Five Ways to Get Things Done

by Mike Shea on 5 October 2006

The Summary: Five ways to Get Things Done.

  1. Immediately perform any action that takes less than two minutes.

  2. Build and manage a single "inbox" and keep it separate from your projects and action lists.

  3. Keep a single list of all of your projects in your life.

  4. Keep a set of "next step" action lists based on the location where you can perform those actions.

  5. Put your action lists, project lists, agendas, calendar, and contact information into a single trusted full-life paper-based system.

Like I do with every hobby, I talked to a lot of people around me about my own experiences with David Allan's Getting Things Done. A lot of people had the same things to say about it: it's too hard to get into it up front and people don't have the time in their day to organize this way. Let's look at both of these things:

In regards to the time it takes to organize each day, it takes less time to keep this system up to date than it would to hunt down, search for, or react to lost items in a more complicated system. Having email inboxes at zero, one single trusted calendar, and one set of trusted and contextual to-do lists is a lot easier than having to wade through thousands of emails, combine four calendars, and wonder what happened to yesterday's "to do" list. Each day, the GTD system takes less time than the alternative and that time is spent focused on the important tasks facing you.

There are two areas where the GTD system takes a lot of time. It initially takes a lot of time to gather all your floating tasks, jobs, and "stuff"; which is to say anything that you are committed to change from its current state into another state.

The other area that takes a little time but is critical to the GTD system is the weekly review. Each week, at a designated point, you need to go through all of your loose items, notes, calendar items, items floating around in your head that aren't yet recorded, project lists, action lists, waiting for lists, someday maybe lists and any other relevant items. This makes sure that nothing stagnates that needs action even if that action is to simply remove it. It keeps the system clean and ready to handle the next batch of "stuff" that pours in. This takes about one to two hours and really requires no outside interference. I plan to do mine on the weekend, maybe early Saturday afternoon. Trying to do it at work didn't work out.

While those two areas require a lot of time, there are a lot of pieces of the GTD system that do not require much of an investment. They only require slight changes to your existing system. This article will outline six things you can do right now for very little investment that will help you get a better handle on the things you need to do.

  1. Immediately perform any action that takes less than two minutes.

This is one of the easiest, fastest, and most productive tips. The minute you hit an action item that takes two minutes or less to accomplish, just do it. Don't write it down. Don't process it. Don't overthink it. Just do it and do it right away.

  1. Build and manage your "inbox".

Stuff comes in from all sides, all formats, and from all people. We need a single system for capturing all of this "stuff" and hold it for processing. For me, I carry a pocket Moleskine notebook as my official "inbox". I have a red tab that I poke out the top whenever I have unprocessed items.

Your inbox is NOT your action list. The only time you do something directly out of your inbox is when it takes two minutes or less to do. Anything that takes longer will require processing - finding the right list to put it on and breaking it down into "what is the outcome" and "what is the next step".

Try to consolidate inboxes into a single area. Reduce inboxes so you don't spend the day checking them all all the time. This is hard to do with email; I have four email accounts I have to check daily; but any action from any other source can go into your inbox.

  1. Keep a single projects list.

Any item processed from your inbox that will require more than one step to complete should go on your projects list. Keep a single project list and keep it near to you all the time. Every time something floats into your head that you forgot to do and need to, stick it in the inbox and then process it into a project. Projects should have two things: an objective and a next step. If you have no clear objective for the project, come up with one. If you still can't it probably needs to be refiltered or removed.

Projects can be very small "get oil changed in the car" to large "get married". As long as they have an objective and a next-step, it fits well on the list.

A list parallel to the project list, the "someday maybe" list, can include any item you may want to do some day but not now. This is a good way to get a handle on those items that keep coming up and bugging you but that you really have no immediate plan of doing anything about it.

  1. Keep a set of Action lists based on context.

The actions lists are another powerful tool of the GTD system. Action lists keep track of your immediate next-steps on all of your active projects. They are broken up by location such as @work, @home, @car, @email, @anywhere. This way, your lists are broken up by those you can do at your current location instead of a list of items you can't complete because you aren't where you need to be to do them. I try to break actions down into the next action for any given project that will take between 2 and 20 minutes to complete. Anything longer I try to break up. Anything shorter I try to do even before it hits my list.

  1. Put it all into a single trusted life-system.

Keep a single system that includes everything you will do in your life. Consolidate all of your to-do lists, project lists, and anything else into a single system. Don't use one system for one set of activities and another system for another. A single system will greatly simplify and make ease of ones personal organization.

There are a number of ways to capture everything in the GTD system. The best I've seen and used so far is the old fashioned day planner organized into the GTD system. I use a Franklin Covey Classic-sized day planner with my own printed pages based on the DIY Planner templates. I have my planner broken up with the following tabs:

Actions: my set of action lists broken up by context.

Waiting: My "waiting for" list that records all of the actions I expect from somewhere else.

Projects: My complete list of projects. I xerox this regularly to keep a backup copy of my main projects.

Agendas: These are lists of items I want to discuss with other individuals or in meetings. They are broken up by the individual or the meeting.

Reference: This includes reference charts and fun things such as metro maps, the GTD flowchart, chancery italic handwriting guide, and a pile of sudokus.

Calendar: I prefer a simple two-page-per-month tabbed calendar. This lets me see four weeks worth of meetings in a single view and its a lot slimmer and simpler than a weekly or daily calendar system. The best I've found for this is the Day Runner tabbed monthly calendar. The Franklin Covey calendars have task lists embedded and take up a lot more room than they need.

Contacts: This is a basic tabbed rolodex. Because its all loose leaf, I can add pages if I get too many people in one section.

I use this day planner for every activity in my life. Everything from holiday trip plans, work projects, financial meetings, and even Everquest goals, all goes into this one system. The system is FUN which makes it much more likely that I will use it instead of ignore it.

Because I am extremely picky about the paper stock and the format of the pages, I bought a paper cutter and a seven-hole punch for the planner as well. This lets me buy, cut, print, and punch my own planner pages exactly the way I want them. Since the whole system is loose leaf, it is as customizable as I want it.

For backup and archiving, I xerox my project pages regularly - the rest of the system can be recovered from those projects, and any old pages that I no longer need are archived in the Franklin Covey Planner archive boxes. They're a bit expensive, but a 5" x 8" 3 ring binder could work just as well for an archive of old pages. Archiving is extremely important to me.

The only thing I do not use this planner for is as an inbox. It's too big to have on me all the time so instead I use a pocket Moleskine for my inbox and I carry that around all the time. Anything flagged in my Moleskine inbox gets processed into my planner. Others may choose to use the planner to take notes, and that can work as long as they keep their planner with them all the time. New items come up at any and every time of the day and you need a way to capture them as soon as you can.

Why don't I use an electronic planner? This is an interesting topic and a surprising one. David Allan, clearly not a technologist, prefers to use a Handspring Trio, a laptop, and Lotus Notes to do his organization. Many technologists prefer pen and paper, as I do.

There are a few reasons why I prefer a paper based system:

While fully incorporating the GTD system into your life takes a lot of time and energy up front, once it is implemented the benefit outweighs the energy spent. However, the whole system doesn't need to be implemented to gain benefits from the pieces. The concepts of an inbox, project list, and action lists are very powerful in any system. The two-minute rule is very easy to understand and very easy to incorporate into any system. A paper-based planner is cheap to purchase and, when well organized and fully trusted, can remove much of the stress from one's life.

That itself is the key benefit to the GTD system: Remove pointless worry and enjoy our lives.


The Hipster PDA 3x5 system:


43 Folders:

David Allan's Website:

Do It Yourself Planner Templates:

Franklin Covey:

Day Runner:

Day Timer:

Moleskine Notebooks: