck — so complicated its inventor David Allen wrote an entire book about making it work. Yikes.
So if you’ve heard all about it but aren’t sure how it works or don’t want to take the plunge quite yet, we’ve, uh, simplified it for you a bit. It’s the gist of Getting Things Done distilled into three thousand words.
Let me guess. Your shit is a mess and you have no idea where you put that you’re looking for, and quite frankly why are you even looking for it, again? Yeah, that sounds about right these days. Look, don’t feel bad. I get it! I really do. We live in the future, and in the future, everything is complicated and you’ve got a million things going on.
Back in the day, man, you only had to worry about, like, five things: dinner, warmth, shelter, safety and the business, if you know what I mean. Ah, the good ol’ days, amirite?
Now that we’re in the just okay new days, you have to be fucking organized for success – you can’t just go at it all willy-nilly and hope for shit to work out in your favor. I mean, you could do that, but you know that one guy from high school who is really famous? Yeah, he didn’t do that. Don’t believe me? Just, uh… just take a look at your life. Yeah, you know how you’re always like, “Oh shit I have to take care of that thing! Right now! That I forgot about! Or I’m fucked!” or how you have tons of lists just lying around, fucking taunting you? Mmmhmmm.
I’m here to help. We’re going to get your shit back on track, which brings us to the system you’ve heard so goddamn much about. Here’s how to fix that problem for good.
STEP ONE: GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER (or, Collect)
No, I mean, literally get all your shit in one place. Here’s why your half-assed lists haven’t been working: because you barely get started before you remember, “Oh shit I forgot a way more important thing!” and then you have to drop this list for that thing, so the list doesn’t get done, and every time you pass it now you’re like, “Well… that list is old. I’ll… I’ll make a new one later.” and now you’re all over the place. You still had to worry, “am I still forgetting some important shit? Maybe I’m still forgetting some important shit,” which defeats the entire fucking purpose of making a list.
You have to know, really be sure, that your list is comprehensive, that you’ve got everything written down. Sounds daunting? Fucking of course it sounds daunting, but if you do it right you only need to do it once.
So set aside a whole day. Clear your calendar, cancel your meetings, tell everyone you won’t be available – you got 24-hour cancer or some shit, just make up an excuse – and spend that day just getting your shit together. Walk around your house, your office, whatever, and just pick up every single fucking thing that isn’t just decoration or furniture or equipment, and put those things in a basket. And maybe you see a post-it on your desk and you’re like, “Actually, I’m going to leave that post-it note there, to remind me of something. That’s where I want it.” Fuck you, pick it up and put it in the goddamn basket. Leaving it there is exactly what got you into this clusterfuck in the first place. We tried your system already, and it sucked; now we’re playing by my rules. My rules say everything.
Once you’ve got all the things, sit down for an hour or two and just write down all the shit that comes to you. Turn your brain upside down and shake it like a first grade nerd; have as many “OH YEAH THAT FUCKING THING I HAVE TO DO!” moments as you possibly can, and just write each one down on an index card or a sheet of paper or whatever, I don’t give a shit how you record it as long as you get it out of your head and into the real world, and put those index cards or whatever into the basket.
Don’t be stingy, either; if you’re not sure, just write it down anyways. Maybe you’re like, “OH YEAH I WANT TO LEARN TO FLY. Wait, maybe that’s too big an idea, do I really have to do that?” We’re not to that part, asshole. We’ll make those decisions later. Just keep writing, and don’t stop until you are completely out of ideas. If this is going to work, you better get it all out and all in one place.
STEP THE FUCK TWO: FIGURE OUT WHAT SHIT YOU HAVE (or, Process)
See, now that we’ve got this huge pile of things and lists and all your bullshit in one place, now we can start making some fucking choices about how to handle it. I mean, you’ve probably been making lists with these huge projects on them, but do you even know what to do next?
If you just write down, “Throw huge rager next weekend,” how the fuck do you go about getting that done? Look, I know how to throw a rager, believe me, I’m just saying – when you look at that on a to-do list, you panic. Why? Because throwing a rager isn’t one thing you just do. “Oh, man, give me a couple hours, I have to throw this party first, then we can go get dinner. Sound good?” That’s not how that shit works; instead, you’d be like, “Give me a couple minutes, I have to call the rental company about a bouncy castle for that party I’m putting together, then we can go.” Call the rental company! That’s a thing you can get the fuck done, an actual step you can take! Man, aren’t those the best?
You need to go through that entire basket and decide, what is the absolute next thing that needs to happen here? If you’ve got pledges, and you were like, “Hey pledge, I don’t care if you’re busy being reunited with your biological parents, I need you to get this done for me, stat!” What is the specific thing you would tell him to do? Maybe it’s just a phone call that you can do in two minutes, no problem. Then you make the shit out of that phone call right now. If you can get it done in two minutes, then just fucking do it already. Otherwise you’ll just keep looking at it and going, “Naaaah. I’ll do that later. It’ll only take a sec, I can get it done whenever.” And that’s the story of every little thing you’ve ever let fall through the cracks, ever. Now, maybe you can’t do it right away – that’s fine, you still need to figure out exactly what the fuck it is that you have to do later, and write it the fuck down.
And maybe you’re not even the right person for this thing! Maybe your chapter president or your boss or whoever needs to make a decision; maybe you have underlings who you want to do this shit for you. Well guess what asshole, letting that thing sit on your fucking desk and rot for three more weeks isn’t going to get it to your boss or your underling any faster, so delegate that shit ASAP and get back to what matters, your stuff. Now do that with everything in the basket – identify the next thing you have to do, and do that thing, or else write it down, or else pawn it the fuck off and be done with it.
What if there isn’t a next thing? Maybe you’re still waiting for the asshole you did pawn it off on to get back to you, or maybe it’s just an instruction manual you’ve got laying around but still need, or maybe it’s a receipt from like a decade ago that you don’t need any more but haven’t seen in ages. If it’s trash, throw that shit away. Otherwise…
THIRD STEP: PUT YOUR SHIT WHERE IT BELONGS (or, Organize)
So here’s what we’ve got left: a pile of shit you need to keep for some reason and a complete list of all the very next steps you can take. And if you did steps one and two right, that’s it. Everything you have left, all of the things, falls into one of those two categories. Now we’re getting somewhere. THIS is some shit you can organize. That list of things to do? That’s a fucking master to-do list. That shit is comprehensive. You kept trying to organize, like, the ten things you happened to think of this morning, and of course that got you nowhere. But now? Bro, now you can organize every motherfucking thing and you don’t even have to worry about something you forgot falling through the cracks.
I mean, yeah, maybe you’ll think of some shit you missed some-crazy-how when you shook your brain down, but you only have to think about it once – as soon as you do think of it, write it the fuck down and process it, and you’re good. As long as you stay current, you never have to worry about shit again.
So now that we’ve got this master list, now that we’ve got all the important stuff, we can get to business. Look at your to-do list. Maybe you’ve got some things that you absolutely must do on a certain day – maybe President Obama is visiting on Monday, and you’ve got to ask him a question on Monday or else never. Put that shit on a calendar. Maybe you’ve got a thing you want to do on Monday, but Tuesday is fine too, whenever. That goes on a little list I like to call “Next Action Items.” That’s your to-do list for stuff that you don’t have to do at a particular time – you just have to do it.
Trust me on this: your calendar is fucking sacred – only HARD DEADLINES go there, shit that MUST BE DONE at a certain time. Otherwise, you’ll go back and forth between your to-do list and your calendar, and you’ll never be sure which is where. “Fuck, I don’t see a book review on my Next Actions list… but maybe there’s one on my calendar? OH GOD I’M AWASH IN A SEA OF CONFUSION.” And now you’re right back to worrying about shit falling through cracks. Don’t go back there. We’re done with that dark place. Put things that need to be done sometime, eventually on your “Next Actions” list, and put things that are stuck in time on your calendar, and never the fuck the twain shall meet.
Once you’ve got all your calendar items off your to-do list and all you’ve got left are your Next Actions, let’s break those the fuck up. For some of ‘em, you’re going to need a computer; sometimes, you have to be outside with your shirt off pounding beers to get your shit done. Whatever. Just break them up by context, the tools you need to get stuff done. Now when you’re on the computer you can be like, “Hey, lemme check my computer context on my to-do list, so I can get ahead.” And when you’re with your bros tailgating, you can be like, “Hey, what’s on my drunk outside shirtless section? Lemme cross some shit off the ol’ list real quick.” See? Now you’re getting things done all over the fucking place. You’re a machine, bro.
Now let’s make a list of your projects – NOW you can write down big fucking stuff like “Throw Huge Rager” and “Get Sweet Internship” – this way, when you cross something off on Next Actions, you can check your Projects and figure out what the next Next Action is. See? You can accomplish huge things, it’s just gotta be one step at a time. You can’t do a project, you just do actions that make up a project, one by one.
Now, as to the rest of the stuff in the tremendous pile I had you create in the middle of your workspace, if it’s just some reference material you need to have on hand, fine. Get some real good filing cabinets, cabinets that won’t drive you fucking crazy with stuck drawers and shit, get some folders that go from A-Z, and stick whatever it is in those folders. Done. Filed. Don’t make your filing system all complicated, with A-Z by subject and then by Author and then by Date; just, keep it fucking simple. No one is impressed by your triple-alphabetized system; it’s not like girls are out there telling each other, “Shit, you know what makes my knees weak? Bros who can collate.” Besides, if it’s a complicated system, you won’t use it – you’ll just look at your ever-mounting stack of to-file shit and be like, “Yeah, but now I have to dig through A-Z three different times to file it… naaaaah. Later.”
How should you create a system? Just make it the simplest fucking system that could possibly work, and that’s it. How fucking stupid would it be if you got to design your own personal system, for no one but you to use, for all and only your things, and you went and designed a system that not even you want to use? Spoiler Alert: The most stupid.
Lastly, you’ve got all that shit that eventually you’ll have to do something about, but you just can’t touch right now. So what do you do with that? Find a place to put it so that you know you’ll come back to it when you can do something about it. Maybe put reminders down on a separate calendar from your real one; maybe set up a tickler file. Maybe make your assistant remind you in a month or whatever. I don’t give a shit how you remind yourself later, just make sure that you don’t put it to the side and then ignore it forever. For the things you have no idea when to come back to – maybe you’ve got some huge ideas about writing a self-help book or climbing Everest or running for President or whatever, I don’t actually give a shit what your goals are, I’m just doing hypotheticals here – just make a list of things you’d like to do someday. Oh, hey look, that’s all the things there are!
STEP FOUR: CHECK YOURSELF BEFORE YOU WRECK YOURSELF (or, Review)
YES, the system we’ve just set up is a bit complicated. You’ve got calendars, and lists, and projects and contexts and files – it can be intimidating. It shouldn’t be intimidating, it just can be; I tried to warn you, bro. Trying to get shit done in the 21st century is no walk in the fucking park. That’s why you have to keep up maintenance; don’t let your calendar fall out of use, or you’ll end up right back where the fuck you were before all this, constantly worrying if you forgot something. Write down everything that you have to do but don’t get done immediately.
And once a week, get your hands dirty and really dig into the system. Double-check your list of projects, see if they jog your memory for any items you might be forgetting. Always make sure that first-grader in your head isn’t hiding lunch money in the corners of your mind. Make sure your calendar is current, and write down anything from the week before that you have to do again this week. See if any of your Next Actions are due this week; stay on top of upcoming deadlines; go through the list of shit you’re waiting on other people to do, and see if they’ve done it yet. Glance at your “Someday” list, decide if today is the day and you are the team. You know, go through everything and make sure you’re handling your business properly.
If you don’t use the system, you’ve just made some really, really excellent lists so that you can ignore those lists. And if you’re going to just ignore the lists, then why bother making them? The point of writing everything down is so that you don’t have to remember all the time, not so that you can pretend your shit is handled when it’s not.
Okay all done JUST KIDDING BITCHES,
STEP FIVE: GET SHIT DONE (or, Do)
The good news is, now you can use that laser focus you’ve got on your work. You know how sometimes you’re in the zone, about to produce a fucking masterpiece of whatever it is you do, and suddenly you’re like “OH SHIT I FORGOT THAT THING WITH THE GUY AND THE DOG!”
Worry no longer, broseph. Now that you fuckers have a functional system, you can get the fuck down to business. This book isn’t called “Getting Things Reviewed,” it’s called “Getting Things Done.” So don’t be all, “welp, now that I have my to-do list all written out, I think I’ve accomplished enough for a while. Naptime!” NOPE. Getcher ass in gear and start doing things.
Which things? I guess that depends. Do you have your computer with you, or do you only have access to some sheets of paper and a pen that’s out of ink? What tools you have might be important to know. How much time do you have to work — can you spend all day on a thing or is your poor mother expecting a phone call in the next hour or so? She gave you so much, and all she wants to know is how you’re doing. Are you exhausted after a long day of being awesome, and maybe you can only manage some really menial, mindless shit right now? Is anything due in twenty minutes that you still haven’t started because your old system sucked so very much ass?
Fuck if I know exactly what thing you should be doing, just look at your list and pick something. Pick something, and get it done. And then pick something else, and get that done. Lather, Rinse, Repeat – it’s the key to success.