GTD Project Planning: 5 Steps to a Master Strategy

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How does GTD project planning work? Can Getting Things Done help you project plan more efficiently?

GTD project planning is a way to create well-organized projects that turn into great opportunities. The GTD project planning method can help you achieve your goals.

GTD Project Planning: A Complete Guide

There’s a lot to learn about the Getting Things Done project planning system. Many of your next actions will stem from projects—which can be anything from getting a new printer to remodeling your home to planning a business merger—so it’s important that you know how to plan and execute them effectively and learn the project planning steps.

How you approach planning your projects is a critical factor in whether you complete them, how successfully, and how stressful the process is. 

The Natural GTD Project Planning Method Overview

Many people lean toward formal planning methods, especially in business contexts (for example, planning sessions and project management software). You can start by learning the project planning steps and working toward the Getting Things Done project planning method.

Planning sessions often start with a manager soliciting ideas for a project such as planning a conference. People start to throw out ideas for venues, events, and speakers, but they don’t make much progress because people are suggesting different cities and topics. The manager then realizes the team needs to organize and brainstorm. But they’re still not getting very far because everyone isn’t on the same page. Finally, they face the question, “What’s the vision and purpose?” That’s the foundation of any project. 

This approach is the Reactive Planning Model, and it’s not very efficient or effective. 

Taking the wrong approach to planning projects makes the process feel daunting and causes many people to put off planning until the last minute. Additionally, it can lead you to: 

  • Overlook critical issues
  • Not allow enough time for brainstorming
  • Neglect nitty-gritty details such as next actions and accountabilities. 

By contrast, the Natural Planning Method is a much more effective approach, and you’re probably already doing it in your everyday life—you just might not realize you’re doing it. There are five project planning steps of natural planning; we’ll give an overview of them and look at how they apply to planning a dinner out, then we’ll explain each one in depth.

1) Define your purpose and principles. Your purpose is the intention of the project, and your principles create the boundaries.

Your purpose in going to dinner is to celebrate a birthday, and the principles or boundaries might include how nice the restaurant will be and its affordability and convenience. This is the stage where you can develop project planning ideas.

2) Envision your outcome. Once you’ve determined that you’re planning a project and why you’re planning it (your purpose), you naturally begin to envision what it’ll be like. This is the physical feel, look, and sound of the project.

For dinner, you might envision your group of friends sharing food and laughs around a big outdoor table.

3) Brainstorm. Now that you have the vision, your brain wants to figure out how to make that vision a reality. In random order, your thoughts will bounce around to what you need, who you need to talk to, how you can accomplish these tasks, and all other project planning ideas.

In the context of dinner, this includes questions like “Is the restaurant open?” “What time should we go?” and “Is there gas in the car?”

4) Organize. After the swirl of brainstorming thoughts, you naturally begin to organize them based on components (logistical tasks to make the project happen), priorities (information you need to determine if the project is feasible), and sequences (which actions need to happen first). This is when challenges, comparisons, and evaluations naturally arise because you’re determining which actions are more important and need to happen first.

In your dinner planning, the components involve inviting people to go, making sure the location will work, and handling logistics. The priorities might be to find out if the birthday girl even wants to go to dinner. The sequences are deciding that first you need to call the restaurant to see if it’s open, then invite the guests, then get yourself dressed and ready to go. 

5) Determine your next actions. This is a natural outgrowth of the organizing step.

For dinner, you’ll have decided that the next action you need to take will be to see if the restaurant is open and make a reservation. 

GTD Project Planning Steps

These GTD project planning steps can help you plan your projects effectively from start to finish.

1. Define Your Purpose and Principles

This step is all about defining your why. Why are you doing this project? What’s its purpose? What’s your intention in completing it? What will result from a successful outcome? What are your project planning ideas?

With the Getting Things Done project planning method, defining your why helps you:

  • Define what success is. If you don’t know your purpose and intention in doing something then you can’t know if you’ve succeeded. 
  • Determine criteria for your decision making. Knowing your why allows you to know whether something is necessary for achieving that purpose. 
  • Align resources. This is an offshoot of your decision making; an investment is worth it if it helps you achieve your purpose. 
  • Get motivated. How can you get excited about doing something if you don’t know why you’re doing it? 
  • Clarify your focus. Everything is clearer when your purpose is defined and top-of-mind. 
  • Expand your options. When you’re focused and clear on your purpose, then it opens up your creative thinking about all the ways you can achieve it. 

In order to achieve all these things, your purpose statement must be specific. Broad, ambiguous purpose statements won’t give you an adequate definition of success, nor will it give you clarity or motivation (for example, instead of a purpose being “to assemble a strong team,” a more specific purpose is “to assemble a team of collaborative, motivated people who communicate effectively”).

While purpose gives you your why, principles give you your how. Principles define the parameters for how you and your team achieve your goal. What are the standards and values for behavior?

Principles are always present, though you may not be in the habit of consciously defining them. Pin down your principles by finishing the sentence, “My team can have free rein as long as they …” What are the lines you don’t want crossed? Appeasing the client? Staying under budget? Finishing on time?

Also, ask yourself what kind of conduct could undermine your why. When you have defined your principles, you need to clearly communicate them to everyone involved. 

2. Envision Your Outcome

Your vision is the what of your project—what is it going to look, sound, and feel like? In this step, create the blueprint of your desired result, whether it’s a one-line statement or a fully fleshed out scene in your mind. 

Envisioning and focusing on an outcome actually gears your mind toward achieving it; athletes use this method, picturing themselves crossing the finish line first or seeing the basketball drop into the hoop. When you picture something and focus on it, it helps you create it and makes you more excited to tackle it. 

It’s easier to envision an outcome you’ve achieved before or have some experience with, but this step can trip you up when you’re trying to do something you’ve never done before. If you’re struggling with this, focus on specifics. 

  • What do you want the finished project to look like?
  • How do you want the client to react? 
  • What will change as a result of the success? 

3. Brainstorm

Brainstorming is another important step in GTD project planning. Brainstorming has a lot to do with how, referring not to conduct but to the logistics and steps to accomplishing your project. 

When you brainstorm, follow these three rules: 

1) Don’t criticize, judge, or challenge ideas. You can be most creative when you’re not self-censoring or restricting yourself by thinking about what could be wrong with one idea or another. In a group setting, create an open and inclusive atmosphere where people feel comfortable to throw ideas out and see what sticks.

People can still point out what might be problematic with an idea, but they should frame their thoughts in a way that leads to follow-up ideas, rather than simply shutting down an idea or train of thought. 

2) Aim for quantity over quality. Cast a wide net for ideas. The more ideas you put out there, the better your odds of having some great ones in the pile. 

3) Analyze and organize later. Trying to analyze and organize your ideas as you come up with them will stifle your creativity. Let loose now, knowing that you’ll organize your thoughts in the next step of the process. 

You can brainstorm small projects in your head, but writing down your ideas is useful for the same reason it helps to capture all your tasks in an external place: It gets them out of your head. When you’re brainstorming, writing down your ideas frees up your mind to keep thinking creatively and come up with even more ideas. 

Since brainstorming produces ideas big and small, in random order, there are several techniques you can use to capture your ideas that are less structured and linear than a list, including:

  • Mind mapping
  • Patterning 
  • Clustering
  • Fish boning 
  • Webbing

4. Organize

Once you’ve emptied your head of all the ideas and questions during the brainstorming process, you’ll begin to see a natural order and structure to them. With GTD project planning you can organize these steps.

When you organize, follow these three steps: 

  1. Determine the most important aspects that must happen in order for the project to be completed and successful.
  2. Sort them into components, priorities, and sequences. 
  3. Fill in the necessary detail. 

Depending on the project and your preference, you can achieve this with quick bullet points, outlines, or project-planning software. 

5. Next Actions

This is the stage when you determine what can actually be done now, and who’s going to do it. GTD project planning can help you plan your next steps.

If you have a project with multiple components, take a look at whether there are next actions for each of them; sometimes, you won’t be able to start work on one component until you’ve made progress on another component. Across the scope of the project, identify every next action that you (or someone on your team) can start moving on now. 

If you’re working on a team, you don’t need to know every person’s next action. Just make sure each person has her assignment, and she can determine her next actions. If you’re waiting on someone else to finish something before you can take your next action, keep track of it on a project-specific Waiting For list (we’ll talk more about Waiting For lists in Chapter 7). 

This stage brings issues and questions to the surface, because you have to break things down to each minute action. If you discover holes in the planning and details, your next action might be some aspect of planning—brainstorming ideas, getting feedback from others, or planning meetings. 

If you need more clarity on the project in order to determine next actions, move up the natural planning process to get things better organized, brainstorm more ideas, or get a better grasp of your vision or purpose. On the other hand, if you see that there’s not enough movement on the project, move down; flesh out and organize ideas so that you can determine next actions and actually start doing them. 

You may already have some natural mental triggers, or you can train yourself to use them. Mental triggers are a way to associate outside things with things on your to-do list, and can help you get things done.

GTD project planning is a well-organized system that requires your time and effort. You can excel at GTD project planning by practicing GTD skills and the project planning steps.

GTD Project Planning: 5 Steps to a Master Strategy

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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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