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Jeannette M. Passmore, James A. Rhodes State College

Jeannette Passmore.jpgHow many of us respond to “How was your day?” with “Busy!”?  I was a ‘busy’ responder until I realized that these responses made me sound unapproachable, stressed out, and occasionally made me appear incompetent.  I didn’t want to be that person, the one who was always harried and never remembered to return a call or answer an email.  I had no idea how I was going to get there from where I was as full-time employee, a mom, a part-time or full-time student, president of this club, and involved in that project.  There was no denying my days were ‘busy’ and yet I saw other people able to manage these things and more.  I was tired of approaching tasks like each one was a crisis, due dates like oncoming trains, and being short with people around me because I had ‘all this stuff’ to do.  Being a student I did what came naturally, I researched and studied and I learned to eat the frog first.  Why would I eat a frog, never mind eating it first?!  Eating the frog first means to deal with the most dreaded task on the list before doing anything else.  Clearing that one task creates momentum to keep going and nothing else that has to be done will seem as bad.

Information comes at us like spaghetti from a fire hose.  Email, newsletters, breaking news alerts, a student in the lobby, a colleague on the phone, a project spread across our desk.  Advisors are constantly being asked to do more, which means less time for each task.  How can all of the incoming ‘stuff’ be managed and still produce results?  Two readings that started this productivity journey were David Allen’s (2002) Getting Things Done (GTD) and Cal Newport’s (2007) How to Become a Straight-A Student.  I have some processes to share which have been cobbled together, from a variety of resources, into a system that works for me.  These two readings have lead me to a modified version of Getting Things Done (GTD) and practicing #inboxzero.

Getting Things Done

Why would anyone need more than one productivity or time management system?  The process is to find something that almost works and then to adjust it to fit.  YMMV—your mileage may vary—is my default caveat when sharing information and tools; the ‘ubiquitous capture device’ (Babauta, 2007) and ‘Sunday ritual’ (Newport, 2009) tools that work for me may not work for everyone.  I tried the full Getting Things Done (GTD) method and found it cumbersome, so I adjusted it to fit my needs, as I did with the Sunday ritual which I sometimes roll into a Monday morning meeting with myself. 

I read Getting Things Done and loved the concept of a “mind like water.” Allen (n.d.) defines this as “a mental and emotional state in which your head is clear, able to create and respond freely, unencumbered with distractions and split focus.” The GTD system has five steps. Capturing information, deciding what needs to be done with the information (is it actionable, reference material, or able to be delegated), organizing the information, regular review of the information, and acting on the information.  It described exactly what I was looking for, and so I put Allen’s GTD system to work.  GTD has actionable items sorted into various contexts such as ‘at home’, ‘at work’, and ‘errands’.  Contexts are used to improve focus and ensure that the right tools are available.  I made my lists in their various contexts (Wax, n.d.), checked my work flow, and off I went.  I ended up struggling with the contexts of the lists like home, office, errands, and projects.  I didn’t like having things spread across several pages.  What did work for me was the ‘ubiquitous capture device’ (10 useful tips, 2008).  The idea of the ubiquitous capture device is to have a place to write down everything instead of trying to keep it all in my head.  If I’m in class thinking, “Don’t forget to mail that letter,” I cannot possibly focus on what is being taught.  If a friend mentions a great book, how am I going to remember that title and author when I’m thinking about the work project that is due next week?  Having a place to jot down all of the ‘spaghetti’ that’s coming from the fire hose really helped.  I tried a Google document, my phone, various types of software, but the notebook is what worked for me.  It took some time to learn to write it all down and it took time to learn to trust myself and my notebook.  If I’m not writing it in my notebook, it might not happen.

To get started, a capture device and the GTD system begin with a brain dump (Krol, n.d).  Sit down with a piece of paper and just write it all out: projects, reminders, ideas, to-dos, and any other thoughts that intrude on your ability to focus.  There are some excellent trigger lists (Incompletion trigger list, 2014) to help with this process.  Once all of that information is on paper, treat each item like it has come through the ‘in box’.  Googling “GTD Workflow” (Hamberg, n.d) is a great way to get a visual representation of this next step.

Start with the first item on the list and ask these questions:

  • What is it? For me it will be related to work, school, home, or professional development projects. 
  • Is it actionable?
    • No
      • Will I need it for reference?  If yes, it gets filed (and by filed I mean moved to a very general electronic folder—yuck paper files!).
      • Does it need additional thought?  If yes, I either set aside time on my calendar to work on it or I file it under ‘someday/maybe’.  I will admit my ‘someday/maybe’ tagged documents border on obsessive collecting.
      • If the answer to both of these is no, then it gets eliminated, file 13’d, round filed, it goes in the trash!
    • Yes
      • Will it take less than 2 minutes?  Do it!
      • Can I delegate it?  Do that!  And make a note to follow-up after a reasonable amount of time has elapsed.
      • Can I defer it?  It goes into the calendar or on my ‘next action’ to-do list.
      • Is it a large project?  It goes into the planning phase to be broken down into ‘next actions’.

A ‘next action’ is something that is physical and visual.  For example, I have broken writing this article down into smaller, less daunting, next actions.  It started out with “brainstorm for 15 minutes” to “produce a list of topics.” That rolled into “outline topics” which became “Write for 15 minutes,” which is on my to-do list each day.  The best thing about next actions is that they must be reasonable actions.  So “write article” isn’t a reasonable action item, but “write for 15 minutes” is.  This is very helpful for people who procrastinate on projects that seem daunting.

Once the initial sort is done, it becomes a matter of putting all of the inputs (e.g. emails, phone messages, projects, items from staff meetings) through the workflow.  When my days are relatively calm, I’m able to do this as each item comes in, and when I’m busy I mark time on my calendar to process the day’s inputs.  The next step is the Sunday Meeting (Trapani, 2007).  This is the time to process anything still remaining in the inbox, do another brain dump to workflow, and to hard schedule items for the week while reviewing the calendar.  It doesn’t have to be a Sunday, and I do recommend choosing a day with ample time not just to process but also to reflect.  To keep the Sunday Meeting focused I also practice #inboxzero on a daily basis.


I can’t imagine living without #inboxzero (Guinness, 2014) and I have colleagues who can’t imagine attempting it.  At least once each 24 hours I will have all of my inboxes (work email, personal email, incoming items from meetings, desk inbox) at zero.  There is nothing there.  I do this because using my inbox as a reminder list, reference list, and to-do list caused me to miss important items or to put-off responding because the inboxes felt overwhelming.  The first thing I did was turn off email notifications across all my devices.  Now I check email; it doesn’t check me.  I schedule time to read and respond rather than waiting for the constant ‘ping’ to distract me.  GTD provides a list of folders for items that are reference or need responses.  Processing each piece into a folder and then remembering to check those folders wasn’t working for me.  Thankfully, Gmail and Outlook have amazing search functions.  If an email is going to be used for reference, I simply archive it knowing that I can use a keyword search to find it later.  This is one click in Gmail, and I have one folder in Outlook that is labeled archive.  Emails go through the GTD workflow process.  If I need time to think about the response or if I want to respond at a later date, I use Follow-Up Then.  This allows me to forward an email to the date or day that I want to respond and then archive it.  If I know I want to think about it for 24 hours, I’ll forward the email to [email protected].  It is out of my inbox.  Otherwise, the email goes through the workflow process.  I spend a fair amount of weekend time on professional development or course work, so a lot of my emails are sent to [email protected].  By doing a web search for “GTD” or “Getting Things Done,” it is easy to see how people work within David Allen’s system.  Cal Newport has an amazing archive of blogs and still posts regularly at http://www.calnewport.com.

Other Tips & Hacks

Doodle for scheduling meetings
Moleskine for classic capture devices notebooks
Headspace for meditation (no, really, it works!)
Task Timer to keep on track
Google Scholar for research
NACADA for professional development!

It has taken me quite a while to learn to ‘eat the frog first’ and I admit that I’m not as consistent as I would like to be with this concept.  But here I am at 5:20 A.M. working on writing, which isn’t one of my favorite tasks.  “If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning.  And If it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first” (attributed to Mark Twain). Doing a search for ‘eat the frog first’ produces a long list of time management and productivity methods that use this concept.  I am also open to talking about these topics or providing mentoring at any time!

Jeannette M. Passmore, M.A.
Academic Advisor
James A. Rhodes State College
[email protected]


10 useful tips for optimizing ubiquitous capture. (2008, March 6). Retrieved from: http://gtd.marvelz.com/blog/2008/03/06/10-useful-tips-for-optimizing-ubiquitous-capture/

Allen, D. (2002). Getting things done: The art of stress-free productivity. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Allen, D. (n.d.) David Allen defines “mind like water”. Retrieved fromhttp://gettingthingsdone.com/2012/05/david-allen-defines-mind-like-water/

Babauta, L. (2007, February 27). Tips for GTD’s ubiquitous capture. Retrieved from http://zenhabits.net/tips-for-gtds-ubiquitous-capture/

Guinness, H. (2014, September). 5 action steps for curing your inbox zero email frenzy. Retrieved from http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/5-action-steps-curing-inbox-zero-email-frenzy/

Hamberg, E. (n.d.) GTD in 15 minutes – A pragmatic guide to getting things done. Retrieved from http://hamberg.no/gtd/#processing-the-in-list

Incompletion trigger list. (2014, October 1). Retrieved from http://gettingthingsdone.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Mind_Sweep_http://gettingthingsdone.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Mind_Sweep_Trigger_List.pdfTrigger_List.pdf

Krol, K. (n.d.) Productivity made simple: Where to start with GTD. Retrieved from http://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/productivity-made-simple-where-to-start-with-gtd.html

Newport, C. (2007). How to become a straight-A student. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

Newport, C. (2009, March 30). 4 weeks to a 4.0: Adopt an autopilot schedule and a Sunday ritual. Retrieved from http://calnewport.com/blog/2009/03/30/4-weeks-to-a-40-adopt-an-autopilot-schedule-and-a-sunday-ritual/

Trapani, G. (2007, July 13). Getting into the weekly review habit. Retrieved from http://lifehacker.com/278118/getting-into-the-weekly-review-habit

Trickle, C. (2012, February 13). GTD brain dump list. Retrieved from https://gettingthingsdone.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Mind_Sweep_Trigger_List.pdf

Wax, D.M. (n.d.) GTD refresh: Contexts and calendar. Retrieved from http://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/gtd-refresh-contexts-and-calendar.html

Cite this article using APA style as: Passmore, J. (2015, June). Getting things done. Academic Advising Today, 38(2). Retrieved from [insert url here] 


Posted in: 2015 June 38:2


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