Racing to hit deadlines, but they’re always out of reach (and new ones keep popping up). Wearing approximately 74 different hats. Faced with an avalanche of back-to-back meetings, emails and instant messages, and failing to keep track of it all in your brain. Any of this sound familiar?
Sounds like your brain has too many tabs open, my friend.
It feels like most of us have a lot of balls in the air at one time. We tend to take on even more projects because we’ve got great ideas, but we underestimate the time we’ll need to complete them. Eventually, those balls can start dropping, throwing you into a tailspin where you feel like it’s impossible to plan and execute on all the tasks you’ve got to do.
It’s totally normal to feel the stress levels rising when you’ve got a lot on your plate, but there are some tried-and-true strategies for staying efficient and productive. One of which we’re here to introduce you to today: Getting Things Done.
Curious as to whether the GTD approach can help you clear your mind so you can focus on the work that actually matters? This guide will take you through everything you need to know. But before we dive deep into the GTD workflow, let’s clarify how it first came about.
Getting Things Done (otherwise known as GTD, or the GTD method) is a popular time management framework that was developed by productivity consultant and author David Allen. GTD is a technique to help you accomplish your tasks through a series of steps, and is built on the following principles:
1. Your brain isn’t designed to store information. “Your head is a terrible office”. In his book, Allen frequently drives the message home that our brains are much better at processing ideas than storing them. When information is scattered everywhere – on sticky notes, in email, or on hastily-written to-do lists, this just clutters up our minds.
2. You’re not wired for multi-tasking. Juggling and switching between tasks is terrible for your productivity – so much so that doing too much of it can lower your IQ.
While it can be used to accomplish several low-concentration tasks at a go, it’s really counter-effective with high-priority work. It’s better to do one thing, finish it and move on.
3. You need to create a vault to store the information you want. With GTD, the goal is to get all of that mental clutter out of your head and into an external source, whether it’s a digital app or notebook, so you can then make decisions about what to do and when.
4. You first need to define what “done” means. When working on tasks, you always have to begin with the end goal in mind.
Critics of the methodology point to one key downside of GTD, namely the lack of daily/weekly structure. If you too tend to struggle with this level of flexibility, then we recommend pairing GTD with other time management methods like time blocking or the Pomodoro technique.
There are five basic steps to the Getting Things Done method:
Below, we’ll define and cover each phase of the GTD process.
As Allen says, “your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” The first, and most critical, step with GTD is not to let thoughts or tasks float around in your head, where they’ll either cause stress or (even worse) get forgotten about.
This is relatively easy to implement – you can write things down on paper, or use a digital system, like a to-do list app or even voice memos – it’s all about what works for you as an individual. The key thing is to move everything as soon as it enters your brain into the same external source (a “second brain” of sorts) until you have the time to process things.
When you’re just starting out with GTD, you’ll want to do a big brain dump of everything that you think you might need to take action on. Going forward, though, you’ll want to make a habit of capturing those tasks the minute they come to you and adding them into your virtual intray. Had a quick thought about something you could do to improve a project or a great idea to pitch to your manager? Simply add it to your inbox.
Here’s where you go through each of the ideas and tasks you’ve jotted down, and make the call on what specifically you should do with each item.
First things first, pop each item you’ve captured into one of two buckets:
For all actionable tasks, you’ll want to make these as specific as possible. Be sure to add notes, documents, files and the priority level, as well as anyone else who needs to be looped in on the task.
An item requires action:
An item doesn’t require action:
If it's not actionable, you can file it to one of three places.
Even though it's important to store thoughts and goals separately from your main, actionable to-do list, having to switch between multiple tools can get overwhelming, fast. Instead, look for a way to capture all of this information in the same tool.
Organizing is a crucial part of the GTD method, and usually done in tandem with the previous step. Once you’ve gotten clarity around a particular task, it’s time to everything that’s actionable out of your inbox and put it in one of these five virtual folders (you can do this using lists on your favorite to-do list app, or projects in your work management tool of choice)
For example, if it’s something actionable, you might want to put it directly into your task management or project management tool (if you aren’t already using one of these, there are several dedicated GTD apps on the market, like nTask, FacileThings and Nirvana). If it’s something you might want to revisit at a later date, you can file it under a separate Reference folder.
We recommend grouping projects together under a broader “area of focus” – if you can tie these in with your larger department or even company-side objectives and goals, then all the better. Whether a project naturally cascades down from one of your core areas of focus is a good litmus test for whether it’s even worth spending time on in the first place.
With each actionable item, you’ll want to attach any task-specific reference materials, as well as any additional context needed. These can be places, task collaborators, certain tools you’ll need to get the work done – your contexts are totally up to you. If you’re using a project management tool, you can easily create separate labels for the contexts you need.
The idea behind adding contexts is that you can then batch similar tasks together into one block of time, like getting all of your email replies out of the way in one go, rather than continually context switching.
If you finish up this step with an empty inbox, then well done you – that’s exactly what GTD is all about!
The weekly review is a core component of your GTD workflow. We recommend setting aside time at either the beginning of each week, or on a Friday afternoon where your productivity naturally tends to take a hit, to pause and reflect.
Review your inbox, reflect on what went well (or didn’t go well), any blockers, process any loose ends, clarify any priorities and ensure every item’s up to date. This is also the ideal time to have a think about your most important tasks and to dos for the week ahead, and to really get creative about the work that’s most exciting to you.
This way, you’ll approach each new week with a clear mind, without worrying about whether your to-do list is up to date or if anything’s fallen through the cracks, instead of bounding into a new week without any idea of what it is you need to accomplish.
Now for the most important part: actually getting things done. You’ve identified all the next steps needed for each actionable item on your list, now it’s time to decide what you’re going to do next. If this part has you flummoxed, then Allen has recommends a few different ways to sort your tasks:
Excited to start GTD’ing? Give it a try for a week and see how it feels to take back control over your time at work!
This article is part of our series on popular productivity methods. Check out some of our other guides on the blog: