GTD for Academics: Doing

GTD for Academics: Doing

This is part 7 of an ongoing Tuesday Sanity Check series on GTD for Academics. You can find the first five posts here: Setting the Stage, Engaging the System, Acquiring the Habits, Collect, Process, and Plan.

We're returning to this GTD for Academics series after a three-week break because, well, I had to get stuff done around here and sometimes you have to go into triage mode. But, things have slowed down a bit, so we're back into it.

Previously we've discussed the Getting Things Done philosophy in terms of habits, according to the great formulation given by Leo Babauta in his book Zen To Done. The first group of habits are

  • Collecting -- Engaging in ubiquitous capture of anything that crosses our path that might be useful later and putting into an outside-the-brain trusted system for later review;
  • Processing -- Actually engaging in that review by going through our inboxes and deciding in a top-down manner what to do with the things we captured; and
  • Planning -- Intentionally structuring time to map out what you want to do and when you want to do it, and deciding what are the most important things to do.

We now come to the habit of GTD that, oddly, seems to be talked about the least: Actually doing the things that you planned.

What "doing" means

You would think that in a system called "Getting Things Done" that there would be a better description of what it means to do things, and how to do those things, but David Allen's original book is strangely quiet about this. We learn in his book a lot about systems, and about the importance of planning and review --- but doing is sort of left to its own. I think that's an oversight in Allen's book, and Leo Babauta thinks so too. That's why in Zen To Done, he takes time to describe what "doing" looks like:

Do one task at a time, without distractions. This is one of the most important habits in ZTD. You must select a task (preferably one of your MITs) and focus on it to the exclusion of all else. First, eliminate all distractions. Shut off email, cell phone, Internet if possible (otherwise just close all unnecessary tabs), clutter on your desk (if you follow habit 2, this should be pretty easy). Then, set a timer if you like, or otherwise just focus on your task for as long as possible. Don't let yourself get distracted from it. If you get interrupted, write down any request or incoming tasks/info on your notepad, and get back to your task. Don't try to multi-task.

So we pick one thing, and then devote the time that we carved out to getting it done without multitasking and without letting in distractions. Sounds simple, right?

It's not that simple

For most people, this form of focused action is harder than it sounds. For professors and others in academia, it can be a lot harder because of the learned behaviors we've allowed in to our approach to work:

  • Many in academia have no concept of the Collection, Processing, and Planning habits. And so doing is unfocused, uncoordinated, and undisciplined. It feels more like keeping plates spinning than getting things done. We've bought in to the idea that frenetic, keep-the-plates-spinning busyness is a sign that you are doing academic right; and conversely, academics who are focused and disciplined are uncreative freaks. It's become part of the sociology of our profession --- and it's wrong.
  • Academics typically have a huge quantity of work to do, and many times it has at least the appearance of urgency. There seem to always be fires to put out. But since many of us don't take a focused, disciplined approach to this work, the things we end up doing are putting out fires while the things that are truly important go neglected. We don't collect, but rather trust ourselves to remember things to do; but our memories suck, and we forget, and then what could have been a manageable task is now a fire. We allow our inbox to sit at 300+ emails; the stuff at the bottom of the inbox becomes a fire to put out too. We don't plan time to get important things done, so our time is constantly at the mercy of those fires that we could have let not spring up in the first place but now threaten to burn the place down. This just isn't sustainable. Academics simply have far too much to do, to let the situation get out of hand like this.
  • Much of the work that academics do is either highly demanding (doing research, writing papers, planning class activities) or it's incredibly tedious (grading) from a cognitive standpoint. Both kinds of work are more susceptible to distractions than work that is moderately challenging and moderately tedious. Academic types have a tougher battle against distractions than others, I think.

My point here is that academics have special challenges when it comes to doing our work. Some of those challenges are inherent in the work itself while others are the "rewards" of engaging in unproductive behavior for many years and the academic culture rewarding busy-ness rather than true productivity.

Despite all appearances, our job as academics is not merely to have thoughts. Our job is to have thoughts and then translate them into action, and then to do those actions. This doing is simple if the first three habits are in place. It's nearly impossible otherwise.

How I "do"

The doing part of GTD isn't effortless for me by any means. But like I said, it's easier to the extent that I am effective in collecting, processing, and planning. I've already written about how I do those things. When it comes to actual doing, it looks a lot like Leo described: I pick a thing to do, shut off all the distractors, and work for a fixed period of time until it's done or at least I've made dent in it. Then I move on to the next thing.

Shutting off distractors for me is key. I close out all the apps --- especially email --- and browser tabs that I am not using. I silence my phone. If I am at the office, I close the door all the way. If I get a knock at the door, I ignore it. Then I work on the one thing I selected, single-mindedly for however much time I have. Sometimes that's an hour, sometimes 15 minutes, sometimes a longer block. Whatever time you have available, use it in a focused way.

Which begs the question, If you only have 15 minutes to work with, how do you select a task that fits the time you have? That involves the idea of contexts which I will describe in the next post about trusted systems.

Having this focused time presupposes that you planned out your week in such a way that, like a class you're scheduled to teach or a meeting you are scheduled to attend, you have blocked off time that is dedicated to working on a small number of things, maybe just one thing. This is not necessarily easy, but doable.

For example, today I have a two-hour block of time scheduled where I have no meetings or classes, and that block of time is dedicated to preparing materials for my Discrete Structures class. I happen to have three particularly important items (one of which is an MIT for the day) to focus on in that time. When that time rolls around, I'll be in the office with the door shut and everything non-essential turned off so I can devote that time to the tasks at hand. I planned that time out during my weekly review this past Sunday. I do not need to think or worry about finding the time to get that planning done during the week because I have time scheduled for it. Remember that effective GTD is not only doing the things you need to do, but also being comfortable with not doing the things that you are not doing.

I also schedule recurring blocks of time that are like a regular routine for me:

  • I have a morning routine that goes like this: At 5:00am I wake up, get coffee, and go to my home office and spend 5:30-6:00am working on one MIT for the day. (I list the MIT's for each day in a brief review period on the previous day.) This is a perfect time to work: It's quiet, I can focus, and there is literally nothing else happening. I almost always manage to knock out one, sometimes more than one, MIT for the day before I even get in the shower. This gives me a ton of momentum going into the regular workday. (After the morning MIT session, I exercise on the treadmill for a half hour, then clean up and be ready by 7:00am to help get the kids dressed and ready for school.)
  • I also have an afternoon time block set aside for actions related to service responsibilities. I have a lot of these this semester, and I actually have three hours of reassigned time for some special department projects, so it's expected that I will block off at least three hours a week for this, like a class. Every weekday from 3:00-4:00pm, I shut the door, turn off the unessentials, and work top-down on one thing at a time until time's up. Then I stop. On the next day, I pick up where I left off unless the priorities shift. This way I am free from thinking about my service responsibilities outside that 3-4pm time block; there's no point in thinking about what needs to get done with my service, when I know that I have a daily one-hour appointment with those tasks. I can focus my energy on other things.


I want to emphasize two things about doing.

First, doing is inextricably linked to the other habits of collecting, processing, and planning. You cannot expect to be consistently effective in getting things done if you don't engage in all of this as a coordinated system. At best, you'll be constantly busy and occasionally productive. And mostly unhappy and tired.

Second, when all of this is clicking together, you worry less. Your mind is at ease because everything is where (and when) it is supposed to be. Every one of those unprocessed emails, every one of those uncaptured thoughts or fires that you haven't putting out takes a little bit away from your awareness and your ability to be present with your work, your family, your colleagues, and your students. It really adds up fast, too. But if you approach work from a standpoint of disciplined, focused control then all that worry evaporates and I find that I have just a lot more fun doing what I do, despite (sometimes even because of) the quantity.

People sometimes ask me how I get so much done, and the answer is simple --- I enjoy it. And I enjoy it because it all fits together and I am calling the shots, in control of my work rather than the other way around. And the thing is, anybody can do this. It just takes acquiring the habits.

My personal challenge to you: First of all spend the next week really committing to the habits of collection, processing, and planning if you haven't already done so. Then, use the time you've planned for your MIT's and other tasks to work on them with complete focus as we described here. Keep a journal of how it works out, and report back here in the comments.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.