Getting things done in 5 simple steps

Dunja Jovanovic

Last updated on: January 31, 2023

Do you feel overwhelmed by all the work you need to get done?

First of all, stop, and take a breath. As Will Rogers said —When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”

If you want to start getting things done — and especially if you want to do them with less stress — you have to work smarter, not harder. Take control and be proactive.

One of the ways to start working smarter is by using the Getting Things Done (GTD) system, which is why in this article, you can read about the following:

  • What the GTD system is,
  • How to get started with the GTD system,
  • Five basic steps to getting things done,
  • To-done lists,
  • My approach to getting things done, and
  • Additional information regarding the GTD system.
GTD - cover

What is the Getting Things Done methodology (GTD)?

Getting Things Done (GTD) is a productivity methodology based on the Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity book by David Allen. The main premise is that, as he said, “your head is a terrible office.” Our brain is made for creating ideas — not for holding them inside.

The GTD method is based on:

  • Defining what “done” is (the outcome), and
  • Defining what “doing” looks like (action).

As the book states — “You have to use your mind to get things off your mind.”

The methodology itself may seem complicated at the first glance, but it’s fairly easy once you get the gist of it.

One article isn’t enough to cover everything, so I recommend reading the book if you want to learn more and get into more detail. There is also a GTD Youtube channel where you can watch the videos of Allen himself talking about the methodology.

How to get started with the Getting Things Done method

Both in his podcast and on his blog, David Allen stated that the best place to start is — anywhere. Any component of the method will bring you at least a bit more clarity and focus.

As he said in his book — “You have to think about your stuff more than you realize, but not as much as you’re afraid you might.” 

Here’s how to think about your tasks using the GTD method:

  • After you write down everything that’s on your mind, write exactly what the commitment is and what steps you need to take to finish it. Also, write an intended successful outcome, in a single sentence.
  • The first items that you should write down are the ones that occupy your mind the most, whether they worry or interest you a lot.

Finally, set reminders organized in a system you review regularly.

Five steps to getting things done

According to Allen, mastering your workflow and getting things done has five basic steps: 

  1. Capture, 
  2. Clarify, 
  3. Organize,
  4. Reflect, and 
  5. Engage.

Step #1: Capture

In this step, you should capture everything that needs your attention and brain-dump everything you consider incomplete on a piece of paper. 

When I say everything, I really mean everything — from small tasks such as tidying up your desk to big projects like negotiating a new business deal. It’s okay if it’s chaotic — it’s not the time to be neat and organized just yet. In this phase, it’s only important to put everything in a place that’s not your mind.

You can use the GTD Incompletion Trigger List to make sure you went over all incomplete tasks and projects.

Where to store the things you captured?

There are many different ways to go about it. 

For example, you can:

  • Make a to-do list on a piece of paper,
  • Download a to-do app,
  • Put everything in a special notebook or a planner,
  • Write it down in the Notes app,
  • Record a voice memo,
  • Send it to yourself as an email,
  • Make a photo album with photos and screenshots, and
  • Do anything else that is easiest for you.

You can also have a physical in-tray, such as a bin or a box, for physical things that need your attention: 

  • A new faucet that you need to install, 
  • Documents that you need to sign, or 
  • A shirt that needs ironing.

Step #2: Clarify

Assuming you have everything captured in one place, now it’s time to process it. Clarify what each item means and what to do about it. 

Do they require any action? How much time will they take?

This is the step where you transform your vague ideas into concrete, actionable steps. While clarifying, you can include:

  • Notes,
  • Context,
  • Additional details,
  • Priority level, and
  • Who else needs to be involved in the task (if there is anyone).

Also, you can classify items by their sense of urgency — i.e., if the item requires action or not.

If the item requires action

If it takes more time than expected to finish a task, ask yourself if you can delegate it or it’s you who must do it. If you can, delegate it — such items go to the Waiting for list.

If you can’t delegate the item — postpone/schedule it. Put it in your Next Action list.

If the item doesn’t require action

According to Allen, non-actionable items can go into 3 categories:

  • Trash — Things that are not useful (don’t disrupt the workflow) nor you need to keep. For example, emails that don’t require a response nor contain important information. You should eliminate those items.
  • Incubation — Something that requires action, but you can postpone it for later. For example, a great traveling offer for a destination you want to visit, but you’re not sure if you will be able to get days off for that period. Put these items in the Someday/Maybe list.
  • Reference — Items that don’t require action, but contain useful information and should be kept for reference, such as important emails that require credentials and passwords.

Step #3: Organize

After you turn your ideas into a series of actionable tasks, categorize them into projects. Make a game plan — look at your brain dump and organize what’s on there by categories. 

Regarding the aforementioned lists, you can put each task on the appropriate list:

  • Projects list — Self-explanatory, a list of all your projects. A project can be defined as any desired result that can be accomplished within a year that requires more than one action step.
  • Calendar — In a calendar, you should write, other than dates and times, notes that will remind you of the specifics of a task. It doesn’t have to be longer than a sentence.
  • Next Actions list — Single-action items that you should do as soon as possible — for example, organizing a meeting with a colleague to strategize.
  • Waiting for list — A list of things you care about, but someone else will do them. They are not yours to do, but you still need to know about them. For example, the packages you ordered and the tasks you delegated.
  • Project support material — What you’ll need to work on a project, e.g. the manual you need to build the IKEA shelf you ordered or your sketches for the painting you want to do.
  • Reference material — The information you’ll need in the future.
  • Someday/Maybe list — Things you want to do, skills you want to learn, places you want to travel to, or books you want to read.

Step #4: Reflect

Review your list every week to keep it up to date and to see if you’re making progress. If your priorities change, change the list too.

You should review your lists occasionally, but most frequently your calendar. A behavior that’s critical for success is the Weekly Review. Every list should be reviewed weekly, and its purpose is to:

  • Gather and process everything that’s going on,
  • Review your system,
  • Update your lists,
  • Get clear on your lists.

The more complete and up-to-date your system is, the more you’ll trust it.

Step #5: Engage

We went over the theory, it’s now time to put it into practice. The last step (but definitely not least — it’s, arguably, the most important) is to take action.

There are 3 models for making action choices, depending on if you’re choosing an action to do right now, making a daily plan, or reviewing your work:

  • The four-criteria model for choosing actions in the moment,
  • The threefold model for choosing daily work, and
  • The six-level model for reviewing your own work.

The four-criteria model for choosing actions in the moment

When choosing what you should do next, you should consider these four things (in this particular order):

  • Context — where are you? What tools do you have available?
  • Time available — When do you have to do something else?
  • The energy available — how much energy do you have?
  • Priority — having in mind the 3 criteria above, what action remaining of your options will give you the highest payoff?

The threefold model for choosing daily work

There are three types of work you can do in a day and that you should take into account:

  • Doing predefined work — working on tasks that were pre-planned and pre-strategized. Such tasks will usually be in your Next Action list or your calendar.
  • Doing work as it shows up — working on unexpected tasks that pop up throughout the day — such as meetings and urgent tasks.
  • Defining your work — going through lists and breaking the projects into actionable steps.

The six-level model for reviewing your own work

When you think about your next actions and prioritizing them, here are six perspectives you should have in mind:

  • Current actions — all the actions you need to take, from making phone calls to running errands.
  • Current projects — relatively short projects that you want to achieve, such as setting up a new computer or finding a new hairstylist.
  • Areas of focus and accountabilities — key areas of your life and work within which you want to achieve results.
  • Goals — what you want to achieve one to two years from now.
  • Vision — what you want to achieve 3-5 years into the future. This includes more long-term goals.
  • Purpose and principles — the big picture view. Why do you exist? Why does your company exist? What do you want to achieve in life? What does truly matter to you?

💡 Clockify Pro Tip

If you’re interested in properly setting work goals, check out the following blog posts:

An alternative method — a to-done list

We’ve all used to-do lists in one form or another throughout our lives. Some keep bullet journals that provide you with natural to-do lists, and some scribble down reminders on post-it notes and stick them on the freezer.

Regardless of the method, to-do lists work, and the same goes for to-done lists.

What is a to-done list?

As the name suggests, a to-done list represents an entry of all things you’ve achieved and completed throughout a specific time period. To-done lists can be used to categorize tasks during a workday, workweek, or even throughout a whole month.

In most cases, your standard to-do list can become a to-done list if you’ve added check boxes on the sides, but there are benefits to creating an entirely new to-done list.

Namely, having everything you’ve accomplished laid out in front of you can entice you to work harder each following day.

In fact, research performed by Watson and Crick, molecular biologists, shows that many small wins throughout the day can boost an individual’s morale and their productivity levels. 

And yes, the same effect is achieved with to-do lists, but visually, having a list that shows everything you’ve done instead of everything you have to do brings peace and focus to the mind.

The best ways to keep to-done lists

The way I see it, there are two productive ways to keep to-done lists:

  • A mix of to-do and to-done lists, and
  • An isolated to-done list.

To-do/to-done mix

If you’re more traditional-oriented and you love jotting everything down on a piece of paper, my advice is to try the mix variant.

Create a Doc/Sheet table/grab a notebook and divide the pages into two columns — for your to-do and to-done lists and get started on writing. For extra points, you can even leave space next to each entry in both lists to add additional information — for example, Finished writing a blog (should revise it tomorrow, just in case.)

Here’s a representation of my to-do/to-done mix for January 31, 2023:

To-do listTo-done list
Do research for a new textAdditional research required ✔️
11:00 meetingMeeting was postponed for February 1st ✔️
Editing a textFinished editing ✔️
Brainstorm ideas for visual elementsCreated a Plaky card for the designer ✔️
Create a Clockify entryEntry created ✔️

Isolated to-done lists

On the other hand, if you prefer creating isolated lists, my advice would be to install a mobile or desktop version of notepads. They load up quickly, they’re always at the tip of your fingers, and you can always revise and update your list as the situation changes.

Useful apps you can use for to-done lists are:

  • Google Keep,
  • Apple Notes,
  • Evernote, and even productivity apps such as
  • Clockify.

My approach to getting things done

I’ve always been a big fan of writing everything down — I work as a writer, after all. I’ve always felt better after putting everything that’s on my mind on a piece of paper — I almost feel physically lighter after letting go of that “burden”.

GTD sparked my interest because it seemed like an advanced and more refined version of my constant brain dumping. These are some tips that can help you make the most of GTD lists, based on my experience.

Tip #1: Choose the right capturing tool

I have a special notebook for creating GTD lists (I have a special notebook for every purpose because I have too many notebooks).

I also rely on ClickUp’s Notepad on my phone (as well as in my browser via a Chrome extension) where I can easily organize notes into checklists and trackable tasks. I find it the easiest to capture thoughts as soon as they come up so I don’t forget anything, which is what I’d recommend to everyone.

Tip #2: Organize your list

I find it best to either color-code the items to make it easier for me to divide them into different lists or just add them straight to the list they belong to if there are not many of them. 

Then I add reminders to my phone because getting a notification saved me from completely forgetting about events and meetings a couple of times.

This may seem time-consuming, but it only takes me a few minutes at most. That is why this is my go-to organizational method that I recommend to friends.

Tip #3: Assign a day for the Weekly review

I have an assigned day for the Weekly review (it’s Sunday, if you wondered). I make myself a coffee, sit at my desk, do the review, and plan the week ahead. Since it’s the weekend, I usually have something fun planned after that, so I’m motivated to get the review done as soon and as efficiently as possible so I can enjoy the rest of the day.

GTD seemed like a lot of work at first, but in reality, it doesn’t take a lot of time and peace of mind is worth it to me, and it might be to you.

Tip #4: Don’t take GTD too seriously

It’s important to approach the GTD method with the right mindset. It’s a tool that’s here to help you, don’t take it too seriously. 

As Cal Newport, a Georgetown professor and author, said in his article for the New Yorker, “GTD doesn’t directly address the fundamental problem: the insidiously haphazard way that work unfolds at the organizational level” — it only helps you to cope with the effects. 

If GTD does the opposite and adds extra pressure and confusion, don’t use it, or perhaps modify it to fit your needs better.

How to make the most out of GTD

How to excel in being productive and getting things done? Here are some additional tips that can come to the rescue.

Advice #1: Don’t miss the Weekly review

I know I’ve already said this, but it’s important, so I’ll say it twice. It may be boring, but if you don’t keep your lists up to date and analyze how you’ve been doing so far, GTD won’t be as efficient.

Advice #2: Incorporate something you enjoy

How to trick yourself into doing boring tasks? Incorporate something you enjoy. 

For example, if you don’t like running errands, take your headphones with you, play some good music, and make a stop to grab your favorite coffee (or another drink of choice, I don’t judge — just don’t drink alcohol if you’re driving). 

Find a way to make a typically boring task a more enjoyable experience for yourself.

💡 Clockify Pro Tip

Do you ever feel like a second’s worth of time can last for an eternity? That often happens when you’re bored. Well, here’s a blog that can help you transform that boredom into something productive:

Advice #3: Track goals

It would be a good idea to have some kind of goal tracker app to keep you on track and additionally help you with staying on top of your work and achieving your goals.

💡 Clockify Pro Tip

If you’re in search of a perfect goal tracking app for you, you will find this blog post useful:

Advice #4: Have one capturing tool that’s always with you

This shouldn’t be too hard as we all have our phones by our side at all times — you can use the notes app or voice recording. 

In that way, you’ll be able to capture a new item right away, wherever you are. 

Then you’ll be able to continue doing whatever you are doing with a clear mind, without any burden.

Advice #5: Have a functional workspace

The place where you work has a significant impact on your well-being

Make sure it’s organized, you know where everything is, it’s free of distractions, and it makes you feel good and inspired to work.

💡 Clockify Pro Tip

As much as 70% of the entire office workforce gets easily distracted, statistics show. If you feel like you belong in that conversation, take a look at the following blog:

Advice #6: Don’t work on too many things at once

After you capture everything that’s been on your mind, it’s easy to put too many things on the Projects or the Next Actions list. 

But, be realistic — you only have a limited amount of time and energy, and you can’t take on every single project at once. Don’t be afraid to put tasks in the Someday/Maybe list if they’re not a priority right now.

Advice #7: Focus

It’s important to be completely concentrated when you work and implement the GTD methodology. Resolve everything before you start to avoid getting distracted — make that call or check if you turned off the iron, and then begin.

Advice #8: Don’t be too critical of yourself

It may take some time to get into GTD and get used to everything.

There’s also a possibility that this method won’t work for you and that’s okay — not everything suits everyone. That’s why there are so many productivity methods — everyone can find something for themselves.

💡 Clockify Pro Tip

Learn more about productivity methods in this blog post:

Conclusion: Gettings things done is easier than you think

Although the Getting Things Done method may seem complicated when you first come across it, it comes down to only two things:

  • Storing things outside your mind so your mind can be clear and, consequently, work faster, and
  • Deciding (and hence, always knowing) what your next step is, instead of having a reactive approach to everything that’s happening to you.

When you determine what exactly your goals are and what steps you need to take to get there, you feel in control, which leads to feeling less stressed. That checks both boxes — productivity and mental health — which is, in my opinion, the biggest advantage of the GTD methodology.

✉️ Have you ever tried GTD and what are your thoughts on it? Do you have any tips that we didn’t mention in the article? Write to us at blogfeedback@clockify.me, we would like to hear your experience and opinion. Also, share this article with someone that might find it useful.

Author: DunjaJovanovic

Dunja Jovanovic is a writer passionate about productivity and self-improvement. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found researching time management techniques and reading about the psychology of productivity.


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