Struggling to keep up with your to-do list? The Getting Things Done (GTD) program can help you accomplish more in less time. By storing tasks and reminders in an external system, you can free up mental energy to focus on the task at hand. The GTD system allows you to capture everything on lists, files, and your calendar, enabling you to stay in control of your workload and be present in the moment. Don’t let your brainpower go to waste trying to remember everything – use the GTD system to optimize your productivity.
The GTD system involves five steps:
- Capture everything that’s on your mind
- Clarify each item and decide what to do about it
- Organize your decisions and actions
- Reflect on your options and choose what to tackle next
- Engage with the task and get it done
Initially, you may have a large mental backlog to process, but once you’ve captured everything, it becomes easier. Moving forward, you’ll regularly go through the five steps to manage new items and plan your day.
Step 1: Capture
The first step in the GTD system is to capture everything on your mind – ideas, reminders, and information – and get them out of your head. This includes both short-term and long-term goals, anything you want to change or improve. By making a habit of capturing everything, you can ensure nothing slips through the cracks and build trust with others and yourself. Go through every nook and cranny for notes and reminders, and put everything in your in-tray without stopping to work on anything else. After capturing everything, take time to assess each item.
Step 2: Clarify
In the GTD system, the next stage is to identify the immediate next action towards each item’s planned goal and define the desired outcome for each item. The concrete thing you may take to advance the project is the “next action”. For example, if the item is “schedule meeting,” decide on the next action, such as checking availability or booking a conference room. This decision-making process enhances productivity and allows you to tackle tasks before they become overwhelming. Clarifying next actions turns larger tasks into manageable actions that you can easily complete and feel a sense of accomplishment.
- To organize each item, you’ll either:
- Trash it if it’s not needed and won’t be in the future.
- Keep it for future reference.
- Do it immediately if it takes less than two minutes.
- Label it as a project and put it in a “Pending” pile if it requires more than one step and can be completed within a year.
- Consider delegating it if it will take longer than two minutes and someone else could handle it better.
- Save it for later and label it “Someday/Maybe” or schedule a reminder to reconsider it in the future.
- Label it “Next Action” and add it to the “Pending” pile if it requires more than two minutes and can’t be delegated.
This flowchart summarizes steps 1 to 3:
- Incoming Stuff
- Determine what it is
- Trash, project list, or project support materials
- Is it actionable?
- Yes: determine next action
- Can it be done in 2 minutes? Yes: do it
- No: delegate it, defer it, wait for someone else to do it, put it on the calendar, or add it to next actions list.
Step 3: Organize
After clarifying the next step for each item, it’s time to organize them into files, lists, and calendar items. Don’t worry about the many types of lists and files suggested by the author, instead focus on the big picture of putting each item in its ideal place. You may still come across items you don’t need, so trash them. Create reference files for non-actionable items, organizing them by subject-specific or general-reference. A simple and easily navigable filing system will motivate you to keep up with filing and make it easy to retrieve documents when needed.
Organize the Pending pile by categorizing each item into one of the following:
- Projects list – for projects in the planning process
- Project Support Materials file – for project plans, research, and other documents
- Waiting For list – for tasks waiting on someone else or delegated items
- Someday/Maybe list – for ideas to pursue in the future
- Tickler file – for information or reminders needed in the future
- Calendar – for time-sensitive items such as appointments or deadlines
- Next Actions list – for actionable tasks that take longer than two minutes and can’t be delegated. Consider categorizing this list by task type or location. Remember to review the Someday/Maybe list regularly.
Step 4: Reflect
Regularly check your lists and files to prioritize tasks. Review your calendar daily and Next Actions list frequently to balance your schedule. The Weekly Review is critical to keep your system up-to-date. Review your Projects, Project Plans, Next Actions, Waiting For, Someday/Maybe lists, and Tickler File. Clarify and update items, clean up and clear things out as needed, and capture anything you haven’t yet. Use this time to consider big-picture ideas and projects and ensure your day-to-day tasks align with your goals and values.
Step 5: Engage
The GTD system aims to help you prioritize tasks and make informed choices about what to do when. Confidence in what you’re not doing is as important as confidence in what you are doing. To decide which task to work on from your Next Actions list, use one of the following three models:
The Four-Criteria Model helps you choose which task to work on by considering four criteria: context, time available, energy available, and priority.
By organizing your subsequent activities into context-specific lists and selecting tasks that match the time and energy you have available, you may reduce your alternatives. Finally, prioritize based on your intuition and judgment, using the next two models to help align your choices with your goals and values.
The Threefold Model: Types of Work
To make an informed decision about a task, you must understand which of the three categories it falls into: predefined work, work that shows up, and defining work. Predefined work is what you’ve deemed important and put on your Next Actions list and calendar. Work that shows up is unanticipated tasks that require immediate attention. Defining work is maintaining the GTD system, and you must prioritize time to do this regularly.
The Six-Level Model: Determine Priorities
To prioritize effectively, you must consider how your options fit into the bigger picture of your life. There are six horizons of perspective to determine your priorities:
- The Ground: current action on your Next Actions list
- Horizon 1: current projects with short-term timelines
- Horizon 2: areas of focus and responsibilities
- Horizon 3: goals for the next one to two years
- Horizon 4: vision for the next three to five years
- Horizon 5: purpose and principles, the big-picture context of your life.
Use the Natural Planning Method to Plan Projects
Always identify a next action for each project to make consistent progress. Use the Natural Planning Method to determine next actions for big projects, just as you would for planning a birthday dinner. Follow these steps: define purpose and principles, envision the outcome, brainstorm, organize, and determine next actions. Implementing and mastering GTD is a lifelong process that helps manage daily tasks while keeping larger goals in mind. Learn the guidelines and techniques, make them habits, and take charge of everyday activities. Then, take a bigger-picture approach to manage and organize life, initiate projects to improve areas of life, and ultimately create the desired lifestyle.