Getting Things Done





The basic premise of Getting Things Done is that you are primarily disorganized because you don't write things down. Trying to keep everything in your head has several negative consequences:

  • You forget things, and are thereby stressed out (Yes, you probably you remember almost everything... but "Oh no! I should have this done by now and I haven't even started!" only has to happen once to stress you out.)
  • Because humans can only carry about 7 things in their heads at once, and your to-do list probably has more than 7 things in it, you can't review the entire list in order to prioritize properly.
  • Part of your brain is tied up in trying to remember your to-do list instead of working on your project at hand.


So GTD is, at its core, the art of writing things down in a place where you can find them, instead of trying to keep track of everything in your head. The key elements are:
  • Places where you can stick things that need to be done (your inboxes). Odds are good that you'll have to have more than one: an inbox on your desk at work, an inbox in your email program, and a list on the fridge at home. But the fewer inboxes, the fewer places you have to look when you need to find something.
  • A list of projects and next tasks so that at any time, you can glance down a list that contains everything you need to do.
  • A filing system that is quick and easy to use. Ideally, you should be able to take an item out of your inbox, decide to file it rather than act on it, and file it in the filing system, all in less then a minute. You should likewise be able to locate anything you have filed in under two minutes.
  • A "tickler" file for items that are halfway between "file" and "act on". The tickler file is for a brochure about something you want to do 4 months from now, or notes on a conference for next week.


In addition to those physical components, GTD also encompasses several habits that need to be developed:
  • Every time you think of (or are given) something to do, put it in your inbox.
  • "Process" your inbox every week, and put everything in it into one of several pre-defined categories:
    • Trash (You'd be amazed at how much can go in this pile)
    • Handle later (Tickler file)
    • Handle someday if I have time (someday/maybe file)
    • File for reference
    • Do it now (if the action required takes less than 2 minutes, just do it now and be done with it)
    • Delegate (in which case a note about it goes into Waiting For, unless you truly don't care what happens next.)
    • Add to calendar (for things like doctors' appointments or phone conferences)
    • Projects (subdivided as follows)
      • Project lists (holding the "next action" that needs to be taken for each project)
      • Project support materials (holding the notes, schedules, ideas, and other minutia for any given project)
      • Waiting For (for items that you need to do something with, but can't do that thing until someone else gets back to you)


The disadvantage of Getting Things Done is that it takes quite a bit of work, and most people aren't up to it. It takes somewhere between 2-5 days to get everything set up in the system (clean out your desk, process out your inbox, re-do your filing system, set up the tickler file, and so on), and that's the EASY part. Then you have to maintain the two habits of writing down EVERYTHING you need to do, and of processing and reviewing every week. Like Darwinian evolution, everything has to begin at the same time in order to make it work.

The advantage of Getting Things Done is that it really does capture pretty much anything you might want to track. If you follow it rigorously, you will know where to find everything you need for anything you need to do. Like Darwinian evolution, it's an elegant and effective solution to a sticky problem.

David Allen's book, Getting Things Done, outlines precisely what a tickler file is and how to make one, how to get everything in your inbox, what the processing flowchart looks like, and all the other details you need to get things set up. There are also lots of resources at his website. Not ready to read the book yet, but want more information? Trent at the Simple Dollar did a fantastic series on using Getting Things Done and its benefits.

How does it connect with my calendar?
Getting Things Done uses the calendar primarily as a repository for information that you would otherwise try to keep in your head -- anything on your schedule from dental appointments to payday.

Any type of calendar will work, so pick one that works with your requirements.

How does it connect with my to-do list?
GTD operates with a master to-do list that hold everything you need to do. It asks that you sort your master to-do list into several different lists based on what you need to accomplish each task -- an @phone list for phone calls you need to make, an @desk list for things you can only do at the office, and so on.

So you need a to-do list that's flexible enough to handle that. Almost all paper systems will work, although some day organizers handle it better than others. If you're considering getting a smart phone/PDA, check out whether the task list has the flexibility to handle it. If you're not sure, run a Google search on "GTD +" whatever software/hardware you're thinking about getting. Odds are good that you'll find recommendations on how to implement GTD with whatever calendar system you're considering.

Once you've established your basic time management scheme, check out Time Management Hacks for ideas to add on to your productivity methods.

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