First Published: March 20, 2023 | Last Updated: March 20, 2023

The gist: Is David Allen's Getting Things Done methodology good for ADHDers? In this post, I look at the pros and cons of using GTD for ADHD.

A frustrating paradox of having ADHD is that some of the things that can help us manage our symptoms best, can also be the hardest to get started with.

And the Getting Things Done methodology (GTD) is a fantastic example of that.

A lot of ADHDers hear a bit of what the system involves and get scared away.

"Planning? Prioritizing? Those are things we're bad at! GTD could never work for us!"

But writing off and rejecting GTD as a self-management strategy without trying it is a BIG mistake.

In my opinion, GTD can actually be an amazing system for ADHDers, for the exact reason that it involves things we're bad at. It makes them easier, so we can get better at them.

And as an ADHDer myself, reading the GTD book and using parts of the system have been one of the most effective things I've ever done for managing my executive dysfunction, time blindness, and other ADHD productivity struggles.

So here's my argument for why you should try it, too.

What is the Getting Things Done methodology?

First, let's get on the same page. What exactly is the Getting Things Done methodology?

It's a system created by David Allen that was taught and popularized in a book by the same name that's become a staple in the productivity universe.

Here's how we explained it in our summary of the book:

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."

And so it gives you a system for dealing with these claims.

Every thought you have is an open loop, that will nag your brain and take up space in it until you do something about it.

So this system focuses on closing open loops created from the "stuff" in your life by moving these loops through five (nonlinear) phases:

  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 you do so through a series of suggested tools:

  • Projects list
  • Calendar
  • Next actions list
  • Waiting for list
  • Reference/support materials
  • Tickler files

Now that we're clear on what I mean when I'm talking about GTD, let's go into the pros and cons of using it with ADHD.

Want to try GTD for yourself?

Get started with the Getting Things Done system today with the help of our free Notion template for a simplified, ADHD-friendly GTD setup.

What makes GTD ADHD-friendly?

It gives you a way to organize your thoughts

One of the most overwhelming things about ADHD (at least, for me) is the constant firehose of thoughts battling for attention in my brain. So often, there's so much noise that instead of focusing on what I'm supposed to, I'm sent into flight or freeze...and usually freeze.

But the idea that, "your mind is for having ideas, not holding them," changed that.

I realized that I can quiet that constant noise, at least a little, by getting some of the thoughts in those firehose out of my head and onto paper or screen.

It teaches you how to plan and prioritize

Something I've realized in learning to manage my ADHD, is that loving planning and actually being good at it are two different things. 🙃

I eventually realized that despite my love of lists and planners, I didn't actually know how to effectively plan projects and prioritize tasks.

GTD changed that.

Some people criticize the book for how tedious it is, maybe because these things come naturally to them.

But for me, it was game-changing to have someone lay out the different options for prioritizing tasks and when to use each. It was revolutionary to learn about next-action thinking.

It felt like finally being let in on a secret all the higher functioning people seemed to already know.

It encourages breaking things down

Now, let's go back to that term, "next-action thinking."

As Allen explains it, this means thinking about the next single physical action required to move a project forward. He really encourages breaking down projects to individual, physical tasks.

For example, if you have a project to get a haircut, you might think the next action is calling the salon. But really, it's looking up their phone number. Or finding a new salon by reading Yelp reviews.

So using next-action thinking, what used to be one task ("book haircut") is now multiple:

  • Research salon reviews
  • Pick one to try
  • Look up phone number
  • Call and make appointment

Sure, more tasks might be more overwhelming to some people.

But for those of us ADHDers who struggle with task initiation and getting overwhelmed by vague to-dos, this level of clarity makes it so much easier to plan and execute.

It offers options

Next, the GTD system includes different ways of getting things done for different types of brains.

For example, the capture habit and the 2-minute rule are both part of the system, but they're entirely different approaches to handling things that pop into your brain. And you can use one, the other, or both...whatever works best for you.

For me, the 2-minute rule doesn't work - it's like permission to jump around from one thing to another and not get anything important done. I'm better off capturing the task for later. But for others, it's the only way small tasks ever get completed.

Want to try GTD for yourself?

Get started with GTD today with the help of our free Notion template for a simplified, ADHD-friendly GTD setup.

It takes the memory load off

David Allen's signature quote, "Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them," is even more true for ADHDers. With forgetfulness and poor working memory, having a system to get ideas in writing before you forget them is amazing.

The amount of anxiety that goes away when you're not constantly wondering if you're forgetting anything important to do is significant, let me tell you.

It's easy to customize and make work for you

Finally, a big benefit of GTD—and one I feel like newbies and critics don't get—is that you don't have to use the whole system exactly how it's laid out in the book. It's easy to customize it and make it work for you.

Use one component, use them all, use half of them but differently than how they're originally explained, do whatever you want.

The book is very clear that the system is designed to be modular enough that you can use any combination of the components and still get a benefit.

For example, for the first year after I read the book, I just focused on building a capture habit. Eventually I added in a weekly review. And it wasn't until I had consistent habits around those that I added on even more.

Why GTD might be ADHD-unfriendly

Of course, no strategy or technique will work for everyone with ADHD. It manifests differently in everyone.

The ADHD symptoms that it helps most with might not be big problems for you. Or maybe they are, but GTD isn't the ideal solution for the way you work.

Here are some reasons it might not be the solution you're looking for right now:

It's a pretty big system

First of all, it's a "big system." I've already mentioned that you don't need to actually use every part, but just the sheer number of them that exist can be overwhelming to a newbie.

I wouldn't blame any ADHDer who gets scared away by the overwhelm, although I would encourage them to try again.

In fact, I got scared away myself at first. When I first read the book, the system felt too overwhelming to try as a whole. In fact, I think I just read about the capture habit, then put it down for a few months to "digest" that one part.

But once I started noticing the capture habit helping, I was way more motivated to return to the rest of the book.

It focuses on task management over time management

Longtime followers know I believe time management isn't the end-all-be-all, but it does have a time and place.

If you're an ADHDer who needs to manage time blindness more than things like next-action thinking and task prioritization, then this would be a pretty big system to start using...only to need another to manage time blindness.

For example, my calendar is pretty empty most days. I don't have many appointments, meetings, classes, or calls. My work isn't very time-based. So it's more "worth it" for me to spend time honing my GTD system than it would be to, say, build a time blocking system.

But if your work or life is primarily "organized" around time-based events instead of tasks, GTD may not be where you get the most bang for your productivity buck.

Want to try GTD for yourself?

Get started with GTD today with the help of our free Notion template for a simplified, ADHD-friendly GTD setup.

The final verdict

Ultimately, GTD is a system designed to solve a specific problem. That happens to be a problem lots of us with ADHD struggle with.

If you struggle with planning and prioritizing, I do think it's worth a try.

It won't be easy, but with ADHD, few productivity systems will be.

That doesn't mean it won't be worth it.