Shortcuts for Getting Things Done

Like many other developers, I’ve fallen into (and occasionally out of) David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” (GTD) way of working over the last 18 months or so. It started with the book, and then later the e-book, but more than either of those, I’ve found that quick and handy shortcuts keep me on track.

One of the key elements of GTD is that you put your trust in some external system to keep track of all the “stuff” you need to do. This gets it out of your head, where it’s nagging at you and consuming bandwidth. Obviously, having some effective shortcuts for putting tasks into your system quickly is very useful. Most of the shortcuts revolve around dealing with Outlook, which I use to organize everything in my work life and a whole lot of things outside of work.

For example, I use the heck out of Bayden SlickRun on my machine. As quick-launch utilities go, it’s by far my favorite. It’s lightweight, takes very little system resources, and can be configured to perform a variety of creative tasks. Some of the GTD-related shortcuts I use include:


  • nm – To create a new message. This shortcut simply calls outlook.exe with “/c ipm.note” as a command line parameter. Even with Outlook minimized, this will open a new message window.

  • nt – Probably the most used shortcut, this creates a new task by passing “/c ipm.task” to the command line.

  • na – Creates a new appointment with “/c ipm.appointment”.

  • nc – Creates a new contact with “/c ipm.contact”.

  • nn – Creates a new note with “/c ipm.stickynote”.

These get more use when I’m out of the office with my laptop. When I’m in the office, I use a Microsoft Natural Keyboard 4000, which has several shortcut keys across the top (above the function keys). Once you install the Intellitype software for the keyboard, you can set those keys to do whatever you want. In my case, they create new messages, appointments, tasks, notes, and launch Visual Studio — all one touch away.

One of the key elements of GTD is the idea of context — that certain types of tasks can best (or only) be accomplished in certain situations. Various GTD discussions groups frequently have on-going discussions for right/wrong/best context, but it just boils down to how each person works. One example frequently given is @errands or @phone, where you might categorize tasks that can be done while you’re out running errands or while planning to make phone calls. Neither of these work well for me, as I don’t spend a lot of time running errands or on the phone.

On the other hand, I have @computer which has tasks that can be performed whenever I’m at a computer (home or office) — web sites to look at and that sort of thing. I also have @development, which has tasks that are specific to development. That is, I have Visual Studio, SQL Enterprise Mgr, Vault, and my other tools open… so now I can start digging into those tasks. I also like @Home, which is handy for storing the things I want to do around the house (or more commonly, the things I don’t want to do but need to get done anyway).

The e-book mentioned above also has the suggestion that you create categories for people you regularly work with. I’ve found this to be helpful for our management meetings at work. Because many of the people I work with travel regularly, I add reminders of things I want to mention/ask the next time they’re in town and we meet. For many topics, that approach works better than sending out email messages that will just be a part of the flood when they plug into their hotel room.

Once you get used to the keyboard shortcuts for asks, you can add items to your list as soon as they come up — thereby freeing you up to stay focused on the task at hand. When editing a task, type the task title, hit ALT+G to open the categories list, type the first couple of characters of the category you want, SPACE to select it, ENTER to close the window, and ALT+S to save the task — after a while, it becomes second nature and takes seconds to add a new task.

More recently, I’ve added ClearContext to the mix. This is an addin for Outlook that makes organizing your Inbox very easy and efficient. It analyzes your email patterns and can move/highlight the messages you receive based on sender, topic, priority, etc. There are a number of other productivity boosters that, as you learn them and make them habits, can quickly add up. I really like the ‘task’, ‘delegate’ and ‘defer’ options, which let you turn a message into a task for yourself, delegate it as a task for someone else, or simply hide it away until a later date. When you first install it, you don’t notice much beyond a few new toolbars here and there. But as you read through the guide and get a handle on its features, you realize there’s a lot under the hood. They just released their latest version with these features and their ‘basic’ version can now be used for free. If you spend much of your day organizing or managing projects in Outlook, give their demo a try.