There’s no shortage of articles and blog posts extolling how much more productive knowledge workers are when surrounded by digital tools. If technology sparks so much workflow improvement, why do some people feel overwhelmed by our many tools? Aside from the obvious friction from switching between different tools to do your work, one other factor is the limit of our brains to hold information and turn it into action. This simple understanding of a mind’s limit creates the foundation for the book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity from David Allen.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your workload coupled with the multitude of digital tools at your disposal, this article shows you how the Getting Things Done (GTD) system can underpin your day-to-day in order to provide clarity, calm, and a sense of control over your workload. While there are many adaptations of GTD available in both written and video form, this article delivers a clear breakdown of the main points in GTD so you can implement the system yourself. We’d also recommend listening to the audiobook or reading the print version. The goal of this article – and corresponding flowchart – is to equip you with everything you need to start getting things done.
What is GTD organization?
Organizing with GTD means pulling together every single thought, idea, and task that passes by your brain to create an ordered approach to all the actions needed to remove these items from your inbox.
This inbox you create can be digital, analog, or a combination of both. Everything in it is open-ended until you make a decision on what action to take and when. GTD takes the open loop of your inbox and closes it by giving you a clear idea of what’s important and what can wait. In order to close this loop, a GTD user must identify, clarify, and organize the thoughts, ideas, and tasks that come their way.
Two principles of GTD
The two main principles of GTD are control and perspective. Utilizing the system to the fullest extent embodies the control principle. When it comes to perspective, GTD focuses less on big-picture goals and visions and more on minute details that often claim space in your brain. When your mind is cluttered with the minutiae, it’s difficult to focus on the overall vision. With everything organized in the GTD system, you can build a better perspective on life. Allen even suggests reflecting at six different levels – or horizons – to build this perspective.
Which is the first stage of getting things done?
The first stage of GTD is to capture – or gather – everything that grabs your attention. Allen shared an approach to your first round of collection that can be adapted for anyone.
Starting with a large stack of printer paper (or scrap paper, or even a blank journal), write down every single thing that is pulling your attention. This means everything – from the thought you had this morning when you noticed you ran out of garbage bags at home to the big department project that’s due next quarter. Write everything down. Allen notes that he has seen this process take anywhere between one to six hours, so plan accordingly. Set a date – like a Sunday – to get comfy and dump everything out of your brain onto paper or your digital to-do list.
After this initial GTD start-up, this stage requires more maintenance than construction. Decide what kind of inboxes you want to use to store inputs and add items on a rolling basis. You can rely on mainly a physical inbox with your email inbox as a secondary collection space. You can also stick mostly to a digital inbox – like the notes app or a to-do list app – and add in physical items – like a paper parking ticket – when necessary..
That pretty much covers the first stage of GTD, but what do you do once you capture everything? With this info, you need to clarify, organize, reflect, and engage. Clarifying involves drilling down to what each piece of info in your inboxes mean – is it a task for work? Is it something personal? Does it require a large amount of time to accomplish? Is it dependent on completing a different task that hasn’t been added to the bucket yet? Answering these questions will help you decide which kind of list an item should fall under.
The GTD technique has a specific set of lists to help you organize each item. The first is the tickler list, composed of items that you’re going to table until a specific point in time. This is not to be confused with the “someday” list. which is comprised of items with no set date to revisit.
A dependency list is items dependent on other tasks or people. You’ll also need a reference list to hold the information that is not actionable, but may be useful to your knowledge at some point.
Another list you’ll need: a projects list, with corresponding tasks, and a “next actions” list, for tasks that need to be done immediately, or almost immediately.
You should add tasks with specific due dates to a calendar list. Project plans provide a list of the key goals, vision, and outcome for a specific project.
Building out your organized map is intense. And when you’re covering every thought that comes through, it can get out of hand. That’s why one of the most crucial parts of GTD is reviewing your lists on a regular basis. Allen recommends a weekly review where you sit down to look at your lists and reprioritize based on new information or needs. The last part of GTD is simply acting. Based on your lists and different priorities, start checking items off.
What are the benefits of using GTD?
One of the biggest benefits of GTD is that it acts as a foundation from which you can utilize the tools that work best for you. For example, a pomodoro timer can help you focus on a task to be more productive, but it can’t ensure you work on the task that needs the most attention in that moment. In the contest of the GTD system, however, a pomodoro timer helps you work through your lists – starting with the most important tasks.
Another huge benefit of GTD is that it works with your brain, not against it. If you’re familiar with the GTD concept, even tangentially, you may have seen the quote from Allen, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” This quote is often used to sum up the GTD organization system, but I think a better way to frame it – based on this quote – is that GTD accepts how you’re wired and instead of trying to force a rewire, it offers a system to complement rather than reconstruct.
This is unsurprising when you learn more about the author’s motives in developing this kind of system. David Allen claims he held 35 different jobs before he turned 35. In each one, he tried to find the easiest way to get work done. He looked for loopholes to achieve the desired productivity, without requiring extraneous effort. This meant assessing how he and others worked to design a productivity process that fit.
In the next section, we’ll break down the process mentioned in the ‘main ideas’ section so you can see the full picture of the system and begin to input your own projects into it.
This flowchart gives a high-level reference point for how to operate the GTD system. From receiving an input to taking action, this chart is meant to cover every step of the process so you can keep GTD engrained in the foundation of your day-to-day.
GTD in practice
Reading this book summary likely added a few more items to your mental inbox – find a notebook, look up “GTD,” cancel that streaming service you never use. Okay, that last one might have been an uninvited thought. It’s also an example of exactly what the GTD system is trying to help curb – all the unwanted mental interruptions that keep coming back because they have no place to go. Your brain is great at thinking of these actions, but it has no place to hold them. By collecting everything that runs across your brain and turning it into organized actionable items, you can build up your productivity in a way that works with your natural abilities – not against them.