The Getting Things Done Method: 3 Skills You Need

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What is the Getting Things Done method? How can David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology help you organize your life?

The Getting Things Done (GTD) method is a system that allows you to optimize organization, and apply better planning skills. With the Getting Things Done method, you’ll be able to organize your tasks so you don’t get overwhelmed.

The Getting Things Done Method: Four Organizational Models

Do you feel like you’re always playing catch up with your to-do list? Are there never enough hours in the day? The GTD method can help.

The Getting Things Done method is designed to help you do the things you have to do with less time, energy, and effort so you can do more of the things you want to do. 

The crux of the Getting Things Done method is to store every task, reminder, and note bouncing around your brain in an external organization system to free up your mental energy to actually focus on the task at hand. Your brain is great at creating and processing things but not at remembering them, so trying to keep track of everything in your head saps your brainpower from doing what your mind does best. 

Through the GTD methodology, you’ll capture every task and reminder on lists, in files, and on your calendar. You’ll be aware and in control of your entire workload so you can be fully present in each moment without the nagging feeling that you should be doing something else. 

The GTD method has four specific methodologies for how to approach a new task.

1. The Four-Criteria Model: Narrow Your Options

This model of the Getting Things Done methodology helps you narrow down your choices based on four criteria: 

  1. Context: Certain tasks require you to be at a certain location or to have access to a certain tool (e.g. at the office or in front of a computer). It helps if you’ve already sorted your next actions into context-specific lists. 
  2. Time available: Some tasks require an hour of focused attention, so if you just have a few minutes before your next appointment this isn’t the time for that task. 
  3. Energy available: Certain tasks require a lot of mental or physical energy, while others don’t need much. Only tackle what you have the energy to take on. 
  4. Priority: After narrowing down your options with the first three criteria, prioritizing will be a more subjective decision based on your intuition and judgment. Use the next two models to help you choose by determining first what category of work an item falls into and then how it fits into your big-picture goals and values. 

2. The Threefold Model: Types of Work

This Getting Things Done method model helps you make an informed decision about whether to take on a task. You must understand which of the three categories it falls into: 

  1. Predefined work is essentially anything on your Next Actions list and calendar, all of which you’ve clarified and deemed important. 
  2. Work that shows up encompasses the unanticipated tasks that arise during the day, whether it’s a last-minute report your boss assigns you or the surprise repair your car needs. Prioritize this work when it needs your immediate attention, but don’t fall into the trap of defaulting to what’s right in front of you when it’s not the most important or urgent. 
  3. Defining work is the time you spend maintaining the GTD system—clearing your in-tray, clarifying tasks, organizing, filing, and doing two-minute actions. You must prioritize time to do this regularly, ideally during your Weekly Review. 

3. The Six-Level Model: Determine Priorities

Part of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology is prioritization. In order to prioritize the options in front of you, you need to have a context for how they fit into the bigger picture of your life and priorities. There are six different levels—or horizons—of perspectives in the Getting Things Done method to determine your priorities: 

  1. The Ground is the current action on your Next Actions list. (Example: You have a phone call to make for work.)
  2. Horizon 1 is current projects with relatively short-term timelines. (Example: The phone call is about a deal you’re trying to make.)
  3. Horizon 2 is areas of focus and accountabilities, or the roles and responsibilities you have, from job duties to maintaining your health and family commitments. This horizon doesn’t consist of tasks but rather the interests and responsibilities that help to determine what projects and actions you’ll take on. (Example: This deal would increase the company’s sales.) 
  4. Horizon 3 is goals—specifically, horizon 3 encompasses goals for the next one to two years. (Example: Making the deal would earn you major points with your boss.)
  5. Horizon 4 is vision, or your goals for the next three to five years. (Example: This success would likely lead to a promotion.)
  6. Horizon 5 is purpose and principles; this is the big-picture context of your life. All your actions, projects, focuses, goals, and visions are defined by and also lead you toward your purpose and principles. (Example: A promotion will put you in a position that allows you to have the career and lifestyle you want.)

Use the Natural Planning Method to Plan Projects

Always have a next action identified for each project you have, so that you’re constantly making progress on your projects. Determining next actions on big projects can be daunting, but simply follow the same process you’d use if you were planning something in your daily life, like a birthday dinner with friends. 

This approach in David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology is called the Natural Planning Method, and it consists of these steps:  

  1. Define your purpose and principles. Your purpose is the intention of the project, and your principles create the boundaries. If you’re planning a birthday dinner, your purpose is to celebrate and the boundaries could be factors like how affordable you want the restaurant to be. 
  2. Envision your outcome. Your purpose is your why, while your outcome is the what: What will a successful outcome look, feel, and sound like? You might imagine your dinner happening around a big outdoor table, with all your friends laughing and sharing food. When you picture something and focus on it, it helps you create it and makes you more excited to achieve it. 
  3. Brainstorm. This is the how. Your brain naturally wants to fill in the gaps to determine how to make your vision a reality. During this stage, you might question whether the restaurant is open today, what time you need to go, and whether there’s gas in the car. Use mind maps or other brainstorming techniques to jot down as many ideas as you can without judging or criticizing the ideas along the way. 
  4. Organize. This is the step when you organize all the random thoughts, questions, and ideas from the brainstorming process. You’ll naturally organize them based on logistics, priorities, and what needs to happen first: Call the restaurant to see if it’s open and make a reservation, then invite the guests, then get yourself dressed and ready to go. 
  5. Determine your next actions. Determine what can actually be done now, and who’s going to do it. For dinner, your next action is to call the restaurant. 

Implementing and mastering the GTD method is a lifelong process that helps you manage your day-to-day obligations while keeping your larger goals in mind. 

First, master the principles and practices, cement them as habits, and gain control of your daily tasks. Once you reach this point, take a bigger-picture approach to managing and organizing your life; proactively initiate projects to improve areas of your life. Ultimately, you can leverage the GTD methodology to implement new habits, tackle bucket-list aspirations, and create the lifestyle you want. 

The Getting Things Done method is a great way to organize your life and work on having better productivity skills. Apply the Getting Things Done method to your life, and watch it improve.

The Getting Things Done Method: 3 Skills You Need

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of David Allen's "Getting Things Done" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Getting Things Done summary:

  • Why you're disorganized and your to-do list is a mess
  • The simple workflow you can do everyday to be more productive than ever
  • How to take complicated projects and simplify them

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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