How I learned to get things done
Last updated on: July 5, 2022
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 start getting things done with less stress), you have to work smarter, not harder. You have to take control and be proactive.
One of the ways to do it is using the GTD system.
In this article, we’ll learn how to get things done according to the GTD methodology: efficiently, stress-free, and in an organized way.
What is the Getting Things Done methodology (GTD)?
Getting Things Done (GTD) is a productivity methodology from the 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.
Getting things done means defining 1) what “done” is (the outcome) and 2) 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.
- 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.
Set reminders organized in a system you review regularly.
Five steps to getting things done
Mastering your workflow and getting things done has five steps: capture, clarify, organize, reflect, and engage.
Capture everything that needs your attention. 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 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
- 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.
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:
- Additional details
- Priority level
- Who else needs to be involved in the task (if there is anyone)
- If the item requires action or not
If the item requires action
If it takes more, ask yourself if you can delegate it or it’s you who must do it. If you can, delegate it. These items go to the Waiting for list.
If you can’t delegate it, postpone/schedule it. Put it in your Next Action list.
? If the item doesn’t require action
Nonactionable items can go into 3 categories:
Trash: things that are not useful 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 not now. 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.
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. Put each task on the appropriate list.
A 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.
A 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.
A Next Actions list — single-action items that should be done as soon as possible.
A Waiting for list — a list for things you care about that are done by someone else: 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.
A Someday/Maybe list — things you want to do, skills you want to learn, places you want to travel to, books you want to read, etc.
Review your list every week to keep it up to date and to see if you’re making progress. If your priorities changed, change the list too.
You should review your lists occasionally, 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 clean, clear, current, and complete.
The more complete and up-to-date your system is, the more you’ll trust it.
Another very important thing is to empty the capturing tools regularly; if you don’t, they will be overloaded, you will be overwhelmed, and doing GTD won’t make much sense anymore.
Process items one by one, in order, and never put anything back to “in”. The first thing to determine is if the item requires action.
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
When choosing what you should do next, you should consider these four things (in this 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: from the Next Actions list and calendar.
Doing work as it shows up: life happens and some unplanned things can pop up.
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. 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?
💡 If you’re interested in properly setting work goals, check out How to set career goals and create a better future for yourself and Objectives and Key Results (OKR): everything you need to know.
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. This is how I do it:
Choose the right capturing tool
I have a special notebook for this purpose (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.
Organize your list
I 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.
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.
Don’t take it too seriously
It’s important to approach it with the right mindset. It’s a tool that’s here to help you, don’t take it too seriously. As Cal Newport 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 it does the opposite and adds extra pressure and confusion, don’t use it, or perhaps modify it to fit your needs better.
Additional tips for making 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.
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.
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.
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.
💡 If you’re in search of a perfect goal tracking app for you, you will find this blog post useful:
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.
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.
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. Be realistic: you only have a limited amount of time and energy and you can’t take 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.
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.
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.
💡 Learn more about productivity methods in this blog post:
Personal productivity guide: Maximize productivity with these methods and apps
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.
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, we would like to hear your experience and opinion.