Getting Things Done | Dafacto

The personal website of Matt Henderson.

Getting Things Done

22 September 2004

The recent posts of Merlin Mann have re-kindled a long-time interest I have in the area of personal productivity. According to Peter Drucker, one of the defining aspects of our generation is the fact that, as a society of information workers, many of us are responsible for defining both what we do, and how we get it done. Complicating matters, many of us work in environments (i.e. in front of internet-connected desktop computers) that provide us with a continual barrage of inputs (email, chats, browsing, RSS feeds, phone calls, etc.). Defining what we should do, how it should be done, and then getting (the right) things done are some of the biggest challenges we face.</p>

In this article, I hope to describe the system I’ve put in place for myself. I’m quite satisfied with it, although it remains under continual review. The system is based on a guiding philosophy and supported with an implemented process.


I agree with Steven Covey’s view that all the things we do can be mapped on four quadrants in two dimensions, with a vertical axis of Importance, and a horizontal axis of Urgency. Most of us seem to spend too much time in the “Urgent/Not-Important” quadrant and far too little time in the “Important/Not-Urgent” area. Urgent/Not-Important activities might include responding to a request to chat with somebody, or attending to emails, while Important/Not-Urgent activities might include exercise or review of a company’s quality system.

So, when working, I try to focus on avoiding losing too much time in Urgent/Not-Important things, and to spend more time with the Important/Not-Urgent ones.


I follow a process that is based on [[[David Allen’s, Getting Things Done]]] (GTD). In a nutshell, the idea is to:

  1. Write down everything that enters your life or mind that may require some action, or later reference. Getting things out of one's head reduces anxiety, and the possibility of things being forgotten.
  2. Process this list regularly, filing reference information where it can be easily located, and creating action items or projects for things you have to do.
  3. Maintain a list of action items and projects (todos), and let those guide your work.
  4. Review ongoing projects and todos regularly with the objective of possibly adjusting priorities (i.e. keeping on track with our philosophy)

My driving principle in the definition of the process itself, is that it should be as simple as possible, so we don’t fall into the trap of spending a disproportionate amount of time managing the process, planning and organizing, and as a result, actually accomplish very little.

My process is implemented primarily with desktop computer tools, for the Mac OS X platform:

  1. I use Hog Bay Notebook as my information entry point and repository. (It's where I'm writing this article.) HBNB is basically an outliner, with exceptional search capabilities, and has user interface features that supports efficient data entry (e.g. pasting things from the Dock menu, an OS X Service menu item, contextual "Move to..." and "Copy to..." commands on entries, etc.)</p>
  2. I use Life Balance, as a todo list and project management system. Life Balance allows tasks to be decomposed into sub-tasks (steps), and allows for any given task the assignment of "importance", possibly scheduling information (i.e. a due date) and an associated "place". At any moment, LB will show a list of todos based on an advanced algorithm that takes into account due date, importance and place (context). More details about LB are discussed later in this article, but let me emphasize that while Life Balance has a learning curve, it is truly one of the most powerful and valuable applications I've ever come across. As LB also syncs with a version running on the Palm, I also use it as my portable "Inbox" when away from the desk.

  3. I use Apple Mail, as email is a primary source of inputs these days.

  4. ImOnTime. This is a background program that does one thing—reminders. I can't imagine a better implementation of the perfect reminder program. It's very easy to create new reminders, there are reminder "templates", useful snooze features, etc.

Here's how I have each of these setup:

Hog Bay Notebook. I have defined the following outline nodes in HBNB (all mapped to quick-access "Bookmarks"):

  • Inbox. This is where I record everything notable that happens. If, for example, I see a reference to a new book I'd like to read, I create an entry here. If I get a phone call, I'll jot down a summary here. Etc.</p>
  • Projects. This is where I store reference information (clippings, notes, etc.) about projects I'm currently working on.

  • Someday/maybe. This is where I record ideas for things I hope to do at some point in the future, but for which I don't want to create any actions now.

  • Goals. This is where I document goals I have related to my professional context, and related to various time spans.

    • Areas of responsibility
    • 1 to 2 years
    • 3 to 5 years
    • Life
  • Resources. Any information I may wish to refer to at some point in the future goes here. I may copy and paste in a nice website article about some technology I'm interested it, or I may document how I solved a problem with my computer, or the contents of a phone conversation. HBNB makes it very easy to later locate the information through its search facilities.</p>
  • </ul>

    Life Balance I have defined the following "Places" in Life Balance:

    • Work (+)
    • Work (-)
    • Personal (+)
    • Personal (-)
    • @Waiting For...
    • @+
    The (+) places are more important contexts, and the (-) places are less important (recall the philosophy of important and non-important things.) The @+ place aggregates all the important places together. In the LB todo listing, if I switch to the "Work (+)" place, I am shown all the todos related to work, that I consider important. The order of the listing will be arranged according to the "importance" slider setting I've specified for each tasks. If I switch to the Personal (+) place, my todo lists updates to show only personal-context items, that I consider "more important". I have defined the following top-level todo outline in Life Balance:
    • Inbox. Same concept as my inbox in HBNB.</p>
    • MakaluMedia

      • More Important. Things I'm working on, or need to do, that I consider more important, are found here, and assigned the place "Work (+)".
      • Less Important. Things I'm working on, or need to do, that I consider less important, are found here, and assigned the place "Work (-)".
      • Routine. Things I regularly need to do, are found here (e.g. create a monthly off-site data files backup.). They may be assigned to either "Work (+)" or "Work (-)" place.
    • Personal
      • GTD Process. I have defined "routine" (recurring) todos here (and assigned to the Personal (+) place), that guide my daily and weekly GTD process, e.g.:
        • Daily
          • GTD-D: Clean out Email Inbox.
          • GTD-D: Review Email Waiting For...
          • GTD-D: Clean out Hog Bay Inbox..
          • GTD-D: Clean out Life Balance Inbox...
          • GTD-D: Review Life Balance Waiting for...
          • GTD-D: Check iCal calendar.
          • GTD-D: Review Life Balance todo list, and get to work.
        • Weekly
          • Review HBNB Projects
          • Review HBNB Someday/maybe

          </li> </ul> </li>

        • More Important
        • Less Important
        • Routine
        • </ul>

        Email In my email program, I have (in addition to others) the following folders:
        • @Inbox. It's important to keep an empty in-box in one's email program. Any incoming email during the day that I can't address immediately, gets filed here for processing, at latest, one day later.
        • @Waiting for... For any emails I send to people requesting something, I copy myself, and file the copy here as a reminder that I'm waiting on somebody for something.

        How does this all work?

        Following is a (simplified) example of a typical day: First thing in the morning, I sit down at the computer, switch into Life Balance, and switch to the "Personal (+)" place. I'm shown my daily list of GTD related "todos". The first one is "Clean out Email Inbox", I check this off as done (it will appear again tomorrow), and I switch into my Email program. I switch into my @Inbox folder, and process every mail here. Each mail may generate a response, may generate a todo or a project in Life Balance, or may get filed. When I'm done, there are no messages left in this box. Life Balance tells me I now need to process my "@Waiting For..." email box. I run through the messages pertaining to things I'm waiting on, and will maybe send a reminder if a particular thing is getting urgent. Life Balance tells me I now need to process my Hog Bay Inbox. This will usually contain, on average, 10 new items created since the previous day. Each item is processed, such that this "basket" is empty when I finish. Items in the Inbox generally get filed into "Resources", or result in the creation of projects or todos in Life Balance. Say one item is, "Customer X requested an offer to do Y." I'll process this entry by switching into Life Balance, and creating a new todo in my "Work (+)" place. I'll then break down this entry into small steps, each defined as a sub-task. (The parent task I'll refer to in the future as a "Project", since it's a todo with sub-tasks.) Life Balance now tells me to review my iCal calender. I switch to iCal and have a look at the day and the week, in case I may have some appointments. Life Balance tells me I'm done with my daily GTD processing, and it's time to get to work. I switch to the "Work (+)" place, and have a look at my todo list. For any todo (project) that has sub-tasks (or any sub-task that has sub-tasks), LB will allow me to specify "complete sub-tasks in order". This implements the "Next Action" concept from GTD, such that I'm only shown the very next thing that needs to be done. So, I review my todo list of things I've noted as important (i.e. things assigned to the Work (+) place), possibly modify priorities for a task here and there by adjusting the "importance" slider for a given task, and then I start to work. The whole morning GTD processing takes about 45 minutes on average. Then I get to work on my todos. Say I get a phone call, I'll switch into Hog Bay (via a hot-key I've assigned with MaxMenus), into my "Inbox" (by clicking on its sidebar "bookmark"), and create a new entry titled, "Phone call with Carol." I'll document the phone call there, and maybe create some immediate actions if necessary. If I don't want to think about it right now, I'll leave it, because I know that it'll get processed tomorrow morning. Say I decide to read some RSS news feeds, and come across an interesting URL. I'll use Hog Bay's Dock icon to paste the URL into the Hog Bay inbox, without leaving my browser. Tomorrow, when reviewing my Inbox, that entry will get filed under "Resources" for future reference. Say I get a phone call from Carol, asking me to call her back at 3:00. I'll create a quick reminder in ImOnTime, to popup a reminder 10 minutes before 3:00. At noon, an ImOnTime reminder pops up reminding me to check email. I switch into my email program, and process every new incoming email. Most go into the @Inbox, for processing in tomorrow morning's GTD activities. (Note, I've disabled Mail's notification, and use ImOnTime to schedule the checking of mail only twice per day.) And that's how the day basically goes.


        Well, that in a nutshell is how I work. This process has been under refinement for a number of years, and works quite well for me. The one thing it doesn't address, which is a problem I'm still trying to solve, is planning according to estimated load. Assume I have 10 ongoing "Projects", and that Project 1 requires 40 hours to complete, and must be completed by next week. I wish that some aspect of my process could inform me that I should only work on that activity, because if I work on anything else, I won't meet my deadline. (That's simplified, of course. The value of a planning mechanism comes when you're trying to juggle several projects with different load estimates and deadlines.) I hope to write more later. Let me know if you found this useful.

Enjoy this article? — You can find similar content via the category and tag links below.

Questions or comments? — Feel free to email me using the contact form below, or reach out on Twitter.