The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
Getting Things Done is for anyone who has a busy life and wants to manage it with less stress. For some it may seem like it is out of reach. You have so much too much too do, and it all feels important. However, stress-free productivity does not have to be a dream.
The David Allen Company is known around the world for helping people get things done. Author and speaker, David Allen, has been a champion of personal productivity since the early 1980’s. He is perhaps best known for his book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. The book describes Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) productivity system. It’s an 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 things done.
If you constantly feel overwhelmed, GTD’s central concept of capturing everything into a trusted system has the potential to revolutionize your life by providing you with more clarity, focus, control, and space to do your best work. Getting Things Done is more than time management. It is life management.
Implementing Getting Things Done 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 of 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 GTD method section on our website) but perhaps you aren’t sure how to implement it. On the surface, GTD can be a bit intimidating when trying to get started with it. If you’ve been putting off learning about GTD because you didn’t want to take the time to read the Getting Things Done book, this post will show you exactly how to implement Getting Things Done.
Getting Things Done System Overview
The Getting Things Done 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.
Here’s an example of how Getting Things Done works: you read an email that requires some action, but you just leave it in your inbox and hope you’ll remember to do something with it later. Have you ever done that before? (Almost certainly yes — everyone has!)
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 does not lead to stress-free productivity.
Mind Like Water
Ideally, you want to capture everything you have to do or reference into a trusted system so you can deal with it later on your terms.
The first time I read the book in 2005 (which I talked about in my article about the Getting Things Done app I use, and 5 other favorites), I was struck by the simile he references about “mind like water”.
According to David Allen, your brain is for having ideas, not storing them. When you have a system you can trust to keep everything in it alleviates the burden of trying to remember everything. You may be shocked by 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”.
This is one of my favorite Getting Things Done quotes from the book, which has stayed with me ever since:
That’s the critical first step in getting to the state of “mind like water.” Just gathering a few more things than you currently have will probably create a positive feeling for you. But if you can hang in there and really do the whole collection process, 100 percent, it will change your experience dramatically and give you an important new reference point for being on top of your work.
This is exactly how I felt after the first time I truly did the work to implement GTD.
“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. In other words, we don’t respond appropriately.
The Multi-Tasking Myth
Our brains are not wired for multi-tasking. According to an article in INC., trying to trying to do two cognitive things at the same time, simply can’t be done–the mind doesn’t work that way. When someone attempts to hold their projects, tasks, and meetings in their mind, it puts their brain in an unsustainable multi-tasking mode. David Allen refers to all of these commitments as open loops. By definition an open loop is an unfinished commitment, and when it is tracked in your psyche, instead of your system, it will require energy and attention to track and maintain. This type of mental multi-tasking has a direct negative impact on your productivity.
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.
Five Simple Steps to Get Things Done
There are 5 basic steps to the Getting Things Done methodology:
Let’s break these down one by one.
#1: Capture – Collect what has your attention.
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. 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). The first step to get things done is to capture everything that has your attention and place it into an inbox until you can process it.
An Inbox for Everything
Chances are you’ll have several inboxes like this in your life. It is important to identify all of them, 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, and you may capture random thoughts into a notes app like Notepad, Drafts, Evernote, or Apple Notes. If you’ve never taken the time to identify the inboxes that exist in your life, do this now!
Any time you have to think “where does this go?” while capturing, you’re introducing an opportunity for friction.
If you use a task manager as your GTD app, the inbox of your task manager can be a great candidate for productive capture.
#2: Clarify – Process what it means.
Once you have everything collected in your inbox (or inboxes), then you can begin to process everything and make decisions about what to do with all those inputs. GTD follows a simple workflow to guide you in the decision-making process. The GTD decision tree illustrates how to organize every input into its proper place 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.
Your Inbox Under Control
Clarity is one of the critical components of a trusted system, and it is how you turn off the mental multi-tasking that slows down your productivity. One important way to do that is to regularly clean your inboxes. If you do not process your inboxes on a regular basis, you will develop a backlog. It can be demotivating to face an email inbox with hundreds of messages as opposed to an inbox with 50 messages that need to be processed. It creates friction in the system even though you know there are some emails with important information. 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 you’ll benefit from our Inbox Detox resource. It will help you get to an empty inbox in one afternoon.
#3: Organize – Put it where it belongs.
Once you identify what something is, you have to put it in the appropriate container. For example, if it’s something actionable, put it in your task management system. We like OmniFocus on the Mac, but Todoist is a great cross-platform tool, and Trello, Asana, or heck even Outlook can easily be used for GTD.
If it’s not actionable but it is 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 comes 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.
One warning: as we said in our podcast about common GTD mistakes, we often see people going too wild with their contexts. In our opinion, they’re an area of Getting Things Done that have not aged well. Our suggestion: create context ONLY that help you decide what to do in any given moment. Don’t create contexts for contexts’ sake.
#4: Reflect – Review frequently.
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 do the GTD weekly 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.” They don’t maintain it. When it comes to your productivity, you need to be consistently reviewing and making adjustments in order to get things done. 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.
Here’s a podcast where we take you through the GTD Weekly Review.
Many people follow a simple review process each day to plan their work. This can be done at the end of the day to prepare for the following day or as a part of a morning ritual. Planning your work day in advance allows you to focus on the work that is most important and helps you overcome procrastination and inevitable distractions.
#5: Engage – Simply do.
Now you are ready to get things done. When you consistently follow the first four steps, you will have a sense of clarity and control over your day. You can be confident that you are investing your time, energy, and attention on the right next actions. You will be free to work with the assurance that nothing is forgotten because it has been captured and processed into a trusted system.
The GTD Decision Tree
Let’s take a look at how to actually apply this by working through the GTD Decision Tree:
The Big Picture
If this looks a little bit confusing, don’t be intimidated. 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?”.
Inputs That Are Not Actionable
If it’s not actionable, it can go one of 3 places – trash, someday/maybe, or reference file.
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.
Inputs That Are Actionable
Next Action or Project
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 initial 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.
The 2-Minute Rule
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.
How many times have you experienced this? You realize there’s something you need to do, so you (hopefully) capture it to your trusted system. Then you keep pushing it off, and off, and off.
Finally you get around to doing it and… it takes you 2 minutes. Argh! If you had just done it right away, it wouldn’t have been causing you stress and guilt!
Often I’m in a hurry to get things done, so I can be a little heavy on the “capture” button instead of the “do right away” button. Don’t make that mistake: the 2-Minute rule is the secret sauce to a healthy email inbox and task management system.
Delegate or Defer
If it will take more than two minutes to complete, you can do one of two things with it – delegate or defer 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. It is important to follow-up and confirm that the task gets finished.
Of course, delegation is often easier said than done. Here is our podcast with 3 Simple Steps To Delegating Work The Right Way So You Don’t Have to Worry About It.
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), place it 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, it goes on your “next actions” list. A Getting Things Done app is great for this, as you can often have sequential projects where tasks are marked as unavailable until the previous task is completed.
Let’s walk through a couple of practical examples of how you might implement GTD on a day-to-day basis.
Example: Tom, the entrepreneur
Tom is a young entrepreneur 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:
First, he asks himself “what is this?”
It’s a business idea that he’s excited to get moving on. The next question is “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?”
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.
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
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?”
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:
Tom does the Google search and writes down all the competing services that show up.
Example: Mary, a mom of two kids
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 announcements 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:
The first thing Mary does is answer the question “what is this?”
It’s an appointment for the parent teacher meeting on Tuesday at 6pm. The next question she must ask is “is this actionable?”
It is actionable as her attendance is required. The next question she must ask is “what is the next action?”
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?”
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)…
… and since it is time-sensitive it will end up on her calendar instead of a next actions list.
Example: Bob, a college student
Bob is a 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.
The first question Bob must ask is “what is this?”
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?”
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.”
(This situation is debatable. If he is going to read it, shouldn’t he capture it to his task manager, maybe in the “Someday/Maybe” or “To Read” project? That’s the beautiful and difficult thing about productivity: the right thing to do is whatever works for Bob! Personally, when I come across a book that I want to read, I add it to a “To Read” reference list. However, if it is something I need to read for something, or by a certain date, that becomes an actionable task in my task manager. Whatever works!)
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. At a minimum, you will want to nail down:
- An app for capture
- An app to track projects
- An app to track next actions
- An app for reference material
- A calendar
Fortunately, one app can handle multiple functions of these. For example, Thanh uses OmniFocus for capture, project, and next actions. Some people might use something like Notion for everything (which we have a course for in The Productivity Academy, our productivity community).
Here’s a list of our favorite GTD apps, along with some community recommendations.
General GTD Tips
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. What is most important is to get things done. If you want to get up and running as quickly as possible, you’ll definitely want to check out two great resources – The OmniFocus Field Guide by David Sparks and the extremely well-done website Learning OmniFocus by Tim Stringer.
- 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.
- 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!
- Do not take for granted the review process. Not doing it once will eventually lead to not doing it at all. If you do not reflect, you will end up failing and you will not be able to reap the full benefits of the GTD system.
- Getting Things Done by David Allen – GTD from the author himself. If you want to hear it straight from the source, start here.
- We have a public GTD resource page.
- There is a very popular video series about GTD inside The Productivity Academy, our online productivity community. It will give you a head start.
- David Allen’s TED Talk – 22 minutes of GTD video goodness.
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My score mentor recommended you to me. I have executive functioning skill deficits that are life killer. Look forward to getting more into this
I recently read Getting Things Done and am just getting into implementing this method. Although I probably need to read the book a couple more times (at leasy), this post provides an excellent summary for reference and also helps to clarify some of the points.
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?
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
Just listened to your TPS116 podcasts, sometimes it’s nice to just revisit the bases, and your article is great and comprehensive.
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.
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 …
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!
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.
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?
Great article! The examples are really helpful.
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 :)
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.