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The cult of the to-do list

A stressed woman
Is life a struggle? Make a list

Those with too much to do may note down what they need to get done. But one time management system elevates the humble to-do list to cult-like status, says Ewan Spence.

They have an almost evangelical dedication to getting what needs to be done out of their heads, into lists and then acting on those lists.

But have the 400 people at the Getting Things Done (GTD) summit discovered the secret to organising their life, or do they subscribe to a theory that promises the earth with the occasional get-out clause?

THE GTD MANTRA
Write down ideas
Define the next step
If it can be done in less than two minutes, do it now
Or delegate it, or defer it
If it doesn't need doing right away, file it in a labelled folder
Review folders regularly

Fans of the time management system have each paid about $2,000 (£1,422) to spend two days in San Francisco with the man who started it all, David Allen, and other proponents of GTD.

Mr Allen is regarded as almost messianic by some. But he says his approach is "little more than common sense".

His 2001 book Getting Things Done in 2001 caused an explosion of admiration and recognition. Hundreds of thousands of people set about reorganising their lives as their prophet recommended.

But his system - which can be seen as little more than making good use of a notebook and a pencil - is said to have changed lives. Those who adhere to it claim to be able to organise busy social lives, family commitments, work and outside projects - and still get a good night's sleep.

Night sweats

"There is no more waking up in the middle of the night panicking about a project," says Mr Allen. "Thanks to GTD you have it written down in a list, ready to be actioned."

David Allen
David Allen reinvented the to-do list

His words are regarded with a mix of awe and enlightenment by the audience. Speaking to them two things become apparent. Firstly, there is something almost cathartic about writing everything down to clear one's head of that worry. Secondly, capturing every thought you have each day, every day, requires almost superhuman levels of dedication and discipline.

Steven and Shannon Pugh say they "support" each other in their GTD use. Steven started using GTD in his work with the US Air Force while stationed in Korea, and his wife Shannon followed suit.

GTD requires a certain amount of dedication and any lapse can cause the system to break down. When one starts to slip, the other helps them get back on track.

With around 300 thoughts a day, you need a system to deal with them, says fellow adherent Buzz Bruggeman, a businessman.

"How do you deal with all these thoughts? All the world cares about is what you deliver."

He says GTD helps him take a thought and either act on it, store it where it can easily be found when needed, or confidently discarded.

"It is common sense, but distilled," he says.

But what GTD does not do is provide is any extra hours in the day to complete these new tasks.

Evangelical approach

People take part in the summit to meet and "support" each other. But all the talk of helping each other and taking control, mixed with personal epiphanies about how GTD has changed lives, makes it feel rather like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

So why are people so attracted to the approach? "It's a sneaky way to get people to do what has always been promoted by a whole lot of self-development, counselling models and personal growth stuff," Mr Allen says.

"This little dumb thing can be pretty powerful. As soon as you have an improved condition in your life, there will be a panacea effect and people will want to tell everyone else not using it."

GTD can tell you what to do and when, but it's not a short cut to actually doing what needs to be done.

Mr Allen's greatest achievement may not be the re-invention of the to-do list, but to give people confidence to take control of the jumble of tasks they set for themselves.


Below is a selection of your comments.

Mr Allen's most infamous achievement? The remaking of the noun "action" into a verb: "to be actioned". It's awful.
Kathy Brenden, Helena, MT, US

Writing down lists of what you have to do today certainly doesn't merit yet another three letters acronym. The first thing I was given on my first day of my job as an engineer, was a spiral bound notebook for writing down lists of things to do.
David Routledge, Derby

I always have two lists - things that must be done today, and things that need to get done, but not necessarily today. I also have a daily things-I-must-do chart, for ticking off the things I need to do every day, such at taking my medication. If you have memory problems, organisation is essential.
Mallory, Amersham, Bucks

Lists of "things to do" are very useful when coming up to a deadline which brings together several threads at various points. In the world of engineering it is called Project Planning - in the kitchen it's called a Dinner Party.
ChrisJK, UK

I tend to forget stuff when I get stressed and have many metaphorical plates spinning. The more stressed I get the worse my memory gets, then I worry that I'm forgetting things, causing more stress. So getting everything out of my head and into a system is like putting some of the plates on a shelf, and lets me concentrate on just the ones that need to be spinning. There are probably a dozen systems that would work just as well for getting rid of that nagging worry that the thing I'm doing now isn't the most important thing I should be doing. GTD is the one I learnt to work with though, and so far it works for me.
Jools, London

Only in America! This man is making a mint out of getting people to write down what they need to do and checking it off when they've done it?
Jacquie, Gechingen/Germany

I swear by GTD. It has helped me so much through university.
Yoni Forsyth, London

I've never met Mr Allen or read his book but I've managed to cope with reminding myself of tasks and getting things done quite nicely. I have friends who write manic numbers of lists and reminders of what they have to do, and I feel it gets in the way of actually getting on with your life. Having the need for that amount of control over every aspect of your life will only create more panic. Generally, If I have to remember something, I put a reminder on my calendar or on my phone. Otherwise I just get on with what I need to. Taking a minute to think what you need to do means you get to rely on your own brain, which will improve your memory, and will mean that if you lose your list of to-dos, you won't panic.
Heather, Willenhall

I've been using GTD for about two years and it does take some discipline but is worth the wait. If the "next step" takes more than two minutes then add to to do list and in time break down into smaller chunks.
Sally, Edinburgh, Scotland

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