(cartoon via Alex Norris of The Oh No Shop)
Getting Things Done isn’t just an aspirational response to “So, what are you up to these days?”. It’s a methodology (and book), created by management consultant, David Allen.
Did you know that before getting into business consulting and making GTD his life’s work, David Allen had jobs as a magician, a karate teacher, and a moped salesman? In his own words, he’s had “35 professions before the age of 35”. David’s had to get a lot of things done in his life. So we trust him to tell us how.
Getting Things Done is a way to organize and track your tasks and projects, making sense of the swirling whirlpool of all the should-do’s, have-to do’s, and want-to-do’s in your life. It puts you in the driver’s seat of your to-do list, instead of letting things just happen by force of shame or other uncomfortable pressures.
*GTD can be adopted with degrees of personal interpretation and flexibility. How you actually carry it out depends largely on the tools you prefer, what kind of work you do, how much you have on your plate, etc. So, we’re going to share the way we think about GTD at TeuxDeux, but the ultimate source of truth is David’s website. We also recommend Erland Hamberg’s pragmatic guide to do a GTD deep dive.
The most boiled down version of GTD (in our words) is:
Make things actionable
Organize & prioritize
Do the things
Reflect, rinse & repeat
You can determine cycles of running through this system on your own by trial and error, but we generally think about it as one big cycle at the end of week (to prep for next week) and then smaller cycles daily (at the end of one day and the start of the next). For example, it’s not particularly useful to do a huge download of all the things you have to do in your entire life every single day, but new things to do pop up every day so GTD should be your home base. The place you can return to on a regular basis to feel grounded.
If you’re just getting started with GTD: mark uninterrupted time on your calendar for this Sunday to complete steps 1–3, focusing on the week ahead.
Part 1 — The Brain Dump
This might be a surprise coming from an app company but we’d really recommend starting out with good old fashioned pen and paper. Get away from the computer and clear your brain out, like a more task-focused version of journaling. If you’re a bullet journaler, use the ol’ bujo.
Write everything down. On a daily basis, this might look like a bunch of Post-It Notes you scribble on whenever a thought pops up and on a weekly basis this might look like a full page in your journal.
Don’t worry about categorizing anything right now, unless that helps you really scrape out all the excess things you need to do from the sides of your brain. Keep it high level for now — you’ll figure out the specifics later.
Part 2 — Make things actionable
This is where you start to scrutinize your big list of things to be done. Look into each item you’ve written down and ask: Is this actionable? Do I know the exact next step that must be taken? Is there a verb in this sentence?
If the answer is yes, great — leave it there.
If the answer is no, choose your own adventure:
Throw it away
(if you don’t think it’s needed anymore or some other thing you’ve written down accomplishes the same thing)
Keep it handy for a rainy day
(if you think you’ll want to tackle it in the future.) This could include things like books you want to read, life admin tasks without a pressing deadline, etc. These will be sorted into separate running lists like a master Someday list or categorized Someday lists, like “Books to Read”.
Break it down into actions
(if you know this is something you really need to deal with now.) This might take a while if you’re super unclear on what to do next but maybe that’d make your next step “research how to do [insert thing]” or “request meeting with [person who knows] about this thing”.
Part 3 — Organize & Prioritize
The real meat and potatoes of Getting Things Done. You might start to migrate your analog list over to your digital to-do tool of choice at this point. Park each item where it belongs.
First, shuffle any of your rainy day tasks into a ‘Someday’ list. Leave ’em be. Let ’em simmer.
The rest of the tasks should be clearly actionable, so now you need to prioritize them. This is where we’d recommend using a calendar-based to-do app (like TeuxDeux!), so you can visualize how heavy or light your days are on a task based level and keep things feeling even and realistic.
We’d recommend prioritizing tasks based on two things:
Can any of these items get done in 2 minutes or less?
If yes: plot those out as to-do items at the very start of your day. Get it done right away.
What are the tasks that would make the biggest difference in my work day, once completed?
(This includes the tasks that you absolutely must do on specific days, as well as any tasks that would make other projects or tasks easier or unnecessary).
If you’re planning out your whole week, assign those #2 tasks to the upcoming days in a way that gives you enough breathing room. If you’re planning out your day, be sure you’re really clear on what those most important tasks are. Try to keep it below 2 or 3 tasks a day in total. You can pull from your Someday list if you find yourself twiddling your thumbs later.
Part 4 — Do the things
Make a coffee, don your soundproof headphones, get that productivity playlist going, and place laser focus on the item that is first on your daily list. You barely have to think about any of it, because you’ve already done the hard work of figuring out exactly what you should be doing. Lucky you!
Part 5 — Reflect, rinse, and repeat
As you sit down to plan out your next week, make time to look back at the week behind you.
What tasks remain? Why didn’t you get to them?
Was it a shortage of time? (Consider breaking the task down into even smaller tasks so you feel equipped to do something about it). Do you fully understand what the task entails? (Interrogate the task. If you really can’t get clear on it, you have to ask for help or toss it). Are you waiting on something from someone else in order to do the task? (Shuffle that into a custom Someday list for “Waiting” or “Check In” or “People On My Sh*t List”).
Check out your Someday list & migrate tasks over to your daily list.
Is there anything there that you could move onto your daily to-do lists for the week ahead? Anything that suddenly has a deadline placed on it that needs to be chipped away at?
Do another brain dump for all the things you think you’ll need to remember for the next week (see Part 1).
It’s a good idea to try and do at least the first bullet point on a Friday afternoon, when you have a good memory of the days before and you aren’t getting swept away in the Monday morning hubbub.
GTD should be, above all else, simple. It should be the headache reliever, not the source of the headache.
It’s about much more than just completing tasks (although that is the bulk of it) and it’s definitely not about becoming productivity machines. As cloudy projects and tasks pile up and time spent not touching them passes, our brains can become incubators of anxiety, shame, fear, and ultimately — suffering. Suffering is the worst!
By writing things down, giving them a name, staring them in the face, asking them what business they have with you, and then knowing exactly when and how you’ll deal with them, you’re allowed to completely ignore those tasks until the time to actually do them arrives. When it comes to the whirlpool of life’s many tasks, ignorance really can be bliss.