Getting Things Done (GTD) is one of the most popular productivity systems out there today, and with good reason.
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.
We’ve helped over 13,000 people with their productivity, and many of those have implemented their own GTD system. In fact, one of the biggest searches that brings people to the site is “GTD meaning”, which tells me people want to improve their productivity, and they’ve heard of this thing called GTD, but aren’t sure how to start. This article will solve that.
If you constantly feel overwhelmed, GTD’s central concept of capturing everything into a trusted system has the potential to revolutionize your life — it certainly did mine.
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 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 get things done.
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.
Here’s an example: 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 is no way to be productive.
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 Getting Things Done 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 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 mile 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 GTD 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 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.
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:
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 Dojo, 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 Dojo, our online productivity community. It will give you a head start.
- David Allen’s TED Talk – 22 minutes of GTD video goodness.
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!
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:
Do you want to know how to set up your workplace and your computer to get more done? Are you interested to know how you can structure your ideal day and build routines? If you answered yes to both or even just one, then join our FREE TRAINING by clicking this link. It is absolutely 100% free.