brip blap getting zen things done

Creative Commons License photo credit: rovlls

If you’ve been on the Internet for a few seconds, you’ve probably heard of the massively popular Getting Things Done. You may even have come across Zen To Done. I’m here to say that GTD is too complicated! Zen To Done is an improvement, but still a little too long! Now I’m going to give you the brip blap organization system. This is how I keep everything organized. Everything. I’ll throw in a few fancy optional steps, but this system can be boiled down to almost nothing.

  1. Moleskine notebook I love it. GTD will tell you to put in tabs or categories or whatnot. Don’t do it. Do not add tabs. Don’t add anything. Just write down stuff as it occurs to you, completely freeform. I have blog ideas, shopping lists, everything in there. If it crosses your mind or needs to be remembered – for whatever reason – scribble. I think it’s an improvement over PDAs or phones or anything of that nature because it’s so much easier.
  2. Each morning or evening – whenever you like, but at least once per day – transfer everything that’s a to-do into Google Calendar. A to-do is a specific action. “Get milk” is specific. “Go shopping” is not. Make sure you add an email reminder. If it’s not date specific, put it in for today with an email reminder.
  3. Cross out the task in the Moleskine. Put everything else in a text file or in a separate application.*
  4. Have Google Calendar send email reminders to your inbox. This part is easy. Set up a filter if you want, but I wouldn’t bother. Keep them new until you do them.
  5. Archive the email when you do the task. Every day, start at the oldest email, and work your way up the list until you see something you can do today. Do it. Don’t worry about any of the rest of the list. If you finish that task and have some time, move up until you find something else that can be completed today. Archive the emails so you can always search for them later.

I get email reminders for everything and gmail is my one-stop shop for reminders. All of my email accounts forward to one central email account, too.
The trick is to minimize all bells and whistles. GTD is massive overkill, and I have no idea why it’s so popular. The only good tip there that I liked was to consider ‘stuff’ in your organization – so instead of keeping some spare light bulbs in the laundry room and some in the kitchen and some in the garage I put them ALL in the garage.

PDAs are awful. I finally snapped my 8+ year addiction to Palm last year. It was one of the best moves I ever made. A Moleskine is infinitely better.

* If you want to add one fancy step in here, add Vitalist for non-date-specific tasks. I set Vitalist up with my email address so I get a reminder after 30 days that something I added (which was non-date-specific) is still open, just to make sure I don’t forget – although I do check Vitalist daily. It’s a small change to the super-simple system above, and you can skip it if you like.

Editor’s additional note: Since someone accused me of ripping Leo’s minimalist Zen To Done off, on his site (which I didn’t appreciate seeing as a comment rather than as a private email to Leo, but so be it) I wanted to reiterate as I often have on this site that I think Leo’s site is fantastic and to the extent anybody thinks I’m copying him I’m flattered! I should also note that Leo was cool about it, as I would have expected him to be.  I am not ripping him off – I’m certainly entitled to coming up with my own system, and I cited Zen To Done as an influence.

21 Replies to “brip blap getting zen things done”

  1. I do the notebook thing, but I’m not as good about transferring it. Still, that’s the biggest thing I got out of GTD. The only thing I’ve put into long-term use.

  2. I completely agree — although, I use a weekly planner Moleskine that gives me space to scribble on one side, and place to slot in “to-dos” by day on the other side. I’ve found this works well. Right now, I’m in graduate school, so the repeated reminders aren’t really necessary, because the important things are not urgent and the urgent things, quite often, may not be important! On the other hand, I’ll experiment with Google Calendar to see if it’s helpful…. Thanks for the post!

  3. Years ago, (late 1980’s), I purchased one of the first, primitive, PDA’s at the sharper image. It was nothing more than a glorified, electronic phone book. After I spent the better part of 2 hours trying to tediously enter data into the thing I grew disgusted with it and tossed that $100 piece of junk into a desk drawer where it lived, unused, for the next 15 years before I finally tossed it.

    Based on that experience, I concluded that PDA’s will not be truly useful until they are equipped with voice command software that actually works without having to spend months and months “training” it to understand what you are saying.

    Clearly, we still are not there yet, which is why I did not bother with buying a Palm Pilot when they were all the rage a few years ago.

    A very wise former supervisor of mine taught me that if an electronic device takes more time to utilize than the analog method it is supposed to replace, then it is not worth owning or using. He was right.

  4. Nice way to strip everything down! I like to use Google Notebooks for any ideas I have for blogging. I have a notebook I carry too and transfer post ideas to Google when I get to a computer.

    I actually have a PDA/Smartphone on the way. I hope it’s not as bad as you say. I’d like to see if I could incorporate Google Reader on the go.

    We also have a few pocket notebooks around the house and in the car to put lists together.

    I started using Google Calendar but it didn’t quite stick. I think I’ll try it again using your ideas for reminders.


  5. Thought provoking! Especially, for me, as others are mentioning, using the PDA vs a moleskine “device”. I’ve tried to get enthused about GTD, but like you have concluded it’s major overkill for me. I use the PDA now only for grocery lists (HandyShopper) and referencing bank balances (Pocket Quicken). I could thin down my pocket book to practically nothing if I could wean off the PDA! Of course, unlike most of your readers, I am cruising into retirement, so my schedule when out and about is pretty light –YEA!!
    -Cell phones could also substitute for alarms, notes (voice mail to yourself), new contact info, etc.
    -I use Yahoo calendar/email notifications as you are using Google…

    Thanks for starting the conversation!

  6. I couldn’t agree more – GTD makes getting things done more time consuming! There are so many easier ways to maintain your life – I have a small notebook and an iPhone..that’s my entire system!

  7. I don’t “do” PDA’s, just one more electronic device I have to keep track of. I do use a notebook (not a moleskin, but similar. At the end of my day I sit down and write our my to do list for the next day and I star or highlight the really important items. I cross out the items done, tasks accomplished and every few days, I redo the list so something does not get lost in the “done” pile. Like you said, the best thing to do is be specific with your tasks. I also keep a list of things I might need or want (ya never know when someone is going to offer you a freebie), measurements for furniture or window treatments, etc.

    I like the tactile sensation of opening the book,writing in it and then crossing off the completed items.

    I get a lot of satisfaction from crossing off the items to be done. I also use decent notebook, a decent pen and a decent highlighter. My current notebook was a freebie for attending a seminar. Sturdy cover, heavy weight paper, acceptable pen. Can’t complain about that!

  8. Nice to hear others not folding into the PDA temptation. I use a similar system to yours only with Yahoo. Has only failed me once. It’s just such a nice “writerly” feeling with the Moleskine.

  9. Hey, thanks everyone! I should point out that you can substitute “spiral notebook” for Moleskine and “any online calendar system” for Google Calendar. I think at it’s heart there are only two components to a to-do system: date-related stuff that should go in a calendar and non-date-related stuff that goes in a list. Whatever the tools are, fine. Just don’t complicate it with categories and projects and contexts and blah blah because – at least for me – that’s not how my mind works, and I suspect nobody else’s mind does either! I think “crap, need eggs and I need to check my brokerage account when I get home!”

    As a side note, Moleskines are a very pleasant addiction 🙂

  10. Steve, excellent article. I found GTD a bit complicated too, but I think the concepts are dead on, you just have to adapt the process to what works for you. It’s a framework that requires customization for each individual.

    I love Moleskines, but am concerned about the impact of our use of paper these days on the environment. I’ve been trying to go more electronic.

    Instead, I use the voice recorder on my cell phone to make notes, add to-dos, etc. Then when I am in front of my computer I replay those and jot them down in a simple text file to-do list. I then pick up where you do and move them to a calendar, or text file, etc. For longer notations, i use a voice recorder I bought on amazon. This works great for article ideas or if I hear something on the news I’d like to write about, i can just record it.

    While the use of paper is often simpler, I would encourage everyone to consider the impact of everyone reading this article using a paper notebook. That’s a lot of trees.

  11. @Glblguy: Hmm, that’s a thought I hadn’t considered before, but I have to disagree. I guess my counterargument would be that the use of rapidly changing technology, which uses even-more-rapidly deplenishing natural resources (various precious metals used in chips, petroleum made into plastics, etc.) which are non-biodegradable could be much more harmful. They require energy, too – each time you recharge one you are contributing to greenhouse gases (depending on where your power source originates). And the batteries, especially for cell phones, are toxic to the environment and require recycling. There are companies that do this, so as long as you are diligent about recycling consumer electronics you’d be OK (although we all know recycling does not truly recycle 100% of the material). And unless you are disciplined about using your gadget until it breaks you’re on a constant cycle of consumption and discarding. No-one is good about using consumer electronics until the bitter end – people want the “new free phone” when their phone contract needs to be re-upped every two years. I just got a “new free phone,” for example. My old phone was dying but not dead yet.

    I believe Moleskines are non-recycled paper based, so granted, they are not so great. My “best” solution would be to use notebooks made of post-consumer recycled paper, and recycle them once I’m done with them.

    I disagree about trees being cut down, though. The problem is not how many trees are cut down, it’s that new ones aren’t being planted to replace them. If a responsible logging company “farms” trees – plants 3 new ones for every one they cut down – it can become a sustainable activity, which cannot be said of ore extraction or plastic manufacture. The trouble is that too many companies don’t practice sustainable logging.

    I bet Torbjorn would have something to say about this…

    (as a side note, if you do like leaving voice notes with your phone and you have a plan with plenty of minutes, you can also set up Jott which is a very cool voice-to-text app – I love it for times when I forget my notebook!)

  12. My Palm Pilot broke a few years ago, couldn’t recover it. I didn’t get a new one and found that I am actually ok without it. I realized that it was more time consuming for me to figure out what is what and where, and how time consuming it was to type in simple to-do tasks. So much faster and easier it is to just write it down.
    Surprisingly enough, I was most organized in College when I used my daily planner, where at a glance I could see everything I needed to do or any appt. to keep, I felt more in control than when I used my Palm Trio.
    I am glad to hear that I am not the only one out in this technological age who doesn’t care about PDAs. I guess, I am not cool, but I don’t care.

  13. I got a notebook made from recycled paper on my recent travels. I carry it with me everywhere, and it houses my master to-do list. It also serves as a reminder of some of the more important things in life (proceeds from that purchase went to helping street children). Every day, I star a few items in the list – those become my daily to-do list. Then as I take care of them, I cross them out.
    I tried transferring to Google calendar, but as it stands, I already have about 6 different calendars to keep track of activities and major reminders (ie, paying tuition today!), and it just gets too cluttered (and then useless). I find that just keeping it all in one place in my notebook works just as well.

    The *real* problem though, is when I look at the list and decide I don’t feel like actually doing anything. 🙂

  14. Oh, and to address the paper vs technology issue – I cover every square inch of the notebook. 🙂 E-waste is a potentially bigger problem than paper waste. And there’s the issue of labor rights of miners (which is worse for electronic components than it is for diamonds and gold).

    Solution? Buy recycled paper, and recycle it when you are done. 🙂

  15. Umm…What about the whole 43 folders concept in GTD. That’s the biggest thing that helps me clear my head and achieve “mind like water.” All those miscellaneous papers (are you pasting stuff into your moleskin?) have an immediate home.

    Event on the 19th, file it in the 19th. Notes for a meeting on the 20th, file them in the 20th. Stuff I need to discuss with hubby versus stuff I need to take care of on my own – files for it. Stuff I absolutely need to do versus stuff I might get around to – separate files!

    My desk is pure, uncluttered, creativity-boosting bliss since I started GTD.

  16. @BripBlap – I agree, but only if my choice was between my laptop or a notebook. I use the notebook and the cell phone anyway, so conserves resources to stop using the notebook and just use the laptop and phone.

  17. GTD seems to be like Rich Dad Poor Dad … everyone’s read it and it gets them thinking, nobody uses the actual advice. The hyper-organization blogs inspired by the system seem really odd and obsessive to me, but they’d probably say the same about the moneyblogs I read daily. I’m happy to report that I’m back to the cheapy notebooks after a brief moleskine addiction.

  18. Why not JOTT? I carry my phone with me when I’m away from the computer and I just JOTT to send myself or coworkers a short email or text message. The voice recognition is good enough – only drawback is trying to call from a noisy restaurant but even that wouldn’t be a problem if you have a smart phone you could send yourself an email… then everything is already in Google and easier to transfer to Google calendar…

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