When I started exploring the Getting Things Done approach to managing work, I didn’t realize the transformative power of getting things out of my head and into a trusted system. I can’t think of any other single thing that I can teach to another person that has the potential not only to improve productivity, but much more importantly, help that person feel much more at ease with work. One obstacle to this ease comes from worrying about tasks that you need to start at some point in the future, but can’t or shouldn’t start yet. Fortunately, I have moved this obstacle out of my way, with the help of two handy tools.
Without a trusted system, you have to constantly think about task like this, even though you don’t need, want, or can’t make progress on it for the next few days, weeks, or months. To handle this, Getting Things Done introduces two microtechniques: the weekly review and the tickler file. The weekly review gives you a chance to think about the task for a moment, perhaps in case the situation has changed and you could make progress on it now. If nothing else, it brings the task to your attention for a moment, making it less likely that you’d forget about it. The tickler file reminds you later about something that you need to start at some point in the future. You might have to wait until July 15 or until you’ve completed some other task first, but the tickler file reminds you to think about the task and either to do something about it or perhaps simply decide whether you can do something about it.
The Trouble with the Weekly Review
I don’t do the weekly review diligently. Part of me tells me that I should, but then that activates the part of me that hates “should” and I forget about it. I used to do the weekly review quite diligently when I first learned to practise Getting Things Done, but soon I started to feel overwhelmed with the sheer quantity of projects and tasks I was reviewing. Worse, I regularly felt guilty about all the projects I wasn’t making progress on, all the tasks I was procrastinating on. More pedestrian, I got bored reviewing a bunch of projects and tasks that I couldn’t start on, even if I wanted to. After several months, my guilt/shame/avoidance spiral kicked in and I stopped reviewing everything weekly. (These days, I have so few active projects that I don’t need to review them weekly. Instead I review my general direction every month or so, and that seems to keep me on track. Perhaps I can count this as a benefit of having low energy.)
While the problems related to guilt/shame/avoidance run deep, better use of a tickler file would help with the simpler annoyance of constantly reviewing projects and tasks that I can’t work on yet. When I read the Getting Things Done section about the tickler file (chapter 7, page 173 in my edition of the book), the notion of 43 numbered physical files makes my eyes glaze over. I’m not going to do that, and I certainly can’t take that with me on the road for weeks at a time. I need a better tickler. Fortunately, I use two tools that implement the tickler quite well.
Two Tickler Tools
A tickler tool needs to push information to me at the right time on a channel I’m going to notice and pay attention to. Email makes for a reasonable candidate for most people, in which case you can use followupthen.com. Although originally designed to help you follow up with unreliable email correspondents, you can use it to schedule emails to return to yourself, which makes for a great tickler file. I have a reminder set for every 6 months that asks me whether I still need a US dollar bank account and credit card, including a little message reminding me of the criteria I’d been using to decide whether I should keep those accounts open or close them. It was as simple as sending an email to
email@example.com with the subject line “Do I still need a USD account?” and my notes in the body of the email. Now, twice per year, I spend a few minutes thinking about this nagging-but-not-urgent issue. The rest of the time, I don’t think about it at all, because it’s entirely out of my head.
Since I don’t always check email, I need a notification channel that I’m less likely to ignore. Fortunately, my current Getting Things Done tool, todoist.com has a very flexible implementation of the reminders feature. It allows me to easily handle a somewhat fluid task related to maintaining my home. We have a water filter system in the kitchen that needs replacement filters. The filters last about 3-6 months, depending on how much water we filter through it. It’s October 2015, I’ve just replaced the filter, and so it would be easy to add a task in todoist that says “Replace water filter in the kitchen” with a due date of “in 3 months”, but wait, there’s more…. We’re going on a mini-European tour soon, and although someone will be housesitting for us part time, we won’t be filtering nearly as much water as we normally would, so perhaps the due date for replacing the filter is more like 4-5 months. Unfortunately, we’re also leaving home for a while in late February 2016, and I’m not sure when we’ll be back. It might be as late as mid-April. So when the hell should we replace the water filter? I’m not sure. Moreover, I need to go buy the filter, which requires leaving the house, and I might want to buy the filter when I happen to be at Canadian Tire (the store where I buy it), rather than when I need to replace it. Even more than that, I’d like to check Canadian Tire’s web site every so often, in case the filters go on sale. Arbitrarily, I decide to check every two weeks. Even so, I don’t need to check now, since we’re not going to be home to buy the damn thing, anyway. So I guess I want to “be tickled” about this every two weeks when we’re next going to be home. Fortunately, todoist can handle this elegantly. I set both email and mobile push notification reminders for “january 2, every 2 weeks, 11:00”, which means a reminder every two weeks at 11:00 starting January 2, 2016.
I could do the same thing with followupthen by sending an email to
Once again, I can put this water filter nonsense out of my mind, rather than having it bug me every so often. When it’s time to replace the water filter, I’ll already have been reminded frequently enough either to have bought one (possibly on sale!) or to find a convenient time to go the store to buy one. Between followupthen and todoist, I feel covered.
I strongly recommend taking a step today to get some nagging reminders out of your head. You can start with followupthen just by sending an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org, which will send the email back to you in, unsurprisingly, one minute. You can start without paying a penny and even without a formal sign-up. I’m an early adopter and a Professional plan user, and I love it. To start with todoist requires signing up, but but when you’re ready to get more stuff out of your head, then you’ll probably find it helpful. Neither service has a referral system, so I do not gain financially from referring you to either of them.
Get stuff out of your head. It makes a huge difference. Enjoy.
J. B. Rainsberger, “Getting Started with Getting Things Done”. If you don’t want to read a whole book, then start with four pages.
David Allen, Getting Things Done. I don’t practising every part of it, but its principles guide my personal productivity system and I follow a lot of it more-or-less “by the book”. It includes some valuable insights into the psychology of managing one’s work.
todoist.com. I used to use Hiveminder as my web-based, easy-to-share-with-others GTD tool, but they went out of operation. I’ve been using Todoist for about a year and quite enjoy it.
followupthen.com. People don’t respond to email when it’s convenient for you, so follow up with them as you need to. It also works great as a reminder service, so it makes a great “tickler file”.