An Introduction to Getting Things Done

by Mike Shea on 23 September 2006

Note, this article has been updated in August 2016

Ninety Seconds on Getting Things Done

Getting Things Done helps us relax and free our minds, knowing that the random incoming "stuff" gets captured in a trusted system. Our goal is not to get more done, our goal is to feel good about what we're doing.

The GTD workflow consists of the following steps.

Capture to-dos, tasks, ideas, or other random stuff in a single trusted "inbox" like a pocket notebook that you always carry. As stuff comes in, write it down. Don't worry about what it is or how big it is. Get things out of your head and into the "inbox".

Process and organize these notes, to-dos, emails, and other stuff at least daily, thus emptying your inbox. Process this stuff into actions, projects, or events. Record specific focused physical actions on location-based action lists like @home and @work. Record projects with multiple steps on project lists but only focus on the project's next action. Record events, meetings, appointments, reoccurring actions, or delayed actions in a single trusted calendar. File emails connected to any action or project in an "action support" email folder. Archive or throw away anything else. Do any action that takes 2 minutes or less right away.

Review your whole system once a week. Empty all inboxes. Process all notes. Review next week's calendar. Review the previous week's calendar. Move unfinished actions to fresh action lists. Clean out action support email folders. Review your project lists. Take five minutes to ask "what is on my mind?"

Do the things on your action lists based on your location, your available time, and your available energy. If something isn't getting done, break it down into smaller actions, renegotiate it, or throw it away. Relax and get to work.

A Deeper Discussion on Getting Things Done

Many of us live our entire careers with three main tools: a notebook for jotting down bulleted notes, a calendar to tell us where the hell we should be, and a daily to-do list written out every day and tossed aside about fifteen minutes later when the next crisis hits.

What we need is a system to help us manage all the weird shit that comes at us these days and help us turn it into small actionable steps we can actually accomplish. This article is a short primer to a personal organization system by David Allen called "Getting Things Done. This article will go into the system itself, discuss why we would do this, what the components of the system are, how we get started, and offer some tips.

Our Goal: To Relax

If you already feel like you have your life under control, you probably don't need this. Many people, however, feel like things are continually slipping through the cracks. We're always forgetting something. We're always in a state of panic. Instead of being able to put our minds on big creative activities, we're worried about the Johnson report we have to have done in two weeks with no idea how we're going to get there.

Getting Things Done is all about putting in place the simplest system we can for managing daily to-dos and a continual barrage of new shit coming at us in a way that collects it, processes it, organizes it, reviews it, and gets us ready to do it.

Our goal is not to get more done. Our goal is to focus our time and energy on the things that are most important to us and waste as little time worrying about small shit as possible.

Our goal is to feel relaxed instead of stressed, to feel like we have our shit together. Our goal is not to outperform everyone else by 15%.

How Do We Do It?

There are five basic steps to the GTD system: collect all the shit that comes our way whether it's email, household chores, new tasks from our bosses, or new ideas that we have; process this stuff to determine what it is, what the outcome is, and what the next possible action is; organize this processed stuff into projects, next actions, and calendar events; review all of it once a week to ensure items no longer relevant are removed and new items are captured; and do, go actually do what needs doing.

The Physical Components of Getting Things Done

The Inbox: Any time anything comes at me from anywhere, it goes into the inbox. Email inboxes are the obvious example but anything that comes our way we can capture in a pocket notebook which acts as our inbox. Every time any thought comes into your head that you need to do something about, we write it down in our notebook. Most importantly, we have to clear this inbox at least once a day, turning unprocessed stuff into projets, actions, or calendar events. Leave it too long and you'll just stop looking at it.

Projects: Projects are the big things we're working on. They have a clear goa but they take more than a single step to do. These are NOT to-do items; these are larger multi-step projects. Some people think you need to have all of the steps wired out on a project but really you just need one: the next action. What is the project, what is the goal, what is the next thing you need to do on it?

Calendar: Most of us are already used to this. The difference is that we GTD folk will focus on two weeks, the next week and the previous week. This helps narrow our focus to just worry about the things we have coming up over the horizon instead of worrying about two months from now. As new events come up, we can deconflict them with other events at the time, but generally we only have to worry a week out.

Action Lists: For each project we have a next action, the very next thing we need to do. Instead of one big to-do list, we can create an action list for each place we go where we can actually do them. This is called a "contextual action list". Think of it like a shopping list. You don't look at "eggs" on your shopping list while you're at the office. You write down a grocery list and use it when you're at the grocery store. The same is true for everything else. You can go big or small with something like "@office" or "@home". You might go more detailed with "@phone", "@computer", "@email", or something like that but don't go overboard. Simplicity is the key to keeping this going.

Getting Started

Getting started with a system like this is the hardest part. We begin by taking a big stack of 3x5 note cards and writing down every single thing that we think we have to do. Big or small. "Fix that crack on the window" goes right along "get that hairy mole checked out". We're going to need a LOT of 3x5 cards for this so have a lot handy. Prepare to spend a couple of hours at this.

Once that's done, we start to break all of those things up into categories: projects, which will take more than one step to complete; next actions, which we can accomplish in a single sitting; calendar events, which we will add to our single trusted calendar; and trash, which are things we thought were important but really aren't.

We then put this into our trusted system. Projects go onto our project list. Next actions go onto our contextual action lists. Calendar events go onto our calendar. Trash goes away!

Choosing What Not To Do

You may have heard this a lot but choosing what we're not going to do is a huge part of keeping our shit under control. We simply can't do everything that comes our way. Putting all of our projects, actions, and events in a single trusted system shows us where we're going overboard. Finding out what we can get rid of is extremely valuable. Getting rid of stuff might require renegotating with someone or siply accepting that we're just not going to do it. As good as it feels to get something done, it feels almost as good to get rid of something we don't have to do at all.

The Weekly Review

So you have your projects and your next actions. Any new stuff goes into your inbox. You process your inbox every day or even a few times a day. You know what actions you want to take and where you need to take them. The next big thing is the weekly review:

Every week, sit down with all of your lists and do the following:

Get Empty: Collect loose papers and materials; Empty your inbox; Empty your head.

Get Current: Empty your inboxes; review old action lists; rewrite new action lists, review last week's calendar; review next week's calendar; review project lists; take five minutes to clear your mind of any outstanding worries.

Get Creative: Dig into your mind for any projects that you always wanted to do but never did.

Some Quick Tips

This system is not easy and seems complicated enough that almost every person walking out of the seminar was not very likely to pick it up. There are a few easy tips, though, that can probably improve anyone's existing system. Here are my thoughts:

Further Reading

I've written a lot about GTD on this site. Below is a list of other articles about Getting Things Done. Please keep in mind that my system is constantly and continually evolving. What I discuss in these articles may have changed now. Always consider the dates and accept that there are clear contradictions as I further refine my own personal system.

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