First Published: June 15, 2021 | Last Updated: June 15, 2021

The gist: The Getting Things Done methodology is a foundational productivity system for managing your ideas and to-dos. Here's our guide to it!

Flash back to 2014.

I'm a little over a year into working full-time after graduating college, and starting to get more responsibility at work. And even with the highest dosage of ADHD meds I'd ever been on...

I. could. not. handle. it.

There was always something I was behind on. Always something I was forgetting about. Constantly dropping balls.

So, I did what I'm sure so many other people in my place have done: Googled productivity tips endlessly.

You wouldn't think that would be successful, but one of the first things I came across was Getting Things Done.

And because GTD is a methodology instead of just one hack or technique, it REALLY DID help a ton. And over the years, any time I go back to the book for a reread, I find new things I need at that moment.

So let's talk about what GTD is and why it's so helpful.

Note: Some of these links are affiliate links. So if you decide to buy anything, I'll receive a commission. Most creators say something like "100% of this goes back into the business," but I'm not most creators. Some months it goes into the business, others it will be used to buy inappropriate amounts of chocolate. Remember, working brighter is about balance!

About the Getting Things Done Methodology

What makes GTD different from most other productivity systems? Its practicality, modular approach, and incremental nature. It also doesn't rely on any specific systems or tools, making it similar to the bullet journal method.

The premise of the methodology is:

  • "Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them."
  • "If it’s on your mind, your mind isn’t clear."
  • "You have to think about your stuff more than you realize but not as much as you’re afraid you might."

Basically, every thought you have is an open loop, begging for you to close it by doing something about it. It will nag your brain and take up space in it until you do.

This system focuses on closing open loops created from the "stuff" in your life by capturing them, clarifying what the goal is, deciding what actions are required, creating reminders to engage, and reviewing the system regularly.

And while it's not specifically made for or by someone neurodivergent (that I know of), like the bullet journal is, the idea of having capture and review habits has helped me manage my ADHD immensely.

Getting Things Done quote: If it's on your mind, your mind isn't clear.

The 5-Step GTD Process

The GTD process involves five separate steps:

  1. Capturing what has our attention
  2. Clarifying what it means and what to do about it
  3. Organizing/processing the results
  4. Reflecting on the options
  5. Engaging with the best next action

And it's not necessarily a linear process.

You capture things as you think of them, clarify, organize, and reflect once a week during your review process, and engage as you get your work done.

So you might complete step 1 a few dozen times throughout the week before moving onto step 2.

For capturing, you use an inbox, whether physical or digital (I mostly use Notion). You probably need more than one, so create "as many inboxes you need and as few as you can get away with."

Clarifying means deciding what's next, but not necessarily doing it. Processing involves asking yourself if it's actionable and what to do with it (do it now, delegate to someone else, or defer to later).

And you keep all of this in a Projects list, a calendar, Next Actions lists, and a Waiting For list, along with reference and support materials and tickler files.

Then the weekly review keeps everything together and in sync with each other.

The 5 Phases of Project Planning

Relaxed control, or what Allen considers stress-free productivity, requires clearly defined outcomes and next actions, along with reminders in a trusted system that's reviewed regularly.

That's the state where it's easy to get things done.

As for getting things done, the phases of it are:

  1. Defining a project's purpose and principles
  2. Outcome visioning
  3. Brainstorming
  4. Organizing
  5. Identifying next actions

Project plans themselves contain task components, priorities, and sequences. They should also involve some kind of vision or "why" to keep yourself focused.

You can kick this all off with a written brainstorm to kickstart creativity, but not everything you think of needs to be done. As you process the brainstorm's "stuff," like anything else, you can trash anything you don't actually need.

A project plan is 90% figuring out what your real projects are and managing the immediate next action for each one.

Are you ready to start working brighter?

Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

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Getting Started with Getting Things Done

Setting Up the Time, Space, and Tools

Tricks aren't bad - some of the highest performing people rely on them. But it's about installing the right ones.

Getting Things Done aims to help you figure out which ones those are in your specific scenario. Getting to "stress-free productivity."

You ideally want zero resistance to using and maintaining your systems. It should be fun and easy, current and complete.

Start setting up your system with your general reference files in an alphabetical system and scheduling in an annual purge day to give yourself a fresh start.

Decide on a space (ideally a dedicated space) where you'll get things done and collect the supplies discussed earlier, like your:

  • Inbox
  • Projects list
  • Next actions list
  • Waiting for list
  • Support materials
  • Reference materials
  • Tickler file
getting things done inbox

Step 1: Corralling Your "Stuff" with Capturing

Clarifying and capturing require different mindsets, so they need to be done separately.

It starts with capturing everything that has your attention in an inbox of some kind and creating discrete items for those thoughts you can deal with later.

Step 2: Getting "In" to Empty with Clarifying

Getting your inbox empty doesn't mean you have to do everything associated with what's inside.

It just means they're no longer part of the amorphous blobby inbox and you've decided what it is, what it means, and what you need to do about it.

Make a decision about everything inside, because not deciding/deciding to skip it is a decision in itself. If you can't make a full decision yet, incubate it until a given date or situation to get it out of your inbox.

For non-actionable items in your inbox, decide whether they need to be trashed, incubated, or referenced later. For actionable items, decide the immediate next physical action that needs to be done, like to Google something or call someone.

Then for each next action, you can do (if it will take less than two minutes), delegate it, or defer it (to a later date).

After processing your inbox, you can put together your projects list.

Step 3: Organizing: Setting Up the Right Buckets

Your physical organization system must be better than your mental one in order for it to handle the lower-level thinking for you.

And organized just means you knowing where things are and easily being able to access them.

It will evolve as you do and figure out the best place for things.

The seven things you'll want to keep track of are your:

  • Projects list
  • Project support material
  • Calendar actions and information
  • Next actions list
  • Waiting for list
  • Reference material
  • Someday/maybe list.

It's important to differentiate between things that need to be done at a certain time, with hard edges and "as soon as I can" things. This is why you separate actionable material from reference material.

That way, you can trust your calendar as sacred territory and then leverage tasks that match your energy or context when you have available time for the other stuff. Some examples of this are calls, at computer, errands, at office, at home, anywhere, agendas, to read/review.

In terms of organizing your inbox, create one folder for emails you need to take action on, and another for ones you're waiting on info or a reply for. That way you can move the emails out of your inbox and get in to empty with the GTD definition of empty.

All of these buckets get reviewed during your weekly review, along with your Someday/Maybe folder, and tickler folder, the list of things to be resurfaced later.

And you can keep track of all this with a checklist. 🤓

Step 4: Reflecting: Keeping It All Fresh and Functional

What do you look at in all this, when, and what do you need to do about it? That's what reviews decides.

There are multiple levels of reviewing/things to review:

  • Daily calendar
  • Daily tickler folder
  • Next actions by context
  • Projects list
  • Maybe/someday list, etc.

The trick to being able to trust your system is knowing it's reviewed regularly, which is why the weekly review is so valuable.

"The Weekly Review is whatever you need to do to get your head empty again and get oriented for the next couple of weeks. It’s going through the steps of workflow management—capturing, clarifying, organizing, and reviewing all your outstanding commitments, intentions, and inclinations—until you can honestly say, “I absolutely know right now everything I’m not doing but could be doing if I decided to.""

The goal of a weekly review is to get clear (clearing out all inboxes), get current (reviewing all lists to prioritize and purge them), and get creative (generating new ideas and perspectives as you go).

Step 5: Engaging: Making the Best Action Choices

This section covers different frameworks for choosing actions, evaluating work, and reviewing work.

There's a four-criteria model for choosing actions in the moment. The criteria are:

And you evaluate them in order. This lets you know what tasks to turn to when you have no energy or just a little time available.

There's also a threefold model for evaluating daily work, or categories to group work into:

  • Defining the work: processing your inboxes to figure out what work needs to be done
  • Doing pre-defined work: working through your next actions list
  • Doing work as it shows up: dealing with urgent and important work as it comes up

All work falls into one of those three buckets, and stress-free productivity is about finding the right ratio for your job. Most of us, before using GTD or some kind of productivity system, spend too much time doing work as it shows up, and not enough time planning and doing less urgent projects.

Finally, there's a six-level model for reviewing your work, going level by level through the different horizons of focus covered in the book, from the bottom up, and identifying open loops and things you should be thinking about or working on.

Getting Projects Under Control

Like I said earlier, there are three kinds of work, that's all. Overwhelm or a lack of productivity doesn't come from some mythical new kind of work you don't know exists.

It's simply a matter of adjusting the balance.

Most of us could do more frequent and informal planning, especially with projects that either won't leave your mind after you've determined next actions, or that you keep surfacing ideas for after you've "put them down."

With ones that still have your attention, you can create a next action to close the loop, such as "Brainstorm ideas for x" or "set meeting with y."

To help with being able to close loops as they come to you, keep writing tools around you wherever you are (another reason why I love paper journals and planners).

Are you ready to start working brighter?

Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

Sign up to get weekly tips and stories to help you create your OWN definition of productivity working better and brighter.

The Most Powerful Principles of Getting Things Done

The GTD Capture Habit

Having a good capture habit can make you more trustworthy since people notice you don't forget or lose information they give you.

Next-Action Decisions

Creating an environment that asks "What's the next action?" creates an automatic focus in energy, productivity, clarity, and focus. It takes care of the few seconds of focused thinking about unfinished stuff that most people don't bother with.

Outcome Focusing

Aim to define projects and next actions that address real quality-of-life issues that you see as unfinished or incomplete. Your whole life, not just your work, are made up of these components. Natural project planning can be used for any of it.

Cognitive Science

In some ways, GTD is more about meaning, mindful living, and psychological well-being than it is efficiency or productivity.

The Path of GTD Mastery

GTD is a practice with multiple levels of mastery and subtleties to explore.

Level one is using the fundamental workflow management tools, level two is implementing a higher level, integrated life management system, and level three is leveraging skills to create more white space and room for expression. 

Some signs of GTD mastery include:

  • A complete, current, and clear list of of projects
  • Map of your roles, responsibilities, and interests
  • An integrated life management system
  • The ability to lean into the system when overwhelmed, instead of turning away from it

Final Tips for Moving Forward

  • Set up your personal physical organization hardware.
  • Organize your workstation.
  • Get in-trays.
  • Create a workable and easily accessed personal reference system—for work and home.
  • Get a good list-management organizer that you are inspired to play with.
  • Give yourself permission to make any changes that you have been contemplating for enhancing your work environments.
  • Hang pictures, buy pens, toss stuff, and rearrange your workspace.
  • Support your fresh start.
  • Set aside time when you can tackle one whole area of your office, and then each part of your house.
  • Gather everything into your system, and work through the Getting Things Done process.
  • Share anything of value you’ve gleaned from this with someone else. (It’s the fastest way to learn.)
  • Review Getting Things Done again in three to six months. You’ll notice things you might have missed the first time through, and I guarantee it will seem like a whole new book.
  • Stay in touch with people who are broadcasting and reflecting these behaviors and standards.

Are you ready to start working brighter?

Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

Sign up to get weekly tips and stories to help you create your OWN definition of productivity working better and brighter.

Get Brighter with GTD

Getting Things Done seems complex at first, but the Work Brighter way to approach any methodology is to take what you need, personalize it, and leave the rest.

I like to call my own version of GTD, the parts I do regularly, practical GTD, in line with our mindset of practical productivity.

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