Getting Things Done for Beginners
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You’re overwhelmed by your To-Do-List, you constantly interrupt your workflow because of some new task appearing and you have the permanent feeling that you’re forgetting something important? Then you might want to try implementing a system for personal productivity. My favourite system so far is Getting Things Done (or GTD). If you’ve been around the productivity scene for a bit, then you’ve probably heard of it – it’s sort of the holy grail of personal productivity systems.
Let’s take a look at why you should care about GTD, how it works and how to implement GTD:
What is Getting Things Done and why should you care?
The primary focus of GTD is on how we deal with all the tasks that fly our way every day. It’s all about execution on the micro-level of your productivity.
It will also teach you the underlying principles of how to use To-Do Apps like Todoist, Things 3 or Omnifocus well and has a lot of advice that can be implemented in isolation. So even if you’re not looking to fully change the way you work, Getting Things Done could teach you a thing or two. It certainly did so for me.
What GTD is not about
Getting Things Done is not a great system to organise knowledge. Knowledge in this context means all the information that you want to save and retain for later, but doesn’t have an action attached to it.
So if you’re looking for ways to master these kind of things, then check out my article on Personal Knowledge Management for Beginners.
It’s also not much of a help when it comes to figuring out the “Big Picture”. In the book, David Allen states quite clearly that the purpose of GTD is to create the space and mental bandwidth required to tackle bigger questions. But it won’t guide you in how to use that clarity to figure out what’s actually important to you.
If that’s of more interest to you, then I recommend checking out “Personality isn’t Permanent” by Benjamin Hardy.
How does GTD work?
What problem does GTD address?
Your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them”
The central assumption of Getting Things Done is that your mind does a very poor job when it comes to keeping track of things. Every time you see something and think “This should be different”, your brain puts that information on one big pile, regardless of its priority. David Allen calls these things “Open Loops” and they could be anything:
- drafting a proposal for tomorrow’s meeting
- getting a birthday gift for your sister
- changing the light bulb in the kitchen
- ending world hunger
- signing up to dance lessons
Having collected all your Open Loops in one place, your brain will then frantically scan that pile and remind you that there are still a lot of things to do (the so-called Zeigarnik Effect).
It won’t necessarily tell you what exactly or how to progress – but it will make sure you know that things are not as they are supposed to be and that you’d better act quickly to change that.
Combine that constant background noise with the fact that our available mental bandwidth is limited and we have a problem: the more things we have on our mind, the less capacity we have to actually tackle them.
What solution does GTD offer?
So what to do instead? Stop using your brain as an inbox or task manager – it does a very poor job and it limits your capacity to actually work on your Open Loops.
Instead, you need to create an external system to hold all Open Loops. There are various ways to create such a system and Getting Things Done only gives you the guidelines to do so – the specific implementation will depend on your individual use case.
So let’s take a look at the guiding principles of GTD before we look at some easy ways to implement the system:
The Five Pillars of Getting Things Done
The five pillars of GTD are:
Let’s dive in:
Step 1: Capture
First, you have to stop collecting Open Loops in your brain.
Anything that does not belong where it is, the way it is, is an open loop”
In theory, that’s easy to do: just write down everything that feels like something you should do or want to do as soon as it crosses your mind.
In practice, you’ll need to set up your workspace in a way that facilitates both the writing down part and the part where you use that list to start working on it. Having hundreds of post-it notes scattered all over your house probably won’t do much good.
Instead, you need to pick a few places that will serve as your “Capture Inboxes“. A Capture Inbox can be anything that can hold an Open Loop:
- a physical notebook
- a note-taking app on your phone
- your brain (just kidding – obviously everything except your brain!)
You should pick your Capture Inboxes in a way, that you have always access to one at any time. But beware, you don’t want to have too many separate places or else you will be at risk of not processing them correctly in step 2.
There’s only one rule when capturing: write things down as quickly as possible with as little context as possible. You just need the note to figure out later what you wanted to remember.
Don’t even bother to organise what you write down at this point. The only goal is to get the Open Loop out of your head, into a trusted system.
Again, one thing can’t be stressed enough: everything needs to be written down. Your brain will know if you hold back certain things (“sure I need to buy toothpaste, but that’s just such a small thing, I’m sure it’s fine if I don’t write it down”) which in turn means your brain can’t trust the system and will keep the infinite check on Open Loops on.
Write. Down. Everything.
Step 2: Clarify
In regular intervals, ideally at the end of every day, you have to go through your Capture Inboxes and process the content. Now’s the time to actually figure out what an Open Loop means to you.
This step of Getting Things Done can be easily visualised with a workflow:
Here’s how to do it:
1. Is it actionable?
Open Loops can generally be generally separated into things we can do (an action) and everything else.
- your doctor’s report – something has to happen with it, but you don’t have an immediate action tied to it (other than “store it safely”)
- the broken lightbulb in the kitchen has to be changed – an action
If it’s not an action, then it’s time to either trash it (if not needed any more) or file it for a later point. Filing non-actionable items would be a use case for your Personal Knowledge Management System (in short: PKM). You can find out more about this here.
If it’s an action, then there’s a short series of follow up questions:
2. What is the Next Action?
Even though we recognise something as actionable, we rarely actually identify what exactly the next action would be.
David Allen describes this phenomenon as thinking of a problem versus thinking about it. Our brains are in constant “oh we should really do this”-mode instead of clarifying what doing would actually look like.
This lack of clarity is one of the main reasons for procrastination according to GTD. So during the Clarify stage, it’s crucial to take a moment to identify the next physical action that has to happen in order to move the Open Loop forward.
Example: the Open Loop “Mum’s birthday” takes up mental space, but you can’t really act on it. Do you want to buy a gift? Make ticket reservations for the train to visit her? Call a restaurant to pre-order lunch that day?
If you don’t clarify that (and write it down), your brain will spend some energy on figuring this out every single time you think about “Mum’s birthday”. You spend your time thinking of the “problem” (Mum’s birthday) instead of thinking about it (What should I do about that?)
3. Processing the Next Action
So you figured out what you actually have to do – time to act on it! Or better: time to do one of three things:
- do it – if it takes less than 2 minutes to do so, you might as well do it now (the famous 2-Minute-Rule). The idea is that it would take you more time to run the Action through your system than to just get it out of the way. But beware: this is not an excuse to do mindless, quick work all day long or to use up your most productive time on irrelevant tasks. So be cautious when applying the 2-Minute-Rule and don’t get swept away by small tasks.
- delegate it – are you really the right person for the task or should it be on someone else’s plate?
- defer it – add it to your To-Do list for a later time (how exactly? We’ll get to that in a moment)
4. Is it an action – or a project?
When you start thinking about the Next Action, you might realise that your Open Loop is actually a series of tasks.
Example: filing taxes
Before I learned about GTD, I’d simply add “filing taxes” to my to-do list where it would then sit forever, because it was a) poorly defined and b) actually a project, not a task.
It becomes clear when you look at it through the lense of “Next Action”. To file taxes, I first need to gather all my relevant documents, ask the bank or insurance to provide things that are missing, research a tax filing software, familiarise myself with it, fill out the forms, research a bit more and then finally actually “file” them.
Once broken down into individual “Next Actions”, it’s far easier to get started on the list. With these big and vague pseudo-tasks, I always notice a lot of resistance. I know I should do something about “filing taxes”. But my brain (rightfully) assumes that this is probably quite a big thing, so let’s maybe not start with it for now – the root cause for a lot of procrastination.
Asking yourself “what is the next action?” makes sure you don’t fall into this trap again. Simply add the Next Action to your To-Do List and the project itself to a separate project list (we’ll cover that in a bit).
When does a task become a project? For GTD, the answer is easy: anything that requires more than one Action to be completed. That means that most things are actually projects. Changing a light bulb? If you need to go shopping for it first, then it’s a project. Buying a birthday gift? If you need to brainstorm first, it’s a project. It might seem like nit-picking at first, but actually helps a lot!
5. Calendar & Fake Due Dates
Before I read Getting Things Done, I assigned plenty of Due Dates to my tasks. It wasn’t so much that they actually had to be done by that time, but I wanted a reminder on the day that I should do the task.
Did it work?
Not even the slightest. I was routinely pushing tasks to the next day, sometimes dragging the same task along for several weeks before I finally got to it (or deleted it because it wasn’t relevant anymore).
GTD imposes a very clear rule on these Fake Due Dates: don’t use them. They don’t work and they just create more mental load. You are only allowed to use Due Dates for tasks that have and severe and immediate penalty attached in case you don’t do them by a specific date (filing your taxes for example or attending a meeting).
Step 3: Organise
Next up on the workflow is another speciality of GTD that you might know from popular to-do apps: the use of lists.
Put simply, all your newly clarified Open Loops from the inbox now have to be recorded on a dedicated list. Which lists? I’m glad you asked:
- Project List – a list for all your projects. Depending on the complexity of your life, you could separate the list into further sub-lists (like work projects & private projects), but GTD author David Allen recommends to keep it as simple as possible.
- Next Actions List – all those Next Actions that you’ve identified get their own list, so that you can see at any given moment all the things that you could do right now.
- Someday / Maybe – while sorting through your inbox, you might come across things that are not relevant right now but you might wanna do them at some point. Add them to their own list to make sure that nothing falls through the cracks
Step 4: Reflect
The fourth pillar of Getting Things Done might seem small but actually contains the most crucial factor for success: the Weekly Review.
Whatever system you use for your personal productivity, it’s bound to fail at least a little bit from time to time. We are no machines and when things get busy, it’s easy to lose track of our good intentions.
That’s what the Weekly Review is for. Once per week, you set 25 minutes (no more, because if it’s longer, you won’t stick to it) aside to do housekeeping on your GTD System. You will
- scan your list of Next Actions to make sure everything important is taken care of
- review your Projects List and see whether each project has a Next Action assigned and is still relevant
That’s it – it might seem small, but trust me: it’s the one thing that will keep things running smoothly. It’s also crucial to give you some much needed peace of mind. And it’s the one step that allows us to drop using Fake Due Dates. No need to remind us daily of all the things we ought to do if we know that once per week, we sit down and tend to all our obligations.
Step 5: Engage
Now it’s time to actually work on the things you’ve identified. And here, you’re kind of on your own. Getting Things Done is mostly a framework for how to prepare your work – not for actually doing it.
Think of it like the concept mise-en-place, the term chefs use to describe how you set up your kitchen, prepare all ingredients and ready all utensils before you actually cook the dish.
GTD is the mise-en-place for your work. You know exactly what projects you have, what Next Actions you can take and your brain can fully focus on the task itself instead of having to remember everything at once.
Looking for a framework to decide what to actually work on? This article here by Khe Hy is a great place to start.
Actually, there is one more aspect of Getting Things Done that will help you decide what to work on. Context.
Advanced GTD: the power of context
While not part of the essential core of GTD, adding context can greatly amplify the system.
What’s context? Context is additional information that helps you quickly judge when’s the right time for a certain task. The most useful examples include:
- devices you need to perform the task (your phone for calls, access to the company network and so on)
- people (your boss, your spouse, your collegues)
- your energy level (high energy vs. low energy tasks)
Context can both be the breakthrough for your GTD system and the downfall. Adding the right context will make it much easier to find the right task, but it’s easy to go overboard and spend more time tagging things than working on them.
As a rule of thumb, start by only allowing yourself three types of tags. A great example that works for most people would be:
- the tag “phone” for calls you have to make
- the tag “boss” for the person you have to report to regularly
- the tag “high energy” to immediately see the most challenging tasks (the ones who are most likely to fall prey to procrastination)
One thing you should never tag is your status quo. If 90% of your tasks happen on the laptop, don’t bother adding the tag “laptop” to them. You don’t gain anything from that information and it just increases the time spent on your system (which in turn increases the likelihood of system failure).
If you find tagging useful, you could even consider turning your most important tags into lists themselves. That way, it’s even easier to have the right task find you. Only do so for tags that reach a certain threshold though or else you have a lot of clutter and reduced visibility.
Good examples for tags that can be turned into lists are:
- phone calls (again)
- recurring meetings / report sessions to hold your talking points
How to make GTD stick?
The five pillars are all good and well, but what do you actually need to do, day by day, to make Getting Things Done a success for you? Luckily, you can boil the system down to three crucial behaviour changes:
- Capture everything – make it a habit to write down every “ah I should…”, “well, I could…” and “oh sh**, …!” moment immediately.
- Process your inbox daily – Once a day, you need to go through your inbox, clarify the Next Action, sort out projects and add all items to their corresponding lists. Doing so every day won’t take much time and it’s the only way your brain will trust the system.
- Review your system weekly – once a week, it’s time to take stock. Are all projects on track? Did you forget to check off any tasks? It might feel irrelevant because you’re not actually working on your to-do list but trust me: this step is absolutely crucial.
How to implement GTD
The great thing about Getting Things Done is the enormous flexibility. Unlike other productivity systems, it’s tool-agnostic and can be implemented in pretty much any way you want it. The only two requirements are:
- you need to use Capture Inboxes that are readily available to you
- you can’t store any information in your head. Ever.
Here are three great ways to get started:
The traditional Notebook User
Pen and Paper is your jam? You’re in luck, because GTD doesn’t require any fancy tools. All you need is
- two notebooks, one of them so small you can carry it with you all the time
- a pen
- seriously, that’s it
Set up your small notebook as your Capture Inbox of choice. To do so, simply start writing down every Open Loop that crosses your mind.
Next, create your key lists in the other notebook:
- Next Actions
At the end of each day, go through your inbox notebook, clarify the open loops and add them to their corresponding lists.
Using Apple Reminders
If you lean more towards digital devices but don’t want to get a dedicated app to try GTD, look no further than the native Reminders App on your iPhone.
Simply create separate lists for
- your inbox
- Next Actions
- Someday / Maybe
Make sure that the Inbox list is your first list so that new reminders are automatically added to it. You can add new Open Loops even quicker through Siri without ever having to open the your phone.
At the end of each day, go through the inbox and, clarify the Open Loops and add them to their corresponding lists
Best Apps for GTD
If you’re looking for a bit more power and more functionality for your GTD system, then you might want to check out:
Out of all of these, Todoist would be my favourite. It comes with all necessary functions, an easy-to-use interface and it’s cheap to start with (but it’s a recurring subscription, $36 per year). Plus their blog is amazing!
Omnifocus is the most expensive one at $99.99/year ( and has a very steep learning curve, so unless you’re committed to spend quite some time (and money), I’d pass on it (even though it’s amazing, once set up properly).
Things 3 is very similar to Todoist, but it’s Apple only. If you’re fully in the Apple Ecoverse, it’s just as good as Todoist – with the slight disadvantage of lacking integration with Zapier or Automate.io. It’s also relatively expensive upfront ($10 for the iPhone App, $20 for the iPad and $50 for the Mac version) – you get 2 1/2 years worth of subscription to Todoist for that.
What sets all of these apps apart from using the basic Apple Reminder App is their ability to use tags more efficiently. In one way or another, they allow you to turn any tag into it’s own list without you having to add them manually. That way, you can have one view to see your Next Actions, one view to see all tasks that where tagged “Phone” and another one to see all tasks relating to a specific project.
Secret tip: Notion is not a dedicated To-Do App, but you can easily build the most powerful Getting Things Done system in it. What’s even better, thanks to some magic called API, you’re able to connect a different app, say Todoist, to Notion. That way, you can use the speed of Todoist and the power of Notion to create the perfect GTD system.
Get started with GTD without doing GTD
At first, Getting Things Done might look like a rigid and complex system, but once you start, it’s actually fairly simple.
And if you don’t feel like implementing a completely new system, GTD still offers valuable lessons that will improve any existing system you have. Here are the three best lessons from Getting Things Done that can be implemented in isolation:
- Next Actions – let’s be honest, my To-Do-Lists were horrible in the past. I’d write down vague statements like “taxes”, “study” or “birthday gift” and leave it at that. Needless to say that it didn’t help too much with procrastination. Switching to the approach of specific Next Actions has been a game changer for me.
- No Fake Due Dates – another productivity sin I’ve fallen prey to. Back when I used Things 3, I had a bunch of tasks that I carried with me for weeks. I’d see them in the morning, delay them because they didn’t fit into the day and reschedule them at night. Instead of making doing the task a habit, I turned rescheduling into one. So no more fake due dates. They simply don’t work.
- Capture everything – it’s pretty hard to describe just how much of a difference writing down everything that comes to mind makes. Even if you don’t process that stuff afterwards and just leave it as a big list, it will help ease your mind (and research has shown it can help you fall asleep faster).
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