GTD for Academics

A Community Contribution by Aeon J. Skoble, PhD. (

I know that David Allen is interested in seeing how people in different sorts of professions use GTD, so I offered to share my experiences applying the methodology in a world that’s generally regarded as a different one: academia.  I have found that GTD is highly applicable to the academic profession.

I was actually managing adequately before I discovered GTD, but my productivity, while pretty good by institutional standards, was sub-optimal with respect to my own expectations.  I wasn’t well-organized, I often had “near misses” with deadlines, and I had a good deal of stress-producing clutter.  I literally had 6000+ messages in my Outlook inbox.  As the cover of the book hinted, I wanted not only to increase productivity, but to reduce stress.  GTD has indeed helped in both aspects: productivity is up, stress is down.Some of the most useful parts have been among the simpler ones, chiefly “capture everything rather than try to keep it in your head” and “don’t confuse your calendar with your to-do list.”  I used to drive myself crazy repeatedly by playing this game: I’d realize I hadn’t worked much lately on a particular essay I needed to write, so I’d put “work on that essay” on my calendar for Tuesday morning, then I’d spend Tuesday morning prepping for a class or putting out a fire, and then I’d feel anxious because I didn’t write the essay.  If nothing else, I have learned to distinguish calendar from to-do list, and projects from next-actions.  That’s as vital for academics as it is for any business executive.A college professor’s job has at least three distinct components, each of which in its own way can benefit from a GTD approach. First of all, there is teaching classes. This involves the actual instruction time, as well as time beforehand to prepare and time afterwards for grading.  The class time, along with office hours, are “hard landscape” calendar items which need to be done at a particular time, but the prep time and grading have a little more flexibility.  There are still deadlines, though: mid-term assignments must be graded in a timely fashion, and final grades must be submitted by a deadline also.  And the prep for any particular class must obviously be done before that class.  So these can be seen as non-calendar “next actions,” although for some people it works better to schedule time blocks devoted to these tasks.  The class itself can be seen as a project with a successful outcome: the students complete the course and have learned a lot; I’ve turned in final grades.

Second, there is research and other scholarship activities. At a bare minimum, we are expected to stay current in our fields, which requires reading time.  Is it at the library?  At home?  At the office?  In print, or on-line?  These can be context-sensitive next-actions.  But beyond that, there is the expectation of productivity.  “Productivity” in the academic sense can be a paper for publication, a conference presentation, participation in a symposium, editing a collection, refereeing for a peer-reviewed journal, data collection, experimentation, and so on.  Each of these can easily be seen as a “project” in the GTD sense – and that means that one can avoid being overwhelmed by them by breaking them down into next actions.  Before I encountered GTD, I used to have to-do lists with entries like “write book.”  Turns out that’s not very helpful!  David Allen’s observation that one can’t actually “do” a project is certainly applicable here: the only way to write a book is to break it down into bits, and then write and organize the bits.  It’s much more effective to think about what discrete steps are required to organize the book and formulate each section.   Next-action thinking therefore translates very well to scholarly writing.  Also, there are many other tasks involved in getting research done (and published) – paperwork as well as logistical – each of which needs to be identified and clarified.

Third, there is generally a service expectation: advising students, serving on departmental or college-wide committees, participating in various events. There are meetings, which need to be calendared, and the other work can easily been seen as projects (e.g., produce report) with next actions (e.g., call the dean’s office to request that file).   If one becomes department chair, as I am, then there are many more administrative responsibilities one acquires: working with a budget, producing the schedule for the year, hiring support staff and adjunct faculty, meetings with administrators and other chairs.  It’s easy to see why younger faculty can be overwhelmed and why senior faculty can suffer burn-out.  Many people outside academia don’t realize the amount of juggling that goes on, assuming that a “12-hour load” means a 12-hour work week.  It’s more like 50, believe me.  I don’t say that as a complaint; I love the job – but if it were really only 12 hours worth of work, I wouldn’t need GTD!

One thing that really resonated with me as I read the book was just how applicable it was to a non-business context.   Every example, even the business-specific, was one I could transfer to my world: identify goal, clarify successful outcome, figure out the next action.  I keep my inbox at or close to empty – both paper and email.  I mentioned that I used to be one of those people with 6000+ messages in my Outlook inbox.  Now it’s rarely got more than a dozen.  All emails fit into one of the workflow categories – some are trash, some are reference info to be filed, some are waiting-for trackers, and some are actionable.  So I have reduced stress and improved efficiency simply by learning to keep my email under control.   On a more mundane level, it’s also helped to get a label maker for file folders!  I am no longer the absent-minded professor of stereotype who can’t find anything in the messy office.  The fictional professors who live that way manage to produce ground-breaking scholarship, but in reality, living like that is an impediment to scholarly productivity or efficiency in teaching.  If you wouldn’t expect an executive to be productive under those conditions, there’s no reason to expect a scholar to be either.  Sadly, these caricatures are present even among academics.  I have been trying to “get the word out” to a number of my colleagues here and elsewhere.  As David noted in the book, if others become more efficient and productive, it helps everyone.  I have used GTD to make committee work go more smoothly, even if the other members of the committee don’t always realize that’s what is happening, but I also talk to colleagues about it, recommend the book (in some cases, I buy copies for people), explain the virtues of the methodology.  After attending one of David’s “Roadmap” seminars, I gave a presentation to my fellow chairs at a workshop, and I received a lot of positive feedback.  Just as David has expressed hopes that GTD would become “standard stuff” in the corporate world, I would love to see GTD more widely adopted in academia.  Our students would benefit, and we’d get a lot more research accomplished with less burn-out.


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