An overview of GTD

(also details of own implementation)

October 4, 2020

"Getting Things Done", or GTD is a comprehensive productivity system codified by David Allen in his book by the same name.

Guiding Principles (Distributed Cognition)

"Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them."® -David Allen

  1. The mind is great at responding to stimulus in the moment, but it makes a terrible office or library.
  2. Humans are naturally creative, so creativity will happen when conditions are right (mental space).
  3. Without a trusted, external system to manage all our commitments, tasks, and important information our minds take on the task of trying to remember everything, something it's not very good at, which creates stress and inhibits creative thinking.
  4. GTD is the trusted, external system.

It's possible for a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control. You already know how to do everything necessary to achieve this healthy, high-performance state. "Getting Things Done", David Allen (Page 3)

GTD Core

  1. Capture - Write everything down, empty your head.
  2. Clarify - Decide what things mean to you.
  3. Organize - A place for every thing and every thing in place.
  4. Reflect - Staying clear, current, and creative.
  5. Engage - Now with a clear picture of your commitments and priorities.

1. Capture

Goal: Everything out of your head

Capture - My Primary Capture Tools

  1. Email Inbox
  2. Computer Desktop
  3. Physical In-tray

Capture - My Secondary Capture Tools

  1. Physical Desktop -> Physical In-tray
  2. Paper pad -> Physical In-tray
  3. Index cards -> Physical In-tray
  4. Plastic red folder in messenger bag -> Physical In-tray
  5. Text Messages -> Email Inbox
  6. Boomerang : Email Yourself App -> Email Inbox

Capture - Mind Sweep

A helpful technique to use regularly is the Mind Sweep, a focused 'capture' activity.

  1. Acquire stack of index cards and writing utensil
  2. Set a timer for 5-10 minutes
  3. Ask yourself: "What's on my mind? What's not getting done? What is stressing me out?"
  4. As thoughts come, put each one on a separate index card and toss it into your inbox

2. Clarify

When you capture anything and everything that comes your way, the inbox fills up pretty quickly.

"Stuff" -> Capture Tools -> | Inbox |

Clarify - "Workflow - Processing"

A practical procedure for emptying your inboxes and staying current:

For each item in the | Inbox | ask and answer the following questions:

1. "What is it?" (What does it mean to you?)

        ie. "Mom" written on a sticky note? -> It's mom's birthday next week

2. "Is it actionable?"

            +-------+    +-----------+    +---------------+
        No: | Trash | or | Reference | or | Someday/Maybe | <NEXT-ITEM>
            +-------+    +-----------+    +---------------+

3. "Is it part of a larger outcome?"

             +---------------+      +---------------------------+
        Yes: | Projects List | and? | Project Support Materials | 
             +---------------+      +---------------------------+

4. "What's the next action?"

        Next Action: _____________________

5. "Will it take less than 2 minutes to do?"

        Yes: Do it! <NEXT-ITEM>

6. "Am I the right person to do it?"

        No: | Waiting List | <NEXT-ITEM>

7. "Must this happen on a specific day or at a specific time?

        Yes: | Calendar | <NEXT-ITEM>
            +--------------+    +-------------------------+
        No: | Action Lists | or | Upcoming Meeting Agenda | <NEXT-ITEM>
            +--------------+    +-------------------------+

3. Organize

How can we best organize ourselves for getting things done?

  1. Each of the boxes in the previous diagram is a self-contained compartment of your trusted, external-brain, GTD system.
  2. Ensure clean, hard lines/boundaries between different places.
  3. All you need is a way to manage and track lists.
  4. Oh, and at some point you have to decide and deal with reference systems.
  5. You'll need to decide how to implement each one (think in terms of the simplest thing that could work).
  6. Where something is matches what it means to you.

Organize - The Projects List

What is a project?

Any outcome you intend to realize within the next year requiring more than a single physical action to bring to completion.

Because a project merely describes a set of conditions you can't "do" a project directly. You perform action steps that align you and/or your environment with the desired outcome. When enough steps have been performed such that the outcome has been realized, the project is complete.

Some projects only have two or three actions steps, some may have dozens.

Projects represent the commitments we've made to others and ourselves. Most adults with a job, a family, and any interests at all will have somewhere between 30 and 100 of these.

Search your feelings, you know this to be true!

Because projects imply multiple steps we need a written reminder of the outcome to serve as a stake in the ground, allowing us to review our progress toward the desired outcome.

The projects list is nothing more than a simple, unordered list. It's really just an index of all the outcomes you are committed to achieve in the near(-ish) future. You might use any of the following to manage your projects/outcomes list:

Bad news: you have more projects than you realize.

Good news: commitments can be reviewed and renegotiated. This is much easier to do when you can see all of them in one view.

GTD Zen:

There are no problems, only projects! --David Allen

A problem becomes a project when you are able to answer the following questions:

  1. What's the desired outcome?
  2. What's the next action?

Organize - Project Support Materials

Since the projects list is a simple index, you'll probably need a place to store information and resources for specific projects.

My projects support materials are a text file (one per project) on my computer, and if needed, a physical file folder (one per project) on my desk.

Organize - Next Action ("Context") Lists

Consider someone with 50 active projects. Each of those projects will have at least 1-2 next actions defined (with many more to come). How should we organize those tasks for maximum efficiency and productivity?

Fact: We often remember important details at inconvenient times and places when we are powerless to do anything meaningful (in the shower, middle of the night, hiking up a mountain, driving, etc...).

Compile all tasks into lists that pertain to the "context" required to complete them. Examples:

Next time you are at the hardware store, pull out your "At Hardware Store" list and tear through it.

Next time you are waiting for something and you have your phone with you, pull out your "Phone Calls" list and tear through it.

At the end of an emotionally/intellectually draining day, but still feeling a need to be productive, pull out the "Totally 'Brain-dead'" list and do what you can.

GTD allows you to do the hard work of deciding what your work actually is beforehand so that when the rubber hits the road you don't have to think as hard--you just do what you've already decided on, all the while responding to the new "stuff" that comes your way.

4. Reflect

In a nutshell: Review whatever lists, overviews, and orientation maps you need to, as often as you need to, to get their contents off your mind.

Reflect - The Daily Review

Reflect - The Weekly Review

Very simply, the Weekly Review is whatever you need to do to get your head empty again and get oriented for the next couple of weeks. This is something that MUST be scheduled on your calendar.

  1. All Inboxes to 'zero'
  2. Review your commitments
    • Review calendar (at least previous/next 2 weeks)
    • Consider each of your projects (still relevant? on track?)
    • Project Support Materials (do I have all the info I need?)
  3. Update Next Actions Lists
    • Cross off completed actions
    • Does every project have at least one action organized by context?
    • Waiting List (who should I follow up with?)
  4. Get Clean, Clear, Current, Complete, and Creative!
    • What ideas can I explore?
    • What's coming up?

The real trick to ensuring the trustworthiness of the whole organization system lies in regularly refreshing your thinking and your system from a more elevated perspective. "Getting Things Done", David Allen (Page 194)

"I am absolutely aware of everything I'm not doing but could be doing if I decided to." "Getting Things Done", David Allen (Page 195)

5. Engage

This part becomes so much easier and more fulfilling when you've already done the harder, up-front work of capturing, clarifying, organizing, and reflecting.

There are a few ways to think about doing work in the moment:

Engage - The Four-Criteria Model for Choosing Actions in the Moment

  1. Context
  2. Time Available
  3. Energy Available
  4. Priority

Engage - The Threefold Model for Identifying Daily Work

  1. Doing predefined work
  2. Doing work as it shows up
  3. Defining your work

Engage - The "Horizons of Focus"

In order for an airplane to take off, the runway has to be clear!

Trying to manage from the top down when the bottom is out of control may be the least effective approach. "Getting Things Done", David Allen (Page 217)

Handle what has your attention and you'll then discover what really has your attention... Deal with what's present. When you do, you will more effectively uncover and address what's really true and meaningful for you. This is very likely one reason someone may resist the acceptance and implementation of the Getting Things Done methodology. Some of those higher-horizon issues, which consequently may surface, would be too unpleasant to confront. Being busy and overwhelmed can be, paradoxically, at least a temporarily effective way to stay comfortable. "Getting Things Done", David Allen (Pages 218-219)

-Michael Whatcott