Last week, Josh and Brandon welcomed the great David Allen on the BiggerPockets Podcast to discuss his powerful organizational system, Getting Things Done (or GTD for short). I can personally attest that GTD can do marvelous things for your productivity (and sanity), and I highly recommend it to everyone, especially to real estate investors. So if you haven’t already, buy a copy of David Allen’s book or check out his website to familiarize yourself with his system.
Why We Need a Trusted System
In this technology-driven information age, we are bombarded with information, feedback and requests from all sides in an unrelenting manner. It’s enough to drive even the most organized person batty. The long and short of it is that we need a system that is designed to properly manage and address all of the items that come at us in the never-ending barrage that is the modern workplace. As Allen notes in his book:
“A basic truism I have discovered over twenty years of coaching and training is that most of the stress people experience comes from inappropriately managed commitments they make or accept.” (Getting Things Done, pg. 12)
What you will naturally do by simply going with the flow is “…you’ll be driven by latest and loudest,” as Allen pointed out on the Podcast. Instead, Allen describes the way we should react to any given task or event with a simple analogy.
“Imagine throwing a pebble in a pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact.” (Getting Things Done, pg. 10-11)
We can only do this, however, when we get all of our commitments and “to do lists” out of our head and into a trusted system. This has come to be known as the “external brain,” and there is good scientific evidence to support this. Allen mentions two recent books on the subject — BrainChains and The Organized Mind that support this conclusion. But as far back as 1955, the famed psychologist George Miller — in one of most cited articles ever written — noted that the maximum number of things someone can hold in their head at any given time was seven, give or take two.
“Everybody knows that there is a finite span of immediate memory and that for a lot of different kinds of test materials this span is about seven items in length.”
Modern estimates come closer to four.
No wonder we forget so many important things and are always driven by whatever fire we need to put out. To use the terminology of the great self-improvement expert Stephen Covey, we get stuck in Quadrant 1 (important and urgent) and neglect Quadrant 2 (important but not urgent).
GTD for Dummies
OK, we can all agree we need to write things down. But how many of us are awash in countless “to do” lists sitting on our desks atop overflowing file cabinets of reference material, while several dozen sticky notes with various reminders sit firmly attached to our computers, which have multitudes of digital folders in them with other reminders and “to do” lists and reference material? And that doesn’t even include email!
Is this really much of an improvement over memory?
The key with GTD is to put every commitment and important reminder into one trusted system. That way everything is right in front of you and can be easily assessed, changed and referenced. This system can be very flexible, too. For example, my brother uses several notepads he keeps in a binder, while I use an online program called Evernote. One of the many brilliant parts about GTD is that it is really just a framework that is endlessly customizable to your personal tastes.
The first step is to capture all of life’s inputs: emails, voicemails, upcoming meetings and whatnot, and then to sort it all out by making a decision about what to do with them. You first need to decide whether an item is actionable or not. If it is not, you can either throw it away, incubate it (put it on a someday/maybe list to reference later when you have the time, or put a note on your calendar to readdress the issue) or file it away for reference.
If it is actionable, the first question is, “Can I do it in 2 minutes or less?” If so, just do it. This clears away a lot of the clutter, and I’ve found this one tip to be immensely helpful. If it is not so easily done, you can either delegate it or defer it (unless it is for a specific date or time, in which case you put it on your calendar).
With regard to delegation, you create a “waiting for” list. I have two: one in my Evernote and one in my email account. I cannot tell you helpful it has been to have a “@waiting for” label in my Gmail. Before GTD, whenever I sent an email, I literally had to remember what I was waiting for. The number of times I said to myself, “Wait, have I heard back from X about Y?” is beyond counting. Now, I just reference my “@waiting for” label everyday and can easily see what questions and requests I’ve made which await response. It’s an incredible burden off your mind.
If you are deferring a given item, you either put it on “action item” list and write down what the next action step is or, if it requires more than one step, you can put it on a “project list.” If it involves making a decision with someone else, it goes on the “agenda item” list.. Remember, a confused mind will procrastinate. It is key to know exactly what the next step is, even if you don’t know what every step will be. Often, just trying to figure out the next action step can be a huge benefit in getting a project off the ground.
Then once a week you do a weekly review where you clean up your GTD and do a mind sweep (get everything out of your head and into your trusted system). Then you look at your someday/maybe list, evaluate the different important areas of your life and review your short and long term goals. This will keep all of your commitments, goals and tasks right in front of you and clear your mind into a relaxed state that is hard to describe.
Of course, there is much more to GTD, but I hope that small taste makes it clear how powerful this system can be and why it is so worthwhile to try.
GTD for Real Estate Investors
So what about for us real estate investors? Well, the fundamentals are the same, and it produces the same results for real estate investors and non-real estate investors alike. Though with investors, there are a few important points to note, especially regarding your reference system.
The first important point, however, is that an investor will need to have a trusted system that can be carried around. Real estate investors are always on the move, so if you have a paper system, just take it with you. But if you want to use an online system, I would highly recommend buying a tablet that you can take around and reference. It’s also important that that tablet can access the internet without wifi, as there often isn’t free wifi in a vacant, bank-foreclosed home.
Then comes the reference system. One of the most important things for real estate investors is to be able to keep all of the information about your various properties together in an easy to reference system. I recommend having a reference system that includes a folder for each individual property, as well as an email label for each property nestled under a label for “properties” or “houses,” which makes these emails and files easily accessible. For example, my email looks like this:
Not every reference file needs to be directly in your Evernote or whatever GTD system you use, but you will need to clearly mark every such file and know where they are. Don’t go creating a new reference folder every time you want to file something away. It’s important to keep the number of reference folders to the fewest possible, but there are two you will absolutely need. The first is a contact list, which we keep in a Google Doc file. In this document, we also keep a list of every referral we’ve gotten (say, for a handyman, electrician, etc.), along with their contact information and who the referral came from. This has been very helpful when it comes time to find someone for whatever task we currently need done.
The second is for those of you who make tons of offers only expecting a few to go through. This is a sheet that keeps track of the address, list price, offer price, current offer/counter and strike price along with any other pertinent information. Once again we use Google Docs and our spreadsheet looks like this:
One component I would like to add, but haven’t mastered yet, is a networking reference file. Real estate investors network a lot, and it’s hard to keep track of everyone. This file would be similar to the contact list, but would instead note everyone you’ve networked with, what they do and the like. Evernote allows you to upload pictures and documents to attach to any note, so you could actually upload someone’s business card and attach it to the note you’ve created for them.
Really, the possibilities are endless.
Everyone’s trusted system will look a little different, and it will take plenty of trial and error to find out what works best for you. But what the research shows, and what my and many others’ personal experience can testify to, is that the Getting Things Done system that David Allen created can massively increase your productivity, while simultaneously relieving stress. Make sure to give it a try for yourself!
Have you tried the Getting Things Done system? How do you stay organized and productive in your business?
Leave your comments and tips below!