Getting from Idea to Action Quicker: The GTD Method

Getting Things Done (GTD) is a time management method created by David Allen.  This method is based on the idea of moving planned tasks and projects out of the mind by recording them externally and then breaking them down into actionable items.  This allows one to focus their attention on acting on tasks instead of recalling them.  For a great explanation, David was interviewed on this edition of The Dealer Playbook podcast.  For a short version of what GTD is, David does a 90 second explanation here.  For a quick infographic on what GTD is, click here.

Most of us are too busy to work on our values, mission and ultimate purpose. Why? Even though our minds are great at creating things, it is terrible at tracking it.  (For a great example see this video from Successful by Design) There is a very good chance that you are tracking tons of things in your head right now. That stuff drains your energy and clogs your creativity because you are relying on yourself to remember it.  This stuff makes it hard to stay afloat on a day to day basis, forget about being able to think bigger.  In this TED talk, David talks about getting in control and creating space:

So, what’s the solution? You have likely been told it’s start at the top and work down.  That’s what’s got you struggling.  Start by mastering the bottom (by mastering getting things done efficiently) and then when you are no longer drowning you can think about your mission, purpose and values.

Getting Things Done is a collection of processes and habits that aim for:

  1. A clean and updated calendar of time-critical actions;
  2. A clear, current and comprehensive list of next actions you can take anywhere, anytime, without the need for further thought or clarification;
  3. A full list of outcomes (big and small) that you’re committed to achieving in the next 12 months; and
  4. A complete system to organize and keep track of all the “stuff” in your life.

By implementing GTD you will:

  • Never let anything important slip by again;
  • Always have pre-prepared options of actionable and productive things to get on with;
  • Have total oversight of everything you’ve committed to in the near future; and
  • Have a totally clear head with no need to mentally track of remember anything.

In short, it’s a way to get your life under control.  Through getting things out of your head and into a trusted system you will trust yourself more. You will know when to say “no” and still feel confident about handling anything that is thrown at you. By making space in your head that the “stuff” used to inhabit, you will have the time and energy to start working on the bigger things.  David talks about “The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” in this video here.

So how does it work? There are 5 Steps plus Planning (David gives a short overview here):

  1. Capture – Collect what has your attention.   Use an in-basket, notepad or voice recorder to capture 100% of everything that has your attention.  Little, big, personal and professional – all your to-do’s, projects, things to handle or finish.
  2. Clarify – Process what it means.  Take everything that you capture and ask: Is it actionable? If no, then trash it, incubate it or file it as a reference. If yes, then decide the very next action required. If it will take you less than 2 minutes, do it now. If not, delegate it if you can; or put it on a list to do when you can.
  3. Organize – Put it where it belongs. Put action reminders on the right lists. For example, create lists for the appropriate categories – calls to make, errands to run, emails to send, etc.
  4. Reflect – Review frequently. Look over your lists as often as necessary to determine what to do next. Do a weekly review to clean up, update your lists and clear your mind.
  5. Engage – Simply do. Use your system to take appropriate actions with confidence.
  6. Plan complex projects to get from multistep outcomes to actions.

Here’s a short video where David walks Dutch TV host Linda Geerdlink though getting started with GTD.

Let’s look at these in more detail.

Capture

This includes all your outstanding stuff. Gather every out of place and unfinished thing in your head, your e-mail, your briefcase and wherever else it is stored and put it into a few external inboxes.  An inbox can be a basket, a notebook, a spreadsheet or any other way of getting it all into a small number of places.  You want to get it external to yourself because otherwise it will stay on your mind, eating energy and killing creativity.

Stuff is anything (an action, commitment, project or object) that:

  • You want, should, could, ought or need to act on, now or later; or
  • Anything that is even slightly unfinished or out of place.

Allen refers to this stuff as open loops.  By not having been closed yet, they cause stress because they are things that we could forget.  They are constantly telling your brain to “think about me”.  That stress is what is killing your energy and your creativity.

By collecting you empty these external inboxes so that you can move to the clarifying and organizing stages.  It’s sort of like doing spring cleaning.  Once it has been collected you will have an overview of everything that is unfinished or out of place in your life and it allows you to do the next steps quickly and effectively.  Once you have the system set up, collecting on a weekly basis will become shorter and easier.  While collecting, do not process as you go – you will be much more efficient if you batch all collecting first before trying to process it (the only exception is for items that can be completed in two minutes or less).  If the item is impractical to move (say you need to sell your old car, boat, etc.), use a physical or digital note as a placeholder so that it gets into the system.  Tooodledo.com offers a great infographic on how to do a brain dump here.

Clarify

Clarifying is the process of determining what stuff is, what’s the desired outcome and what is the next action.  You need to answer all these things.  If you don’t know what something is, how can you tell if it is important? The desired outcome lets you know when the thing has been completed.  The next action follows determining the outcome as this is the next step required to move towards that outcome. By not answering these three questions the item will sit in the system and you will not act on it until you are forced to.  Allen says that “you often have to think about stuff more than you realize, but not as much as you’re afraid you might.”

When determining the next action, be complete enough that someone else could do it without needing further clarification or thought.  If the next action is “call garage to schedule an oil change”, include the phone number.  If you don’t know it, then the real next action is “find phone number for Joe’s Garage”.

A few rules for working through your inbox:

  1. Always start with the top item on the pile.
  2. Handle only one item at a time.
  3. Never put anything back into an inbox.

Not sure how to get your inbox to zero? David offers some advice from his blog in response to a help request from a user here.

Organize

This is the process of:

  • Doing, delegating or deferring next actions;
  • Tidying up useful but non-actionable stuff into its proper place; and
  • Trashing what is left.

There are a few tools that you will need for organizing:

  • A calendar for time-critical meetings, events and actions;
  • A way to take notes for lists of actions, outcomes, plans and ideas;
  • A filing system to store information you may need to reference but can’t act on; and
  • A trash can or paper shredder depending on how sensitive the document is.

Allen prefers physical systems but the choice between physical and digital is yours.  Just make sure that the setup is relatively easy and works for you. Want to know what apps David uses to keep his lists?  He discusses them in this short clip here.  David offers some other ideas on what tool to use here.

In the note taking tool create four new notes with the following headings:

  • Waiting For – a list of all things that you are waiting for from others;
  • Next Actions – a list of every doable next action to progress to an outcome;
  • Outcomes – a list of every multi-step outcome that you’re committed to realizing in the next 12 months; and
  • Someday – outcomes or actions you may like to undertake one day under different circumstances.

In your filing system create two new sections or folders inside of it:

  • Plans – visualizations, milestones and next steps for complex outcomes; and
  • Ticklers – stuff you will “mail to self” for later re-processing.
    • Within the ticklers, set up 43 folders:
    • 1-12 are labeled with the name of each month; and
    • The remaining are labeled 1 through 31.

How does this work?  Say you received an email for and event that you want to attend that opens registrations in February.  There is no actionable item for right now, but there will be, so file that invitation in the February folder for later re-processing.  The remaining folders are for items in the current month.  The items will go into the folder representing the day that they are due.

Once an item has been clarified, you now have five choices:

  • Do – if the next action takes 2 minutes or less, do it now;
  • Delegate – if the next action can be done by someone else, delegate it;
  • Defer – commit to acting on a next action at a specific or general time in the future;
  • Tidy – find a proper place for everything and put everything in its proper place; and
  • Trash – dispose of anything that is no longer important or needed.

The best approach is to keep things simple.  Have one proper place for everything and put everything in their proper place. Try to only use one list and fewer folders wherever possible.  Sort things alphabetically – avoid the urge to categorize by sequence and priority.  Reducing complexity will just add thinking that will result in things not getting done and undermining the system.

The one place where many is better is in your next actions list.  Allen recommends splitting next actions across several lists by context, such as place (where you must be), person (who you must be with) or tools (what you must have on hand).  These contexts will help you to remember to be in the right place, with the right people and at the right time.  They will also allow you to batch similar actions together.

David explains what he means by being organized in GTD in this short video here.

Reflect

At a minimum, do a weekly review where you look for items from the previous week that have not yet reached their desired outcome, have been deferred for various reasons or just have not been actioned on yet.  Re-run steps 1 to 3.  Review, update and refresh every one of your folders and use your freed-up headspace to get creative, think big or maybe start a project from your someday list.  For each item answer the following questions to determine what to do with it:

  • Where am I on this?
  • Is it still relevant?
  • Is it still in the right place?
  • What’s the next action?

Engage

Once your system is up and running, this is where you will expend most of your time and energy.  At this point all that is left is the doing and because it has been organized, the doing is much simpler. Everything has been funnelled to your calendar and your master list of next actions.

So how do you decide what to do next?  First, rule out things that you can’t or shouldn’t do based on:

  • Context – what can’t you do based on where you are or what tools you have available?
  • Time available – What can’t you do based on the time until your next appointment?
  • Energy – What shouldn’t you do based on your mental or physical state?

Out of what is left, trust your gut and do what feels most important right now.  Even if you procrastinate, as long as you are working from your list you will be making progress on something.  However, as you get more proficient, there will be less and less reason to avoid doing anything.  David discusses procrastination here.

Something to keep in mind is to never respond instantly to work as it shows up, no matter how “urgent” it is.  Spend a couple of minutes running the request through steps 1, 2 and 3 of GTD. Review any next actions you have identified within the context of all your next actions.  Only engage with the new request if it still is the most important and urgent thing on your plate.  David offers more tips on how to deal with interruptions in this 4-minute video here.

Plan

Sometimes just a moment of thought and effort that’s needed to identify a project’s next action, but its usually better to have a plan.  A good place to start is:

  • Define the purpose and principles – why are you doing this and what are the constraints?
  • Visualize outcomes – what does success look like?
  • Brainstorm – what are all the ideas that you can think of and eliminate the bad ones.
  • Organize – what ideas will you use, which are the most important and what order to do them in.
  • Identify next actions – what is the very next physical action you can take to progress the project?

The goal of GTD is to get things done, so don’t make planning an end in itself.  It must draw out next actions!  Jacob Bronowski puts it as “the world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation.” If you are spending half of your time building and maintaining your system, you just aren’t doing it right.  Trust your instincts, simplify your system and get things done!

Further Resources

Want more information?  Start with David’s website – https://gettingthingsdone.com David does a monthly podcast where he talks with people who use GTD – https://gettingthingsdone.com/podcasts/ or subscribe to them on iTunes, Stitcher, Libsyn, Google Play Music, Spotify or Soundcloud.  The site also has a blog (https://gettingthingsdone.com/gtd-times/ ) that David updates every few days.  His book – Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity – is available on Amazon or at your favorite bookstore.  Buy the 2015 edition as it has been updated with the most current information and research. He has also started a YouTube channel with several short clips that help you understand GTD better that is available here.

Mashable offers a toolbox of 100+ resources for Getting things Done here.

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