Getting Things Done

Beyond the anecdotal evidence of over 1200 glowing reviews on Amazon, David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” (GTD) system has been successful enough to attract the attention of cognitive researchers from The University of Brussels. Heylighen and Vidal praised GTD in their publication “Getting Things Done: The Science behind Stress-Free Productivity” which provides a summary and review of David Allen’s GTD method and connects it to cognition theories in an attempt to explain why these methods work so well for so many people (TL;DR: the brain is fantastic at generating ideas but is awful at recall so there is a lot to be gained from the external storage system that is at the heart of GTD).


Allen presents the ideas of horizons from which you can view your life. These horizons fall roughly into 5 different levels:

  • Actions you are doing moment to moment
  • Projects you are working on
  • Goals you are working towards
  • Areas of focus
  • Life purpose

Someone’s life purpose (5) might be to live an unforgettable life. An area of focus (4) could be rock climbing and a goal (3) could be to ascend El Capitan’s Great Roof route in Yosemite. To work up to this goal, a current project (2) might be to increase arm endurance so today they are going to do (1) a pull-up workout.

The GTD system focuses on organizing all of the actions (1) and projects (2) that are on your plate but doesn’t talk much about organizing horizons 3/4/5. For this, I recommend you check out Tim Ferriss’s “The 4 Hour Workweek” and read his discussion on lifestyle design and dreamlining. But before you can focus steering your ship, you’ve got to stop focusing on keeping it afloat. And that requires dealing with all of your “stuff”.

“Stuff” is anything that tugs on your attention due to it’s incompleteness. It could be a book report, a flashlight with dead batteries, or the business card that’s been sitting on your desk for over a year. Keeping track of “stuff” in your head is mentally expensive so you can free up a lot of brain power by minimizing the amount of “stuff” you have to keep track of. This doesn’t require finishing everything on your to-do list, you can get the feeling of complete clarity and control over your life by simply storing everything you need to do in a trustworthy system outside your brain.

The GTD system is composed of 5 steps:

  • Capture
  • Clarify
  • Organize
  • Reflect
  • Engage

There are four habits that stand out to me as being particularly powerful. If this whole system seems like too much to incorporate into your life, I recommend you at least make note of these 4 habits (ctrl+f “Powerful Habit #”) as they alone might remove any feelings of being overwhelmed.

Step 1: Capture

Powerful Habit #1: Capture everything.

Keep a notepad (physical or digital) at hand at all times and capture everything that you need to remember or do. To maximize the utility of this habit, you should capture with as few tools as possible and you should empty these capture tools frequently (at least once per day).

I can say from personal experience that it is incredibly relaxing to have 100% of your “stuff” stored outside of your head in a trustworthy system. The mosquitoes (“I can’t forget to call Dr. Bob today!” “Is that essay due tomorrow or the next day?!” “Oh I really need to prepare for that meeting tomorrow”) will stop buzzing in your ear and you will be able to start thinking about your obligations rather than just reminding yourself of them.

The first step to creating this trustworthy system is having an in-tray where you store anything that needs to be processed. Allen preaches about having a physical in-tray but I’ve just been using a digital list and so far it has worked like a dream.

Putting it into practice

There is a world of difference between capturing most of what you have to do and knowing that you have captured absolutely everything. If you’re used to mentally storing all of your “stuff”, you’ll want to set some time aside to perform a complete mind dump. Sit down in front of a notepad and record everything that has your attention. Browsing a (”>list of triggers] is helpful in making sure you’ve got it all. Gather everything from your room and workspace that is not exactly as it should be, where it should be and add it to your in-tray. Trash can be thrown away immediately but wait to process anything else until you’re confident you’ve gathered everything.

My personal in-tray is the “To-Do List Widget” that’s on the home screen of my phone. I empty it first thing every morning.

Step 2: Clarify



The paper stacks represent buckets (lists/folders/etc), ovals represent decisions, and rounded rectangles represent actions. This diagram is based on a similar flow-chart provided on page 36 of GTD.

For each item in your in-tray, follow the above flow-chart. Simple as that. More information will be provided about each of the end categories in the next section.

Powerful Habit #2: Find and record a specific answer to: “What is the next action?”

Any ill-defined items that have landed in your in-tray need to be clarified. When you have vague tasks like “start working out” or “get a summer job” on your to-do list, the unmade decisions about how exactly to go about completing the task will stress you out and encourage procrastination. If you find yourself avoiding an item on your list, chances are it is not defined specifically enough (“free write for 30 minutes then create an outline” is better than “start writing my paper”). The next-action decision must be made eventually and it only takes a few seconds of focused thought so there’s no reason to put it off! In the examples mentioned above, the next actions might be: research workout routines, ask Jack for a gym recommendation, circle all the interesting jobs in the newspaper classifieds, or ask Wanda if she wants me to mow her lawn.

Powerful Habit #3: If it will take less than 2 minutes to complete, do it immediately.

Once you have decided on the next action, you will be adding it to a list of actions. If an action will take less than a couple minutes to complete, the time spent storing it in your actions list could be better spent by just finishing the task and being done with it.

Putting it into practice:

Go through your in-tray starting with the first item and deal with each one at a time. Do not even look at the next item until the one that has your attention has been processed. Make sure to update your projects list (see next section) as you go, any item that requires more than one action is a project.

Step 3: Organize

Your external storage system has, at it’s core, seven buckets (shown in the above flow-chart as stacks of weirdly shaped paper). These seven buckets are:

  • Actions list (actionable list)
  • Calendar (actionable list)
  • Projects list (non-actionable list)
  • Someday/maybe list (non-actionable list)
  • Waiting-for list (non-actionable list)
  • Project Files/Folder (folder)
  • General Reference (folder)

Actions List: A list of actions that you need to take. The list should be separated into contexts but the number of contexts you need to stay organized depends on the number of actions you have on your list. Common contexts: at the office, at home, online, errands, calls, agendas, read/review. Agendas are an important context, use them to keep track of things that need to be discussed with specific people (i.e. “ask for gym recommendations” might be added to the agenda for Jack).

Calendar: Contains the hard, unchangeable landscape for each day. Both time-dependent actions (i.e. meetings) and time-dependent information (i.e. directions to a party) should be included. Nothing time-independent should be included. Do not put anything on Monday that you would like to get done on Monday (i.e. get groceries). Only include things that must happen on Monday (i.e. doctor appointment).

Projects List: Any task that will require more than one action is a project. List all of your current projects in one place but don’t include any details about a specific project (that’s what the projects folder is for). This list provides a valuable overview of your commitments that comes in handy during your weekly reviews.

Someday/Maybe List: This is an eclectic list that is best described by listing a bunch of examples: things to make, hobbies to take up, skills to learn, creative media to explore, clothes or toys to buy, trips to take, organizations to join, service projects to contribute to, things to see, things to do, books to read, music to explore, movies to see, gift ideas, website to explore, miscellaneous ideas, etc.

Waiting-For List: When you give a task to someone else to do, record it and include the date. For example, after sending a couple emails on June 12th, you might add the following to this list: “Wanda re: lawn mowing (6/12)” and “Jack re: gym recommendation (6/12).” If you review this list in a week and notice that Wanda still hasn’t gotten back to you, that will be your reminder to either contact her again or ask to mow someone else’s lawn.

Project Files/Folder: A place to store details, ideas, and information regarding specific projects. Good for planning which actions a project might require in the future but do not rely on files in this folder to remind you of next actions. All next actions should be in your actions list or calendar.

General Reference: Make sure all reference materials can be filed away and retrieved quickly. There should be a single, alphabetically ordered list of material with sub-folders only added for large projects/areas of interest. Purge this folder once per year.

Managing the Buckets

It is important that each of these buckets has hard edges and there is no overlap or ambiguity. Do not have any lists/folders that contain both actionable and non-actionable items! Next actions should only be stored in your calendar and your actions list.

It’s often a poor use of time to maintain an item-by-item internal organization for a list (i.e. ordering by priority or size). Categories can be useful for large lists (especially the context categories in the actions list) but anything more involved than that should be avoided.

Some items (magazines to read, emails to respond to) can act as their own reminder and therefore do not need to be recorded on you action list. No need to list the emails you need to respond to when you can just look at your inbox.

Putting it into practice:

I use a simple text editor to manage lists stored as .txt files in a Dropbox folder. I have a projects folder in Dropbox and use my computer’s Documents folder as my general reference. I use Google Calendar and, when on my android, I manage it using aCalendar+ (the widgets for this app are beautiful).

Step 4: Reflect

Daily Review:

  • Process in-tray
  • Review calendar and actions list

Powerful Habit #4: Weekly Review

  • Capture, clarify, and organize everything that escaped your in-tray during the past week
  • Review and update your calendar, actions list, projects list, someday/maybe list, and your waiting for list.
  • Your projects list should be at the heart of your weekly review. Review it and remove any that are complete. Review your someday/maybe list and horizon 3/4/5 materials to see if there are any new projects you want to embark upon.
  • It is recommended that you set aside the last hour of your Friday workday for this. The workweek will still be fresh in your memory and it will allow you to enter the weekend feeling in control.

“When you make plans ahead of time and decide what actions will be carried out in which contexts, the proper behavior is nearly automatically enacted instead of being drawn from your limited reserve of willpower.” – David Allen

Step 5: Engage

This is where the context categories of your action list shine. When you’re in your office with an hour to spare before your next meeting, it is easy to browse your “in office” context for an action that you can complete during that hour. When you’re leaving to get groceries, it’s easy to browse your errands for any other stops you can make on the way. When Jack stops in to say hi, it’s easy to glance at your agenda for Jack and see that you wanted to ask him for a gym recommendation.

This part of the GTD system is purposefully left unstructured. Setting an elaborate plan ahead of time is useless when a crisis at the beginning of your day completely changes your priorities. Keeping the hard landscape of your calendar in mind while you fill in the gaps from your action list ensures that you will always have something valuable to spend your time on.


  • Capture absolutely everything that’s on your mind
  • For everything that you capture, find and record a specific answer to the question: “What is the next action?”
  • If the next action will take less than two minutes to complete, do it immediately.
  • Store all time dependent actions in a single calendar
  • Store all time independent actions in a single action list that’s separated into contexts
  • Maintain a list of projects, someday/maybe items, and items you’re waiting for.
  • Maintain a general reference and project folder where you can quickly store and retrieve files.
  • Review and update your system every week.

You will start to gain the full benefit of the GTD system once the above fundamentals become habits. Once you reach this point, you will be able to handle crises by spending extra time reflecting on your priorities and actions rather than “taking a break” from the system, going into panic mode, and focusing solely on in-the-moment actions. As you get more familiar with the system, you will integrate it more deeply into your life and custom fit it to suit your unique situation.

Once horizons 1/2 are on autopilot, you’ll have you’ll have extra energy to put towards horizons 3/4/5. Once you can stop worrying about keeping your ship afloat, you can focus your attention on steering it towards your destination.