What do you need to do today? It’s a simple question that can quickly send you into a state of sweat-soaked stress.
There are the tasks on your daily to-do list, of course. Plus planning for your next sprint. Oh! And you’ve got that meeting later with your CEO you need to prepare for. And… What’s that? Sorry, an urgent email just came in that you need to… Damn... Someone just pinged you in chat about a bug… What were we talking about, again?
With how much our days are filled with confusion, a lack of clarity, and constantly competing priorities, it’s no wonder we struggle to get things done. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
What if you had a productivity system that would help you track and prioritize everything you need to do so you can focus on what’s most important: Getting things done. And what better productivity system for this than the aptly named Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen?
In this post, we’ll run you through the basics of what GTD is and how you can implement it into your own life to keep you organized, productive, and stress-free in just minutes.
Getting Things Done 101: A Guide to Stress-Free Productivity
What is Getting Things Done? GTD meaning, history, and background
Run a quick Google search and you’ll find that Getting Things Done is actually two things: A best-selling book and a productivity workflow (both created by productivity guru David Allen).
First published in 2001 with a revised version in 2015, the book and accompanying system both focus on one central theme: organizing all the “stuff” battling for your attention so you can make smart decisions, properly prioritize, and do focused work without stressing out.
The aim of GTD is to give you 100% trust that you’ve collected and categorized all your tasks, ideas, and projects from the vague, overly ambitious “launch a million-dollar business” to the more concrete “prepare agenda for next week’s meeting.”
As Allen describes it:
Implementing GTD alleviates the feeling of overwhelm, instills confidence, and releases a flood of creative energy. It provides structure without constraint, managing details with maximum flexibility.
To achieve this, Allen’s system follows a pretty basic methodology:
- Capture anything and everything that has your attention
- Define actionable next steps to take
- Organize into categories and contexts
- Use regular reminders to keep you on track
- Set up regular reviews so the system doesn’t fall apart
In practice, GTD doesn’t just help you deal with the external distractions of the modern workplace, but also the ones in your head. As, according to UC Irvine Professor Gloria Mark, we’re just as likely to interrupt ourselves as to be interrupted by an external source.
With GTD, you’re essentially outsourcing your memory so that instead of having nagging reminders pop into your head at inopportune moments (why are you thinking about sending a follow-up email to Debbie from marketing while having dinner with your family?) you can trust that everything you need to do is in one place and prioritized by true importance so you always know what to do next.
We’re just as likely to interrupt ourselves as to be interrupted by an external source.
There’s no fancy app or “hacks” that’ll have you setting timers or following strict rules. However, this isn’t to say that it’s necessarily an easy system to implement. Getting Things Done relies on some heavy upfront investment, plus committing to staying consistent with tracking, managing, and working through everything that comes across your plate.
While this investment means many people have said GTD is too complicated or complex, we’ll show how it’s actually not that bad, and how the little upfront investment you do have to put in gets paid back in spades.
Why you need GTD: Your working memory can only work so hard
So why should you think about using a system like GTD? Beyond the clear benefits of being more organized, there’s some pretty compelling science behind the benefits of Getting Things Done.
First, let’s talk about a little thing called Working Memory.
Working Memory refers to a part of the brain that is active when you’re working on a specific project. Your mind starts gathering relevant memories, insights, ideas, knowledge, and context about the project into one place where you can “work” on it.
The problem is that our working memory can only hold so much. Even worse, it’s not great at blocking out all those urgent things that pop into your head (like remembering to get milk after work or that you have to pick up the kids from karate class at 4:45 pm next Tuesday). In fact, American psychologist George Miller found that, on average, most people can only hold seven 'items' of information in their working memory at one time.
Even worse (and somewhat ironically), stress can make our working memory worse. So the more stressed out you are about remembering all the things you need to remember, the less you’ll remember.
The more stressed out you are about remembering all the things you need to remember, the less you’ll remember.
GTD gives your working memory a break. Instead of clogging up valuable mental space with half-memories, unclear ideas, and vague instances of “I have to do something… but what!” With GTD, you can trust that everything is where it should be and you have reminders to keep you on track.
As the title of the book promises, it’s a way to create (almost) stress-free productivity in your life.
The Getting Things Done workflow in 5 steps
So what does Getting Things Done look like in practice? Like some of the other workflows we outlined in a previous post, GTD is a series of steps and “if-then” statements that help guide your day, keep you organized, and stay productive. This isn’t to say it’s a specific step-by-step guide. Instead, it’s a change in the way you think about and deal with responsibilities.
At a high-level, GTD involves an intake stage where you collect and clarify tasks, projects, and ideas. An organization and prioritization stage where you decide what to work on, when, and set deadlines and reminders to keep you on track. And finally, an action stage where you work through your priorities and, as the name says, get things done.
One of the great things about GTD is that it can be done as simple or as complicated as you’d like. You can use a pen and paper or a more powerful project management tool (like Planio!) to track your tasks. The system is truly tool agnostic. But there are a few things you do need to make it work:
- A calendar or somewhere to set reminders and deadlines and stay on track
- Time each day/week/month to reflect, clean up your list, and re-prioritize tasks
That’s it. Simple, right? Let’s dig into the basics of setting up your Getting Things Done system:
GTD Step 1: Capture
The first step in GTD is to capture all the “Stuff” taking up your attention. This means basic tasks, emails you need to respond to, chores at home, reminders to talk to people, ideas for novels, names for potential pets… (You get the idea). Think of this as your “in” list.
Little, big, personal, professional... GTD doesn’t care! The only thing that matters is that you’re able to add these items to your list quickly and easily. No friction. No complicated workflows. One button or jotting it down on a piece of paper is all that should be happening.
For example, let’s say you’ve decided to use a project management tool like Planio to track everything you need to do (I like you already!) You can add new tasks or ideas to Planio with one click by pressing the + button in the top left-hand corner of your project screen (or on your mobile app if you’re on the go).
Each task can include as much or as little detail as you’d like, from a basic description to priority, context, categories, and files.
When you first start using the GTD system, you’ll want to take an hour or two to write down everything you can think of that you want, need, or have to do. These are your brain’s open loops that come back to distract you when you’re trying to focus. Here are two ideas to help you coax as many tasks as possible:
Do a “brain dump” for each part of your life: Pick an area of your life and just start writing down everything you want, need, or would like to do. I like to start with higher-level goals and future plans in my professional and personal life and then move onto the “need to do” tasks for each.
Talk to your team, friends, and experts to fill in the gaps: You probably won’t be able to remember everything you want to do right away. And so it’s a good idea to engage with people you trust to talk you through your goals and needs. Talk about high-level goals and ask them to help you break them down or pick your ideas apart.
What’s important here is that you get everything down. Don’t hold back or censor what you add to this list. We’ll get into trimming it next.
GTD Step 2: Clarify
If you spent a few hours writing you most likely are now staring at a list of tasks that would take a lifetime to complete. So what do we do? We clarify, condense, delegate, and prioritize which ones we actually want to get done.
In GTD, clarifying your list is a continuous process that can take a little while to wrap your head around. To make it easier, let’s break it down into a few golden rules.
Rule #1 – Work through your list one-by-one and in the order they appear.
This is pretty straightforward. No skipping or giving up. Just put in the time and get through your list.
Rule #2 – For each item, ask is this actionable? (i.e. do you need to do something?)
If the answer is no, you have a few options:
Throw it away (if you don’t need it anymore.)
Keep it as a reference (if you really think you’ll need it in the future. For example, I have a “to read” folder on my desktop where I store documents or inspiration that I want to come back to)
Incubate it (if it’s something you’re unsure about. Let it sit or set a reminder on your calendar to engage with it later.)
Rule #3 - Give actionable items a clear next step and add them to your “Action List”
It’s not enough to know you need to do something, you need to know exactly what action needs to be taken next to get you closer to your goal. Allen is clear that these need to be physical and visual actions. So, instead of “organize sprint review” write down, “e-mail everyone on the team with the date, agenda, and action items for the sprint review meeting.” Each one goes onto your “Action List.”
This “pre-processing” of items ensures that your list is full of tasks and ideas you can work on *now* so when it’s time to work, the emphasis is on action. Not deliberation.
Rule #3.5 – Do everything that will take 2 minutes or less right now.
The mental overhead of tracking simple tasks like “send a reminder email to Jen about tomorrow’s bake sale” is often more effort than simply doing the task. So take a minute to go through your Action List and do anything that will only take a couple of minutes.
Rule #4 - Delegate wherever appropriate
The goal of GTD is to make sure you’re doing the right things. But there’s a good chance your Action List is crowded full of tasks you shouldn’t necessarily be doing. Whenever possible (and appropriate) delegate these tasks to other people and then move them to a “Waiting For” list with a reminder of who it was delegated to, when, and the deadline.
This list is also where you can note down tasks that you’re blocked on, emails you need responses to, and any other task where you’re relying on someone else to do something for you.
Rule #5 - Group relevant action items into Projects
Breaking down large tasks into actionable steps can often make it hard to see the bigger picture. But GTD isn’t just for to-do list items. To track larger projects that might have a ton of small actionable tasks, add them to your Projects List—a special place to track what projects you’re working on, the tasks needed, and any progress you’ve made. You can review this list regularly to make sure there’s at least one actionable task from each project on your Action List.
Now, let’s go back to our Planio GTD example. One awesome feature in Planio is the ability to assign individual tasks to specific projects or a parent task. This way, all your tasks are linked in a way that makes sense in the context of a project.
GTD Step 3: Organize
It probably feels like all we’ve been doing so far is organizing. But we’re not going to stop yet. Next, let’s refine our Action List even further. However, before we do that, let’s do a quick recap of all the lists we should currently have setup:
- Action List: Anything we need, want, or have to do. Tasks are written as a clear physical and visible action to take.
- Waiting for List: Anything we’ve either delegated or are waiting on someone else for (either because we’re blocked or waiting for answers/info/decisions).
- Projects List: A reminder of larger projects broken down into their actionable next steps and progress.
Now, let’s add one more: the someday/maybe list. This is where you’ll store your million-dollar ideas or things that you want to do at some point but that you don’t want to clutter your current lists with. (Again, we’ll review this weekly to make sure it hasn’t moved up in priority.)
Finally, we’re going to put any actionable task with a hard deadline on our calendar. Certain action items and tasks have hard deadlines we have to finish them by. For these, you’ll want to either move them to your calendar and set reminders or set a deadline in your project management tool. In Planio, you can give every task or project a specific deadline or timeframe and then switch to a Calendar view to see them mapped out.
This feels like a natural point to talk about the importance of reminders. One of the big goals of GTD isn’t just to collect tasks and clarify their next steps but to lower the stress of trying to remember them. Adding deadlines and reminders to your Action List and other key points makes sure your subconscious mind doesn’t start obsessing over the items on your list.
Lastly, there are two more aspects to organizing your tasks with GTD that we need to cover. First, we can’t talk about organizing without at least mentioning prioritization. Each task should have some way of seeing it’s importance. We run through a few techniques on how to prioritize tasks in our Guide to Task Management, but a few simple ways include:
Prioritizing on a scale of importance like Critical, High, Medium, Low
Using a numbered system to show different levels of importance like A1, A2, A3, B1, B2, B3, and so on...
Prioritize by urgency and importance using the Eisenhower Matrix
Secondly, GTD suggests using something called Contexts. Simply put, a context is a tag or note about a task that lets you quickly see how, when, where, and with whom the task is to be done. A basic version of this might be Home, Work, Errands, Calls, Meetings, etc… Each context successfully tells you where that task takes place and gives you an idea of when you would tackle it during your day.
Contexts don’t have to be just location based. You can add people, events, moods, time commitment… whatever helps you quickly pick out tasks that make sense for where you are.
GTD Step 4: Reflect
This feels like a good time to think about where we’re at. In the course of a few hours, you went from a bunch of ideas, tasks, nagging reminders, goals, and projects floating around in your head to a series of organized and prioritized lists with clear, actionable next steps that move you toward your goals.
Not only that, but you also banged out a bunch of small tasks. Deleted what wasn’t important. Delegated whatever you could. Put your “someday” tasks aside for the time being. And set timely tasks on your calendar with reminders of when they need to be done.
In short, you went from overwhelmed to under control.
It was a lot of work. But the only way a system like GTD continues to work is if you keep up with it. Here’s where the weekly review comes into play.
David Allen calls the weekly review a “critical factor for success.” I think that’s an understatement. To make a system like GTD make sense, it can’t take over your life. That’s why short periods of regular reflection, review, and re-assessment is so important.
A good rule of thumb is to set aside 30 minutes, once a week to go over your current Lists and review. Aside from just simple cleanups and adding new tasks, ideas, and projects, here’s a short breakdown of what a weekly GTD planning session might look like:
Start with your Projects List: Is each of the “next actions” on the list something you actually want or need to do? If not, move it (and potentially the project) to your Someday List. If it is, move it to your Action List.
Look at your Someday List: Have your priorities changed about any projects here? If so, move it over to your Projects List and make sure it has a physical and visible next step ready to go.
Go through your “Trigger Words”: This is a collection of keywords that get your brain to start thinking about things you might have forgotten to add to your system. For your job that list might include things like Boss, Manager, People I need to get back to, Meetings next week, Projects with deadlines, etc…
It’s a good idea to try and set aside time for this either Friday afternoon when your mind is fresh from the past week, or Sunday where you’re thinking forward. Again, the goal here is to keep the system moving smoothly. Set a time constraint on your reviews and stick within it.
Also, your reviews don’t have to be solely on a weekly basis. If you find yourself skeptical of the system and feeling scatterbrained, set aside 5 minutes each morning to create your daily to-do list and check it against your other lists to make sure you’re not forgetting anything.
GTD Step 5: Engage
Now you’re ready to get stuff done!
Look at your lists and choose your next actionable task that fits the context you’re in and work on it. When you’re done, you have an organized and prioritized list of clearly actionable tasks you can pull from.
No more confusion. No more uncertainty over what needs to be done and what’s most important. You’re now a well-oiled productivity machine!
What it takes to be successful with GTD in 2019
Getting Things Done first came out in 2001, which means that David Allen was writing at a time without smartphones, Slack, and non-stop digital distraction. While the principles of GTD are still as applicable as ever, the world we live in has changed dramatically.
So what do you need to do to make sure you can implement GTD successfully in 2019?
Don’t get overwhelmed by choice: There’s been an explosion of software in the past 2 decades and it’s easy to think you have to find the “perfect” tool for GTD. But the truth is that the perfect tool is whatever works for you. Try a pen and pencil. Or, if you want to have more options and better ways to organize your tasks, use a project management tool like Planio!
Have a system in place for email: Emails can knock us off our productive tasks like nobody’s business and having a way to bring email into your GTD system is a must-have these days. This might mean processing your inbox the day before your weekly review (so you don’t get overwhelmed) or setting aside a few times a week to get to Inbox Zero.
Start small and build from there: With everything competing for your attention, it might seem impossible to even get started with something like GTD. In this case, try a minimal version of it by simply capturing a bunch of tasks and ideas for one part of your life and clarifying and organizing it.
Go distraction-free for your weekly review: You’ll fall off the GTD wagon if your Weekly Reviews take too long. One way to make sure you get through it quickly is to go distraction free. Put your phone in another room, set your computer to Do-Not-Disturb mode, and use some sort of distraction blocker to stop you from getting distracted by social media or YouTube.
Reward yourself to help build the GTD habit: When it comes down to it, GTD is simply a series of habits you develop over time. And like any other habit, the only way it’ll stick is if you see results and feel rewarded by it. While the system itself is technically a reward, in the early stages you might want to couple it with something else you enjoy (like a fancy coffee during your Weekly Review) to help you stay committed.
Productivity systems don’t have to be complicated
There are all sorts of systems out there that people use to try and be more productive. But the great thing about Getting Things Done is just how simple it is. Capture. Clarify. Organize. Reflect. Engage. That’s it.
Rather than a set of hard rules or complex “hacks”, GTD is designed to be adapted for your life. It’s a different way to think about productivity that focuses on giving you space to think, focus, and work on what’s important to you, without the stress.