David Allen’s organization system, Getting Things Done, is great. It has helped thousands to getting more things done with less effort. I use it myself to organise almost every aspect of my life – except for one: my main work. I am a writer and academic, and unfortunately GTD doesn’t really help when it comes to getting more writing done with less effort. There are three main reasons for it.
Problem #1: It is difficult to have a clear visual idea about the outcome when your work involves open-ended research.
GTD requires us to have a clear idea about the outcome and visualize it as vividly as possible. Real academic and nonfiction writing doesn’t work that way. If we knew up front what we wanted to find out, we wouldn’t have to do the work in the first place. We might roughly know what we want to write about, but we usually haven’t figured out until the very end what our article or book is really about. That is true for writing in general, but especially when it comes to research and thinking.
Writing isn’t the transcription of already perfectly preconceived thoughts to paper. It is the means to structure our thoughts in the first place. To a certain degree, we need to write to figure out what we want to write about.
Problem #2: How can you plan when you can only navigate on sight?
Many try (and fail) to plan their writing. We might make a plan to write a certain number of pages within a day (or week, or month, or year) and also decide that the text should be great, but that doesn’t translate into a realistic plan. It is a little bit like having a business plan that says: I want to earn money every day, specifically, a lot of money. Writing, especially research-oriented writing, involves a lot more than typing words. It is rather unpredictable how much we need to do of what.
Problem #3: How can you break down the writing process into small steps?
GTD requires us to write down the next step to be taken. That only makes sense if the next step is big enough to make the effort of writing it down worthwhile. That is why Allen suggests immediately doing everything that takes less than 5 minutes instead of writing it down first. But how can you break down the process of writing? The next steps are either too big and too vague or too small and too specific. It is either a certain number of pages, which might involve weeks or month of previous research, reading and thinking. Or it could be something as small as checking on a footnote or a reference, or finding the right word.
The solution: Smart Notes.
So, what is the art of stress-free writing productivity? How do you Get Writing Done?
The answer is to have a reliable system of note-taking in place that allows you to focus completely on the content and the questions you try to answer by taking care of everything else. It combines Allen’s insight – that a good system needs to be completely reliable and comprehensive – with a bottom-up approach, which allows you to develop ideas openly and in a flexible manner.
This kind of system already exists, and it is actually pretty easy to set up as soon as you understand the principles behind it. I have written a short book about it – check it out.