[Posted by Steven Noble]

OK, I admit it — I’m addicted to the Getting Things Done (GTD) method of managing tasks. However, I’ve tailored the system heavily for my work as an interactive marketing analyst, and this affects how I interact with other people, including those who want input into my research agenda.

My overall approach
Basically, I manage most of my work electronically. I use email/Outlook tasks for almost everything I should do, RSS for almost everything I should know, and social networks for professional and social interaction.

Why? To answer this properly, it’s important to understand GTD concepts, starting with the concept of contexts.

The concept of contexts
A context is a situation in which you complete a task. For example, being at home with your power tools is a context. Being at work in your boss’s office is a context. In each context, certain tasks are feasible and others are not. One of the ways in which GTD makes you more productive is by only showing you the tasks you can complete in your current context.

As an analyst, I regularly work from home and I almost always work with my laptop and smartphone. Basically, I can do almost anything almost anywhere, so I have very few contexts in my GTD system.

Naturally, I separate out @home so I’m not thinking about personal tasks during the day, @music for whenever I feel like staying up late cruising garage rock websites, and @books for when I’m shopping for something to read. However, when I’m in work mode, I’m not a heavy user of contexts, which means I foresake one of GTD’s most powerful principles.

The concept of projects
The second major organising principle in GTD is projects. Every research report I’m working on is one project, as is every speaking engagement — and so on and so forth. But most of the actions in my to-do list are not tied to specific projects.

The concept of next action
So, I have few contexts and plenty of my tasks without projects. This means my task list is long and unstructured, so it’s essential that it be usable. Thanks to the GTD concept of next actions, it is.

A next action is the next specific thing that you must do to move closer to achieving an outcome. For example, you may receive a long email. It may contain a mix of information, ideas and requests. In response, you could do 1000 things — or be so paralysed that you do nothing at all. According to GTD, you should quickly process this email by converting it into an action — the one specific thing that must do next to bring you closer to an objective.

Once I go through this quick mental process of identifying the next action triggered by each email, software takes care of the rest — automatically creating the Outlook task and filing the email where I don’t see it but I can retrieve it with one click. The process is quick, painless and powerful.

What does this mean?
This clearly affects how I respond to communication.

When communication is designed to motivate me to take an action, then it’s best to send me email. Direct messages on Twitter or Facebook or IM or the phone are just not productive for most day-to-day work correspondence. The only way to convert them into an Outlook task is with tedious copy-pasting and manual rewriting.

Of course if the action you’re after is a briefing, the best option is to use Forrester’s briefing page. If you go through that system, then our briefings team will send me email that identifies my next action on my behalf. Sweet.

On the other hand, when communication is designed to just keep me informed, then I’m with Read/Write Web — RSS is by far the best option. I can absorb the information in RSS feeds quickly. I can search them later using Google Reader. They go into the brain bank. It works.

And as for social networks? Well, no surprises — they’re best for socialising and networking. Kinda makes sense.