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GTD 101: The Beginner’s Guide To Getting Things Done

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Getting Things Done (GTD) is one of the most popular productivity systems out there today, and with good reason. It’s a very effective system for clearing your mind of all inputs so you can focus on the things that are truly important, which in turn allows you to do your best work and get more done.

If you constantly feel overwhelmed, GTD’s central concept of capturing everything into a trusted system has the potential to revolutionize your life. Implementing GTD can restore peace and tranquility as everything gets filed orderly into your trusted system instead of the disorder and chaos that comes from just responding to emergencies and putting out fires. In this post, we’ll show you how to reclaim control of your life and accelerate the GTD learning curve for you by covering the basics of GTD and walk you through a couple examples so you can see how to apply it to your life.

You may have heard of the Getting Things Done system before (we’ve even got a special section on our website devoted to the topic) but weren’t sure how to implement it. On the surface, GTD can be a bit intimidating when trying to get started with it. The book is fairly lengthy, and frankly it’s quite a bit longer than it needs to be. I personally didn’t make it through the book the first time I tried to read it because it was so long, but once I finally did it literally changed my life. If you’ve been putting off learning about GTD because you didn’t want to take the time to read the book, we made a video where we break it down step by step so you don’t have to:

If you frequently find yourself overwhelmed with too much to do and stressing because you’re afraid you forgot about something, then this video is just for you. Chances are no matter where you are in your productivity journey you can benefit a lot from implementing GTD in your life, and this video and post will show you exactly how to do it.

Overview

The GTD system is built around the concept that you have a lot of different “inputs.” These are things that enter your consciousness and you must decide what to do with them. They could be a phone number you need to remember, meetings you have to attend, or errands you need to run. The problem is that most people don’t do anything with these thoughts when they have them and they just put them off (for example, reading an email that requires some action but just leaving it in your inbox and hoping you’ll remember to do something with it later). By failing to put things where they belong (on a calendar, to-do list, etc.), you can quickly become stressed by trying to remember everything and continually worrying about what you’ve forgotten. This leads to what David allen calls “Emergency Scan Modality,” which is basically a continual state of scanning the horizon looking for the next fire to put out.

Needless to say, this is no way to be productive.

Ideally, you want to capture everything you have to do/reference into a trusted system so you can deal with it later on your terms. Your brain is for having ideas, not storing them, and when you have a system you can trust to keep everything in it alleviates the burden of trying to remember everything. When you do this, you’ll be shocked how many more “good ideas” you have because your brain can finally rest and function the way it was designed. David Allen calls this efficient, natural state “mind like water”.

Mind Like Water

“Mind like water” refers to a natural state of being ready for anything and responding appropriately. For example, when you throw a pebble (or rock) into still water, the ripples will radiate outward from the point where the rock enters the water and the water always responds appropriately to size and the force of the impact.

However, when we’re stressed and overwhelmed, we tend to overemphasize the things that aren’t important and let slide the things that really are important (we don’t respond appropriately). For example, if I’m stressed because I’m trying to remember everything I have to get done instead of putting it in my trusted system, I might find myself constantly checking my work email on my iPhone when I’m home instead of spending time with my wife and kids. If I’m really stressed from putting out fires all day, I might even snap at them for something small, even though it’s not their fault. The whole goal of the GTD system is to help you achieve “mind like water” so you can respond appropriately to all the different inputs in your life and avoid situations like this. In order to do this, GTD has a simple 5 step process.

Easy as 1, 2, 3 (4, 5)

There are 5 basic steps to the GTD methodology:

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

Let’s break these down one by one.

#1: Capture – Collect what has your attention.

GTD - Capture

Have you ever had a great idea but were too busy to write it down and then completely forgot about it later? That’s because (like we said earlier) your brain is for having ideas, not storing them. The central tenet of GTD is to capture everything and put it into a trusted system so that you can make appropriate decisions about what to do when.

David Allen says you can’t feel good about what you’re not doing unless you know what you’re not doing, and if you don’t capture the things that have your attention you can very easily get stuck in “emergency scan modality” by default. Many people live their lives constantly reacting, trying to put out the fires that continually spring up because they’ve forgotten about things they needed to do (or they’re at least worried about what they may forgotten so they can’t focus on any one thing for very long). You need to capture everything that has your attention to an inbox, notepad, or app (like Drafts), etc. – just make sure that you get EVERYTHING. Chances are you’ll have several inboxes like this in your life, so it’s important to identify them all so you can routinely process them and make sure nothing falls through the cracks.

For example, you may have a paper tray, your email inbox, you may capture random thoughts or notes to an app like Drafts or nvALT, etc. If you’ve never taken the time to identify the inboxes that exist in your life, do this now!

#2: Clarify – Process what it means.

GTD - Clarify

Once you have everything collected in your inbox (or inboxes), only then can you begin to process everything and make decisions about what to do with all those inputs. This is actually the easy part, as once you have everything captured and you have a plan in place for processing all those pieces of information it only takes a few seconds to decide where they belong in your trusted system. We’ll break down the GTD decision tree in a little bit and show you the exact process for identifying everything and putting things in the appropriate containers so you always know exactly where everything is when you need it, but for now just know that you have to do this regularly – you can’t just let your inboxes pile up. If you let your inboxes pile up, it gets harder and harder to motivate yourself to process them.

For example, if you know you need to process your email inbox, is it easier to do it when you have 50 messages or 5,000 messages? The bigger the task, the higher the tendency to procrastinate. By processing your inboxes regularly, you can avoid having a huge backlog like this and eliminate the friction in your system. We’re not going to get into the nuts and bolts of processing your inboxes in this post, but if you’re interested in that you’ll probably like this article on Inbox Management – Getting to Inbox Zero.

#3: Organize – Put it where it belongs.

GTD - Organize

Once you identify what something is, you have to put it in the appropriate container. For example, if it’s something actionable, put in your task management system. We recommend OmniFocus, but you could use something like ToDoist, Things, or Asana instead. If it’s not actionable but it’s reference material you might need later, put it somewhere you can easily recall it. If it’s time sensitive, like a meeting or an appointment, put it on your calendar. If it’s not important, you may decide just to trash it and not worry about it anymore.

This is also where the idea of contexts come into play. A context is basically just a tool, thing, place, or person you need to get something done. For example, a list of phone calls you have to make would be grouped under the “phone” context, or a list of grocery items under the “grocery store” context. If it’s something you need to discuss with someone on your team, you might have a context for that person or an “office” context for tasks that can only be completed when you get to the office. If you really want to get fancy, you could even have contexts based on energy levels. You could have a low-energy context with “easy wins”, of a high-energy context for when you’re really motivated to be productive. If you want more information on contexts, we discussed it in depth in Episode 4 of The Productivity Show.

#4: Reflect – Review frequently.

GTD - reflect

This is the #1 mistake we see people make, and it’s the biggest reason why GTD doesn’t work for people – they don’t review frequently enough. By failing to review consistently, they just let things pile up and it gets harder and harder to keep up with their system. They can get the system set up, but then they try to “set it and forget it” and they don’t maintain it. When it comes to your productivity though, you need to be consistently reviewing and making adjustments. It’s important to clean up and update your lists, dump any new loose ends into your trusted system, and clear your mind so everything can run smoothly. At Asian Efficiency, we recommend that you do this weekly. Yes, it takes a little bit of time, but the benefit of feeling like you’re finally in control of your life by far outweighs the cost.

#5: Engage – Simply do.

GTD - do

This steps sounds simple, and it is – IF you’ve set up your system correctly. If you’re on top of your tasks and know what you need to get done each day, it’s easy to just pull up your list and execute the plan. The most productive people we know are the ones who either the night before or first thing in the morning sit down with their task lists and identify the top things they need to do that day, then spend the rest of the day just executing the plan. This only works though if you’ve the followed the first 4 steps and can really trust that everything you need to do is on your lists and in the appropriate containers.

The GTD Decision Tree

Let’s take a look at how to actually apply this by working through the GTD Decision Tree:

GTD Flowchart

If this looks a little bit confusing, don’t be intimidated. In fact, if you watch the video at the beginning of this post we’ll walk you through it step-by-step. Here’s the basic idea:

Throughout your day, you’re constantly bombarded with information, such as things you have to do, errands you have to run, names and phone numbers, etc. All of these things are constantly vying for your attention in your “inbox”. When information like this comes at you, the first question you have to ask yourself is “what is this piece of information?”. Once you decide what it is, you can then answer the question “is it actionable?”. If it’s not actionable, it can go one of 3 places.

First, it could go in the trash. A surprisingly high amount of information we try to hang on to actually belongs here. Many people have a tendency to be digital hoarders, but the reality is that you don’t need all the stuff you say you need. Don’t be afraid to delete things that you don’t think are important. If you decide it actually is important, you could put it either in a someday/maybe folder (if it will be important to review at a later date), or in a reference file so you can access the information easily when you actually need it.

If the information is actionable, you need to ask yourself “what’s the next action?”. If you can’t complete the activity in one step, then it’s actually not an action, it’s a project and needs further planning. A project is anything that contains multiple steps in order to complete it. Chances are you’ll have several projects active at the same time, so in addition to the inital planning phase of the project it’s also very important that you regularly review the project to see if there are any additional steps that are required to complete it.

If the information is not a project and you can actually finish it in 1 step, the next question you need to ask is “will this take less than two minutes?” If it will take less than two minutes to complete the activity, just go ahead and finish it – it will probably take more time and effort to decide on a follow up plan than it will to actually just complete the activity.

If it will take more than two minutes to complete, you can do one of two things with it: First, you can delegate it to someone else, in which case you need to make sure that it ends up on a waiting list for you to follow up with. Make sure that you don’t just hand it off and forget about it, especially if you are the one ultimately responsible for the completion of the activity. Make sure though that you follow up and make sure that the task gets finished. Second, you can defer it. When you defer a task, you’re pushing it out into the future for one of two reasons: either you need to complete the task at a specific time, or you need something else to be finished before you can get to that task.

If you’re deferring the task because it is time-based (like a meeting), make sure it ends up on your calendar. If it’s not time-based and you’re waiting for something else to be finished before you can get to this task, make sure it ends up on your “next actions” list. A task manager like OmniFocus is great for this, as you can have sequential projects where tasks are marked as unavailable until the previous task is completed.

Real Life Examples

Let’s walk through a couple practical examples of how you might implement GTD on a day-to-day basis.

Example: Tom, the entrepreneur

GTD-Tom

Tom is a young entrepreuer right out of college. He’s had several good ideas, but hasn’t been able to focus on any of them for very long so he’s trying out the GTD system in hopes that he’ll actually be able to follow through and execute on some of his good ideas. His latest idea he believes is his best one (a grocery delivery service), so he decides to pursue it a bit further:

GTD Inbox

First he asks himself “what is this?”

GTD - What is It

It’s a business idea that he’s excited to get moving on. The next question is “is it actionable?”

GTD - Is It Actionable?

As currently stated, it’s not – it’s just an idea – so he rewords it to read “start grocery delivery business”. Now that it’s actionable, the next question is “what is the next action?”

nextaction

At this point, Tom begins to realize that starting a grocery delivery business will take quite a bit of effort as this is not a single-step action, and he turns it into a project in his task management system.

GTD - Project Planning

He quickly identifies several tasks he must complete, such as:

  • identify local competitors
  • buy a delivery vehicle
  • figure out business expenses
  • pick a business name
  • etc.

Instead of trying to do it all at once, he identifies one task to start with (“identify local competitors”). The next question he must ask is “will this take less than 2 minutes to complete?”

GTD - Less Than 2 Minutes?

It’s possible it might take longer, but Tom thinks he can complete it in just a couple minutes so with a quick Google search for “grocery delivery services” in his area:

GTD - Do it!

Tom does the Google search and writes down all the competing services that show up.

Example: Mary, a mom of two kids

GTD-Mary

Mary is a parent of 2 small children who attend the local elementary school. Every Friday, her kids each bring home a “Friday folder” with announcement and other important information that requires the parent’s attention. This Friday, there’s a notice of an upcoming parent teacher meeting on the following Tuesday at 6pm:

GTD Inbox

The first thing Mary does is answer the question “what is this?”

GTD - What is It

It’s an appointment for the parent teacher meeting on Tuesday at 6pm. The next question she must ask is “is this actionable?”

GTD - Is It Actionable?

It is actionable as her attendance is required. The next question she must ask is “what is the next action?”

nextaction

The next action is to go to the meeting. It’s not a multistep project, so the next question is “will it take less than 2 minutes?”

GTD - Less Than 2 Minutes?

It will probably take about an hour, which is why it is scheduled for next Tuesday. Since she is the parent, she cannot delegate her attendance at this meeting and must defer it instead (the meeting doesn’t take place until next Tuesday)…

GTD - Defer

… and since it is time-sensitive it will end up on her calendar instead of a next actions list.

GTD - Calendar

Example: Bob, a college student

GTD - Bob

Bob is college student who is trying to balance a full-time job and graduate school as he pursues his MBA. He stumbles upon the Asian Efficiency website and starts combing through the blog, looking for tips and tricks that can make him more productive. He happens to find the article that lists recommended books about productivity, and sees several that look very interesting. One in particular really catches his eye (Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy), and he wants to make sure he doesn’t forget about it.

GTD Inbox

The first question Bob must ask is “what is this?”

GTD - What is It

In this case, it’s a book title he wants to save so he can read it later. The next question he asks is “is this actionable?”

GTD - Is It Actionable?

It might be if he wanted to start reading it now, but he has to go to work in 15 minutes so not really. Instead of starting on it now, he puts it in his “reference file,” which in this case is an Evernote note titles “Books to Read.”

GTD - Reference File

The Best Apps and Tools for GTD Users

The secret to making GTD (or any task management methodology) work is to make sure that you can trust your system. One aspect of that is knowing what applications you’re going to use and what role they are going to fill.

In the video, I break down the apps I use in my implementation of the GTD system and show you where they fit in the GTD Decision Tree. For example, I use Drafts as quick capture inbox on my iOS devices, and nvALT on my Mac. All of my my emails that require actions get sent directly to my OmniFocus inbox, and I have a paper tray for all the physical items that I need to process. I use Evernote as my Someday/Maybe list and Reference file because it’s easy to store information here and it’s easily searchable. I use OmniFocus as my task management app for planning my projects and making sure that everything gets done. Lastly, I use BusyCal as my calendaring app for my meetings and other time-based tasks.

If you want to download this graphical breakdown of the apps I use as well as a list of other recommended apps and tools for implementing GTD, we have a special resource for you at the end of this article.

General GTD Tips

  1. Have a solution for your paper clutter. Even if you’re a tech geek, you still occasionally have paper to deal with. The easy way to deal with this is just to scan it into a paperless filing system. There a lot of great resources for going paperless, but here are a couple we recommend:
    • Our friend Brooks Duncan has a whole site devoted to helping people go paperless at DocumentSnap.com
    • David Sparks (a.k.a. “MacSparky”) wrote a field guide on going paperless.
    • Hazel is an essential Mac application for any paperless workflow.
    • The Fujitsu ScanSnap xi500 is the best scanner you can get for going paperless.
  2. Find the system that works for you. Feel free to modify the GTD workflow so that it fits your specific needs. Use the GTD workflow (which you can download for free below) as guidelines to shape your own unique system that fits your lifestyle. Don’t worry about “sticking to the rules” and focus more on making the system work for you.
  3. Don’t spend too much time fiddling with your system. The best system is one that runs with the least amount of friction. It’s easy (especially if you utilize an application like OmniFocus) to spend more time tweaking your system than actually working. That’s why we outline everything for you in OmniFocus Premium Posts. If you want to get up and running as quickly as possible, you’ll definitely want to check that out.
  4. Be realistic about what you can get done. Don’t put fifteen things on your to-do list for the day. You’re just setting yourself up for disappointment when you don’t finish them all. Instead, pick your three most important tasks and focus on those. If you make it through those three tasks, then pick three more. This way, you build momentum and you’ll actually look forward to attacking your to-do list because it’s attainable instead of dreading it because it’s impossible.
  5. Practice timeboxing to get more done. The most popular application of this is the Pomodoro Method, which we write about in detail here. The basic idea is that you set a timer for 25 minutes and just attack your work, then take a five minute break. Try it, you’ll be amazed how much you can get done in 25 minutes if you put your mind to it!

GTD Resources

Please note that this is not a comprehensive list of resources, just what we consider the best ones. If you think something should be added to this list, let us know in the comments.

Getting Started

If you need a little assistance getting started with GTD, we’re here to help! We’ve put together a GTD Quick Start Guide which will accelerate the learning curve for you by combining several of the best resources we’ve found on the subject of Getting Things Done, and you can download it for free!

GTD Quick Start Guide

The GTD Quick Start Guide includes several valuable resources:

  • A list of recommended apps & tools for implementing GTD
  • A simplified GTD decision tree flowchart for reference
  • A modified GTD decision tree flowchart with the apps I use personally

If you want to accelerate your speed of implementation with the Getting Things Done system by downloading our GTD Quick Start Guide, just let us know where to send it:

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11 Comments

Posted by Mitko  | March 24, 2015 at 12:08PM | Reply

Some years ago I bought David Allen’s book on GTD. Things seemed so start working for me, but then I got back to my old patterns.

Thanks for the guideline, guys! To be honest, I didn’t get the idea of the darkened pictures.

Make sure to check Swipes (swipesapp.com) as an alternative to do list app since it’s concept is narrowly related to GTD.

Posted by Mike Schmitz  | March 24, 2015 at 1:40PM | Reply

Hi Mitko, thanks for reading! The darkened pictures are highlighting the specific step in the GTD decision tree as we walk you through the 3 different example scenarios. If you check out the video (embedded near the top), you’ll be able to see it in action and it will probably make more sense :)

Posted by Brady  | March 24, 2015 at 6:31PM | Reply

Great article! The examples are really helpful.

Posted by Seth  | March 25, 2015 at 8:03AM | Reply

Thanks for a great summary of GTD!
Everything I need to do is on my list, and in the appropriate containers. I make regular reviews, and organize my list. I make daily plans to set my agenda for the day. But, I still have a major need which is not met by GTD: how do I know how much I can get done in the next two weeks? Will I be able to deliver my project on time? If yes, how much more free time do I have for other projects? And, if no, what would be a more realistic deadline for my project?

Posted by Matthias  | March 26, 2015 at 2:55AM | Reply

Hello together,

many thanks for this great article. In the end you are right, we all need a system and habits which make our life easy.

We should be always in focus in now and here, everything else should be put in the inbox for doing it later.

So nothing is forgotten.

kind regards
Matthias

Posted by David Hay  | March 27, 2015 at 12:51PM | Reply

Awesome video – as you say at the start, the GTD book can be a bit daunting, so watching a simple video like yours make it much easier to understand!

I’ve shared it with everyone in our team here at Allthings HQ, and we’ve also got a post on our blog http://www.allthings.io/blog coming up on the subject as well.

Lastly, do check out http://www.allthings.io – we’d be interested for you guys to see what you reckon to our productivity software against those that you mention over and above Omnifocus.

Have a great weekend!

Posted by Louise Farnsworth  | March 28, 2015 at 3:09PM | Reply

Great video, thanks Mike. It took me >1 year to read the book so I can relate (seems ironic, given the subject matter!).

I’ve had a “partial” GTD implementation for a while now – I say partial because the part of the system that I understand, is the inbox-processing part you’ve explained above … but this doesn’t help me get things *done*, it just helps me get things *organised*.

Is it just me?? But I feel like GTD has just taken all the stuff from my head, and created a really long list of tasks and projects, which I’m almost scared to look at. So I still feel overwhelmed by that and struggle to start and/or complete tasks & projects …

Posted by Byron Harris  | April 10, 2016 at 6:56PM | Reply

Thanks Mike, this is a really good overview of the GTD steps and the examples very helpfully show how the theory is put to practice.

I do have a quibble with though with the example of Bob finding a book he would like to someday read. In the example he put the name of the book in his “Books to Read” note in his Evernote reference system. However, a reference system is referred to when doing a task, not to review to see what tasks to do. I would think his “Books to Read” would be part of his list of tasks to later review instead.

Posted by Alexandra  | January 4, 2017 at 7:23AM | Reply

Just listened to your TPS116 podcasts, sometimes it’s nice to just revisit the bases, and your article is great and comprehensive.

Posted by Michael  | April 5, 2017 at 1:36PM | Reply

Do not think starting a business example with GTD is any good – its a huuuuge endeavor and not really “smth you just put in your IN”.. thinking that thrrough using Allen’s 5 step natural planning framework would be helpful starting point for that, which would later result in multiple projects that could get into IN.. and then be further broken apart into next actions

Posted by Reza  | June 20, 2017 at 2:29AM | Reply

Thanks for the effort in summarizing GTD. I consider myself an avid believer in GTD although I do find that I fall off the wagon in the discipline of using GTD. Then I need to get back to GTD and that takes a few days.

Do you have that experience?

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