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 get things done (and especially if you want to get 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
Table of contents
- What is the Getting Things Done methodology (GTD)?
- How to get started with GTD
- How to process and organize tasks
- How to decide what action(s) to take
- My approach to getting things done
- Additional tips for excelling in GTD
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.
Mastering your workflow and getting things done has five steps:
- Capture what has 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.
- Process. Clarify what each item means and what to do about it. Do they require any action? How much time will they take?
- Organize the results. After you turn your ideas into series of actionable tasks, categorize them into projects. Make a game plan.
- Reflect. 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.
- Engage (= take action).
How to get started with GTD
David Allen said in the 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.
- Keep everything you consider unfinished in a trusted place outside your mind you would be able to get back to regularly. That’s your in-tray. For someone, writing everything down in a planner might work; someone else may prefer using an app or recording voice notes. You should also have a physical in-tray for the physical items that need to be sorted out.
- 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.
How to process and organize tasks
Capturing is easy: real work starts with processing and organizing. Look at your brain-dump and organize what’s on there by categories.
Types of lists to have
- 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 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 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 a.k.a. 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.
You should review them 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.
If the item requires action
- If an action takes less than 2 minutes: do it right away.
- 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.
How to decide what action(s) to take
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.
I have a special notebook for this purpose (I have a special notebook for every purpose because I have too many notebooks). I also have a note on my phone where I write down tasks in instances when I don’t have my notebook with me. I find it the easiest to capture them as soon as they come to my attention so I don’t forget anything.
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.
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.
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. If it adds extra pressure and confusion, don’t use it, or perhaps modify it to fit your needs better.
Additional tips for excelling in GTD
- 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.
- 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 to 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.
- 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.
💡 If you’re in search of a perfect goal tracking app for you, you will find this blog post useful:
Best goal tracker apps
- 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. 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.
- Focus. It’s important to be completely concentrated when you work and implement this 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 GTD 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 email@example.com, we would like to hear your experience and opinion.