Notes from the “GTD and Startups” session at Minnebar - May 10, 2008.
…”the brain heavily relies on the environment, to function as
an external memory, a trigger for actions, and a source of
affordances, disturbances and feedback . . . these principles
are practically implemented in GTD, with its focus on
organizing tasks into ‘actionable’ external memories, and on
opportunistic, situation-dependent execution.”
Francis Heylighen and Clément Vidal. Getting Things Done: The Science behind Stress-Free Productivity
David Allen’s Getting Things Done is sold as personal productivity. That’s a great term for
making it relevant to executives and corporations.
But it’s more than that: it is a robust distributed cognition system that can be implemented in
a wide variety of technologies, analog or digital.
As a start-up company, your attention is spread among a huge number of projects, with
constant interruptions, and a lot of urgency. We’ve found the GTD methodolgy to be well-
suited to this problem by reducing the amount of information we have to keep in our heads
and making it possible to work in an interrupt-driven environment.
“When I was your age, I ﬂipped burgers all
summer just to be able to buy an eight-track.”
“No, actually it was great. All I did
was party and get laid. I had my
whole life ahead of me.”
American Beauty, 1999
Productivity: not about being Type A, about being relaxed and in control. You know this for
factories - a factory producing 1,000 beachballs in the spring, when it can sell them, is a lot
more productive in the right way than a factory that cranks out 5,000 in November. Same
thing for you - doing the right things is better than doing a superhuman number of the
wrong ones. Find a system that aligns your goals and priorities with what’s really important -
GTD is great for this.
Allen tells a story about working with widgets - ﬂipping burgers or working in the factory
might not have been your dream job, but when you went home, you didn’t wake up at 3 AM
panicked because you forgot to call Bob on the West Coast. That’s another part of the stress
reduction: use GTD to batch process all the deciding what to do and how to do it efficiently,
then crank through your to-do lists. You’ve got enough stress trying to balance an all-
consuming start-up, don’t add to it unnecessarily.
Collect, Capture Inbox
Capture everything. Get it out of your head. For this to work, you need as many inboxes as
needed and no more. Have a way to capture thoughts with you all the time.
To work, these need to be: Ubiquitous, Situation Dependent, Fast, Appealing
* Online, enter into the Quick Add Task box of the Enleiten GTD app directly
* Forward emails to my GTD app if they will become a task
* Carry a Moleskine notebook and a disposable fountain pen (or 3x5 cards)
* Have Jott on speed dial.
Process Next Actions
What is it?
Is there a next action(s)?
Yes or no?
There is no option c.
If you can’t do it, it is reference or junk. If you can, you ARE NOT committing to do it just
because you look at it. Batch process your life. It’s more efficient.
The important part of this step is ﬁguring out what actual action(s) you’d take on the thing in
your inbox, and get that task into your system. Deciding that the next action on “build login
page” is actually “Plan login page build” works, so does “write spec for email veriﬁcation”.
But “build login page” is too vague to be a NA and still requires too much thinking about the
I recommend adding index notes to external source material when you do this. For example,
if I process an email to the task “read article X”, I’ll add a note in the task detail that says
“article X in email To Read folder”, or “printed and in laptop bag”
Organize Tickler File
Do ASAP: Next Action Lists
•By Project, context
Do at a Later Date:
Someone Else Can Do:
•Waiting For http://www.ﬂickr.com/photos/chromatic/145048218/
Categorize your tasks in ways that make sense. While you’re processing, arrange them by
theme, add context tags that reﬂect what you need to have to complete them, so when it’s
time to work, you don’t spend time reevaluating what you can do at that moment.
Especially in a start-up, you have lots of long term plans. Put them in a someday list so you
know you won’t lose that great idea before you can implement it.
Tickler ﬁle: for stuff you plan to do, but not right now. Don’t take up cycles on stuff you
don’t need to think about right now. Electronically I do this by setting start dates in the
future, or marking things “on hold” so they don’t show up in my NA list.
Delegate: do this as often as you can, because your resources are limited. But make sure you
can easily keep track of what you’ve delegated. We’ve built Enleiten’s GTD application to
send email delegating a task, but replies will be posted to your copy of the task in Enleiten.
Whatever you use, searching through your sent emails to ﬁgure out if asked someone to
handle it and when will not be an efficient option.
Review Everything in its place
What are my goals?
What are my priorities?
Is everything in my system still
in the right place?
Make sure everything is processed. Make sure you have captured ideas. Make sure your
priorities are related to your planned activities. If you don’t do this, your brain won’t trust
the system, and it will fail.
This is absolutely critical. And if you’re starting to feel stressed and agitated, doing a review
of everything in your system is a good place to start. And remember this _is_ work. This is
the time you make the decision about what to do next, instead of making that decision after
every individual completed task. For GTD to work as a group, you need to set the tone of the
team to allow this process to happen in an uninterrupted block and not be viewed as
In a collaborative environment, you’ll need to do reviews for your personal system, and
reviews as a team, we’ve found. It works well for us to have the person(s) in a leadership
position review before the team meeting weekly - to make sure s/he knows what needs
follow up, what needs planning, what needs to be on the agenda for the week, etc.
What can I do right now?
What must I do now?
What do I want to do right
Now you’re back to ﬂipping burgers to save up and buy an 8 track. You’ve already taken care
of deciding what to do, what you need to do, what you need to do it, etc.
Eric: it can also help to maintain a “not to do” list. If those discarded ideas aren’t in my
system, I’ll still think about them and have them in my head. If I write them down but
acknowledge it’s just never going to happen, I can relax about them.
What is a project?
A project = 2+ actions. GTD organizes pretty much everything in your life as a project.
Make sure tool robustness matches scope of projects. While it is hotly debated by various
GTD enthusiasts, I believe a project is a project and the same system can be used, no matter
how large it is.
If I’m going to dig a ﬁrepit in my backyard, I’ll grab a shovel and have at it. If I’m planning to
mine 300 square miles of North Dakota, it would be crazy to use the same shovel and just
start digging. A bigger project requires a more detailed set of tools to manage it properly,
but the method is still the same:
- Decide I want to dig a hole to accomplish a goal.
- Decide if there are time constraints.
- Decide what will count as “done”.
- Decide where to dig.
- Get a tool, see if I need help for some of it.
http://www.ﬂickr.com/photos/68888883@N00/274651758 Group Buy In
You won’t get everyone to agree on all the tools, if you do you decrease productivity of some
team members. Tread lightly - leave as much as possible in individual systems with a
common record strategy. Agree as a team where the hard edges are - what needs to be a
commonly accessible system and copied out to individual ones, and what can be left up to
each person to handle.
The key elements we’ve found to making it work - reference material has to be shared, and
you need clear standards on where and how. Everyone needs to know who is working on
what, so they know who to ask questions and who to copy on relevant materials and
milestones. Communication conventions need to be discussed, so people both have time to
talk and kick around ideas and brainstorm, and time to buckle and concentrate without
interruption. Work out as a team the best ways for that to happen and go with it.
How many tools?
As many as you need, as few as you can
Communication (Twitter, IM, Phone, SMS, Email, et al)
Historical records: ﬁnancial, version control, documents
Eric: maintaining multiple systems, set hard edges.
You still need bug tracking systems outside your primary GTD application, for example,
because there is value in the historical record and limiting access to make sure the data is
properly and consistently entered. That doesn’t necessarily mean a non-coder should have
to submit bugs into that interface. There may be some entry duplication to take the
comment from a user/colleague, move it over, and then report back when it’s ﬁxed, but
that’s better than getting vague or confusing data in your trusted system for coding.
- You’re too busy and you need perspective. Do yourself a favor, and change your workﬂow
so you can step back from the urgency and emotion and make a rational decision about what
you really to work on. Go spend some time with friends without feeling guilty.
- Interrupt driven. You can’t delegate to someone else if things change like you could at a
larger company. When important things happen and need immediate attention, you want a
system that lets you pick back up where you left off.
- GTD is a weekly, iterative system. A lot of tech development is iterative. It makes life a lot
easier if you’ve got a method to organize all your goals and tasks on the same cycle as the
work your team is doing.
- When you can get most or all your team working in some version of the same workﬂow
system, communication and expectations are a lot more coordinated and easier. They still
won’t be perfect, but it won’t be rude for someone to say, “sure, assign me that and I’ll look
at it and decide if I have time.” Everyone can understand that means “I need to look at my
active to-do list, decide if it ﬁts, when it ﬁts, and what I need to renegotiate if that takes
Import/Export - in the Enleiten application
Right now we support direct task entry and forwarding
email to your Enleiten mailbox. More capture and import
options from other systems are in development.
If you want your data back, we won’t lock you into it.
Send email to support, and we’ll give you a vCal
formatted copy of everything. Automated export will be
available as well in future versions.
At this point in the presentation, we switched to a screen showing the Enleiten GTD
application - free account sign-ups are available on our website. http://www.enleiten.com
Some questions related to GTD practices in general, and some to our application speciﬁcally.
Summaries of those discussions from this point forward.
Do you have a reference storage system?
Personally I store everything I can electronically, scanned
and saved to disk or in an email archive right now.
The ability to upload ﬁles is coming, but not available to
users right now.
Files will be able to attach to projects and/or tasks.
Has anyone migrated from Tracks (another Rails GTD app)?
Not that we know of, but we haven’t collected data on
what systems all of our users have tried in the past. We
know we’ve got some ex-RTM and ex-SimpleGTD users,
Eric was formerly a Hipster PDA guy, and I used to fail to
get things done from my email inbox.
What about phone/PDA/desktop access from Enleiten?
Mobile and ofﬂine versions are in our development
roadmap, but I don’t have an estimated release date yet.
In the short term, we’ll be implementing emailed task
lists, RSS feeds, and SMS capabilities to make your data
more portable ﬁrst.
What about other apps? (pt. 1)
The two most popular applications in the GTD/light proj.
mgt. space now are Remember the Milk and Basecamp.
Well, and the Hipster PDA.
Basecamp organizes project very differently, around a
common theme, and is very well-suited for deﬁned length
projects, especially when you need some basic access
controls to create a shared workspace with customers or
other outside groups.
What about other apps? (pt. 2)
Remember the Milk is easily the most popular right now for individual use. It’s support
for collaborative work is very limited.
We’ve structured our application around a different vision of collaboration and projects.
We believe that it is important to have:
all you projects in one place
an ability to delegate directly from your GTD application and track responses there
a tool that lets you interact with customers and colleagues without forcing them to
log into the same thing you like best if that isn’t efﬁcient for them.
freedom to create as many tasks and projects and tags as you need, so that isn’t a
constraint on your account.
What about shooting tasks out into the ether for someone else to do?
We’re not trying to be elance, but we’ve been playing with a few ideas for letting you
publish your lists
Publish a to-do list or task so you can use other friends to motivate you to
complete things - take advantage of accountability to others as is often
recommended in the coaching ﬁeld
Create shared project lists for a group
We’re also playing around with the idea of implementing a suggestion from the
Heylighen and Vidal paper, about letting you assign a value to a task to reﬂect
how difﬁcult or appealing it is, and letting people self select workload from a
group of available but unassigned tasks in a business setting.
What about a one button “publish to Mechanical Turk”?
ooooo- they do have an API for that… we’ll look into it, that would be kind of neat
How do you handle larger projects?
I create a project list for each subproject. Since contexts are implemented as tags in our
system, I tag contexts as @context and just use the project name to tag related
subprojects so I can group them together when needed.
I’ll set a start date on subprojects that are not yet active, so those don’t appear in my
next actions list.
In using the GTD methods for these larger projects, I’ve found it very important to keep
all those future projects readily accessible. Especially in tech development, those need
to be reviewed regularly and be accessible so that our design decisions at the moment
don’t interfere with future plans. For anything development related, those someday/
maybe projects seem to work best when reviewed during the weekly review. Other
future lists can get reviewed less often, maybe monthly or quarterly.
What about making it easier it enter tasks into your application?
We’re right with you there. In no particular order, the entry methods on our “add these
capture possibilities to Enleiten” to-do list include:
Ofﬂine operation that will sync later
Bug tracking system integrations
mark-up language to allow quick entry with all metadata at once
User comments largely determine which get added ﬁrst.
What about keeping your email inbox empty?
Honestly, I’ve never had any luck with that so long as my to-do list was attached to my
email inbox. Right now I either forward the email to Enleiten if it is a task I’ll deal with
later, archive and ignore it immediately, or ﬁle it (archived) with a “To Read” label.
Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero and Time Attention talks are good resources for this (online
videos available, they were Google Tech Talks, links in the Enleiten blog too).
The Q&A with Google in those is interesting, and brings up a good point about using
GTD in a team setting: you need to negotiate your expectations as a team or you’ll have
trouble. I know that all 3 of us use the GTD methods, so I know that email is never the
way to contact Eric and Steve if I need an immediate answer, I need to IM or call or SMS.
But I also know that if I have sent them an email, because we’ve all got our email under
control and processed regularly, I don’t need to worry about them losing track of
something and resend/follow up in case it slipped a page or two back in their inboxes.
Would you talk some more about your upcoming features?
Group support. The app right now handles one-to-one delegation of tasks in a way
we’re really happy with. Future versions will allow you to create groups of contacts and
shared projects, especially for small business. We’ve been testing this internally with
our support queue before releasing it - all incoming tasks can be viewed by any one of
us and assigned to any one of us, but in a way that we can make sure everything is
being taken care of and there aren’t uassigned tasks.
Checklist templates, for example “what to pack on a business trip”, “steps to ﬁnish
during a weekly review”, “things to update when pushing a new release”. So you can
reuse common projects from a library instead of creating each task each time.
Custom RSS feeds, to let you access your tasks in a variety of pre-determined groups, by
context, by active projects, by delegation status, etc.
Local groups for support? I’ve heard interest before from some people on forums, I’ll look into organizing a
session, since I think that’s at about critical mass now.
Tour and sign up of the Enleiten GTD app: http://www.enleiten.com/products/personal
List of GTD-friendly applications: http://www.priacta.com/Articles/Comparison_of_GTD_Software.php
Criteria for evaluating GTD tools: http://www.davidco.com/blogs/kelly/archives/2008/04/
GTD Virtual Study Group: http://gtd-vsg.blogspot.com/
43folders.com (forums are not very active, but can turn up some good advice and tips)
GTD Times http://www.gtdtimes.com/
Our blog: http://enleitened.wordpress.com
The article on GTD as a distributed cognition system: http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/Papers/GTD-cognition.pdf
David Allen Company: http://www.davidco.com