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Getting Things Done (GTD) – a simple and practical guide

Getting things done

Getting things done (GTD) is one of the most popular personal productivity systems out there. Developed by David Allen, the first version of the book of the same title was published in 2001, and after 20 years, we can safely say the system has survived the test of time.

The tagline for the framework is “the art of stress-free productivity” and it offers a set of tools, techniques, and productivity recommendations. 

Using the GTD system should help you to be more relaxed at work, accomplish more, be more creative, and keep track of everything crucial, namely all the relevant things in your work and personal life.

In summary, the main idea of the GTD system is to record everything relevant (tasks, interests, projects, other relevant information) in one’s mind by capturing it on paper or digitally, and then breaking the items down into actionable work items, always knowing what the next step is.

The only potential downside of the Getting Things Done system is that it can get a little bit complicated. The lack of daily/weekly structure (such as that provided in SCRUM) and recommendations for prioritizing tasks might also be a weakness.

Nevertheless, in this article we’ll cover the most important GTD ideas, so you can quickly test the system and see if it works for you; and even if it doesn’t work for you as a whole, you will definitely find many inherent parts of the system to be valuable productivity tips.

The Getting Things Done workflow

The Getting Things Done workflow consists of five steps which help you to break bigger tasks into smaller manageable steps. and then to immediately do those small steps that lead you to the desired outcome. 

The five steps on which the Getting things done workflow is based on are:

  1. Capture
  2. Process
  3. Organize
  4. Review / Reflect
  5. Engage

Let’s take a closer look at each of the GTD steps in the workflow:

Step 1: Capture

Capturing everything outside one’s mind is crucial, since our brains are much better at processing, than storing data. 

Building a system to keep everything outside one’s mind (frequently called “the second brain”) frees capacity and makes us more productive at intellectual, creative, or analytical tasks. 

Also, having all important information kept in one place can help you choose priorities and focus on the most important tasks much easier.

So as the first step in GTS, you should capture everything that comes to your mind; every idea, task, or anything else that is worth remembering (things to read and watch, notes, bills, etc.). Capture everything in the inbox to unload your mind. 

Only an unloaded mind can think clearly and produce elite outputs. On top of that, the main strength of your mind is for creating ideas, not holding and remembering them.

It’s important that you don’t process items when capturing them, even if you’re tempted to do so; but even more so, the important thing is also to empty the inbox regularly. Things shouldn’t just pile up, but should be regularly processed instead.

Step 2: Process

For each captured item comes the most crucial question, which is: “What should the next action for an item be?” 

That’s the basis of the Getting Things Done philosophy - capturing everything that you need to accomplish, being disciplined enough to make decisions about what to do with each item, and finally executing each task flawlessly.

So, after you capture all the items relevant to specific moment, the second step is to analyze them and decide what specifically to do with each item. When processing, you should first categorize each item into actionable or non/actionable items:

If an item is non-actionable (such as a document, reference etc.…), you have to decide whether to:

  • Delete it
  • Archive it
  • Delay it

If the item is actionable, you have to decide whether to:

  • Do it
  • Delegate it
  • Defer it

While doing that, consider the following:

  • If an item takes less than 2 minutes, you should do it immediately.
  • If it makes sense for the item, delegate it.
  • If an item will be done in the near future, assign a due date. Each time-sensitive item should have a due date.
  • Provide context and reference items for each item, such as documents, files, contacts, etc.

When processing items, it’s important to be as specific and actionable as possible. 

Being specific and actionable provides clarity on what exactly needs to be accomplished, and motivates us to perform the next step; but before engaging in tasks, there are two more steps to take:

Step 3: Organize

After processing, organizing items comes into play. Organizing is about putting items where they belong and providing everything needed for them to be engaged with. When organizing, you should do four main things:

  1. Put an item in four of the main action lists (projects, next action, waiting for, calendar).
  2. File tasks under different labels.
  3. Provide items with context - context is everything you need to be able to carry out an action and it can be a place, a tool or a person.
  4. Non-actionable items that provide value should be stored in a digital or paper-based archive. As mentioned, non-actionable items can be put in the trash (deleted), stored as a reference (archived) or put in incubation, meaning it might be needed later (delayed).

The main productivity tools to help you organize everything according to the GTD system are a filing system, note taking app, calendar, and a trash can.

Step 4: Review and reflect

The goal of reflecting is to make sure everything is up-to-date. There’s no point of having a superior productivity system if it’s not up-to-date and regularly “groomed”. 

When reviewing, you should update your lists, remove irrelevant items, add or remove references, etc.

You should do  your reviewing at least once per week.

Step 5: Engage

The final step after capturing and identifying actionable items and properly filing and reviewing them is to start working on the selected tasks. Before engaging in any tasks, you should make sure that:

  • You have the right context for the tasks. As mentioned, context is what you need to be able to carry out an action,
  • you have enough time,
  • you have enough energy,
  • and that the tasks have the highest priority.

Based on the five-step workflow, each processed item in the “in” list (inbox) can end up in one of the eight endpoints:

ACTION LISTS

  1. Do immediately – for each task that takes under two minutes
  2. The Next action list – the main task list, where each item is provided with context
  3.  Project planning – an item that needs to be broken down into actionable steps and the outcome defined. In the Getting Things Done system, projects are any item that requires more than two steps to complete.
  4. Calendar – all the items that you have to do on a certain date or at a certain time are put here.
  5. Delegation list / Waiting for list – when you delegate an item and you wat for someone else to complete it

OTHER LISTS

  1. Maybe someday list – projects you might want to realize at some time in the future
  2. Reference – everything you might need at some point in the future as a reference, such as bookmarks, formal and official documents, notes, bills, etc.
  3. Trash – you should put each item that has no actionable or reference value in the trash

It’s really important to remember to select the items to engage with based on priority, available context, and the time and energy you have at your disposal.

The five horizons of focus and the five phases of project planning

Besides having full control over the workflow and priorities, perspective is also one of the key elements of the Getting Things Done philosophy. 

David Allen suggests a bottom-up approach, since it can be difficult to focus on “the big picture” if you don’t have control over the daily tasks that need to be done. By mastering lower horizons of focus, you can then move up to the higher levels of planning.

The horizons of focus in Getting things done are:

  • Runway (ground): Current actions
  • Horizon 1 (10.000 feet): Current projects
  • Horizon 2 (20.000 feet): Areas of focus and responsibility
  • Horizon 3 (30.000 feet): 1-to-2-year goals
  • Horizon 4 (40.000 feet): 3-to-5 year visions
  • Horizon 5 (50.000 feet): Life

To achieve maximum productivity and superior planning of your work and personal life, you have to consider all five horizons. 

In the same way, when you’re focused on executing projects, you should consider that every project goes through five planning phases:

Defining purpose

In every project you should first ask yourself “why?” Start with why is a principle that helps to clarify focus, align resources, and emotionally motivate yourself. It gives a strong purpose to a project, and without purpose it’s hard to accomplish anything.

Visioning outcome

We bring our attention to the things that match our vision. So, it’s really important to have a picture of the desired final outcome in mind, before we begin with a project. That provides a clear destination we want to move towards.

Brainstorming

No project has a linear path to success. That means we must solve many challenges on the way, by using our creativity. Brainstorming helps us with that, since we can identify the best ideas for how to get from our current state to the desired outcome. Brainstorming also helps us to be focused on the topic and train our creativity muscles to find different and out-of-the-box solutions.

Organizing

When we know why we want to do something, what exactly we want to achieve, and what the possible creative ways to get there are, it’s important to organize all the data in a way to make things actionable. Organizing consists of identifying the different pieces of the project, sorting them out in categories, considering all the necessary details for execution, and then setting priorities.

Identifying the next actions

Getting things done is always about figuring out what the next step is. When planning a project, it is crucial that you have a plan for the next action in every part of the project, abolishing all potential bottle necks. There’s no point in having the best plan ever if you don’t execute it and get the planned work done.

In addition, Getting Things Done recommends that you control your projects, tasks, and other commitments in two ways:

  • Horizontally – Horizontal alignment means that you exercise control with as much coherence as possible among the different projects and activities you are involved in.
  • Vertically – Vertical alignment means that you control your thinking and execution among individual projects or topics in your life.


The best Getting Things Done productivity tips

The main time-management tips from the Getting Things Done philosophy worth remembering are:

1. Make sure you keep track of everything going all in your life, and don’t keep it in your brain, capture everything in your “second brain”, and remember, the most important thing to deal with is the one that’s on your mind the most.

2. Don’t have open loops (any item that isn’t where it should be) that are pulling away your attention, and don’t get overwhelmed by not following your intended outcomes and setting priorities accordingly. The world itself is never overwhelming or confusing, only we can be overwhelmed and confused based how we are engaged with the world.

3. If you feel anxious or guilty, it is probably not because you have too much on your plate, but because of breaking an agreement with yourself (not following your desired outcomes in a focused way). Many times, things wander in your mind because they are not as you want them to be. The best cure for that is defining what your desired outcome is, what the optimal next action step is, and then to just go on to execution.

4. Have a short-term and long-term list of visioned outcomes, driven by purpose. For these outcomes make sure you always have a list of the next actions that need to be done. When planning, define clearly what “done” (outcome) means exactly and what “doing” (action) to getting to done actually looks like.

5. Keep your inbox, lists, and calendar regularly updated. Nothing great can be accomplished with outdated data in the productivity system. Garbage in, garbage out.

You might also like these additional resources on the Getting Things Done topic:

Getting Things Done – the physical or digital version?

You can implement the GTD system by using a digital or paper system. Both are considered as equally good. If you decide to go for the digital system, there are several software solutions that support the GTD time management system, such as nTask, FacileThings, Todoist, Nirvana, Flow-E and others.

And if you decide to go for the paper system, you can build it yourself using different office supplies (notebooks, calendars, file sorters, post-it notes, etc.), or you can buy one of the sets that is put together exactly for the Getting Things Done system.

Either way, we hope the GTD system will help you to become more productive and successful in life.

Endnote: GTD® and Getting Things Done® are the registered trademarks of the David Allen Company. You can find out more about the GTD at https://gettingthingsdone.com/  

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