Recently, I attended a Barcamp for web workers, where I popped in and out of two groups discussing Getting Things Done (GTD). There was a beginners’ group, and one they called “Kung Fu GTD,” for the hardcore efficiency crowd. Despite not being a GTD user myself, […]

Recently, I attended a Barcamp for web workers, where I popped in and out of two groups discussing Getting Things Done (GTD). There was a beginners’ group, and one they called “Kung Fu GTD,” for the hardcore efficiency crowd. Despite not being a GTD user myself, I picked up one really useful tip from these sessions.

The few times I’ve looked into GTD methods, I’ve found them to be incompatible with the way I function. Already the time it takes to decide if something can be done in under two minutes is time I feel I’ve wasted. GTD seems to be a system I would have to impose from the top down, which is not how I operate. I tend to adopt tools and methods only if they organically find their way into my workflow. Strict GTD is too linear and stifling for me. And, I have to admit, it just seems complicated.

But I did pick up one extremely valuable tip from the “Kung Fu” GTD bunch. One woman in the group said that simplicity is paramount, and it all boils down to Stephen Covey‘s four quadrants of activity management. This is a great method for classifying tasks that I immediately incorporated into my workflow.

Essentially, you assign tasks one of four priorities:


Compare this method to a complicated GTD diagram.

Once you do this, everything falls into place. In my task management app, I have groups in which I keep associated tasks, but I also have a group for each of Covey’s quadrants. I drag things from task group to priority group, or I put new tasks directly into a priority group. It’s made my life a lot easier.

This UI/NUI/UNI/NUNI system (which is also lots of fun to say) is incredibly useful, and I can’t believe I never heard of it. But then, not being much of a self-help book consumer, I didn’t read “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Covey, which is where it came from. And I was way too footloose and fancy-free to be thinking about that kind of thing back in 1989, when the book was published.

One other bit of wisdom that I stumbled across while investigating Covey’s quadrants: It appears that people tend to expend most of their energy on the Urgent/Important and Urgent/Not Important tasks, get burned out, and go straight to the NUNIs to relax. Prevailing wisdom says that you shouldn’t neglect the NUIs. They’re good for your soul.

Be sure to read Celine Roque’s post “The Perfect Productivity System” in which she gives good advice on ways to find a system that works for you!

Share your productivity tips in the comments.

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  1. You’ve gotta be kidding me with that GTD diagram! And that’s supposed to be helpful? I can see why you don’t use it!

  2. Most GTD disciples as well as David Allen himself would say that the top-down method is the problem. Unless you know everything you need to do, how can you really decide what’s important vs. unimportant (since that’s going to be a relative decision) and what’s urgent vs. not urgent (which is going to be a very relative decision).

    Two minutes is also not a hard and fast rule, but a guideline, since it typically takes about that long to file and track something. The idea should be that as you’re processing, you should do any task that can be accomplished without requiring you to get too far away from the processing task.

    Making It All Work actually incorporates the Covey four-quadrant model into GTD, but in a different way, showing the positives and negatives of focusing on something strategic vs. practical and being in control vs. out of control.

  3. Pishabh Badmaash Monday, May 25, 2009

    I gave up on GTD and just rely on my wife to tell me my next action

  4. I love GTD, but I’ve never seen that homerolled diagram – that thing is heinous.

    The workflow that is in the book does not focus on priority (U or I).

    Instead, the key questions are: what is the desired outcome, what is the next action to take, and which context do you have to do the action in (on the phone, face to face, running errands, by email, on the server, etc.)

    This ensures that steps are actually taken toward your desired outcome.

  5. @Pishabh – I think they call that TMWTD, or “Tell Me What To Do”.

  6. You can use or not use GTD, but at least make accurate statements about it. GTD is about as bottom-up as you can get, in the vast majority of cases deciding whether something takes 2 minutes or less is not a big deal, and nothing is more un-stifling than a clear mind. Oh yeah, GTD is anything but linear.

    I have all the admiration in the world for Covey’s 7 habits–it changed my life!–and the important vs urgent matrix. The 7 habits are about as top-down as you can get. Trying to organize one’s to dos by priorities is maddening since “by toilet paper” and “find assisted living facility for mom” both have to get done, and both will get done only by capturing executing one next action at a time.

    The GTD workflow diagram incorporates much, much more than to-dos and cannot reasonably be compared to Covey’s matrix (which does not deal with capture, reference material, filing, waiting for’s, reviews, delegating, etc., etc.)

    I’ve read each book many times and, in my opinion, GTD and 7 Habits complement one another nicely. The former is mainly action management; the latter, life management (GTD’s 30,000-50,000 ft. horizons).

  7. Well said, Mark! I agree.

  8. Piaras MacDonnell Tuesday, May 26, 2009

    Having read both Covey and Allen’s books several times I agree that they are compatible, they just take different view points of the same challenge.

    Both systems have many elements in common (lists, weekly reviews, getting perspective, etc)

    GTD I found more adaptable where the priorities change frequently and at short notice.

    The work flow you linked to makes GTD look much more complicated than it really is :)

  9. Pamela Poole Tuesday, May 26, 2009

    Hi John.

    It’s good to know that David Allen incorporated the 4 quadrants into GTD in Making it All Work, which I see just came out this year. Covey’s quadrants just made everything so much more manageable for me instantly.

    For me the 4 quadrants come in at the “Is it actionable” stage. Whether the answer is yes or no, it goes into a quadrant group. If it’s a multi-step item, it either goes into a quadrant group or I create its own group. Items to delegate go into a quadrant group. Items with specific dates and deadlines go into my calendar.

    The thing is, referring back to my tetris game post of a couple of weeks ago, I can have so many different tasks of more or less similar priority, that I group them by quadrant and then depending on how much time I have, how fresh my brain is, whether I’m in the mood to do something, I just pick and choose things from my quadrants to work on as I can fit them in.

    It’s a pretty effective method for me!

  10. Pamela Poole Tuesday, May 26, 2009

    Hi Pishabh. I’d like to know what her system is ;-)

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