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Getting Things Done (GTD): What it is and how it works

Getting Things Done (GTD): What it is and how it works

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.

What is Getting Things Done?

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.

How to GTD in 5 steps

There are five basic steps to the Getting Things Done method:

1. Capture

2. Clarify

3. Organize

4. Reflect

5. Engage

Below, we’ll define and cover each phase of the GTD process.

Step 1: Capture

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.

Step 2: Clarify

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:

  • Actionable
  • Non-actionable

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:

  • Can it be completed in less than two minutes? Then you can tackle it right there and then and clear it from your mind once and for all!
  • Can it be delegated? If something doesn’t fall under your responsibilities, you can assign the task to someone else. But don’t forget to follow up and confirm the task was completed.
  • Is it time sensitive or needs to be done in the near future? Assign a due date to the item.
  • Are there additional steps involved in completing the task? Then it’s a project, not a task. Pinpoint the next action you need to take to progress the project.

An item doesn’t require action:

If it's not actionable, you can file it to one of three places.

  1. Delete. These are tasks that are no longer needed.
  2. Delay. This is for tasks that require action at some point in the future. For example, if a task happens to be dependent on someone else completing work first.
  3. Archive. This is where files and documents that contain useful information can be housed for future reference.

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.

Step 3: Organize

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.

  1. Projects. Any item that will take multiple steps to complete should go in here. For example, “Create landing page” is a project because it includes writing copy, selecting images, designing the landing page, reviewing and testing and optimizing.
  2. One-off tasks. Any single-action task that takes longer than two minutes and doesn’t fit under any other project. For example, “review sales email copy”.
  3. Next actions. These are any single-step items that need to be done by a specific date or time.
  4. Waiting for. This is for tasks you’ve either delegated or are dependent on someone else before you can get to work.

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!

Step 4: Reflect

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.

Step 5: Engage

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:

  • Priority: What has to be completed today/this week?
  • Context: What tasks can be grouped together and tackled in one go?
  • Time available: Let’s say you’ve got a team meeting in an hour’s time. What tasks are realistically doable in that timeframe, so you don’t have to pick them up again after
  • Energy levels: Sometimes it’s more about managing your energy than your time. When your energy is in high gear, that’s the time to get the things that require the largest amount of effort and concentration done. On the flipside, when you’re flagging at your desk, that could be the best time to get through some easier to dos, like answering emails.

Additional resources for Getting Things Done

  • Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Amazon)
  • GTD Times (David Allen’s blog)
  • This TED Talk by David Allen

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!

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