GTD for Academics: Planning

GTD for Academics: Planning

This is part 6 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, and Process.

So far in our look at Getting Things Done (GTD) for academics, we've discussed the basics of GTD and the first two habits recommended for "Zen To Done" by Leo Babauta: Collecting and Processing. If you've been taking on my weekly challenges, then you've spent the last two weeks engaged in ubiquitous capture of "stuff" that comes across your awareness, and one week of running your inboxes through a clarifying process to figure out what to do with it all. Any non-actionable items are deleted or filed away, and any actionable items are either done on the spot, or delegated, or calendared, or put into a to-do list. I hope you even made it to Inbox Zero a few times.

Even just this much of the GTD process is pretty liberating. If you do these two habits, Collection and Processing, o a regular basis, you should find that you have a lot more mental space to think about what's actually important, because you're not using brain cells to store information or try to remember what it was you were supposed to store, or whether you've forgotten to do something. To make this stick, though, it takes more than just collection and processing on a regular basis. It also takes Planning.

What "planning" means and why it matters

In GTD, planning means intentionally structuring time for doing specific things --- mapping out what you want to do and when you want to do it, in advance and on purpose. Whereas Collection and Processing are about taking control of your stuff, planning is about taking control of your time.

Strangely, David Allen's canonical five GTD steps does not mention planning that much. Planning, for Allen, is part of the review process, which we'll get to in a few more posts. But I think Leo Babauta is right when he separates planning from review in the Zen To Done system. Review is about going high-altitude and looking at the big picture. Planning is much more street-level and concerned with details and concrete actions.

Planning matters, because we need some structure in life in order to get the most out of our lives. This may seem like a terrible thing to many academics, and artists, whose careers are based on the pursuit of ideas, which happen spontaneously and lead in unpredictable directions. Planning can often feel like it's choking out the space needed for those ideas to happen and grow. But once you have an idea to pursue, there are a million other things that are clamoring for the time and space and energy needed to pursue it. To pursue your ideas, you have to defend those ideas against the other demands. The defense of this time, is what planning is all about.

If you don't take measure to take control of your time, someone else will do it for you. You'll be unable to do the most important thing that an academic can do: Say "no" to things that don't advance your life and career. Living without planning may look romantic at first but in the end, you end up with a life more impoverished and boring than you could have imagined.

Academics are generally terrible at planning. We always think we're too busy to do it, or that if we plan, we are snuffing out the creative spirit that defines our work. Neither notion is true. Much of what we perceive as our "busy-ness" is not real work but rather the result of poor Collection or Processing --- or poor Planning. So saying "I'm too busy to take time to plan" is really circular many times, the same as just saying "I don't plan because I don't plan". And again if we don't plan, we end up with full schedules anyway --- but not of our own making. We end up spending time and energy putting out someone else's fires rather than stoking our own creative flames.

It's also possible to over-plan, where you schedule every moment of the day with no flex room for the unexpected. This sort of approach doesn't last long, because it's too rigid to withstand real life. But the answer is not to not plan, but rather take an intelligent approach to planning. Here's what that might look like.

The metaphor of the Big Rocks

Leo uses a story told by Stephen Covey, who probably got it as a folk tale himself, about fitting rocks, pebbles, and sand into a jar as a starting point for talking about GTD planning. If you've never heard this story before, watch this video:

The point is that taking control of one's time involves not just scheduling, but making wise choices about what the most important things are --- the "Big Rocks" --- and making time for those first, then using what's left over for the small stuff.

Planning in GTD

Leo suggests two times for planning:

  • Once a week: Find some quiet time and determine what the most important things to get done for that week are going to be. These are the Big Rocks. Leo suggests one big rock per workday, between 4--6 things on a list, plus or minus a couple depending on your own capabilities and how busy the week is going to be. Then schedule time in the week, on the calendar, to get them done. Set up 1--2 hour blocks, early in the day if possible. Block out the time and treat those blocks as being as immutable as appointments or classes. Go for no more than a couple of these blocks per day so that you leave plenty of room for everything else and for the unexpected. All the other items in your next actions lists fit in, in the pockets of time that are left over once the Big Rocks are scheduled.
  • Once a day: As early as possible in the day, sit down with your calendar and next actions lists and Big Rocks list and decide on about three (3) "Most Important Things" (MIT's) are for that day. These should be related to the Big Rocks. Do these as early in the day as possible to avoid other things crowding out the time. Then, once the MIT's have been picked out, do one or more of those things before anything else happens --- before email, before social media, before anything else. Focus on the MIT's single-mindedly and without distraction. When you get one done, reward yourself, at least by taking a moment to be proud of yourself.

Regularly-scheduled items like classes and meetings don't count as Big Rocks or MIT's. It would be cheating otherwise. The Big Rocks and MIT's refer to projects and next actions, and ordinary job-related tasks like teaching classes and going to meetings aren't in that category. However, projects related to those things would certainly be eligible: Grade Test 1, Write up minutes from the committee meeting, and so on would be legitimate candidates for this sort of planning.

I've been doing GTD for almost a decade now, but it was only recently that I took the Big Rocks/MIT approach to heart, and I have to say it's really revolutionized the way I work. For a long time I had been feeling like I was getting stuff done, but only the most urgent things --- putting out fires, in other words. Meanwhile there were other important things that needed to get done that got lost in the shuffle because I didn't make time --- and then one day I'd look down and those things had to get done right now. It was another fire to put out. It wasn't until I adopted Leo's approach that I began to feel some balance return to what I was getting done.

How I Plan

Planning for me is one of the most important, highest-priority things I do all week long. If I don't make the time to plan, I feel adrift all week and it takes me more than a week to get back on track.

For the weekly planning, I set aside 60--90 minutes on Sunday afternoons for a combination of planning and review. This is the only work-related task I allow myself to do on Sundays. As part of my weekly review (which, again, I'll say more about in a couple of weeks), I clean up my next actions lists and examine my calendar for upcoming stuff to think about and do. When I'm done, I have a pretty good view of my tasks and projects and so I'm in a good position to decide on my Big Rocks for the week. So I make that list and keep it in a text file called BigRocks.txt. Then, just as described above, I go through my week and block off 1--2 hours a day specifically for the Big Rocks. Those times fit around any pre-scheduled events like classes and meetings.

For the daily planning, at the end of each day I decide on my MIT's for the following day, based on the Big Rocks and what I've gotten done so far that week. Then I have a routine that I've gotten myself into for the mornings. First of all, each morning I get up at 5am, then stumble into the kitchen to get a stout cup of black coffee. The coffee and I then go to my home office, and I spend 45 minutes in single-mindedly focused work on one of the MIT's. I do not check email and I do not check social media. It's just me, my task lists, and the MIT. I then work without distractions for 45 minutes, or 6:15am at the latest.

I like this time of the morning because it's very quiet, there are few to no distractions, and once the coffee begins to seep in, my brain is at its most flexible and potent. Most of the time, I can get one MIT done, or make a significant dent in it, before the day even really begins. Then the workday has a lot more freedom to it, because the Most Important Thing (or one of them) is already completed. I can just choose next actions throughout the day that fit the moment best in terms of time, energy, and context.


If you Collect or Capture, you also have to Process to avoid your inboxes overfilling and never acting on what you captured. And if you Process, you also have to Plan in order to give time to the things you need to get done. It all works together.

Of course the purpose of planning is to exert control over time in order to do things, and that's the next habit we'll discuss: Doing.

My personal challenge to you: A multifaceted challenge this week. First of all, continue with Collection and Processing. Then, this weekend (Friday, Saturday, or Sunday), take 30 minutes to decide on 3--5 Big Rocks for the following week and schedule them in, and don't let other things override that schedule no matter how urgent they may seem. If someone requests a meeting for those times, say "No, I have a previous appointment". Then work on those Big Rocks during that time. Finally, take time each workday to decide on the MIT's for the day and spend 45--60 minutes in the morning before anything else happens in the day, to knock out one MIT. Continue this for five working days.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

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