Friday, July 5, 2013

Getting Things Done for Project Managers

Most, of the project managers that I know tend to be hyper organized, and always on top of things. It goes with the territory of course. They’re also more likley than most to have a set of processes for managing themselves and they might even be half decent at sticking to it.

But regardless of what you’re doing, if you’re a project manager and you’re not following David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” (GTD) framework for self organization and productivity, you’re probably not as effective as you could be. This post will walk you through the most important elements of GTD from a project managers perspective, and suggest some resources where you can fill in the gaps.

Why GTD?

The core of GTD is it’s agressive embrace of systems. I wouldn’t say it’s built for ease of use, in fact, it’s more like an unobtainable state of zen, for which its followers are eternally striving. There is reward in this striving however.

The aim of these systems is to get ALL of the things that you know or think you need to do out of your head and into a place you trust to retrieve it later. Nothing slips through the cracks.

A project manager’s raison-d’etre is to stop things from falling through the cracks! It’s not easy to obtain a perfect GTD practive, but if you do, you will find see the benefits in the quality and timeliness of the projects you manage.

So let’s get started.

Five lists

GTD is based on the use of five main lists, which can be broken into sub lists. These lists are:

  1. In - The “In” list, is where you should write down any ideas or things you need to do as soon they occur to you. Just put it in this list as soon as you think of it, forget it and continue with your work. You might actually keep a couple of these lists in different places and formats, like your phone and agenda. That’s OK, as long as you are consistent about using them.
  1. Next Actions - This list is the most like a traditional “to-do” list. The important thing here, is you need to phrase things as concrete action. So instead of something vague like “hire php developer”, list the next actual action like “post php developer job description on stackexchange”. You will be amazed at how putting a bit more thought into your action descriptions makes it so much easier to knock off items on your list.
  1. Waiting For - This is where you put everything you need a response for. When you send of an email that you need a response for, it goes here. If you’re waiting on something before you can move forward, it goes here. 

  2. Projects - GTD defines projects as anything with more than one action. Obviously this would include the projects you are overseeing a team on, but it would also include things like “Hiring a php developer” or “Buying a foosball table” 

  3. Some day/maybe - Here is where you put those ideas that you can’t quite tackle yet. This is amazingly effective for getting those nagging “million dollar ideas” off your mind until you can really give them some thought.

For each action, you can include a “context”, which helps you to identify which of your next actions you can tackle in your current situation. Typical contexts would be “computer”, “Office”, “home”, “shopping”.

You might also include specific people as a context, or even energy levels. Some tasks require more focus or emotional investment, others not so much. You could use a “high-energy” or “low-energy” context for these items.


The calendar should be restricted only to items that must happen at a specific time. Don’t use it for “reminders” like “check in on email integration feature development” unless you have a meeting scheduled for that time to discuss email integration.

Weekly Review

One of the items that you should put in your calendar, and treat as a concrete event, is a weekly GTD review. I like 10 am every Friday, but you might prefer a weekend. Whatever, go schedule it in now. I’ll wait for you.

These systems can really work for you, and improve your effectiveness as a project manager, but even the most obsessive compulsive people will begin to slip in some of their systems over time.

The weekly review is immensely helpful, and the time it requires is well worthwhile. Try it once, you’ll see how good it feels to have everything under control and actually know what you should be working on.

During the review you will:
  • check off next actions that you’ve already done, or no longer need to do
  • get down things you’ve been thinking about, but haven’t had the chance to capture yet
    • Use a trigger list to help you reach the dark corner of your mind. I suggest starting with the massive one I’ve linked to here. As you go through it the first few times, cut out the parts that don’t apply to you, and add in new ones that are missing.
  • Make sure each project has at least on “next action” associated with it
  • Add relevant contexts to items that are missing them
The weekly review is the hardest part of GTD to stick to. But when you find you don’t have time for it, that’s when you need it most.


You should use the tools that work for you. A major variant (and point of debate) is how much paper to rely on. I prefer electronic tools, as they make editing, reordering and accessing them much easier.
  • A very popular task list management tool for GTD is Nozbe
  • A calendar is essential, any online calendar will suffice, though I like Google calendar. It’s beyond me how a paper calendar could work for anyone, but hey, whatever works for you.
  • File folders - more details on how best to use them here


Intrigued? If this sounds like it can help you in your project management practice, there's tons more out there for you.

The book: Getting Things Done, by David Allen
GTD for CIOs, a great blog, useful beyond what the name implies
GTDTimes is the official blog run by David Allen's company, with tons of content for you.

Does GTD sound like something that can be helpful for you?