David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) sets out to tackle exactly this problem. It’s a collection of processes and habits whose main outputs are:
The result? By implementing GTD you’ll:
In short, GTD is a powerful system that anyone (from students to parents to top CEOs) can use to bring “life” under control.
But its benefits go beyond quick, profound and lasting productivity gains. GTD’s greatest reward is a new sense of clarity, stability and flow. By getting everything out of your head and into a trusted system, you’ll trust yourself more. You’ll know when to say no and yet still feel confident handling anything that comes up.
Most rewarding of all is the space and energy you’ll buy yourself to take risks. You’ll naturally start working on bigger, more meaningful aspects of life.
I first read Getting Things Done ~10 years ago and can corroborate all the above. I simply can’t overstate its potential for life-changing impact.
So how does it work? The GTD Method can be crunched into SCORE + Plan:
Here’s my take in the form of a simple diagram:
Looks like common sense, right? That’s because it is common sense.
And yet all too often, it’s not common practice. Making it so will bring a stillness, clarity and energy to your mind that will transform your life.
Naturally, the truth is rarely pure and never simple. Let’s work through each step in theory and practice below.
Stockpiling means capturing all your outstanding stuff. To do so, you must gather every out of place and unfinished thing in your head and your world into a few external inboxes. These inboxes then feed your GTD system.
It’s a vital step. Why? Because anything that doesn’t get in your system will stay on your mind. And anything that stays on your mind eats energy and kills creativity.
But what is stuff exactly? What are inboxes? And how do you get stuff into them? Great questions. Let’s dig deeper.
Your life is full of these “open-loops”; the stuff that tugs away at your mind saying, “Hey! Don’t forget me!”.
These energy killers are the fuel that fire GTD.
Inboxes are anywhere that stuff collects or can be collected.
They come in two flavours:
I’m a digital-first, long-term traveller with five major inboxes:
These major inboxes are the last stop for stuff before it enters my GTD system.
I also have a number of satellite inboxes:
The goal of stockpiling is to empty these satellite inboxes into a major inbox for clarification and organisation.
Depending on your lifestyle and preferences you may have more satellite inboxes, including:
Stockpiling is the act of emptying all the stuff from all your satellite inboxes and capturing it in a few major inboxes. Think of it like a spring-clean for life.
Bringing everything into just a few places has two advantages:
If you’re new to GTD you’ll need to set up. To do so:
Once your GTD system is running, stockpiling becomes a weekly ritual that should take under an hour as part of a weekly review.
For now, go through each satellite inbox and get it to zero by moving anything out of place or unfinished into one of your major inboxes.
That’s the basics of stockpiling! By the time you’re done your satellite inboxes should feel empty, organised or captured for later processing. Your major inboxes, however, are likely to be overflowing with stuff, which brings us neatly to…
Clarifying what stuff is and what to do about it is likely the biggest bottleneck in your productivity. It’s also one of the most useful habits in the GTD method.
To clarify, you must answer the following three questions for each thing in your inboxes:
You must answer these questions. Until you do, stuff never moves past the inbox, no matter where you file it.
Instead, it will sit in your system or head like an “amorphous blob of undoability”. The result? You will resist acting on it until you are forced to.
Why do we pursue this pattern so predictably? Because we are naturally “lazy” and answering these questions does take a small spike of mental effort.
The good news? In Allen’s words: “You often have to think about stuff more than you realise, but not as much as you’re afraid you might.”
Clarification is mostly simple, but it can be helpful to work through some examples to see how it works. Here are a few to get started:
Example 1: A presentation that Joanne has asked you to review.
Example 2: An invitation to Mike’s Pirate-themed birthday dinner on the 28th of April.
Example 3: A reminder that you need to get the car serviced.
Can you spot the mistake in the last next action? There’s no phone number!
A next action should be complete enough that someone else could do it without needing further clarification or thought.
If you have the phone number, add it to the next action: “Call garage (+XX-XXX-XXX-XXXX) to book a service.”
If you don’t yet have the number then “Call garage” is not the next action. Instead, the next action is “Find garage number online” or “Ask Joe for the garage phone number.”
Remember, a GTD next action is the very next physical thing you can do, without further thought or clarification, to make progress on an outcome.
Processing your major inboxes may feel like a daunting task. But the act of clarifying what stuff in your life is and the next thing you can do about it is magic. Doing so will unlock deep pockets of energy, clarity and productivity.
To help grind your way through steps 2 and 3, stick closely to the following rules:
No cherry picking; no pile making; no putting back stuff that forces you to think. Capisce?
Awesome, because with clarification in-hand it’s time to…
Organising is the process of:
With the right buckets, your system will flow like good plumbing. Without them, it will back-flow into your head.
To get organised, you’ll need some tools to get started:
Should you go physical or digital? That’s totally up to you. Allen likes physical bases, filing cabinets and paper. My system is location independent and paperless. Both can work. All that matters is that your setup is fun, simple and easy for you.
Now, open up your note taking tool and put the following headings at the top of four new notes:
Next, open your filing system – your personal library of resource and reference materials.
For now, make two new sections or folders inside it:
Within your ticklers, set up 43 folders:
How do these work? Let’s say it’s March and you have a flyer for an event you might want to attend in September. It doesn’t really make sense to process that now. Your tickler system lets you file the flier away into one of your month-folders (e.g, “August” or “September”) for later re-processing.
Meanwhile, the 31 day-folders are used to subdivide your stuff into the days for which it’s relevant in the current month (e.g., “March”).
Each week you review and reorganise your ticklers as part of step 4 (Review). Discarding stuff that’s no longer relevant or splitting stuff from a new month into the appropriate day-folders.
The result? A simple, handy and granular way to surface anything that needs stockpiling or processing at the start of each day.
And there you have it, the bones of your new GTD system.
With your tools in place, and your first inbox item clarified, you now have five choices:
Clearing an inbox item may be as simple as:
But normally, organising stuff in your GTD system usually takes a little more work.
Let’s review example 2 from step 2 (Mike’s pirate birthday) to see what this means:
Example 2: An invitation to Mike’s Pirate-themed birthday dinner on the 28th of April.
Let’s assume today is the 3rd of March. Based on the clarification above, you might:
Though that may seem like a lot of work, in reality, this whole process might take 3 or 4 minutes.
The reward? You can now forget about Mike’s birthday entirely, confident that every aspect is neatly nestled in your system.
Result? More energy, space, peace of mind and clarity to focus on other things in life.
Almost without exception, the best approach in GTD is to simplify. This is so important it’s worth restating: keep your system simple.
Here are a few rules to live by:
How do you know if your system is getting complex? Here are some common red-flags:
Why is this so important? Because complexity adds thinking, thinking adds resistance, resistance creates incompleteness and incompleteness leads to uselessness.
Avoid creeping complication. Keep your system simple and that simplicity will spread to your life.
The one place where “many” can be more useful than “one” is on your “Next actions” list(s).
In practice, Allen suggests splitting next actions across several lists by context – hard limits based on:
Next action lists I commonly use include:
Again, the trick here is to keep things simple:
Contexts are valuable because they help you:
Remembering the milk when you’re out, crushing “calls” while in “phone mode” or having a pre-prepared list of “offline” tasks when the internet breaks are all great examples of how contexts can dramatically improve engagement (step 5).
The first few times you clarify and organise your inboxes will feel difficult. The reward in clarity, energy and headspace, however, make this brain squeeze well worth the effort.
What’s more, with time, testing and practice, you’ll find tools and structures you like, you’ll process stuff faster and what once felt hard will become second nature.
One last time: keep your systems simple. It happens to everyone, at some point your GTD system will become a monster. When it does, start again and come back to basics. You’ll be amazed how far you may have strayed from the original vision.
Steps 1 – 3 supercharge your clarity and creativity by getting your stuff out of your head, defined and organised.
But keeping stuff out of your head you means trusting your system is current and clear. And to keep it current and clear you must review it often and in full.
In practice, this means protecting ~a few hours ~once per week (Friday afternoons are great) to:
Where am I on this? Is it still relevant? Is it still in the right place? What’s the next action?
Your “Weekly Review” is the oil that keeps your pipes flowing; it’s the heartbeat of the GTD method.
Finally – engagement! Though it’s step 5, every step of GTD leads to actually Getting Things Done.
When your GTD system is simple, clear and complete – engagement is where you’ll spend most of your time and energy.
At this point, you may realise what’s held you back was never engaging at all. It was trying to collect, clarify, organise and engage all at once.
But now, with your stuff pre-collected, pre-organised and pre-defined, all that’s left is the doing. And it turns out that doing is easy.
What’s more, unlike many systems GTD doesn’t rely on complex prioritisation or planning. Instead, every “thing” you can do to make progress is funnelled to:
This makes execution light, robust, responsive and fun.
So how do you decide what’s right to do, right now?
First, rule out the things that you can’t or shouldn’t do, based on:
Now, work on your remaining next actions. Trust your gut and do what feels most important right now.
Even if you procrastinate, so long as you work from your list you’ll always be making progress on something.
What’s more, with your new productivity powers, you’ll quickly run short on reasons to avoid eating frogs.
In the real world, there are only three kinds of work you can do. You can:
The more of the second type you face, the trickier engagement can get.
For a great breakdown of this challenge, see Habit 3 of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Meanwhile, the short answer is this: never respond instantly to work as it shows up, no matter how “urgent” it is. Instead:
Adopting this habit creates a gap between stimulus and response. Mastering it will make you more efficient and more effective.
All it often takes to identify a project’s next action is a moment of effort and thought. Sometimes though, it helps to have a plan.
In these cases, the best approach (as always) is to keep things simple. How? A good place to start is the natural planning model:
Why is this the natural planning model? Because we use it all of the time: when we go out for dinner, when we decide what film to watch, when we plot a route to the to the shops.
The secret (once again) is to make common sense, common practice. Trust your natural planning mechanisms and they will serve you well on projects big and small.
Feeling stuck? If a project lacks clarity, work up the model towards purpose and principles. When a project lacks progress, drive down towards action.
As always, the goal of GTD is to get things done. Don’t make planning an end in itself. Do it to draw out next actions.
The most rewarding aspect of the GTD method is the space and energy you’ll buy to take risks. You’ll naturally start working on bigger, more meaningful aspects of life.
When it comes to big-picture thinking, Allen suggests working on 5 increasingly top-down horizons:
For some great ideas on higher-horizon-thinking check out Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Brian Johnson’s Optimal Living.
Allen’s own suggestions are limited but valuable: plan Horizons 2 – 5, he recommends, as often as you need to keep them off your mind.
In the meantime, focus on mastering your life at the ground and Horizon 1 levels. Do this, and you’ll naturally find the space and trust that you need to think bigger, broader and bolder.
There are many, many ways to put GTD into practice:
In truth, there’s only one right way to implement GTD – the way that works best for you.
That said, examples are always helpful so here’s a snapshot of my GTD system – one that’s been 10+ years in the making.
My productivity system is built on four design principles. It should be:
To put these principles into practice I use three bits of hardware:
And seven bits of software:
All these tools are simply means to an end. I can and do change them if I find something more practical and simpler (though this doesn’t happen often).