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Getting sh-t done.

Ridiculously simple, paper-based time management

Paper notebook on a desk

"This system is so simple ... almost no overhead. I love it." • "Probably the first productivity / lifehack plan I have actually finished reading" • "A wonderful, slightly irreverent, lightweight system for those not interested in joining the GTD cult." • "I'm a TV producer in NYC and ... I just produced a whole season of shows using GSD" • "Is this the holy grail of organizational techniques?"

This is the full version of the article. You can also read it in simple English or en Español.

How GSD got started

For years I tried to shove my life into a series of electronic devices, trying to flatten the complexities of an analog world into the rigid strictures of digital ‘productivity' tools.

I was a model digital citizen, tapping away on tiny virtual keyboards, agonizing over priorities and due dates, synchronizing across time and space, and staring bleary-eyed at time-stamped, prioritized, and algorithm-optimized lists of things that I had not, and would not, accomplish anytime soon. It was all just so ... involved.

Instead, I ached to scribble in the margins, to draw fat circles around things that suddenly became important, to scrawl lines across the page to link thoughts together, to furiously cross out mistakes and things I had given up on. I needed to scratch an itch that no digital device – not even one with a magical stylus carved from the horn of a glittery technicolor unicorn – would ever let me satisfy.

But then a chance lunchtime stop one sunny April day at a random old-school stationery store happened to change my life forever. For real. Standing there in front of the giant plate glass window, I found nirvana in a notebook. No longer was I going to be trapped in a digital black hole, for I was going full-tilt analog, armed with a paper notebook and a shiny new pen.

Over the following months, I developed and refined a dead-simple method for personal organization with just a pen and paper, and called it "Getting Sh-t Done", or GSD for short.

It didn't require special materials or hours of planning, and kept me focused on my tasks instead of the task of organizing. And it worked.

How it works

Getting Sh-t Done is a simple and very effective method for managing your time and projects. All it requires is a piece of paper and a pencil or pen.

Step 1: Create your Daily List

A checklist on paper

Early each morning, I close my laptop, put my phone on vibrate, and sit down with my notebook and open it to the next blank page. I write the day and date at the top, and pull forward the Post-It tab that I use to mark the current page.

Then, I create a stream-of-consciousness list of everything I can remember that needs to be done. It doesn't need to be comprehensive, and I don't worry about prioritizing or organizing. Then I draw a small square to the left.

The key is to make sure that each item is a single task that I can actually do. Not "figure out dishwasher repair", but "make list of five dishwasher repair people and phone numbers". Otherwise, items just sit there on the list, making fun of me, and never actually get done.

Then, I go back to previous days and look for unfinished items. For each one I find, I draw a diagonal line through its box (indicating it's been moved forward), and rewrite it on today's page. The goal is to move all open items onto the current page, and eventually have every box on prior pages filled with a check (it's done), a diagonal line (it's moved), or an X (I'm punting and will never do it). Once I've moved everything forward from a prior page, I put a check mark in the upper-right hand corner of that page to show it's closed out.

Step 2: Work the Daily List

Next, I look at my entire Daily list, pick the top 3 or 4 most important items, and put little dots in their checkboxes. Then I get to work, working through them and checking them off as they are completed. Once I've completed my priority items, I go back and put dots next to the next-most important items, and work on those ... on so on.

The key, however, is to make sure that you're only working on things that are on the list. If something new comes up, add it to the list - but continue working on your existing tasks unless the new one is super important. For good measure, take a moment or two during the day to go back to Step 1 and revisit your Backlog (see Step 3) and Daily List, making sure that you're still focused on the most important things.

Step 3: Maintain a Backlog List

As you go along, there will always be extra things that don't fit on the Daily list. Perhaps it's a task that you can't start yet due because it depends on something else, or it's a bigger activity like "Learn a new hobby". Or perhaps it's just a series of tasks that you know you won't be able to accomplish in just one day.

For these, create a separate Backlog list for things that aren't "right now" priorities. Add items to it when they come up, put an "x" next to items that you decide to never do. If you get stuck on a particular item and just can't get started on it, see if you can break it down further into even smaller tasks.

Check your Backlog list every few days, and pull items into your Daily list when you are ready to tackle getting them done.

So that's it: GSD in a nutshell.

One place for all your to-dos, a quick and dirty way of managing them, and no need to buy complicated apps or to spend your Sunday evenings fighting with a cumbersome prioritization scheme or a table full of stickers, colored markers, and glitter.

You're done! Stop reading and get at it!

Extra thoughts

Still here? Great! Here are some more things about GSD that might be useful ...

1. When you're stuck

A vertical timeline, with tasks connected to various times

From time to time, even the little dots don't work for prioritization, especially when I'm up against multiple deadlines at once.

In that case, I'll draw out a time ladder: start with the current time, map out the hours through the end of the day, and then map activities against it in rough 30- or 60-minute blocks. That usually works for about half a day, then the whole thing goes to hell and I just wing it. And that's ok.

2. Calendaring

A traditional calendar, hand-written in a notebook

Several people have written to ask about how I do calendaring. My primary calendar with daily entries is through my work email. However, I've started putting a small calendar in the front of each notebook to keep track of major upcoming events. It's a nice way to think 'big picture' about the future (but prepare for lots of rewriting/mistakes/changes as life evolves!).

3. Carrying forward

One GSD user (who didn't want to be named) told me that she uses Post-It notes to capture various lists, such as things she hopes to complete in the coming week, urgent tasks, or other short lists of various types (to-do lists from meetings, sub-steps for larger tasks, etc.). Then she can easily move the Post-It from one page to the next in her notebook as she goes through her week. And as a bonus, she mentions, "if the list is shorter/longer I can use a smaller/bigger one (psychological benefits, hahaha)."

4. Handwriting

I love to write by hand. I've spent years refining my script, and wasn't really happy with it until well into my 30s. But you don't need to have good handwriting to GSD, as long as you can more-or-less read what you write. If you're not happy with your handwriting, try slowing down and forming the letters with a bit more care - you may find it helps you with planning and recall as well.

5. Paper

When I first started GSD, I used the 6-inch x 8-inch 300-page Miquelrius notebook with a black cover and grid rule. However, as I purchased additional copies from them, it seemed like quality had started to suffer, both in terms of the paper and the binding. If you're using larger notebooks, Flexible Notebooks sent me a few of their Zequenz notebooks large and small to try out, and I was very impressed with the paper quality and overall design.

Recently, I ended up moving to a smaller format notebook that I can always carry in my pocket. My family gave me a subscription to Field Notes notebooks, and I find that their standard-size notebook fits perfectly in my front left pocket along with my phone. Each notebook has 48 pages - just enough for about a month of GSD. I love their dot grid design, because it's just enough guidance to keep my writing straight without the overbearing imprint of a lined grid.

For projects where I need to have a bird's-eye view of the entire thing at one glance, I've started using a Studio Neat Panobook. I don't carry it all the time, but keep it in my work bag for when I need it. I'm careful, though, to make sure any actual tasks still go in my primary notebook.

6. Pen

Honestly, any old pen will work as long as it's reliable. A pencil or the basic Bic works perfectly well. That said, I like pens. Over the years, I've used dozens of the black uni-ball Vision Elite Micro pens. They start instantly, lay down a consistent line (no drop-outs or ink globs), last forever, and do not bleed significantly to the back of the page.

Recently, my wife bought me a Baron Fig Squire. Not something that I would have purchased for myself due to the price, but it's a really nice pen and my initial experience with the ink cartridges was even better than the uni-ball ones - but lately they seem to be blobbing a lot.

7. Indexing

Paper notebook on a desk

If you use a thicker notebook, you may want to create an index on the edges of the pages:

Step 1: Inside the front cover of your notebook, make a small index, with one line per major project. Then, put a black mark on the edge of the page next to each project name. Make sure your black marks go right to the edge, so you can see them when your notebook is closed.

Step 2: Also write your project names onto the edge of your notebook, creating a 'key' so you can see them without flipping to the first page. A lot of the work I do is client-confidential, so I'm using abbreviations instead of the full project name.

Step 3: Whenever you create a page that's related to the specific project, put a small black mark on the edge of the page (in alignment with your key). Then, when looking for pages related to that project, just slightly fan your book and you'll see them all at a glance.

Elsewhere

The Autofocus System: a very interesting approach that uses both the rational and intuitive parts of your mind
The Bullet Journal method by Ryder Carroll: interesting, but more complex
The Gene of My Life method: another interesting method for tagging individual pages
A fantastic bit from Gray Miller on note taking; I particularly loved this part: "And if you're an environmentally minded person, you can even convince yourself that you're somehow saving the world by going ‘paperless' and using lithium batteries and fossil-fuel generated electricity instead of killing a tree."

 

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