Hacking GTD

Regardless of the system, I’m a big fan of getting things done. That’s in the lower case context of completing things. I’m still waiting on my library to get me David Allen’s book, but I’ve read enough to be familiar with the system. I’m more interested the parts of the book that don’t get covered much in blog posts. Especially how he approaches the daily/weekly review process.

But as for the actual GTD todo list—with next actions, etc.—it just wasn’t working for my creative projects. I thought it was just me. But then I ran across an article by Antony Johnston, and his GTD failure and revelation.

He found GTD was designed for people like him. He needed to keep track of multiple projects and needed to have an idea of what was due when. GTD helped him organize his projects and create tasks. But the nature of the tasks were different from what a typical businessperson deals with.

…writers have a small number of large tasks that require many hours of work, often over multiple separate days, and mainly in a single continuous environment (i.e. We spend all day in front of our computers, which also makes the @Computer context somewhat redundant). Our working days aren’t primarily interrupt-driven, most of us don’t have staff we can delegate to (or receive new tasks from), and frankly we just want to get on with, you know, writing instead of dealing with all this horrible business stuff.

With GTD he became very organized, but he was not getting things done.

His eventual hack was to start calendaring his next actions. This breaks the idea of the GTD next action (todo) list. But it’s broken in a way that works for writing. I read the article and could see how I was trying to force the square peg of the next action into my round hold of writing time.

Johnston shows a screenshot of his calendar with the writing tasks scheduled as all-day events. While I like the idea, I can’t stomach the idea of blocking out a whole day for a task. If a task is scheduled that way it might as well be a single todo list item. I need smaller focus blocks. This is something that I’ve learned about myself this year.

I’ve had some luck with the Pomodoro method when I have several smaller tasks that need banging out. For larger projects, I don’t want a timer running.

So looked at my current personal projects and started estimating. I really have no idea how long they’ll take. But a wild guess is more than I had yesterday. Then I set a deadline. While somewhat arbitrary, I need to have this for the next step.

Then I divided the estimated time by the number of weeks1 until the deadline and found out how much time I need to spend on it each day.

For a project that I estimate will take 60 hours, and due at the end of May:

60 ÷ 4 = 15

So I have to allocate 15 hours per week over the next four weeks. This is about 3 hours per day. Now, it’s looking much more reasonable.

Knowing my daily “number” for a project lets me slot that into my calendar as a work block. This works for me because once something is scheduled I can plan for it. Then it’s just a matter of sitting down and not stopping until the block is done.

In this case, three hours is too much at once. Depending on the day I can do two 90-minute blocks or three hour-long blocks. This is something that I can fit into my schedule without worry. Having my daily number for each project also gives me a way to estimate my workload.

I also have some repeating tasks that still need a block of time, like blogging. For these I pick a block of time, and schedule it on the day I want it done.

One thing I’m not doing is assigning tasks to each work block. When starting a block I’ll take five minutes and decide what I want to get done. This frees me from having to plan out a block in advance. Once I’ve started, figuring out the best tasks to work on is much easier.

The goal of this new system is to get me in front of the keyboard at scheduled times to do the work that needs to be done. So far, so good.


  1. Here I round down, so that 4.5 weeks becomes 4. This way that extra half week is my padding, and also accounts for time taken by other appointments.