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GTD Productivity Without a Computer

For iPhone owners who aren’t paid-up members of the Church of GTD, life can be hard. Browse through the productivity apps on Apple’s website, and it seems that every other offering is based on David Allen’s system.

It’s almost as though it’s not enough to have a mind like a filing cabinet to get the most out of GTD. You also need a pocketful of whiz-bang gadgetry and all the electronic gizmos you can think of to keep your lists in order.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. While David Allen might have managed to turn a simple list into something more complex than the control panel of the space shuttle, it is possible to keep them organized using nothing more futuristic than a pen and a sheet of paper.

Reading that Eston Bond at Hyaline Skies managed to do it with a souped-up moleskin — he added some colored post-it tabs — made us wonder how else you could keep GTD working on the day the lights go out… and we came up with a number of possibilities.

Whiteboards are the real reason people become teachers. They’re fun to use and in addition to the pleasure you get from crossing out a task, you also get an extra thrill by wiping them out physically with an old rag.

You’ll need a fairly big board, of course. It has to be large enough to be easily divided into separate sections. And you’ll want to use different colored markers. That will make it easy to see at a glance whether you’re looking at “Projects (planning),” “Project Plans (review for action),” or the tickler area.

But even that would start to make things a little complex so the best option when using a whiteboard is to boil GTD down to its essentials. Draw three vertical black lines down the board, dividing it into thirds. Mark the first area “Delegated Tasks” in one color; mark the second area in a different color “Projects;” and call the third area “Someday/Maybe.”

That divides the space vertically. You’ll now want to divide it horizontally to indicate the status of different tasks. Place projects in the planning stage above projects that need to be reviewed, and use the top half of the Delegated Tasks section for jobs that are waiting to be outsourced keeping the lower half for jobs that are waiting to come back.

Tasks for the Someday/Maybe section can be written in at random as you think of them.

Clearly, a whiteboard doesn’t allow for all of the benefits that people manage to squeeze out of GTD — it’s not portable, for example, and adding new information won’t be easy when you’re limited for space — but it is visible all the time and it could make a very useful and simple office GTD system.

Using a whiteboard for GTD has the advantage that you can always see all of your tasks in one go. That can be true too when you use a physical calendar but a calendar also brings a different kind of benefit: it shows you when tasks are going to be done.

That’s very valuable. It’s one thing to create lists of tasks that need to be completed and organize them in different ways. It’s quite another to actually do them. When you write them on a calendar though, you set yourself a time to do them that’s hard to ignore.

To make a calendar work with GTD, again, you’ll need to use different colors. You’ll need one color to indicate whether the task is a project you’re planning, another color for delegated tasks and a third color for delegated tasks that are waiting to come back.

More importantly though, you’ll have to decide before you write them down when each task will be handled.

That provides a whole new dimension to GTD but it is a very useful one that increases the chances that each day’s task is actually completed. (If the day ends before its list does, simply move the remainder of the day’s tasks to the next available time slot.)

On the down side, there’s no room on a calendar-based GTD system for those “someday” tasks that are pushed into the far future. But maybe that’s no bad thing.

Index Cards
Joe Ely, a member of the GTD Community, recently wrote a post on the GTDTimes website describing how he uses index cards to keep track of his GTD lists. For Joe, portability was the most important feature he was looking for. He wanted to be able to write down ideas and tasks whether they came to him in his office, on the shop floor, or at a ball game. A computer-based system wasn’t going to cut it and although a PDA worked, he found it “clunky” and wasn’t sorry to lose access to it.

Instead, Joe now writes his task lists on index cards. Again, he uses color to differentiate his lists, choosing seven different tones for each of the different contexts his tasks might take. One color of card is used for home-computer tasks; another for home-projects, for example.

And to show the status of the tasks, Joe uses various notation marks that include arrows to indicate delegation, and dashes and pluses for the state of completion. It’s not a bad system… but pulling out a stack of cards from your pocket is never going to be as cool as pulling out an iPhone.

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