During the time of my doctorate, about 20 years ago, I was for the first time confronted with the question of how to use my time well. In my studies before, my time was still strongly structured externally by curricula, exams and tests, but now organizing well research, publications, the doctoral thesis and teaching responsibilities alongside was a completely new challenge for me. It must have been at this time that I first came into contact with David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) productivity method, whose book on it appeared very fittingly for me in 2001.
GTD is explained quickly and as is often the case with seemingly simple models and systems, there is a lengthy, rocky road between understanding and implementation. At least that was the case for me and in fact I have been walking away from the pure GTD doctrine for some time now, or perhaps I never quite got there. I am not alone in this experience, as Cal Newport points out in his article “The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done” in the New Yorker magazine, specifically using the example of Merlin Mann, one of the early apologists of GTD.
Mind Like Water
The beauty of GTD for me has always been the desired state of mental clarity, which David Allen describes as “mind like water”. Originally this term comes from martial arts and means the ability to quickly return to a state of calmness after excitement or stress. Like the water of a lake, which is briefly set into waves by a stone thrown into it, but after a short time rests calmly just as before.
This is exactly what I needed. I wanted to get away from the seemingly thousand things in my head that I wanted to do, should do, could do. GTD promised to bring order to the chaos in my head so I could fully use my brain for thinking, instead of managing and remembering. That nirvana of personal productivity is what I was looking for then — and what I’m still looking for today.
The basic idea of David Allen was to capture loose ends (“open loops”). This refers to all the unsettled things in our lives that keep our brain busy simply because we do not want to and must not forget them. Once all loose ends are captured in one trusted system, the brain can let go and fully concentrate on the task at hand.
For this to work, discipline is needed. On the one hand, the discipline to keep everything in such a reliable system, and on the other hand, to also regularly review the loose ends captured in it, revise them, delete them, or tackle them. For this reason, David Allen recommends emptying the (digital or analog) inboxes on a daily basis, which in the meantime escalated into a real “Inbox Zero” cult. In the weekly revision, the tasks are then considered in their entirety, revised and placed in a larger context of longer-term goals. The brain can only let go when it is one hundred percent confident that everything has been recorded, makes sense and will be dealt with in due course.
In essence, I still follow these ideas today and strive for a mind like water, entrusting all loose ends in my life to a reliable system with more or less self-discipline. However, the technical solutions I use for this vary. For the most part, I rely on Things on the iPhone and my personal Mac (in the past, it was Omnifocus for a long time, but that had too many features for me). In a professional context, it always depends on what systems I find and can use. Often it’s just Outlook or, if things are going well, systems for virtual task boards like Trello or Wekan. In addition to the various digital inboxes, especially e‑mail, I use a very classic analog notebook (usually in A5 size and preferably with dotted lines), especially in meetings.
While GTD describes precisely how to work through your inboxes and maintain the lists in this reliable system, David Allen remains rather vague when it comes to working through these tasks. Of course, there are the so-called contexts that allow me to bundle all the errands or show me everything I need to do in the office or at home. But beyond that, it’s up to me, my mood, my energy, and my priority, however set, to find and complete the most important task at hand. It’s not uncommon for me to choose to do a few easier tasks first, so that I can quickly check something off. Rarely was my apartment tidier than at the time I was supposed to be writing my dissertation.
So, in order to use my time as wisely as possible, I was always missing something with GTD, which I finally found with Cal Newport and his approach of planning with time blocks (time-blocking). The basic idea of time blocking is appealingly simple: At the beginning of each day, all available time blocks (for me, the granularity is usually half an hour) get specific tasks. So it’s primarily about a planful and intentional use of one’s time.
Cal Newport recommends personal values (who do I want to be and how do I want to be) and a long-term vision (what do I want to achieve and how do I want to realize my values) as a basis and guideline. This then feeds into strategic goals for a quarter (strategic plan), which lead to a weekly plan or goals, which then form the basis for the concrete use of the daily available time blocks.
For me, the added value of this planning with time blocks clearly lies in the fact that I can completely separate planning and execution and thus fully concentrate on the respective task in each time block. It is therefore hardly surprising that Cal Newport also presents and recommends this method in detail in his book “Deep Work”. He describes time blocking in detail in this video about his Time-Block Planner (which I tried out, but whose added value compared to my notebook was not apparent):
In classic GTD, the approach to prioritization would be instead to look through the tasks in the appropriate list at the specific moment and select the most sensible one depending on context, energy, available time and priority. However, this sifting and weighing alone is an additional change of context that causes me mental friction by bringing back to my mind tasks that still need to be done, which then block some capacity. In this respect, it is very beneficial for my mental peace to set out the upcoming tasks once a day on the basis of a weekly plan. This way, I can concentrate on the respective work block and no longer have to worry about other tasks that are still pending.
Time blocking thus ensures that the important things are not always displaced by the more urgent or perhaps just more pleasant ones. It creates space for the long-term projects. Smaller and perhaps more administrative tasks or even just answering e‑mails I always bundle into separate admin blocks, whose concrete content I then fill with tasks from my GTD lists. Obviously, all this needs its place, so that the brain can be sure that it will not be forgotten and I can concentrate as well as possible in the other blocks. A balanced daily schedule ensures just that.
So capturing and managing all the loose ends is still very similar to classic GTD for me, and not really significantly different for Cal Newport (he usually recommends a task board like Trello per role for this). Having a reliable system so that your brain stays free to do tasks is a necessary condition for productivity and Deep Work. However, this system for managing tasks alone is not sufficient, because it tempts too much to a reactive way of working. Today, more than ever, we need a proactive, intentional approach to time as our most valuable, because irretrievable, resource. This is exactly where time blocking comes in.
If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.Greg McKeown