COTA: Getting things done is more than just a resolution

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Jim Cota

The new year has arrived, and with it comes the standard pressure of setting (and, for most of us, ultimately failing at) New Year’s resolutions.

No matter how you feel about them, chances are you’re still either setting some goal or, at the very least, assigning a small amount of mental capacity to nagging you about something you’d like to improve.

Many of these goals and nags fall under the category of physical self-improvement: Get in shape, lose a few pounds, eat healthier foods. But some deal with things that are a little more difficult to measure—things that, if accomplished, could have a large positive effect on your psyche: Improving mental acuity, for instance, or the perennial favorite of just about everyone I know: getting more organized.

Better organization skills have become an absolute necessity in today’s hyper-busy, multi-tasking, squeeze-every-last-bit-of-productivity-out-of-every-last-minute world.

Organization has also become a huge industry, with everything from books to products to personal coaches who will help you devise strategies to improve your work flow.

Perhaps the most important key to high productivity relates to the initial method you use to process all the incoming information that crosses your desk (and your mind) on a daily basis. A process that has become even more difficult to manage thanks to that burgeoning e-mail inbox. How you compartmentalize and process all these bits of information can be the difference between being buried and actually getting things done.

And so it was into this environment that productivity coach David Allen (www.davidco.com) perfected his system to help people succeed. The beauty of his system, espoused in his book “Getting Things Done,” is that it works across all disciplines and industries, applicable for CEOs of huge companies and CEOs of households.

The key, says Allen, is to process each piece one at a time based on a simple decision system: First, determine if the item is actionable. If not, either trash it or file it for future use, either in a reference or tickler file.

If it is actionable and can be dealt with in under two minutes, do it.

If not, determine if it needs to be delegated or deferred. If delegated, get it into the hands of the necessary person. If deferred, determine the time it needs to be done, either a specific time or when you next have time.

One of his elegant and practical ideas is based on the concept of contexts. By associating specific contexts with each task that needs to be done (“I need to be at the office” or “I need to be at home” or “I need to be online,” etc.), you can let the system tell you what you should be working on at any given moment.

For example, you have several calls to make, each based on a specific due date. The next time you’re in the car with your phone, you’ll not only know whom you need to call, but in what order. (His book describes the process in detail, including offering tips and advice on how to put it into practice in your life.)

Now, you could simply read the information on his Web site or in his book and begin using the Getting Things Done (dubbed GTD by practitioners) system to improve your own productivity. But since the release of his book, something interesting has happened: An entire industry has been created to help people adopt GTD principles. These range from seminars to personal coaches to software.

On the software side, there are two notable entries: OmniFocus (www.omnigroup.com) and Things (www.culturedcode.com). (Both of these entries in the market—considered to be the best in class—are Mac- and iPhone-based. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a great Windows-based solution for GTD.)

Both of these programs are built to enable people to put Allen’s GTD principles to use. Both have sister applications on the iPhone to help you keep track of projects and tasks when you’re away from your computer. Things is generally considered to be the “more beautiful” of the two, with a user interface that is easy to understand and use and a design motif that is simply gorgeous. In fact, if you do even a little research on these two programs, you’ll read over and over how “beautiful Things’ icon is.”

OmniFocus, on the other hand, is a little harder to master, but is generally considered to adhere closer to Allen’s GTD principles. For example, those all-important contexts I mentioned earlier are built into OmniFocus, where Things uses tags to accomplish a similar result. OmniFocus appears to handle multi-faceted, lengthy and sequential projects with a little more deftness, allowing individual pieces to be marked as accomplished and automatically prompting you for the next task.

In the end, both programs have what it takes to help you increase productivity. And since both are available as trial downloads, I’d recommend you take them both out for a spin to see which one works best for the way you work.

Oh, and those other resolutions about getting in shape or spending more time with the family? Once you start getting things done, you’ll have plenty of time to worry about those. And maybe even time to do them.•


Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.


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