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Getting Things Done (GTD)

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GTD Meaning

What does GTD mean? The Getting Things Done (GTD) method by David Allen is not about getting things done.  GTD is really about being appropriately engaged . It is about being appropriately engaged with the project or task you are working on at any given moment. It is also about freeing the mental bandwidth you need to think. You need space (physical and mental) to be creative and innovative. However, when that space is cluttered with too many details and stuff you don’t have the space to be creative or innovative. The GTD program will help you free your mind and your workspace so that you are optimally available to deal with any issue in your life. Once you do this, you will be in a better position to deal with your relationships, work, home, business, goals and anything else. You will be appropriately engaged and available to deal with anything.

Uncluttered minds and organized thoughts are required to be productive. If you have too many things on your mind, you cannot be effective. You need to get things out of your mind to free it to think about more important things.

 The Getting Things Done (GTD) method will help you attain reliable, stress-free productivity . This will help you organize your work and life and focus more on your purpose in life. When you use this system, you will find yourself being more productive, reducing your stress levels and taking control of your life. In order to get things done well you need an efficient method that you actually implement and that’s where the GTD method comes in.

The idea behind the GTD method is to free up your brain to solve problems and to keep all your projects – both personal and professional – moving forward.

Your brain is great at thinking but terrible at remembering things. At any given moment most people have numerous things on their mind. Our brains become cluttered with information, ideas, tasks, etc. The author, David Allen, refers to this as “stuff”. We are so busy trying to remember everything that we cannot concentrate fully on the work at hand.

The author stresses the importance of using your brain for the things it does well. Use it to think and analyze and not to remember. The things on your mind are open loops – things you have not yet completed. They are constantly on your mind whether you are aware of it or not. It is very distracting and prevents you from focusing properly as these thoughts interrupt your flow.

Getting Things Done (GTD) is a road map to achieve the positive, relaxed focus that characterizes your most productive state. It is based on the following principles: keep everything out of your head whenever you come across anything actionable define the actions and outcomes regularly review and update the complete inventory of open loops of your life and work

Why use the GTD system?

When you use the GTD program, you will gain a level of relaxed control you might never have experienced before. You will also be more creative than ever before since you will have the mental bandwidth to think creatively.

Also, when your workspace is set up according to the principles of GTD, it will reduce your resistance to dealing with the things you don’t enjoy doing and make it attractive for you to sit down and get your work done.

However, there are a few steps you need to take in order to get there. We will help you follow the GTD program step-by-step. We will take you through each of the steps and provide all the free printables you will need to get there.

The five-stage workflow of GTD

The GTD system uses a five-stage workflow to gain control of everything you have to do:

  1. Capture your thoughts. Instead of keeping all those ideas, to-dos, decisions, etc. in your head, you need to capture them in some external platform, whether on paper or digitally.
  2. Clarify what each item is and what you can do with it.
  3. Organize the outcomes into a structure of lists (see free printable lists below).
  4. Reflect on what is important to you and review the items in your system.
  5. Engage your tasks. Pick the things you want to do and do them.

How to use the GTD system step-by-step

Action item: Create a block of time to implement the GTD system. An ideal time frame for most people is two full days, back to back. It takes about 6 or more hours to gather all your stuff and then another 8 hours to process, decide on actions and capture them into the GTD system. Ideally you will want to ensure you have no other commitments during this time so that there are no interruptions. If you cannot devote two full days then set aside as long as you can and keep going until you finish “capturing” and processing. You will still benefit from these techniques and principles but it will just take a little longer.

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You can either read the following to learn about the system or you can sign up for our free GTD course that will take you through each of the steps. See below.

Step 1: The capture phase

During the “Capture” phase you will get all your “stuff” into one place (your “in-basket”). The first time you do this it should take between 1 and 6 hours and you will most probably have much more “stuff” than can be stacked in an in-basket. Simply put these things in one area. In the future, after this initial gathering, your “stuff” will be stored in your in-basket. As soon as you come across something that requires any action or processing, move it to your in-basket. If anything is trash then throw it away.

 Capture all your tasks, ideas, reminders and more in trusted external collection tools that you routinely empty. This frees up your mind to do what it’s really good at: thinking and solving problems. 

Since we are constantly being bombarded by requests, messages, tasks, invites, errands you need to run, people you need to call, etc, our attention strays with each distraction. To deal with this, the first crucial step in the GTD workflow is to capture all of these distractions in “collection tools”, meaning places outside your mind where you can note down information and ideas (such as notebooks or lists) or boxes in which to put documents or other items until you deal with them. The idea is to keep your collection tools close by, so that you can access them wherever you are.

The idea is not to think about what you will do with these ideas in the future. Instead, you just jot them down without thinking about them.

The great benefit of the external tools is that they help you to continue focusing on the task at hand without worrying you will forget about the “distraction”. Therefore, you don’t need to be distracted in the middle of a task as you know you will take care of the “distraction” later on.

Go through all your things, to-dos, ideas, thoughts, documents, plans and materials and transfer them into your collection tools. This may take time in the beginning when you first start using GTD but once you do this you will feel a sense of relief as if a load has been taken off your shoulders. In the future, as soon as you come across something that requires action, you will automatically move it into your “in-basket”.

Keep a notebook with you at all times to record things for your in-basket when you are away from your desk. That way you will never forget a great idea that pops into your head.

Action item: Collect everything in your physical environment (home, office, car) that requires action, doesn’t belong where it is or the way it is and put it into your in-basket. Then move everything in your “psychic RAM” to your in-basket
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Physical Gathering

This includes things that need to be done, are incomplete, broken, or things that have some decision about potential action tied to them. Move all these items into your “in-basket” to process at a later stage.

Look for any actionable items or anything that doesn’t belong in its place. Put all the actionable items into “in” or write a note about them. These are the places that David Allen searching for actionable items:

  • Start with your desk. Check every item on your desk. Collect all papers and ask yourself if you have any intention of changing any of the tools or equipment on your desk.
  • Sort through your desk drawers.
  • Countertops
  • Continue working your way around your office and collect everything that doesn’t belong there permanently.
  • Inside the cabinets
  • Floors, walls, and shelves
  • Bulletin boards
  • Open shelves
  • Equipment and furniture (make sure everything is in place and works)

The four categories of things that can remain where they are, with no action tied to them. They include: supplies, reference material, decoration and equipment. All other things must be moved to your “in-basket”.

  • Supplies include anything you need to keep because you use it regularly. This includes stationery, business cards, stamps, staples, Post-it pads, legal pads, paper clips or “personal supplies” such as Kleenex or breath mints. These can all stay in your workplace. However, if your business cards are not updated they will go into your in-basket.
  • Reference material includes manuals, books, etc.
  • Decoration means photos, plants, etc.
  • Equipment is the telephone, computer, printer, wastebasket, etc. However, if your printer needs to be fixed it will go in your in-basket.

Even the things above may need to be moved to your in-basket if they have action associated with them (i.e. of they are not exactly the way they need to be).

If an item – such as a broken printer – is too big to go in your in-basket or you cannot physically put something in the in-basket, then write a note on a piece of plain paper to represent it and put that in your in-basket.

Mental Gathering: The Mind-Sweep

Once you have collected all the physical things in your environment that need processing, you’ll want to collect anything else that may be in your “psychic RAM”. These are things that have your attention and are not already in your in-basket. “Psychic RAM” is a phrase that the author coined. He argues that as individuals, when we try to keep in our heads (such as our “to do” lists) , we are tying up valuable RAM. As a result, we have no creative thinking space available.

Take the Mind Sweep list and write out each thought, idea, project or thing that has your attention.

Include things like:

  • Projects started but not completed
  • Projects that need to be started
  • Commitments/promises to others
  • Phone calls to make
  • Things to buy
  • Errands to run
  • Things to clean or organize

Step 2: Clarify

 Empty all your external collection tools weekly. Clarify what each item is and what you can do with it. 

Once you have put all your thoughts and documents into your collection tools you need to periodically empty them. If you don’t, the GTD system will not work. If you know that moving a task to your list will not ensure it will be dealt with then your mind will still keep thinking about that task. That defeats the purpose of GTD which is to free your mind of these thoughts.

Therefore, you need to empty your collection tools once a week by doing two things: clarify what each item is and organize the items into the right places.

In the previous stage (capture) you gave no thought to the things you moved to your collection tools. The idea was just to capture them there. In the clarify stage, you need to think about each item.

Action item: Look at each item in your collection tools and ask yourself: What is this? Do you need to do something about this or not?

If the item is not actionable, there are 3 possibilities:

  • It’s no longer needed (i.e. it’s trash). Move it to the trash.
  • No action is needed right now, but you may need to do something about it later. For example, a place you might want to visit sometime but not in the near future.
  • It’s information that you may need later, like a project you plan to undertake at some stage.

But if the item is actionable, you need to ask yourself:

What is the desired end result?

If it will take several actions to reach this outcome, then this is a project. For instance, a project would be to “renovate my bathroom.”

You then need to ask yourself what the next action for this item or project is. This is the next physical, visible thing you can do to further the project. So, for example, “set a budget for a bathroom renovation” is a concrete next action.

Once you’ve identified something as a next action, you have 3 options:

  • If the action takes less than two minutes to complete, do it immediately, before moving to the next item. It is more time-consuming to store and organize things that take less than 2 minutes to do than to get them done with.
  • If the action takes longer than two minutes, think about whether you’re the right person to do it. If not, delegate it to the right person. If you are the right person to perform the action but it would take longer than two minutes, defer it.

Step 3: Organize

Empty your collection tools and organize the outcomes into a structure of lists, like your Calendar and your Projects, Next Actions, Someday/Maybe and Waiting For lists. See free printable lists below.

In this step, you deal with actionable items that cannot be completed in 2 minutes or less.

If an item is:

  • actionable and but will take more than one step to complete, it is a project and goes onto your Projects list.
  • a single action that you delegate to someone else, it should go on a Waiting For list.
  • a single action that you defer, you have two new choices: either it goes into your Calendar (for time-specific or date-specific actions or informationor onto a Next Action list (where you put all your to-dos. If your to-do list is long then split it up by context).
  • not actionable but you may need to deal with it later, it goes onto a Someday/Maybe list (this is for items that you don’t want to deal with right now but also don’t want to forget about).
  • Potentially useful, you store it as reference material. These are items that you don’t need now but might want to use in the future.

Free Printable GTD Tools

Ideally, you want to keep your lists with you at all times. This will ensure you have a place to jot down random thoughts and to take advantage of any time you have. If you need to run an errand suddenly you can scan your lists to see what else you need to do in that area.

You can print the following GTD templates as you need them or print the free GTD planner that includes all the templates on this page.

Fillable PDF12 Pages

 A Projects list 

In GTD, a project is a desired result that requires taking more than one action step to complete (such as organizing a party). Therefore, the Projects List is used for actionable tasks that will take more than one step to complete. They are called projects and go onto this Projects List. Use your projects list to keep track of your current projects. It must always include clear next actions.

Use this list is record all projects that need to be completed in the near future.
Action item: Complete you projects list by adding all the tasks required to complete a project. Always ask yourself: what the next step is, who will take it and when. Mark your next action on your project list and move it to your Next Actions List (see below). This will ensure your projects move forward. It helps you understand exactly what needs to be done and you are more likely to do it. Mark your current Next Action with O. When it is complete mark it with O. This will enable you to see what your next action is at any given moment at a glance. Review and update the project list each week. When you review it, you should always ensure that each project has a clear, concrete next action. This is what will move the project toward completion.

  Next Actions List 

The next action is the immediate physical, visible activity that you need to do in order to move a task or project toward closure. The next action cannot depend on any other action.

This is where you put all tasks that take longer than two minutes to complete.

Store the “next action” in the Next Actions List or in your Calendar.

Whereas the projects list will include various tasks required to complete a project, in the next actions list, include only the next action. When this task is complete, mark it with O and add the next action.

Action item: Add all your tasks and actions you need to take from your in-basket to your Next Actions List. Categorize the items on your list according to the context (for example, “calls to make,” “errands to run,” or “things to buy”). If you sort out your tasks by context, you’ll know what you can do when you are at a specific place. Whenever you have time to do something you will know what to do.

 Calendar 

Instead of storing your next actions in a Next Action List, you can store them in the Calendar. This is a great visual way to store actions with a deadline or target date. Use a calendar (or next action list) to manage your daily list of tasks (instead of the traditional daily to-do list).

Use the calendar to list:

  • Time-specific actions, like appointments.
  • Day-specific actions, like calling someone on their birthday.
  • Day-specific information, like the documents you need to bring to a meeting.

Do not add any other to-dos to your Calendar, as they will move the focus away from the items that are truly time- or day-specific. All other tasks or actions should be added to your Next Action list.

 Waiting For List 

The Waiting For list is helpful when you are waiting for items from others. Our list includes a section to write how and when you asked them for this item. This is helpful if you need to send a reminder and don’t remember if you sent them an email or a text or spoke to them. Its easier to record this information when its fresh in your mind. If your memory is anything like mine you might not remember when you requested the item and if you actually made the call or not. Even if you have a good memory, the idea of the GTD method is to get everything on paper and out of your head.

The waiting list is organized by person. Therefore, when you speak to someone, you can easily see all the things you are waiting for from that person.

Action item: Add all the things you are waiting for from other people. Review and update this list each week. This way you can ensure that people are on time. Even if the deadline has not yet arrived you can still remind the person and meet the deadline. During your weekly review, if it will take 2 minutes or less to remind the person then do it there and then. If not, write it on your Next Action list.

 Someday/Maybe List 

All ideas with potential future relevance should be put onto a Someday/Maybe list.

This includes all items that you haven’t been able to translate into concrete ideas or tasks yet. For example: trips you want to take one day, things you want to learn or do.

Action item: Add all “stuff” that isn’t relevant today but might be relevant in the future to your Someday/Maybe list. Review the Someday/Maybe list regularly and update it if necessary. Another way to remind yourself of future items you may wish to engage with is by keeping a tickler file.

Step 4: Reflect

Reflect on what is important to you and review the items in your system. Constantly review your system in order to work productively and ensure that you continue to trust in the system.

 Daily Review 

Check your Calendar and Next Action lists every day.

This will show you how much time you have free that day (you will easily see your appointments and meetings) and the things you need to do that day. If you are going to the store you will see all the things you need to do nearby.

 Weekly Review 

The weekly review is more comprehensive.

This GTD weekly review checklist includes all the things you should review on a weekly basis so that you don’t leave anything out.

  • Review the previous week to tie up any loose ends
  • Clear out your collection tools
  • Capture any thoughts/ideas that might still be on your mind.
  • Go through your Next Action list and mark off completed items
  • Review your Calendar. Check if you need to prepare something for upcoming appointments.
  • Review the Waiting For list. Do you need to follow-up with anyone?
  • Review your Projects list. Check the status of tasks, plans and materials for each project and ensure that they all have at least one next action in your system.
  • Look at your Someday/Maybe list. Are there any items there you wish to pursue now? If so, turn them into projects. If there are things that no longer interest you then delete them.
Action item: Schedule time for a daily and weekly review and make sure you don’t miss them. The success of the GTD program depends on you performing reviews on a regular basis.

A good weekly review results in 3 outcomes:

  1. Clear your mind. Know exactly what you need to accomplish next. Be clear on the next actions for each task.
  2. Bring your system up to date. Ideally, your emails, tasks, and projects that are due should be complete.
  3. Complete your tasks for that week (assuming you set realistic goals).

Don’t worry if you didn’t get everything done. It may take a few rounds of weekly reviews to fully understand the GTD method and implement is correctly.

Step 5: Engage

This is the stage when you actually get things done. Engage your tasks. Use your time and energy available, to get things done according to your priorities.
 Always work on just one task at a time. This will help you focus and you will be more productive. 

Prepare your workspace

To fully implement the GTD system, you need the right workplace, tools and filing system.

Allen suggests you set up a workplace for yourself. It must be a place with access to all the things you need and where you feel comfortable working. Ideally, you will want identical workspaces at home and in the office so you can be equally effective in both.

If you spend a lot of time in transit, you may want to think about a mobile setup that lets you get things done even while commuting. Many people lose opportunities to be productive because they are not equipped to take advantage of the time they waste in transit or whenever they are out of the office.

You shouldn’t share your workspace with anyone, not even your partner. It should be ready for you to work all the time and things shouldn’t be moved around by someone else.

Your workspace should be tidy and organized. There are only four categories of things that can remain in your workspace or anywhere else, with no action tied to them:

  • Supplies
  • Reference material
  • Decoration
  • Equipment

All other things need to move to your in-basket.

Even the things above may need to be moved to your in-basket if they have action associated with them (i.e. of they are not exactly the way they need to be).

Action item: Set up a workstation with the appropriate space, furniture, and tools. If you spend a lot of time in transit, set up a mobile setup to get things done even while commuting. It can consist of a notebook and laptop or just a notebook if you don’t have a laptop.

What do you need to use the GTD system?

The following are the minimum requirements to set up your general reference filing system. This is where you store things like documents, letters, tickets, cards, etc.

For your physical filing system
  • a desk or writing surface
  • two paper-holding trays (one in-tray and one out-tray)
  • paper
  • pens
  • Post-Its
  • paper clips
  • tape
  • a stapler
  • a labeler
  • file folders
  • a calendar
  • wastepaper basket
  • filing cabinets or empty folders that you can easily label and use (it is important to use a system that takes less than 1 minute to file something). A simple A-Z filing system where you file things under letters either by the name, topic, project or company is an efficient and easy-to-use solution. This will make it easy to find things.
For your digital filing system
  • any digital devices you currently use to capture and organize tasks, like your phone or computer.

How do you decide what to focus on?

Primarily, you should trust your gut, but there are four criteria to consider:

  • What can you do in the current context? For example, if you are in the office, look at the tasks you have on your Next Action lists that can be done in your office.
  • How much time do you have available?
  • What do you have energy for? The author recommends you always keep an inventory of things that need to be done that require very little mental or creative horsepower for those times when you are in a low-energy state.
  • Which task has the highest priority? This is based on your goals and values (see below).

Long Term Planning

In addition to the previous lists that deal with current tasks and responsibilities, the GTD system also relates to long term planning and goals. It relates to your priorities and goals in terms of horizons where each one is progressively further away than the last. Each of these levels should enhance and align with the one above it. Your priorities will sit in a hierarchy from the top down. They are defined in the top levels by your life purpose and long term goals. All the current actions and current projects in the lower levels must be in sync with these priorities in the higher levels.

It is important to set your long-term goals to ensure that your current tasks, projects and responsibilities will lead you to where you want to be in the future. 

Maintain focus by reevaluating your goals periodically.

Ground – Current actions

This includes current tasks to be done, reminders, errands, etc.

Horizon 1 – Current projects

These are the projects on your Projects list at the moment. They generate most of the items on the ground horizon.

Horizon 2 – Areas of Focus and Accountabilities

The projects you undertake are based on the accountabilities and roles you have. These are areas where you want to achieve results. At home, they include things like your relationships, family, health, finances and home. At work, these could be things like training, building a network, researching a competitor, training staff.

These areas of focus will determine your priorities. If there are no tasks on your Projects list related to a specific role, you might want to create one.

This chart will help you ensure that the projects and tasks you do are meaningful to you and will help you achieve the things you want in life.

Horizon 3 – One- to two-year goals

Where do you want to be in your life in one to two years from now? These goals influence your areas of focus and accountabilities. Write a detailed SMART goal for each area.

Envision the outcome and create a clear image of the final goal. See yourself being already successful. This will increase your chance of reaching your goals.

Horizon 4 – Long-term visions

Where do you want to be in your life or where do you want your business to be in 3-5 years from now? Review and revise this page each year.

Make sure that all your projects and tasks will eventually help you achieve these goals.

Horizon 5 – Life purpose

These are the things that really matter in life. When you examine this horizon personally you ask yourself: What is my purpose in life? When you look at this horizon organizationally you ask: What is the purpose of my business? What are the core values in your business?

All the projects you do and tasks you undertake should lead you toward this life purpose. Review and revise this page each year.

Action items:  Go somewhere where you won’t be disturbed. Spend a few hours completing the printables above. Think about your life purpose and your long term goals. Once you have set them, make sure all your daily actions and planned projects are in sync with these goals. Set up projects in your projects lists that will take you to where you want to go. They might have future action dates. You might not start them now but put them on your list to eventually get to.

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Getting Things Done Flowchart

The GTD flowchart is a graphical representation of the GTD workflow. It helps you understand how to use the GTD method.

PDF | Image

You can download the chart as an image or a PDF document.

GTD Course

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Start the Course

During this GTD challenge, you will become familiar with the Getting Things Done method developed by David Allen.

You will learn what GTD is, how it will benefit you and how to use the system.

We will take you through each step and help you use the GTD method to get organized, get things done stress free and be appropriately engaged with whatever you choose to do.

If you complete all the tasks, the challenge will take two days during which you will completely overhaul your life. However, you can go at your pace. If you don’t have two full days then you can implement the system partially and you will still feel the benefits.

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