I have been thinking a lot about personal time management and how it can help artistic people handle the fact that they need to produce artistic work in a timely manor while still having time to explore and experiment.

It’s a common problem in the animation industry.. We have to be creative, unconventional, unique, exciting and so does our work. We try hard not to resort to cliché and formulaic animation, and in order to do this we need the time and freedom to experiment.

We are also charged with meeting very specific and hard deadlines whose very nature can make it difficult to be in the head space to be creative. The closer the deadline, the more pressure, the harder it is to be creative and the quicker we resort to animation tricks and techniques to try and get a step ahead.

While sometimes necessary, I have often wondered if there is a method for handling notes and changes better to be able to keep our focus on being creative, and not on the looming deadline.

I found that by following a specific methodology for blocking my shots I could worry less about the technical alpects of animating and could focus on the performance. I discovered the same thing about moving to first pass.. Keep strict control over my methods, and any anxiety over process is gone, again allowing me to focus on the tAsk at hand.


That really is the key to this whole thing. Having the ability to focus on the right thing at the right moment for the right amount of time.

So how do we work on our ability to focus? How do we cut out all other distractions and make sure we don’t have anything else bogging us down?

Getting Things Done

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about something called “Getting Things Done”, or GTD. This is based on a book by David Allen. It’s a pretty interesting concept, and I think it could work really well for helping animators focus on their notes and tasks, getting them done quickly and on time/budget/etc.

David like to talk about this idea of “mind like water”. It’s getting everything out of your mind and into a trusted system so you don’t have all these little “oh I’ve gotta..” and “oh, that reminds me..” and “what was that thing I had to do..” thoughts floating around in your head. Once that stuff is down somewhere, you can easily review it and know exactly what things you can do in any given context, and most importantly what the next action is that you need to do on any project to move it along.

A quick example.. let’s say we do a mind sweep about fixing the bathroom and we come up with the following tasks:

  • clean out bathroom
  • paint the wall
  • strip the drawers
  • put up blinds
  • put up artwork
  • mop the floor
  • re-stock the bathroom with supplies

Those are a good list of tasks, but some of them are more involved than others.  Before starting any of these that are now in our “inbox”, we should go through and figure out exactly what each of these tasks involves.  We can look at each one at a time and then figure out if they’re one task or multiple.  If each of these is actually too complicated to be a single task, we can make it a project and then create a list of sub-tasks for each project that will help us achieve it.  Then we’ll mark the “next physical action” we can take on any of those projects, and also specify the CONTEXT in which the action takes place.  I’ll demonstrate:

  • Clean Out Bathroom

This task seems simple, but there’s a lot of junk in there.  In fact, there’s so much old junk, that we really need a debris box in order to effectively clean out the bathroom.  So here’s what my new project “clean out bathroom” becomes:

  • Clean Out Bathroom
    • Order Debris box – Boxes ‘R Us – 555-2121 @call @next
    • Ask brother for help @call @next
    • Haul everything out to debris box @bathroom
    • Ask to remove debris box 555-2121 @call

As you can see, I’ve broken up the “Clean out bathroom” task into 4 separate tasks that are actual physical acts that I can do.  I’ve also added “contexts” to each of these.  For example, I have 3 @call contexts, meaning that those tasks need to be done when i’m near a phone and can call somebody.  The @bathroom context means I need to be at the bathroom to do the task.  The @next context means it’s the next action I can take in this project.  I actually have two @next actions, because I can do both of them next, and it doesn’t matter really which one I do first.

Why do I need to add a “context”?  Simply put, the GTD method asks us to do this type of planning with EVERY task/project/thought we have.  It doesn’t matter if it’s as simple as buying soap at the super market, or as complicated as planning a corporate takeover.  The thought is that if you get this stuff out of your head into a series of lists and trusted systems, you free your mind to have more thoughts and be more creative.  Once you’ve got all this stuff out, you can make smart decisions about what to do.  You make those decisions based on the “context” you’re in.  For example, if I’m near a phone, I can look at a list of @call tasks and start making phone calls.  If I’m not near a phone, then I should need to look at that list and I shouldn’t be bothered by those things I can’t physically do.  Just like the @bathroom context.  Why should I be thinking “oh, I need to clean out the bathroom” if I’m on an airplane flying to bombay?  Once I’ve got that task down, I shouldn’t need to think about it until I’m in the situation where it comes up.

So, how does this apply to animation?

Well, I’m wondering if making these types of lists and contexts can help when dealing with notes or fixing shots.  I’ve often suggested to people that they make lists of all the changes they want to do on their shots before they start making those fixes, allowing them to get a better idea of what types of changes they’ll need to make in the amount of time they have.  This then lets them determine WHAT is the most important thing to fix.  Maybe if we include this idea of @contexts, we can enhance this process.

Let’s look at an example.

Let’s say you show your shot to your director and you get a series of notes.  You put all these notes in your inbox and it looks something like this:

  • Check your weight
  • Raise the right arm higher
  • There’s a pop on frame 42 in the torso
  • Feet could use a little work
  • Add some eye blinks after the word “Boingo”
  • Fix the lipsync
  • open the jaw more in the start, but it’s kinda flappy at the end
  • Don’t forget the overlap in the fingers
  • Tighten up the timing around frames 173
  • Exaggerate the eyes
  • Soften the third wink.

First of all, good for you on writing all these notes down.  That’s the first step!  But now, instead of going through the list and DOING the notes, let’s process them into various contexts.  We can break them up any number of ways.. off the top of my head I’m thinking @body, @face, @lipsync, @finesse but you can really do whatever you want.  Maybe break it into sections of the shot, maybe into characters, do whatever works for your shot.  Anyway, let’s process this:

  • Check your weight @body
  • Raise the right arm higher @body
  • There’s a pop on frame 42 in the torso @body
  • Feet could use a little work @finesse
  • Add some eye blinks after the word “Boingo” @face
  • Fix the lipsync @lipsync
  • open the jaw more in the start, but it’s kinda flappy at the end @lipsync
  • Don’t forget the overlap in the fingers @finesse
  • Tighten up the timing around frames 173 @body
  • Exaggerate the eyes @face
  • Soften the third wink. @finesse

Once you’ve done this, you can now figure out the order of approach for handling these contexts.  Obviously, anything relating to the body is going to be very important, because it affects everything else.  So I’d re-order my tasks based on the context.

  • Check your weight @body
  • Raise the right arm higher @body
  • There’s a pop on frame 42 in the torso @body
  • Tighten up the timing around frames 173 @body
  • Add some eye blinks after the word “Boingo” @face
  • Exaggerate the eyes @face
  • Fix the lipsync @lipsync
  • open the jaw more in the start, but it’s kinda flappy at the end @lipsync
  • Feet could use a little work @finesse
  • Don’t forget the overlap in the fingers @finesse
  • Soften the third wink. @finesse
Now when we look at these tasks, we have a much better sense of how much work we need to do on the body, the face, the lipsync, and the finesse before we’re done.  It gives us a good way to judge the amount of time we want to spend on the fixes, and we can much more confidently work on these various sections without being distracted by other contexts when we’re not working on them.
I’m interested in seeing if anyone’s interested in trying this on any of their shots & seeing how it works for them.  If you’re reading this & you’re an animator.. give it a shot and let me know what you think.  Or if you have other ideas, I’d love to hear those, too!
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18 Responses to GTD for animation?

  1. […] This is from my example of my “Fixing the bathroom” project in my previous post. […]

  2. Scott S says:


    it’s a slippery slope to middle management 😉 This is a nice breakdown of David Allen’s system. I need to re-read that book now that my b12 levels are back up.


  3. jason says:

    I like to think that too many artists forget that they need to know this stuff, too. It’s certainly not taught in art school, and if it were many of us would have more hair, be fitter, have better relationships, and be much less awkward at various social functions. 🙂

  4. Wenny says:

    Great Post. I like sorting things out before doing it.
    Be on schedule also a part of GTD i think.

    Jason I have a personal question for you. How do you face the fact of program crushes. It is so annoying sometimes, specially for the person like me who always forget to save. Then BOOO! 2 hours of works gone..
    I am so bugged..
    What happened then, I have less patience keep doing the work..
    I reckon that happen to everyone, thought I am curious what other people would do after that..


  5. Robbie says:

    Hey Jason,

    Thanks for sharing this new method, it sounds very interesting.

    I have never heard of it before today, but I think I have been using it (without knowing) for a while now when I am working on my animations.
    Everytime I get feedback from the director or other animators I usually make a list of fixes I need to do like you said, and usually that list is quite messy because it has everything not in a logical order.

    Then I put some x’s next to each note to remember what to do first, what’s more important gets 3 x’s (body), then the face gets 2 x’s and the finesse gets only one. That way everything is much more clear to me and I think it helps me better understand how much time I need to spend on each fix depending on how much time I have to do them.

    So I think that is a good method, of course the one you described from the book it’s even more precise and less messy. I will give it a shot and let you know, but I am sure it helps clear your mind.


  6. jason says:

    Heya wenny!

    luckily I’m using propritary software at work that saves all the time.. so even if it crashes I usually don’t loose any work.

    When I was using Maya, I got in the habbit of hitting ctrl+s every time I made an important change.. sometimes that was every minute, sometimes every 10 seconds. It was literally like “set key, set key, save, set key, save, set key, set key, set key, save”. That way I never lost that much data. 🙂

  7. jason says:

    Robbie, that sounds pretty cool! I’m looking forward to hearing how the contexts work for ya! 🙂

    Another thing you can add is the idea of “energy”. Figure out how much energy you need to be able to address those notes, and then do the right notes at the right time of day. If you can totally cruz through body mechanics, make sure you do them at a time when you’re okay with not focusing as much. If you have to concentrate for facial, make sure to address those notes when you’re in the mood to concentrate.

  8. Matt says:

    Hey Jason, nice post. Do you think this could be applied in any way to fast blocking. I’m working in Tv series industry, in France. We have to do 150 frames a day. We usually have very few retakes as long as the idea of th shot is clear for the audience, like if it’s not popping too much, it’s ok, so I won’t be able to use this on my everyday work.
    Let me explain you my workflow.
    – I liten to the audio debrief from the director and the animator supervisor, 1 or 2 times while the 3d scene is opening
    – I listen to the sound of the shot 3 or 4 times and breakdown the major accents if it’s a dialogue shot or think about the action if it’s an action shot.
    – I make an advanced blocking, in spline, with anticipations, ease in and overshoot, not really working with the tangents but addings keys.
    – 1st (and often only) lips pass
    – eyes and brows
    – 1st preview
    – refine polish
    – previews until it’s ok
    – Show to the lead
    – retake
    – Waiting for validation

    150 frames a day is quite hard. It’s often the first clear idea that is in the shot. We don’t have time to explore new ideas, or once every 3 or 4 shot.
    How can GTD be used in such an industry to help me focus all day and still can be more creative and bring new things to the shots?


    • jason says:

      Heya Matt!
      Tough one.. that’s a lot to do in one day! Not sure how specifically gtd would work, but planning and being able to focus would certainly help!

      Sounds like trying the “pomodoro” technique might help for helping you focus on different areas. Check it out:

  9. Robbie says:


    The idea of putting “energy” into the list is good, in fact usually I do what I want to do first. For example while I am working on the body sometimes I feel like I need to do a first pass of the lipsync because I am “in that mood”, so I do that first because I feel like it’s easier to do it, and I do it faster and without much “energy”, and when I am done I go back to the body with a freshier mind as well and more energy. So I think that is another good habit for us animators.


  10. Anirudh says:

    Hey Jason,

    I have just started reading this book, around 10 pages down and considering your post, I am so eager to read the entire book.

    Your idea of breaking tasks down, adding context and energy level can indeed be a breakthru in terms of workflow and having a better management of time at hand. Tags like BODY/FACIAL/FINESSE and so on can be super useful for animators in focusing on the most important things first.

    What can be challenging is that, what if the context is BODY and energy required is HIGH, then getting to it can come with crossing many procrastination barrier since sometimes we may not be in the best of energy levels and at the same time this task has more priority than others.

    Anyways, I will definitely keep a shot at this and see how it goes.

    So do you use pen and paper for this kind of GTD, or any applications ?

    Thanks for this fantastic insight ! Cheers!

  11. Helder Lopes says:

    Hi Jason!

    Adding the extra “@Body, @face” is a really cool thing.

    sometimes, I did the list of things to correct and often I changed things, that later I have to change again, because I moved a parent control after the child ! (stupid boy! :D)


  12. Pascal says:

    If you like GTD, you will love ZTD (Zen to Done). Based on GTD it takes the good of GTD and adds some simplifications.

    See this link for some parallels between GTD/ZTD

    Check out the blogger’s book new book:

    Very much applicable in life and animation.

  13. Pascal says:

    BTW are you still using Toggl? You got me hooked on that site/app!


    • jason says:

      Heya pascal!

      haven’t been using toggl for a while now.. I should get back into it! hopefully the system I decide on will allow some sort of task timing so i can do both together. 🙂

  14. Hey Jason!
    Nice post. I like your approach of breaking down things into stage-wise importance.

    I follow a similar method, all comments I get from mentor critiques or from peers go into a list and then I just number all those things to reorder them, then usually draw a little “icon” for every group of notes – like a head icon for “facials”.
    I love this part the most – striking them off one-by-one as I go finish them one at a time 🙂


  15. Heather says:

    Talk about synchronicity – this kind of thing has been percolating in my head and wanting me to do something with it for awhile now. Looks like the universe is smacking me upside the head, now.

    Thanks for the post.

  16. […] you think about it from a GTD (Getting Things Done by David Allen) perspective, every task we have to do in life is like a […]

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