Do you feel like you’re always playing catch up with your to-do list? Are there never enough hours in the day?
The Getting Things Done (GTD) program 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 GTD system 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 system, 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 five steps of the GTD system are:
When you first start out, you’ll have a large mental backlog of items to capture and process, and this will take a good amount of time. After you get through it once, you’ll have all the items in the proper place. Then, on a regular basis (for example, daily), you’ll step through the five steps to capture and process new items, then figure out what you want to do that day.
The first step is to capture every idea, reminder, and piece of information and get it out of your head. Capture everything—big and small, short-term and long-term, anything in your life that you feel should be different and that you have some motivation or commitment to change (anything from career strategy ideas to a reminder to fix that gadget in your junk drawer).
When you make a habit of capturing everything, you can trust that nothing will fall through the cracks. Other people will see your diligence and their trust in you will grow; furthermore, your trust in yourself and your confidence to accomplish things will grow.
Go through your desk, kitchen table, briefcase, and every other nook and cranny that could hold a note or reminder you need to process. Then wrack your brain for every other idea and loose end that’s nagging at you—whether it’s about a meeting you just had or a gift for your mom’s birthday next week.
Put everything in your in-tray. Don’t stop to work on anything else—just focus on capturing absolutely everything as quickly as possible. When you’re done, you’ll take time to assess every item.
The next step is to decide the intended outcome for each item and figure out what the immediate next action is to make progress toward that outcome. The “next action” is the immediate next physical step you can take toward a project’s completion. For example, if the item says “schedule meeting,” you need to decide what you need to do next to schedule that meeting: Check your availability? Book a conference room? Email meeting requests?
This front-end decision-making boosts your productivity because it forces you to determine how to tackle an item when it lands in front of you rather than waiting until you’re up against a deadline. Clarifying next actions turns seemingly daunting tasks into bite-sized actions you can easily complete and feel success with.
Based on the next action you determine for each item, you’ll either:
Here’s a flowchart that shows Steps 1 to 3 more clearly:
In the clarifying step, you made a decision about the next step for each item; now you’re going to organize the items into files, lists, and calendar items.
The author proposes a lot of different lists and files with different purposes, and it can be overwhelming. For now, focus on the big picture point—that each item gets put into its ideal place, which gives you mental confidence that you’ve accounted for everything on your plate, and that it’ll be there when you need it.
Although you threw away some items during Step 2, you might still come across items that, upon further consideration, you decide you don’t need. Trash them.
Now take the non-actionable reference...
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The Getting Things Done (GTD) program is designed to increase your productivity and effectiveness—not so you can squeeze even more into your already busy life, but so that you can do things with less time, energy, and effort. When you feel in control of your life and your to-do list, you can be present in each moment without the nagging feeling that there’s something else you should be doing. When your mind is clear, you can focus and use your creative energy for the task at hand, and in your free moments, you can fully enjoy life without feeling guilty that you’re not doing something “productive.”
The GTD program is meant to be a lifelong practice, and you’ll continually graduate to more advanced levels of application. As you start to cement the strategies as habits, you’ll reach new levels of mastery to enhance your life and productivity in new ways: Once staying on top of your emails is second nature, use your skills (and newfound free time and energy) to take on a new hobby or strengthen your important relationships.
In the meantime, don’t wait until you finish the book to start using the strategies—put...
What does your to-do list look like? Is it a hodgepodge of reminders, information, and projects from all areas of your life? Are you getting anxious just thinking about it?
In this chapter, we’ll talk about why your current system isn’t working and how the Getting Things Done program takes a different approach.
Significant changes to daily life in the last half-century have overloaded people with work and personal responsibilities, so people need a more dynamic way of managing it all.
First, most people’s jobs are no longer restricted to the hours of 9 am to 5 pm nor to the confines of the office. These days, people are always on call via phone and email, and the effects of globalization mean you could be working with people nine time zones away. There are no boundaries to your workday, so it easily steals time from other parts of your life.
Second, the nature of work has changed from more industrial, assembly-line type work with clear, visible tasks to so-called knowledge work with much more ambiguously defined projects. Previously, you knew what your task was (for example, assemble these parts) and...
Open loops can be mentally draining before you’ve even made any progress on completing the task. Apply this exercise to your open loops to help clear your mind and get things done.
Name a project or task that’s been weighing on your mind, anything from a project at work to planning your next vacation.
The Getting Things Done system has five steps:
Devote time to each step individually, rather than trying to go through all five at once: Take some time to sit and capture everything in your head, go through and clarify all those items during another sitting, and so on.
Most people do these five steps naturally, but not as efficiently as they could. Many people fall into one of these traps:
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Many people are already doing some aspects of the GTD program without realizing it. Use this to assess your current system and see where you could fine-tune it.
How do you currently organize and keep track of your to-dos?
In Part 2, we’ll go deeper into implementing the Getting Things Done system, but first, let’s take an aside to discuss projects. 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.
How you approach planning your projects is a critical factor in whether you complete them, how successfully, and how stressful the process is.
Many people lean toward formal planning methods, especially in business contexts (for example, planning sessions and project management software).
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...
Practice applying the Natural Planning Method to a project in your life.
Step 1—Define Your Purpose and Principles: Think of a project you’re currently working on or plan to begin soon. Define the purpose and principles of the project.
Now that you’ve learned the models and the methods, it’s time to start applying the Getting Things Done program to your life.
It’s one thing to know what you should do, and quite another to actually do it, so Part 2 provides some coaching and practical tools for implementing the GTD system. You can implement the full-scale system, or adopt a few aspects and implement more over time.
Your biggest time investment will be in getting the GTD system up and running. It takes most people two days back-to-back to fully get things started—about a day to capture and another day to clarify and determine next actions.
The initial process takes a lot of mental energy, so aim to dedicate a day or two to it with no distractions. If you work on this after you get home from work at the end of the day, your energy will probably be too tapped to effectively capture and clarify everything without falling down rabbit holes.
Once you have the system set up and in place, you’ll be able to maintain it during much shorter windows of free time in your days.
Designate a physical location in your home where you can manage your workflow and keep your...
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Implementing the GTD system requires some time, space, and the right tools.
Looking at your schedule, when can you dedicate a day or two to setting up your GTD system, ideally without any distractions?
Now that you have your workspace set up and the time set aside, dive in with the first step: capturing.
There are a few benefits to getting everything in one place in front of you before you begin the next step, clarifying:
Capturing is more all-encompassing than simply jotting down a list off the top of your head. For your initial capturing, go through physical holders of notes and reminders, including:
If you can’t get to every spot right now, make a placeholder note (e.g. “Clean out hall closet”) and put it in your in-tray to remind you to do it later.
Gather anything that doesn’t belong where it is the way it is, and put it all into your in-tray. This includes:
Open loops can lurk in all corners of your life. Use this exercise to uncover them.
If you don’t have an in-tray, where do you collect most of the items you need to deal with (such as mail, notes, and forms)?
Now that your mind is empty and your in-tray is probably overflowing, it’s time to work through everything—quickly, decisively, and diligently.
It’s easy for this clarifying/processing stage and the next step, organizing, to get entangled. If you’re implementing the GTD system as you read this, you may want to read this chapter and the next before moving forward on clarifying your “in” items.
Here’s the big picture of how this works: First, in Step 2, decide what action each item needs—for some items, the action will be the next thing you need to do to accomplish the task (for example, call your mechanic), and for others, it’ll be to delegate the task or file the item for later. If there’s anything you can throw away or complete in less than two minutes, do it now. Otherwise, label each item according to what you decide. Then, in Step 3, you’ll physically sort everything into their appropriate files and lists.
Back to Step 2: Emptying your in-tray might seem like a daunting task, so follow these guidelines to get through it.
In order to get through this pile, you need to treat each item equally: Pick one up,...
Once you’ve clarified what you need to do with each item, it’s time to physically sort them in your organizing system. You should now have an empty in-tray and two piles: a pile of reference items and a Pending pile.
You’ll organize the Pending pile by placing items in the following places (discussed in more detail below):
Your lists can be numbered lists (on paper or in digital form) or can be folders of papers labeled with separate items.
As you organize, keep in mind that although you threw away some items during Step 2, you might still come across items that, upon further consideration, you decide you don’t need. Trash them.
You won’t—and probably shouldn’t—crystallize your organization system when you first get the Getting Things Done program up and running. Your organization system needs to reflect what works best for you, and that will take time and some trial and error to figure out.
Now let’s take a closer look at each category.
Start with your reference...
You’ve done the hard work of capturing and clarifying everything. Now organizing it in an easily accessible and navigable way is key to making this system work.
What are two or three categories you might use to sort your next actions?
Now you have the whole system set up: You’ve captured, clarified, and organized everything. In order for the Getting Things Done system to work, you need to regularly reflect, review, and update everything. Your lists and files do you no good if you don’t consistently look at or update them.
Review your calendar and daily tickler file most often. They give you the “hard landscape” of your day, so you know how much time you have—or don’t—for other tasks.
Your Next Actions list is your second most frequently reviewed resource. Check it to remind yourself what tasks you have on deck so that you can weigh them against work that comes in throughout the day. Even if you don’t do anything on your Next Actions list on a given day, you need to know what’s there to feel confident about your choice to put it off.
Additionally, have any list you need on hand at the moment you need it: If you have a few free minutes with your phone, be sure you can access and check your Calls list, or if you’re going into a meeting with your boss, have your Agenda on hand so you can review other items you want to bring up with her.
The only way to keep nagging thoughts and reminders off your...
You have to regularly review your calendar and lists in order for them to be of any use.
In your current organization system, how often do you look at your calendar, organizer, and/or to-do list?
It’s the moment of truth: You have a half-hour free in your schedule. What do you do?
The simple answer is to trust your intuition. But with so many tasks pulling at you from different areas of your life, that’s easier said than done.
Let’s dive deeper into the three frameworks for prioritizing that we talked about in Chapter 2.
Begin by narrowing down your options using the following four criteria.
Consider the context. If you’ve divided your next actions into categories—such as Calls to Make and Computer Tasks—then you can easily pull up the list that applies to where you are and what tools you have available. Categorized lists save you the time and brain power it takes to scan through a master Next Actions list and determine which tasks you can tackle in a given context.
You can be creative with the categories of your action lists, such as creating a “Brain Gone” list for mindless tasks and a “Less Than 5-Minute” list for quick tasks. You can also make time-sensitive lists and group everything you need to accomplish before a certain deadline—for example, before you leave for...
Reflect on your workflow and method of prioritizing.
Think of something that’s currently on your to-do list. What role and responsibility does that task serve?
If you’ve worked through all the steps, you already have a healthy Projects list with next actions identified and support materials organized. However, even with the project planning steps we talked about in Chapter 3, you might need to do some deeper vertical thinking for certain projects.
Review your Projects list and ask yourself these questions about each project:
As you go through this process, jot down your thoughts in whatever form feels best—bullet points, an outline, or a mind map.
While many projects are straightforward and take just a few steps to complete (such as finding a new doctor), there are two types of projects that need more attention:
Let’s look at how to deal with each.
If you’ve decided on a next action for a project but it’s still nagging at you, you probably need to do more planning.
Now that you know the principles and the practice of the Getting Things Done program, let’s talk about how implementing this system will change your mental well-being and relationships with others.
Capturing everything you need to do in one system maximizes your mental capacity: When you hold everything in your head, relatively unimportant tasks consume as much mental energy as the important ones, so some items are getting too much attention and others aren’t getting enough. By contrast, when you capture and clarify everything, you can assess how important and urgent something really is and address it appropriately.
The initial capturing process might bring up conflicting feelings: The sheer number of tasks can make you anxious, stressed, frustrated, and guilty. But recording and organizing them will also make you feel relieved and in control.
You’ll know you’ve captured everything when you have nothing left pulling at your attention. At this point you can put all your focus on the task at hand and get into a “zone” with everything you do.
When people around you—at work and in your personal...
Defining a next action goes hand-in-hand with identifying and envisioning the outcome you want to achieve: If you don’t know where you’re going, you can’t decide how to get there. The Getting Things Done program helps you determine both the outcomes you want via projects and how to achieve them via next actions.
Identifying projects and next actions brings clarity, accountability, productivity, and empowerment. You define the outcome you want, determine who’s involved in making it happen, create momentum that contributes to achieving this outcome, and take on ownership of making this dream a reality.
When you have the opportunity to tackle things on your to-do list, one of the biggest roadblocks to productivity is not having next actions already defined.
Why do so many smart, successful people delay working on projects until they’re pushing the deadline? Intelligent, creative, and sensitive people tend to procrastinate the most because when they look at a task like “do taxes,” their imaginative minds conjure worst-case-scenario images.
If you’re not in the habit of defining next actions, your whole...
Getting through your tasks boils down to determining the next actions for each item on your to-do list.
What is a task or project—big or small—that you’ve been putting off?
When the original version of this book was published in 2001, the primary evidence of the Getting Things Done program’s effectiveness was anecdotal from the author’s own experience and the experiences of his clients. However, by the time the updated version was released in 2015, multiple cognitive science studies had confirmed the principles behind the GTD methodology.
The GTD system offers more than just a way to manage your time and your tasks—GTD encourages more meaningful work, a more mindful approach to living, and an overall sense of empowerment and reduced stress through outcome thinking (projects) and longer-term goals (higher horizons).
Several psychological theories and principles that back up GTD practices, including:
As we’ve talked about, implementing and mastering the GTD program will be a lifelong endeavor—you’ll never reach an endpoint but rather, over time, you’ll become more proficient at using the GTD system and can leverage it to accomplish more profound productivity.
Think of it like learning to play guitar: First, you learn the chords, then, as those become more second-nature, you learn simple melodies, and finally, you can compose your own music.
Let’s explore the three tiers of GTD mastery.
Like any skill, the first step to mastering the GTD system is to get a grasp of the basics.
Although the GTD program doesn’t require any new skills (for example, you know how to write things down and file papers), it does require you to adopt new practices and form new habits. It can easily take about two years to cement these habits, and most people fall off the wagon and get back on course a couple of times along the way.
Don’t let these basic practices slip, since they cause your whole system to unravel: