TheBrain Blog

Shelley Hayduk
Mar 3, 2009

Getting Things Done with TheBrain

"First of all, if it’s on your mind, your mind isn’t clear. Anything you consider unfinished in any way must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind, or what I call a collection bucket, that you know you’ll come regularly back and sort through."

David Allen, Getting Things Done

Clear Your Mind. Get It Out of Your Head and into Your TheBrain.

A central premise of David Allen’s Book and cultural movement, Getting Things Done, is that you can experience a tremendous sense of relief and control by moving your tasks and ideas outside of your mind and recording them externally in a place you can trust and where you will review them regularly. This frees your mind from remembering and allows you to focus on completing your tasks. Capturing and improving your thinking of course is what TheBrain is all about.

I have often felt this sense of relief and insight when organizing key strategies and ideas in my Brain. I think that is why, beyond getting instant access to key data, we like to mind map things like our marketing plans, the economy, personal finances and the like. However, there is another level of organization and efficiency you can take your TheBrain to by applying David Allen’s principles of “GTD”.

It’s all about creating a Brain that focuses your information on results enabling you to track everything you have to do, instantly access everything you need to do, and do it more effectively. So how is the GTD approach different from how you would normally use TheBrain? Well, as you might have guessed, GTD is a systematic methodology for capturing the things you need to get done… When you build a Brain for GTD, anything you consider unfinished (what David calls an “open loop”) is added as a Thought in your Brain. The idea is that your head is not the place to hold these things since keeping even the smallest unfinished tasks in your mind will literally stress you all day long.

I started implementing a basic GTD structure in my TheBrain and it has already cleared my mind and made me more organized. Keep reading for an overview of how I am implementing GTD in my Brain. For more about GTD, I highly recommend that you buy the book and visit David Allen’s Web site.

GTD in TheBrain

So that those of you not already familiar with GTD can follow along, here is my own very simplified interpretation of GTD. Of course, there is much more to GTD than this, but I hope this is enough to demonstrate how TheBrain can be applied effectively and to get you interested in learning more about GTD.

  • Capture everything that is running around in your head in an external system.
  • Categorize each of these things appropriately: if it can be done, when it should be done, and in what context.
  • Review things systematically using the categories you have defined.
  • Execute on actions at the appropriate times.

If this is your first time hearing about GTD, you might be thinking, “I already do all that.” However, I believe the power of GTD is being explicitly conscious of what you are doing and systematically improving it. With GTD and TheBrain, you can become fundamentally better at…well…everything.

When implementing GTD in TheBrain, the processes of capturing and categorizing are tightly intertwined. Essentially, you want to create a comprehensive set of lists of items to execute on. You don’t have to capture every action – often you will simply define a project which might imply a set of many actions. Examples of projects are “write a novel”, or “increase sales”. Discrete actions you might want to capture would be “go to the spa”, or “file sales report”.

Tracking Projects in TheBrain

Create a “Projects” Thought with child Thoughts for each of your projects. It is useful to break projects into personal and professional subcategories and then into short term (say within the next 3 months) medium term (within a year) and long term (longer than a year) groups. This will allow you to review your nearer projects more often while keeping an eye on longer term goals. I used the names “Now”, “Soon” and “Someday/Maybe” to designate these. Of course, you can use whatever categories you like.

Tracking Projects

Figure 1. Projects can be organized by area and timeframe.

For some projects, you may have documentation, lists of goals, brainstorming that you need to do and more. TheBrain naturally fills these needs with its ability to attach virtually any type of digital information to your project Thoughts. You can keep all of your short term projects at hand by creating pins for the “Personal, Now” and “Professional, Now” Thoughts.

Visualizing and Zeroing in on Your Next Actions

Armed with a system to organize your projects, it’s time to start defining discrete actions. These are definite physical things you can do, what David calls “next actions”. They may be independent of projects, or they may be a direct result of a project. When you review your projects you should define the next actions to be taken for your active projects.

Create Thoughts for each action in the context in which you will execute it. For date specific actions, use TheBrain’s calendar. Add an event in TheBrain’s calendar for the action. TheBrain’s reminders will alert you when this action is due. For actions that are not tied to a particular time, create child Thoughts for them under their project. This will allow you to easily see all the actions associated with each of your projects. Actions that are associated with more than one project can be linked to multiple parent projects.

Actions should also be tagged with a context based on when they are done so that you will be reminded to do them when most appropriate. For example, you might create tags for “at the mall”, “when talking to Marie”, or “errands”. Using tags is useful for tracking actions because you can easily see how many outstanding actions there are for each tag in the tags tab. Of course, you can easily pull up the list of actions for any tag by typing the tag’s name into the instant activate feature or by clicking on the tag. Tags will also be visible when you look at the list of actions for any project, giving you a quick overview of the types of outstanding activities you have for each project.

Thought Tags

Figure 2. The Tags tab show the number of outstanding items of each type.

Next Actions

Figure 3. Next actions are linked under projects with the tags indicating the contexts for action.

One tip you may want to implement is to start all the tags you are using for action contexts with a special character such as “@”. This will let you access the list of action context tags just by typing that single character.

Tag Tips

Figure 4. Opening up the list of action context tags with a single character

Throughout your day, keep TheBrain open all the time so whenever you have something to capture, you can add it in immediately and get it out of your head and stop worrying about it as soon as possible. Use your action context tags to bring up the lists of actions you can execute as the relevant contexts present themselves. Usually your action context tags are temporary and the tags should be cleared when the action is complete. This keeps your list of outstanding items clean.

Capturing the Details with Notes and Attachments

When using TheBrain for your actions, the notes tool for your Thoughts is useful for adding those little snippets of information from your meetings or for jotting down the phone number you’ll need when you next place an order from your supplier. Adding file attachments to your Thoughts let you link in the relevant supporting files and web data that may be the inputs or outputs of your actions.

Tracking and Managing Pending Items

Capture pending items under a special “Waiting for” Thought. Sometimes you have things to do that you can’t do yet. David Allen calls these “waiting for” items and in many cases they will be associated with a person who is working on something that you need. Of course, you can break out categories under this Thought also if necessary. This Thought will be paramount for ensuring appropriate follow-up from those you are relying on. I’ve personally found this to be one of my most useful new Thoughts since reading GTD. For me usually this is about waiting for a reply to an email. So, I actually drag and drop these emails under my Waiting for Thought. Even if I have forwarded this email on to the right person this gives me a reassuring way to track responses without having to search through sent items or email folders. The Waiting for visualization also lets me stay proactive about getting what I need done even when I have delegated tasks to other people.

TheBrain as Your Filing and Reference System for GTD

Part of GTD is having a reliable reference system so you are comfortable putting things away and getting them off your mind. This is the place for things in your day that do not require immediate action but need to be kept and organized for future reference. TheBrain becomes your trusted source for any material or ideas you might call upon or need at a later date. You can drag and drop files and add ideas for future reference knowing you can activate them at any time when needed.

Reference information that you research, generate, or receive should be linked to the projects and actions it is related to. When actions are completed, often the results may be captured in your Brain where you executed the action. For example, a proposal document created to send to a customer might be linked to the customer as well as the project you are doing for them. This information can be useful for future actions. The structure you create to manage your GTD process can serve as a means of finding this information easily in the future without any additional work.

Your Weekly Review in TheBrain

Review your actions and projects regularly. David Allen recommends reviewing all of your projects weekly and next actions daily or whenever the opportunity to execute a particular context presents itself. There is a waterfall cycle in the review process: actions are reviewed daily and executed, current projects are reviewed to generate actions, near term projects are reviewed to generate current projects, and long term projects, which may include less well-defined goals, values, or even an overall vision, are reviewed to set near term projects. Use linking and unlinking to move projects as appropriate. You may find TheBrain’s outline and expanded views to be very useful for these review processes.

Creating Thoughts for Horizons of Focus

David Allen talks about 6 levels of work which may also be thought of in terms of altitude.

Horizons of Focus

TheBrain can visualize all horizons of focus. I have focused on the 10,000 feet and runway levels above since as part of the GTD philosophy David Allen asserts if your mind is pre-occupied with a number of open loops and daily tasks, you cannot effectively focus on higher level life goals. That being said, because of the visual nature of TheBrain, you may decide to create a Brain or a specific area in your Brain exclusively on one or more of these horizons of focus.

Stress Free Productivity with Your Digital Brain

From “Horizons of Focus” to the “Natural Planning Model”, David Allen’s GTD offers a rich set of principles and methodologies that go far beyond what I have touched on here. GTD is changing the way people think of productivity and time management. The combination of GTD and TheBrain is a formula for exceeding your own expectations. Some people start at the beginning of the collection process and have a complete visual workflow of “Getting Things Done” in their Brain while others decide to use TheBrain to obtain a higher level visual understanding of complex projects. Whatever degree of implementation you decide to incorporate in your TheBrain, it will no doubt help you rise about the fray of your daily task list to let you act with a more informed view and work more efficiently.