GTD vs. TOE – The Case of the Rapid Rebate

After reading Getting Things Done on that fateful plane ride a year ago next Wednesday, one of my first steps was to throw away some of the books on organization that had previously guided my personal organizing efforts.

Among these was Stephanie Winston’s The Organized Executive, henceforth known as TOE. I recycled it because it had counseled something directly counter to the David Allen GTD system.

It’s probably bad manners to link to a book you don’t recommend. “If you can’t say something nice…” And TOE probably does have some good advice. But one of Stephanie’s points that had stuck with me was the idea that you should create file folders with broad enough categories that they would typically be about a half-inch thick, so you can ideally find what you’re looking for in 30 seconds or so.

David Allen, conversely, says you need to be willing to have a file folder with just a single sheet of paper, if that’s what will help you find it.

That’s a serious difference of opinion. Which way works better was obvious me when I had to re-file energy rebate forms for my new furnace and air conditioner. The utility company had kicked my application back to me because one of the model numbers and its efficiency rating weren’t matching the database, so I needed to find my receipts and get the forms corrected.

Because I had followed the GTD model (including buying the label machine to make filing fun), I was able to find the documents, go to the utility office, get the form corrected and return home…all within less than 30 minutes, and my $500 rebate was on the way. That’s getting things done.

The problem with the TOE method is you artificially try to create categories, or shoehorn documents into an existing folder, and then when you’re trying to find it again you ask, “Now, what category would I have chosen for that?”

I suppose it’s conceivable that under the TOE method I might have filed these receipts under “Utilities” and been able to locate them fairly quickly, but I’ve had enough experiences when I couldn’t put my hands on documents several months later because I didn’t know whether they were under “Household” or “Home Repair” or “Utilities” or “Misc. Receipts” or one of several other broad categories.

TOE’s problem, or rather my problem with TOE, is you have to try to recreate the complex filing decision process at retrieval time that you used when you first filed the document. And if you guess wrong, you end up digging through a relatively thicker file, only to come up empty-handed and frustrated. I may not have been doing the TOE method correctly. I may have misunderstood how to do it. But I didn’t have the same problems with GTD.

With the GTD system, using one simple A-Z general reference paper filing system, it was easy to guess that the receipts would be filed under “Air Conditioning” or “Furnace.” I had used “Air Conditioning” so I found it instantly. But even if I had used “Furnace” the paperwork would have been in the second place I looked, and it wouldn’t have been packed in with several months of utility bills or other irrelevant papers.

I guess this is my way of saying, “Trust the system.” Start out by trying to follow it to the letter. The recommendations David Allen makes are based on a couple of decades of experience with people whose lives are a lot more complicated than mine, or probably yours. If it can work for them, it can work for you.

Then, after you get confident with the proper form, you can improvise and jazz it up if you’d like.

I’m sure Stephanie Winston’s new and improved TOE that takes modern technology into account has some good advice. I had an edition that was probably 15 years old, so it was probably good to toss based on its vintage alone.

But GTD works well with paper files and index cards, or with the latest gadgets. I’m a geek. I love how blogs, for instance, can be used as a quickly searchable general reference file. To the extent you can use electronic systems and indexing utilities on your hard drive or blog to quickly retrieve information, you could cram everything into the same virtual folder, as long as you can remember any key phrase in the document.

But paper isn’t going away. That’s why the GTD system, complete with electronic label maker, is well worth following.

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Author: Lee Aase

Husband of one, father of six, grandfather of 15. Chancellor Emeritus, SMUG. Emeritus staff of Mayo Clinic. Founder of HELPcare and Administrator for HELPcare Clinic.

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