If you are an avid reader of self-help books, or a fan of productivity ‘lifehacks’, then it’s very likely that Getting Things Done ranks highly on your all-time list of important reads. David Allen’s seminal business book has proven a massive hit across all ages, drawing widespread acclaim and spawning multiple time-management applications.
In 2007, Getting Things Done was touted by Time Magazine as the ‘ultimate self-help business book of its time‘. Strong words, no doubt, and I agree with them 100%.
The latest application to digitalise the Getting Things Done system is Nirvana, and thankfully for any Mr. Shallow Pockets among us, it’s completely free to use.
What is The Nirvana System?
Nirvana follows the same blueprint touted by David Allen in Getting Things Done. Allen’s system relies on two core principles – perspective and control. Any task that occupies our mind, whether it be doing the laundry or launching a high profile website, needs to be recorded and removed as a distraction to free up valuable ‘thinking power’.
Allen argues that our minds are comparable to the RAM in your computer. A complex library of thoughts, reminders, things to do, and things to act on. He believes that we create ‘mental blocks’ by attempting to carry so much information in our short-term memories, and that we can make immediate progress by using a workflow system based around 5 stages.
1. Collect things that command our attention.
2. Process what they mean and what to do about them.
3. Organise the results.
4. Review as options for what to do next.
5. Do it.
So, how do these steps result in improved productivity with Nirvana?
The interface is segmented in to 4 key areas.
Inbox – Where you record tasks and to-do items as they enter your mind.
Actions – Once a task has been entered in to the system, it can fall in to four focus areas.
- Next means it is the next required action to move a project along.
- Waiting means that the task cannot be completed until a certain requirement is met (e.g. your colleague sends you the files you need to work with).
- Scheduled means this is a task that you have planned to do on a certain date.
- Someday is for all those arbitrary tasks that would be nice to complete, but can’t be worked on in the present. It’s an incubation folder for all the tasks that you might do on a lazy Sunday afternoon in the future.
Focus – Once you’ve decided what tasks to work on for the day, you can star them. It’s essentially your to-do list. If you have scheduled tasks for the future, they will appear here once their ‘doing day’ has arrived.
Projects – Here you create projects for every conceivable group of tasks that you might want to work on in the future.
Launching FinchPremiums.com was a project with about 60 tasks that I slowly chipped away at, focusing on 6-7 every day.
Similarly, planning a trip to America is a ‘project’ in the sense that several processes have to happen before you can tick it off as done and dusted. Buying tickets, choosing hotels, finding a dog carer and etc.
To get maximum value out of Nirvana, you should first add a project for every single “I want/need to do this” that enters your mind. Most people will have at least 50 projects that they’re working on at any given time, from arduous 3 year work projects to preparing a fancy dress outfit for the weekend.
You can assign the projects to the same subsets of Next, Waiting, Scheduled or Someday. Maybe you don’t want to plan a trip to America, but you do want to travel round the world by the time you’re 40. One is a next action, the other is for someday.
The key to freeing up your mental RAM is to get the thoughts documented and contained within Nirvana so you don’t have to carry them in your short-term memory. The ultimate goal is to free your mind so that you can focus only on the task at hand.
The GTD system is a very effective framework, and Nirvana makes it easy to follow. But to do so successfully, you’re probably going to need to spend an entire weekend getting your projects added to the application. Not only that, but you will need to define the next actions for each and every project.
It’s no good saying “I’d really love to do this project“. Your projects must have next action steps so you don’t have to waste valuable mental energy thinking about what you need to do next when you come back to them. You just do it.
Tasks can also be set with contexts and priority ranking. You can group tasks based on where they need to be done (at home, in the office, at the store), or even how much energy they require.
So if, like me, you find yourself sagging on a Friday afternoon with only an hour to go before you’re done, you can filter for tasks that match the requirements of ‘in the office’ and ‘low energy required’. This is one of my favourite ways of getting the most out of my least productive time.
There’s nothing worse than sagging at the end of the day and feeling overwhelmed by the lofty ambitions of what you hope to achieve in the bigger picture. Setting low energy tasks gives you small victories to keep you moving forward.
Nirvana vs. The Competition
How does Nirvana stack up against the rest of the apps based around David Allen’s system?
Arguably the biggest player in the GTD marketplace is OmniFocus, an excellent and comprehensive application that has the added advantage of being compatible with iPads and iPhones. Sounds great, and it is great… if you’re an Apple fan.
My phone is a Samsung S2, and I have no desire to get an iPad…so no benefit there.
The desktop version of OmniFocus only works on Macs. While I do have a Mac, I also spend a lot of time on my laptop which is Windows-based. Needless to say, there’s very little point in having a life management tool if you have to be in front of an iProduct to use it.
Nirvana has an advantage here. It’s accessible on both Windows and Mac. There doesn’t seem to be a smartphone application for it yet, but you can email tasks to your Nirvana address and they will show up in the system.
I’ve never used Remember The Milk, and I’m not a big fan of Things. You’ll have to let me know if I’m missing out.
Whereas most of these applications are not 100% free, Nirvana is, and it’s lightning fast to get started with (5 fields and you’re in). For anybody who wants to try the GTD system, but doesn’t want to spend $80, I highly recommend checking it out.
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