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Getting Things Done (GTD)



I recently had the opportunity to take a course on GTD (Getting Things Done). Which is based on the book by David Allen (affiliate link here). I first read the book back in 2015 and it was very impactful to me. I’ve talked about it a few times on the blog but never done a deep dive on the material before. So I thought i would take this opportunity to lay out the core concepts and show a bit of the details of my personal implementation.


"Our minds are for having thoughts, not holding them." - David Allen

I love this quote. It creates the perfect image for why i believe in GTD. Our brains are great at creating, composing, and problem solving. Some brains are also good at remembering facts and figures, but few are good at remembering tasks, reminders, appointments, obligations, and “why did i come to the grocery store in the first place?”


In order to free up mental space for our brains to be creative, we need to offload all of those other administrative tasks to something that Allen calls an external system. There are thousands of ways you can implement an external system, from crayon and paper, to Jarvis from Iron Man. thousands of apps claim to be the de facto way of organizing your life. The truth is all of the tools fall short in one way or another because every person’s needs are just different enough to matter. GTD is about organizing the right tools for you and for your particular situation and beautiful snowflake of a mind. GTD helps to filter out noise and focus on your most important tasks for the given moment.


I’ve written a couple of articles that go deeper into the external brain concept (this one and that one), i will duplicate some of the content here as viewed through the GTD lens. But feel free to check them out as well.


The book is organized into 4 main concepts. I will walk through each one.

  1. CAPTURE

  2. CLARIFY

  3. ORGANIZE

  4. REVIEW


I will also lay out which tools I use for my GTD implementation. My external brain mainly consists of my todo lists (todoist.com), my email (gmail for personal, outlook for work), evernote, and google drive. I’ll try to outline anything non-trivial that i do with each tool as we go.


 

1. CAPTURE

The idea of this section is to take everything from your life and get it into your external system. This includes cleaning out the following places for todo tasks:

  • Your brain

  • Your email and messages

  • Your physical environment


Your Brain

Think long enough and your mind will automatically go to things it should be doing. Clean the yard, do the dishes, organize a party, file an expense report, and on and on. In the CAPTURE step we are writing all of those things down in our system and not letting anything escape.


Allen states that our brains are terrible at the concept of “this thing needs to be done, but i can’t do it right now”. He says that actually when we think about calling our brother but he won't be awake for another four hours, that our brain is actively trying to complete that task for the next four hours. Sure your brain will also be thinking about ten thousand other things as well, but it cannot let go of the phone call until it's complete. This is an incredibly taxing and wasteful use of our energy and mental clarity. By placing that task into a system that we trust, we can then literally forget about the task and actually free up that mental space. Of course the trick is, you gotta be able to trust the system. If you don’t your brain will hold onto it and your system is adding more work with no value. More on trust in the ORGANIZE and REVIEW steps.


Email and Messages

So many of us, unknowingly, use email and messages as todo lists. That is why the UNREAD feature is so popular. I leave it unread, not because i haven’t read it, but because it reminds me of some kind of action that needs to be taken. In CAPTURE, you are challenged to move all of the action items from your emails into your system as well, and then archive, file away, or delete the emails. I know it's scary, i’ll talk about how to do this in a minute. This is again about creating space and removing noise. Just like how your brain’s thoughts get bombarded with the noise of remembering tasks, so too does your email inbox fill up with tasks and reminders to do things. Then when you need to find something important in your email, you are reminded of fifteen other things you should be doing right now. It is noisy. Like a casino slot machine.


Ok, so what to do instead. We love keeping emails around because not only do they remind of us of action item, but they also contain the pertinent information needed to complete the task. So there are a couple of options. The first is to simply copy and paste whatever info you need from your email into your todo list. Second, If the email info is too rich to fully export to another system, then simply file away those emails in the same way you would file a word doc or a PDF. Create email folders just like you have folders for your other digital files. And then copy a link to the email chain itself in your todo task. I have a cool gmail integration that i will share later. This takes practice but it really does feel damn good when you go into your email and you find your inbox empty, and you can get to the info you were looking for without any guilty reminders of anything you are not doing right now.


These practices are also incredibly freeing and useful for text messaging since ios currently doesn't have a Mark Unread feature. Adding a simple todo: “david text” is all it takes to remind me that i have an action item to respond to david about whatever. It is freeing to know that i won’t forget. It’s in the system.


Physical Environment

Just like our email inbox, we all also do the same thing with physical items. Mail on the desk reminds us that we need to file our taxes. Scotch tape on the counter reminds us that we need to mail a package. Dirty socks in the corner remind us that we need to do laundry. This admittedly is the one that i struggle with the most. I am constantly finding myself leaving mail all over my desk because it represents a task not yet completed. Physical document storage is a pain and takes more discipline than google drive. But i find the very same concepts of noise vs useful information to be as true on the desk as it is in the email inbox or the brain. When i go looking for a file, and find 10 other todos, it is incredibly stressful. Conversely, when i can find the document i need, when i need it, without any ‘interruption’ from other clutter, it is freeing and calming. It allows for greater focus and effectiveness.


Practical

Todoist has a few data entries that i leverage for the CAPTURE step.


The first is the Alexa skill. Whenever i am thinking of a task i can say “alexa, add buy more diapers to my todo list”. And Alexa will create a task which goes into my todoist inbox. I can also ask her to add something to my shopping list and it goes to a specific list that i use for groceries. I believe something similar can be setup with Siri (which is great for the car), though i have found it to be a little more clunky and less easy to use.


Second, they have a great mac app that comes with a hotkey control+shift+t. Which brings up a little popup no matter what you are doing on your computer, you can quickly type in a todo item and hit enter and it will save to your inbox. You can also add more fancy things like which list you want it in, labels, priority, due dates, and additional details. More on that later.



Third, from Gmail, i found a plugin that allows me to create a todoist task from any of my emails. It will use the email subject as the title and also creates a link back to the email itself. This has become so helpful in getting my inbox to zero.


There is obviously quite a large one-time cost to setting up a system like this. And over the course of the first few weeks and months i would find other places where i hid todo items. Junk drawers, less used digital file systems, other apps on my phone, etc. over time everything became centralized into Todoist. And from there, keeping everything in one place got easier and easier, especially with the integrations mentioned above.


 

2. CLARIFY

We now have one central place where all of our crap resides. Emails are filed, desk is cleared, clutter is gone, mind is at peace.... Sorta. Ok not yet. We still need to figure out what to do with the massive amount of stuff we moved to our external system. So in this step we clarify all of the items that were input in step one.


So what does it mean to clarify? Well it basically means to describe exactly what it is that needs doing. For instance, if my todo is to “go on a vacation”, then should i walk out the door and go? No, of course not. The task’s next action is really, “plan a vacation”. But even that is far too large. Perhaps the first step of planning might be to “think about where you wanna go on vacation”. Then you remember your co-worker went on an awesome trip last year and it sounded like so much fun. Where was that again?? Ahh yes, now we have an action “talk to Andy about his vacation”. That is an actual task that can be done today, right now. That is clarity.


So many of our todos are unclear and we have to decipher both, what they mean, and what the next thing is to actually do for that task. This, again, brings unnecessary weight to our mind and our productivity. What’s worse, our brains will automatically do these jumping jacks every single time we read this task on our list. So it is vital that we take the time to clarify what is meant, and what your next action is and write it down. Then whenever we look at our lists, all of our work is immediately clear, and no extra brain cycles are needed to re decipher it again.


There are of course, very easy fast tasks that do not need all of this overhead. “Buy diapers” is about 5 clicks on amazon. So a task like that doesn’t need to be clarified, categorized, put in a list, or a calendar. You just gotta do it. GTD calls this the “2 minute rule”. If it takes less than 2 minutes, just do it right now. Don't bother filing it away somewhere else if it can simply be put in the done column. Just do it now. This helps you to move the needle as well as keep your task lists and projects nice and clear.


Side note: I try to only use the 2 minute rule during the CLARIFY step and not the CAPTURE step. This is because the 2 minute rule can be disruptive if i am in the middle of something and i don’t want to break flow to buy diapers. Sure its only a few clicks, but it is enough to wreck my concentration. It is better if i take 1-2 seconds to get a task into todoist. Then i can go back later to my list and clarify what is in there, and then i can apply the 2 minute rule to process all of those quick wins.


Side note of the side note: This practice sort of reminds me of something that Headspace teaches about meditation called Noting. While meditating it is common to have your mind wander to various thoughts and feelings. “Noting” is about acknowledging your mind’s wanderings, and gently redirecting it back to your present focus. In terms of GTD, this literally means make a quick note to come back to later, and then get back to your focus. This is far better than getting sucked down the rabbit hole and losing flow.


 

3. ORGANIZE

So let’s talk a little about this massive external system now. How can we make any sense of it? How can we translate everything we need to do in life, into the things we need to do right now? In this step i will describe how i organize my Todoist implementation as well as my calendar setup.


Before we dive in, this is also a good time to discuss two GTD concepts

  1. Projects and tasks

  2. Organizing by context


Projects and Tasks

Basically a project is any task that requires more than one action. Buying diapers is a task, it’s got one action. Planning a trip requires many actions, all with a single goal in mind, therefore it makes sense to group all the necessary actions into a project. Practically for me, Todoist has quite a rich feature set surrounding projects. More on this when we dive in. Sometimes i do get lazy and i let a single task represent a whole list of todos. Like “file taxes”. I look at that todo and figure out what the next item is and do that thing. This is a violation of the CLARIFY principle, but so far no police have come knocking.


Organizing by Context

You need to be in a specific context in order to complete different tasks. Some tasks need a phone, some a computer, some tasks take hours, some seconds. By organizing your tasks based on the context they require for completion you can rid yourself of mental taxation of reviewing items that you cannot complete at the current moment. If your project’s next task is a big hairy one that requires a computer, internet and 3 hours of silence, but you are currently waiting in line at the grocery store, then that task is not going to get done. Looking at it will increase your stress and mind clutter. Instead you should have a context list for “short time, low energy”. Those are the things you can do right now.


Here is a non-exhaustive list of example contexts:

  • At the computer

  • High energy or low energy

  • Lots of time or a short time

  • Need a phone

  • Need to be out running errands

  • Need my wife for decision

  • Can do while holding a baby

  • etc

This again, is all about decluttering. So it is important that you not have so many contexts that you cant find anything to do. I do implement this, but a little differently than GTD teaches. I still organize my tasks by project, but then i use some of Todoist’s features like labels to be able to look at tasks via context. More on this in the deep dive.



Practical

Todoist has a number of features that i use to organize my tasks. Let's chat about a few and then i'll put it all together.


Todoist Projects

Todoist Projects are pretty flexible. You can nest them, color code, use emojis, use subsections, create filter views, display them as lists or boards, and archive them when complete. This makes it very easy and light weight to spin up a new project when needed.


I organize (and color code) my projects into 4 main categories

  • Personal

    • What things do i need to do for me. Sub categories include stuff like: reading, workout, nutrition.

  • Home

    • Things for my family and our home. Sub categories include stuff like: house projects, daily tasks like groceries, our home renovation, thank you notes we gotta write, questions for the pediatrician.

  • Work

    • Within work i further breakdown categories based on the roles that i have or hats that i where and then projects that i am working on within those roles.

  • Finances

    • Things for our financial future. Sub categories include various investments, budgeting, bookkeeping, taxes.

Tip: All of these categories have a project called "someday maybe", which is a nice place to hold anything and everything that my brain thinks of. Even the stuff that currently sounds improbably or stupid. This practice has really helped me with the mind sweep step because i don't feel like i need to hold those things in my head. I can create a todo, and jot down all of my crazy ideas and get it all out and throw it in "someday maybe". Even if i never get back to it, it is helpful to empty my head.


Due Dates

So there are a majority of things in my list that do not need to get done today or even soon. They just need to be captured in my list and can be addressed at some point in the future. So to separate out what needs to be done soon, and/or today, from everything that just needs to be done someday, i use both due dates and a tag which i created called @thisweek.


Due dates in todoist are very powerful, they use natural language processing to extract dates from your task. So you could type "workout today", and it would translate that into a task "workout" and set the due date as today. You can also setup recurring tasks easily by saying "workout everyday" or "workout every tue" and it would translate that into a task that shows up every day, or every Tuesday.


This is really great if your task does have a specific due date. But for those things that just need to be done soon, but not really today, i have found it better to just use a label @thisweek. This generally means this task should be addressed within the next seven days.


When we get into the filters you will see i always use this filter that gets the tasks that are either due today, or due on a date in the past (meaning due yesterday and i failed to complete), or they are marked with the @thisweek label.

(Overdue | today | @thisweek)

Things that do not meet this criteria will not be reviewed daily and will generally wait until the weekly review to be looked at.


Priority

There are a few things that would be nice to get done today, there are things that really should get done today, and there are things that absolutely must get done today. I have tried to arrange my contextual views within todoist to reflect these groupings and when i view my tasks they are always sorted by priority.

  • Priority 1 - Stuff that absolutely needs to be addressed right now. I rarely use this but think "the kitchen is flooding" level of urgency. These items usually transcend lists or my other contextual views.

  • Priority 2 - Stuff that must get done today. Example: "prep for tomorrow's presentation"

  • Priority 3 - Stuff that could get done and be nice to have done today. Example: "get started on next week's presentation"

  • Priority 4 - Default priority. Everything else.


Filters: Putting it All Together

As i said above, i like to add all of my tasks into projects, but then i view tasks by context rather than by project. I have a few different kinds of contexts, but the biggest ones are really about what time of day it is. Different sections of the day are segmented into buckets of time with a particular focus.

  • Personal habits

  • Home

  • Work

  • Finance

When i wake up i first do my personal habits: gym, weigh in, particular nutrition, reading, writing. If needed i will take some time to do whatever is on the finances list. Then when the kids wake up, I hang out with them and try to get one or two things from the home list done. Then when it's time to start work (I am working from home), i go to the office and start on the work list. After work is over it's back to the home list. If i am at the grocery store, then i pull up the shopping list (i have a home depot list too). If i have time, or need time, after everyone goes to sleep i will go back to the finance list before bed. This has become widely variant since having another baby, but that is the general structure that my life follows.


Since i have time blocks for specific high level categories, when i pull up todoist for a specific time, then i know which lists i want to look at. For example, if i am at work then i don't want to see home lists or finance lists, because i am not currently in that context. I do this using todoist filters. These filters can help you find tasks based on a variety of attributes: project, due date, label, priority.


Here is the filter i am currently using for most of my day:

#inbox | #Alexa To-do List | ((Overdue | today | @thisweek) & p1),   

##Personal & (Overdue | today | @thisweek),  

(##Work | @at_work) & (Overdue | today | @thisweek),  

(Overdue | today | @thisweek) & !##Work & !##Finance & !##Personal,

(##Finance) & (Overdue | today | @thisweek)

It is actually five separate filters, and todoist displays them in separate sections for visual appeal. I will discuss each of these filters one by one.


Notation:

  • The hashtag "#" denotes a project.

  • The double hashtag "##" denotes that project and any subproject that is nested within it.

  • The at symbol "@" is for labels.

  • The vertical bar "|" is a logical OR operator. Meaning the task has to meet criteria A or criteria B.

  • The ampersand "&" is a logical AND operator. Meaning the task has to meet criteria A and criteria B.

  • The "p1-p4" denotes to priority. P1 being the most important.

  • "Overdue" and "today" are out of the box date filters, meaning the due date is today or a date before today.


Inbox

#inbox | #Alexa To-do List | ((Overdue | today | @thisweek) & p1),   

This filter is grabbing tasks from three main criteria:

  • Everything in my inbox project

  • Everything i have added via Alexa

  • Anything that is priority 1

The inbox stuff is at the top because it has been captured, but not clarified or organized. Therefore whenever i look at my list, i am prompted to quickly process any news tasks and put them in the right place, or complete them if they meet the 2 minute rule.


The priority 1 stuff is at the top cause it likely needs to be the first thing i do regardless of what project it came from.



Personal

##Personal & (Overdue | today | @thisweek), 

This grabs anything from my personal habits and goals project or any sub project. So in this case that includes: gym, nutrition, reading, etc. I try to tackle all of these things first thing in the morning.


Work

(##Work | @at_work) & (Overdue | today | @thisweek), 

Again you see the double hashtag which is great cause there are tons of sub projects under work. And subs of subs.


I also started using a tag @at_work these are for items that are not under work projects, but that usually require a computer and a few quick minutes. Something like "write a thank you note to the neighbor". This would take a painless one minute on my computer in the silence of my office, or 20 stressful minutes on my phone with my son climbing on me.



Finance

(##Finance) & (Overdue | today | @thisweek)

I think by now you can read this yourself


Home / Everything Else

(Overdue | today | @thisweek) & !##Work & !##Finance & !##Personal,

Instead of having another filter specifically for home, i did a catch all that finds everything that is not in the other sections.


A Few Other Views

I have a couple of other smaller contexts that are worth noting because they are good examples of contexts that transcend projects


Holding baby

When the baby was little she would sometimes sleep on me in a wrap during the day. So in todoist i would mark any tasks that could be done while standing with a baby with the label @holding_baby. Then when it was nap time i would pull up that label and look for something from that context to get done. These were often things like watching meeting recordings, or doing some deep thinking.


Phone calls

I hate waiting on hold. But there are still some things that require the phone. So when i have these tasks i tag them with @phone. And then during my work week i book an hour or so on the calendar where I pull up my phone call list and call something and then get normal work done while i'm on hold.


Shopping list

This one seems trivial, but i'll mention quickly that i have a shopping list for groceries in todoist, and i have another one for home depot. That way i can always add items to those lists whenever i want (Alexa, add milk to the shopping list). Then when i am at the appropriate store (context), then i pull up the appropriate list.


Note: I wrote an article last year about external brain which outlines a slightly different implementation of todoist, if you are interested:


Imperfection

The system isn't perfect. In my ideal system tasks would change fluidly. Recurring tasks could be added to the @thisweek tag instead of a particular day. Tasks might increase in priority the longer they have been in the queue. Something that was p4 yesterday is p3 today and p2 tomorrow.


Because of these imperfections, it is important that we take time occasionally to do our last GTD step and that is REVIEW.


 

4. REVIEW


Trust your system

The final section is Review. Reviewing your system is really about renewing trust in it. If you don't trust it, your brain will automatically take back over. ie If your brain doesn't think your system will remind you at the appropriate time to send the email, go to the store, or make the phone call, then it will begin to hold all of those tasks again in memory. And with it, all of that stress and mental fog comes back too. We mitigate this brain take over, by taking a set time out of your calendar to "clean your room". Tidying up and putting things where they belong then allows you the space to start playing and make a mess again.


The cadence of how often a review is necessary is pretty specific to the individual. Here are my reviews and how long they generally take:

  • Daily (super short, seconds)

  • Weekly (pretty short, 30 mins)

  • Quarterly (longer, 1-2 hours)

  • Annual (longest, 4-5 hours)

The daily review is usually just checking what is on the docket for the day, shifting priorities of those things, and doing a quick round of CAPTURE, CLARIFY, ORGANIZE to make sure i have everything i need for the day. Then i check my calendar to make sure the schedule makes sense. it's very fast and i usually do it a handful of times throughout the day as needed.


The weekly review is a topic that i have discussed on many occasions (see How do i get started planning my week and An overview of how i currently plan my week) and i consider one of the cornerstones of my tactical and strategic productivity. This is a time (usually Friday morning) to review the following:

  • Review my current projects and see if their priority order is still correct.

  • Look for stuff that should have really gotten done this week and bump it to the top of the list next week.

  • Review the tasks in those projects to ensure that i have captured all of the tasks i need into my system.

  • Take a look at unscheduled tasks and projects and see if next week is a good time to get started on them.

  • Ensure my calendar meetings for next week make sense


The quarterly review is higher level than the weekly, and the annual is a higher level still. You get the picture. The point is that as the cadence gets longer the more strategic and less tactical the review gets. But the point is the same, align your system with what you want to be doing, by making sure everything you want to do is in there and visible. This allows your brain to trust your system, and stop trying to hold onto everything itself. This creates freedom for having great ideas, and solving big problems, instead of trying to remember to buy batteries for the tv remote.


Trust your system... and don’t resent it...

It's pretty easy to get overwhelmed by GTD, the lists, the next actions, the reviews. And every person's system is unique. So it's important, during the REVIEW step, to do some retrospective on what parts of the system are working and what parts are too cumbersome. Here are a few questions that can be asked in your weekly review to try and reduce wasted energy.

  • Do you have too many lists or labels? This can make the CLARIFY step difficult and confusing.

  • Are you reviews too long? Are you actually getting value out of everything you are doing in each of your reviews?

  • Are your reviews too frequent? Do you need to alter the cadence so that it is less overhead with the same amount of clarity?

  • Are the technologies and applications you are using serving your purposes? The thought of switching todo apps makes me break out in a cold sweat. But sometimes if the tool isn't right, then you need to go search for something that fits better. It's worth the investment in the long run.

  • Are you doing anything else that you hate? Is there another way to organize your system so that you don't need that step?


As if i haven't said it enough... your brain MUST trust the system. Otherwise you get no benefits and just more work. And i can only trust it if i am consistent with maintaining it (capture, clarify, organize). And to be consistent i have to like doing it. So it is imperative that everything i do for the system adds value, and not just work.


 

The Resistance

That's it. Four not so simple, not so fast steps. It's actually not that bad, but it feels heavy at first. I think most people look at GTD and just think, “gosh that is way too much overhead for me.” And when i talk to people about what i do to stay organized, i hear things like, “yeah i should start doing a weekly review, i just haven’t had time.” The truth is, this system isn’t magical. Nor is it easy. But it is helpful. It is very valuable to me. And that is why i commit to it. The amount of clarity and alignment that i get from this system is priceless to me, and i attribute a good deal of my success to my ability to focus on the right things.


As i write down all of these steps i am reminded of one of my favorite quotes:

"Discipline Equals Freedom" - Jocko Willink

This quote reaches into many areas of my life, but in this case to me it means that the more discipline we have around organizing and prioritizing, the more peace our minds will have about everything that we need to do. As we increase trust in our system we decrease stress and that overwhelmed feeling that paralyzes us. We can free our minds up to be creative and present, while still getting things done.


I know this was a long one. Thanks for sticking with me to the end. Here take this silly baby gif as a reward. My gift to you.



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