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Productivity Process – Part 1

Everyone has some process, even if it’s not formalized or even consistent, for doing things. In this series of posts I’ll share some insights about my method of staying productive.


Image credit: Rawich

The Fundamentals

The basis for my current process is the Getting Things Done (GTD) method, which is based on a book by the same name by David Allen. The book is fairly short and I first heard about it during a soft-skills talk at CodeStock 2009. Here are the key concepts:

  • Your brain should be used for thinking, not remembering.
  • If you have some well-defined process to manage tasks, your mind is more free to think about perspective (i.e., how you are progressing toward your goals).

If you can get your day-to-day “runway” of actions under control, you can start thinking about short-, medium-, and long-term goals. The thing that makes this system work for me is that it has concrete steps to establish a workflow.

There are plenty of other task-management systems out there; this one seems to work best for me. Your mileage may vary as to whether GTD will help you be more productive.

External systems

Because our brain-based memory system isn’t perfect, GTD advocates putting those tasks, reminders, and reference items in a system (or systems) you trust. That system can be analog (paper and folders) or whatever digital productivity app suits your fancy.

Here are my systems:

In a later posts, I’ll go into more detail about how I set up my systems.

Review cycles

Those of us in the software development realm thrive on tight feedback cycles. The longer we’re away from input about whether we’re on track, the less secure we feel.

GTD has its own rhythms for staying on top of things. It advocates having an inbox (physical or digital) to provide a way of queuing up work to be addressed. Here are some examples of items that I put in my inboxes:

  • Reminder to do a task a coworker just brought to my attention
  • Bill that needs to be paid
  • Link to an article I’d like to read later

Daily cycle

On some regular interval (usually several times throughout the day) I empty the inboxes using the 4D approach:

  • Do — if the item takes less than 2 minutes to complete, just get it done
  • Delegate — get someone else to handle it for you
  • Defer — wait until some later time (either by putting it in some other queue that you’ll review later, or by scheduling it on your calendar)
  • Delete — this item doesn’t add value, so get it off your radar screen

At the end of each day, I make sure each of those queues is empty (also known as Inbox Zero). Bear in mind that emptying the inboxes doesn’t imply I completed everything in the queue, just that I’ve addressed those items so that the queue can be empty.


Image credit:

For a more detailed workflow, check out a visual version of the process (PDF) from

Weekly cycle

Block out some time each week to maintain your systems.

  • Take care of any unaddressed items in your inboxes
  • Review your queues of actionable work for your projects
    • Are the priorities still correct?
    • Can you delegate/defer/delete any tasks?
    • Do some of the tasks warrant being broken into smaller subtasks to make them more manageable?
  • Ensure that you are still on-target for your goals


At this point, you should have a general idea about GTD and what it aims to accomplish. There are plenty of free guides on implementing your own GTD system that are only a search-engine query away.

In the next post, I’ll describe a particular implementation of GTD that seems to be working for me.

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