I first learned about David Allen’s famous productivity system, Getting Things Done, several years ago. It’s an excellent book, building off a simple idea: the less you need to rely on memory, the easier it is to become productive. Since being popularized over the web, GTD has been associated with the art of productivity.
But there is only one problem, GTD is too complicated. When I first tried to set up GTD, I found it clunky and hard to stick with. The systems that Allen developed over years were being put in my lap on one day. Some of the ideas were immediately useful, others were wasteful and difficult to maintain.
GTD: The Swiss Army Knife (When All You Want is a Fork…)
Only several years later did I realize the source of my problem with GTD. The organizing system was robust, but it wasn’t tailored to my life. Keeping a notepad and calendar was a great idea. Keeping a set of dozens of folders to track action items over a period of months wasn’t.
To be fair to Allen, it wasn’t really his fault. GTD is a great system, but it’s difficult to create a system that suits everyone. The CEO of a Fortune 500 company has completely different productivity needs than a grad student. One person might need to track hundreds of pieces of information, while the other might need minimal tracking but a high degree of focus on one task.
Just saying “tailor it to your life” is a bit trite too. Obviously if everyone was born with the understanding of what productivity needs they have, they wouldn’t need to read books on productivity.
Evolving Productivity: The Branch Method
My suggestion is to adopt a leaner productivity system. Dave Allen’s suggestions are great, but there is too much variety for it to work for everyone. The Branch Method isn’t a productivity system. It’s a way of thinking about how you organize things, so you can always have the most effective organizing system tailored to your needs.
The principles of the Branch Method are simple:
- Start with the simplest organizing system possible.
- Reorganize your tasks, files or items into this system.
- When a folder becomes too large, branch it off into component systems.
- Review your system every month.
- If a folder isn’t being used, merge it back into the other folders.
By “folder” I mean any location for storing elements of your productivity system. A filing cabinet is a large “folder” as is your to-do list and calendar. They are all baskets you can put stuff in. I’m treating the physical organization of paperwork and non-physical organization of tasks and events as being the same, so I’m forced to use the word “folder”.
Now let’s look at each step:
Step One: Start Simple
This first step can be skipped if you already have GTD or some level of organization. But if you’re currently a complete slob, you need to start somewhere. Try to design the simplest organizing system that is one step above complete chaos. Don’t make speculative folders for holding things you might not use.
Making too many folders initially creates added waste. This was my problem when initially setting up GTD, and is the reason many people are scared off by the highly in-depth system.
Step Two: Organize Into Your Simple System
Now go to the work of putting everything in it’s place. This can take some time if you don’t already have a previous organizing system. However, this step only needs to be done once, so the time is worth it.
Step Three: Branch Bulky Folders
When a folder becomes too bulky, branch it into a more refined mechanism. I used to keep receipts in a simple folder. As more receipts piled up, I realized that the folder was getting bulky. I split the receipts into a binder, with separate organizational tabs for different categories.
If your to-do list or calendar becomes overloaded, split them into separate lists or calendars. Google Calendar has the added feature of storing multiple, color-coded calendars on the same screen. From one, I branched off into four.
Step Four: Monthly Productivity Review
Every month, ask yourself whether your productivity system still holds. If your lifestyle has adjusted in that time, you may need to create new folders or destroy old ones. Finishing a project might lead to simplifying one aspect of your system. Without monthly reviews, your productivity system slowly drifts back towards chaos.
Step Five: Merge Unused Folders
This step is often forgotten. Maintaining a folder has a mental cost. You need to remember to check it regularly, otherwise it will be useless. I’ve frequently forgotten tasks because I placed them on infrequently used to-do lists. Without merging folders, you are likely to forget where things are.
Branching for Simplicity
The Branch Method works because it helps you maintain the simplest productivity system possible. There is no extra fat or waste with folders that aren’t specifically adapted to your life. Instead of planning for every foreseeable organizing need, you get a system that fits you.