Getting Things Done with GTD

This year has been exceptionally stressful. The project I’ve been working on for most of the last 2 years is coming to fruition; I have an additional new interim job; and I have a major uptick in outside professional commitments. Normally I’d have just let myself get buried and then frantically spend months trying to dig myself out. But knowing my normal pattern, I decided I needed a change. I heard about Getting Things Done (GTD) previously and knowing a little bit about the system, thought it might be able to help.

Getting Things Done is the name of a productivity system created by David Allen. The system is outlined in Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. There are also a lot of online guides, resources, and seminars put on by David Allen’s company. I’d first learned about it from Lifehacker, who put together a good introductory guide. Since I was hoping for something to deal with stress, this seemed to be just what I was looking for.

Getting Things Done centers on five steps:

  • Capture – Getting everything in your mind into a trusted system
  • Clarify – Processing those things and determining if it needs to be acted upon, filed, or trashed.
  • Organize – Putting things into a system so that you know where they belong
  • Reflect – Reviewing lists and items and keeping the system up to date
  • Engage – Using the system to determine your next actions

Right away this process really spoke to me. I tend to keep much of my work in my mind. Since I live and die by formalized product management systems, this has never had a negative impact on my work; no missed deadlines or the like. What it did do was cause havoc on my subconscious. Difficulty sleeping because my mind would dredge up all the things I probably should have done or trouble focusing on tasks like writing because I was so distracted were common. Allen addresses these issues clearly and often in both the book and the overall system. By creating a system you know you can trust, you can get these things into that and out of your mind. While my overall adoption of GTD has been slow, it has certainly helped free up  my subconscious. Even better, I am much closer to being stress free than I was when I started.

The other area in which GTD shines for me is its workflow. The system begins with an inbox that collects everything: email, notes of random ideas, paperwork (this can be electronic or physical, GTD doesn’t require any specific tool). Contents of the inbox are then processed, or clarified, to determine if the item is actionable or not. If no action is needed it can be filed, moved to a ‘someday’ list, or trashed. If it does have an action, ask yourself if this can be accomplished in 2 minutes and if so just do it. If it will take more than 2 minutes it can be delegated to someone else or deferred to a later date. Those deferred items then make up the bulk of your next action lists.

GTD Workflow

If my only take away from GTD was the 2 minute rule, buying and reading the book would have been worthwhile. I’d heard of the idea before, but finally putting it into action has made all the difference. I can’t even recall the number of times I’d have to write an email, but decide I didn’t ‘feel’ like doing it. So I’d put it on a list of things to do (at this point I’ve probably taken longer than if I just wrote the email) and put it off. Then I’d forget or it’d get buried in my to-do list. Finally realizing I still needed to send that email, but then feeling bad for it taking so long would create stress, so I might even put it off further. Needless to say, this is no way to work or live. Forcing myself to do those simple tasks, even when I don’t ‘feel like it’, has led to less stress, fewer distractions, and quicker turnaround on almost all areas of my work.

Coupling the 2 minute rule with the overall GTD system has allowed me to handle increased responsibilities while decreasing my overall stress. That’s right: more work, less stress  I can’t think of anything else I more highly recommend. There are plenty of primers out there on GTD, but do yourself a favor and pick up the book. Not only is it an enjoyable read, it is also a useful reference to revisit. The gains I’ve made using the system makes me sure I’ll stick with it and but continue to grow with it.


2 thoughts on “Getting Things Done with GTD

  1. Michael thank you so much for writing on this topic. I’ve found that adopting any small part of GTD immediately relieves stress. That points to the fact that I haven’t implemented the whole system, but so be it.

    There’s a surprising number of core GTD products & guidelines on David Allen’s website:

    The GTD test is also still live from his last book. It’s useful even if you have no interest in GTD at all.


  2. The GTD test is really interesting, although I fear it thinks I’m much more put together than I actually am. But either way, get assessment of where you are with your focus.


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