I first read David Allen’s Getting Things Done in college, and my life was never the same. I learned that almost everyone can benefit from the GTD philosophy, but few people have the energy to dive into a productivity book. So I prepared this condensed version.
If you’d like help putting GTD into practice, send me an email. I’d love to help you organize your office and whip your to-do list into shape.
Getting Things Done is a productivity philosophy with a brilliant premise:
The GTD Premise
To maximize efficiency, minimize stress.
GTD is implemented in the five phases all work comprises:
- Collecting: gathering what life throws at you.
- Processing: interpreting it mentally.
- Organizing: storing it physically (often on a to-do list).
- Reviewing: rereading your to-do list.
- Doing: performing the items on your to-do list.
By approaching each phase in a certain way, you can make it less stressful, making yourself more efficient.
GTD does not require new time, energy, or equipment. It does require:
- Doing work in a very specific order.
- Using certain physical tools more strategically.
- An all-or-nothing approach. (If you try to implement GTD piecemeal, you’ll shoot yourself in the foot.)
Of course, David Allen’s bestselling book is where GTD all started. But the book is hard to understand. Here is my humble attempt to make it more accessible.
Phase One: Collecting
Collecting is the practice of corralling all the stuff that comes into your life into an inbox—or inboxes—for processing later.
One of the biggest problems most people face in managing their lives (especially their calendars and to-do lists) is being flooded with stuff. Stuff is a broad term for anything that pops into your head and makes you think, something has to be done about that.
Stuff is not the same as work. Work is defined; stuff is not. Work, by definition, is a clearly defined task (take Sparky to the vet). Stuff, by definition, is a vaguely defined concern (Sparky doesn’t look too good). Most stuff becomes work eventually.
Stuff includes everything from the important to the trivial.
Because it is unknown, stuff tends to deflect our attention from work.
Maybe you’re supposed to be writing a proposal, but you’ve got unread emails staring at you from your inbox. What are the emails about? Who knows. You haven’t even read them yet. But it’s hard to do your real work while they sit there. After all, what if they’re important?
Those emails are stuff.
Other examples of stuff:
- Ideas for your friend’s birthday gift
- A magazine article you need to read
- A broken picture frame you keep noticing
- A stack of unpaid bills on your table
- The nagging feeling that you are overdue for a dentist appointment
Like your unread emails, all this stuff has several things in common:
- It splinters your attention, making you less efficient and more anxious
- It is important—too important to dismiss or to risk forgetting about
- It tempts you to interrupt yourself in order to handle it immediately, lest postponing it should cause problems tomorrow
This is when you need the first phase of GTD: collecting. To collect is to say, “I’ve got to deal with this, but not now. I need to save it for later.”
I do most of my collecting by writing notes to myself or putting new received papers into my desk tray. But you can do whatever works best for you. Here’s a longer list of ways I collect:
- I pass a friend who tells me, “Hey, we should get coffee sometime!” So I pull out my phone and jot down a reminder: Travis wants to get coffee.
- I’m driving to the grocery store and suddenly realize I’m overdue for an oil change. So I pull out my phone and record myself a voice memo: Get oil changed.
- I’m in class and a professor mentions certain information that will be on the exam. I want to make sure I remember this when exam time comes. I already have my laptop open, so I open up my reminders app and type: When I study for my English exam, make sure I know the chart on page 45.
- I’m in a meeting, and a boss hands me a book and says, “I need you to skim this bibliography and make recommendations for me.” After the meeting, I put the book on my desk tray.
- My friend Ben writes me an encouraging note. I put it into my desk tray.
- Someone comes into my office and says, “Can you read this outline and check for typos? It’s just a copy, and I don’t need it back.” He hands me a piece of paper. Instead of dropping what I’m doing and reading it immediately, I drop it into my desk tray and answer, “Yes, I’ll have it back to you later.”
The pattern is this: I securely save new stuff for later, then return to what I was doing. I don’t let the stuff become an interruption, but neither do I brush it aside and risk forgetting about it. I send it ahead to my future self.
An Aside: Mind-sweeping
Some personality types generate lots of stuff just from their thoughts. When that happens to you, I encourage you to write it all down. It’s smart to hurry up and get thoughts out of your mind, safely recorded, where they will (a) be secure and (b) stop nagging you.
However, sometimes your brain may feel so full that ad-hoc collecting won’t cut it. You need to sit down and devote a few minutes to clearing out all the stuff floating around in your head. You may even find it therapeutic. David Allen calls this a “mind sweep.” Anything you come up with is valid stuff for your inbox.
If you need some prompts, try this excellent mind sweep trigger list.
We tend to underestimate the impact that the collecting phase has on our productivity, but that impact is tremendous. Collecting something is the opposite of letting it interrupt you.
Try not to get ahead of yourself as you collect. If you write down, “air conditioner is making a funny noise,” don’t start brainstorming a solution. That can happen later. Simply collecting is sufficient for the present.
Guidelines for making this phase work
- Be able to collect anything at any time (David Allen calls this “ubiquitous capture”). You should always have a tool at hand to collect with—surround yourself with notepads and pens, or keep your smart phone handy. Sometimes I even record voice memos as I drive. When I can’t collect stuff, I have to store it in my brain. From there, it can only either nag me or be forgotten—both bad options.
- Collect into only a few, defined places. If you use fourteen different notepads to collect your thoughts throughout the day, you’re not really collecting—just distributing. Stick with a small list of tools (David Allen calls these “inboxes”). I have six:
- The surface of my desk
- My paper tray
- My wallet
- The reminders app on my computer (which I also fill from my phone)
- My computer desktop
- My email inbox
When I check those six places the next day and process everything I’ve gathered (phase two below), I can be certain I’ve retrieved everything I collected the day prior.
- Always follow collecting with the next four phases. As I said in the introduction, GTD requires an all-or-nothing approach. Collecting is no good without the other four phases: you would gather all your stuff and then just forget about it. Yet people try. They say, “I know I need to write more things down, but when I do, I just seem to lose them.” Of course they lose them. They are collecting without processing, organizing, reviewing, and doing!
Phase Two: Processing
Processing is the work of taking all the stuff you have collected and interpreting it.
So you’ve done a bunch of collection. Now what? You need to take what you’ve gathered, figure out what it really means, and decide what you’re going to do with it.
Processing is a mental task, not a physical one. When you process something, you simply make a decision about it.
Unlike collecting, which you do whenever the need strikes you, processing is a once-a-day task usually completed in one sitting.
When you process, ask yourself, “What is this information or object I’ve captured?” Here are the categories.
- If you need to do it, it is a to-do.
- If you need to do it, but must wait for some reason, it is a to-do to schedule.
- If you need to get someone else to do it, it is a to-do to delegate.
- If you need to use it, it is equipment or reference material.
- If you like to look at it, it is decoration.
- If you don’t need it, it is trash.
We’ll talk through these categories in the examples below.
But first, you may find it helpful to make a mental note of this: although processing and organizing are two separate steps, they are performed in tandem. As soon as I process the first item in my inbox, I immediately organize it. Then I process the second item and organize it, and so on. This will make more sense as the distinctions between all five phases become clear.
In that case, why make processing its own phase? Granted, it is counterintuitive. Four reasons:
- It gives you permission to admit that the decision-making of the processing phase is just as taxing as the “real work” of the doing phase.
Suppose you come to process an item in your inbox—a note to yourself that just says “Jeff’s bin.” This was a memo you made on your phone as you came home from work yesterday and noticed that Jeff, your neighbor, has a fancy new recycling bin under his porch. You’d like to find out if his recycling company is giving those out to all its customers, because your current recycling bin is way too small. You need to ask him what company handles his recycling. But Jeff works third shift and is never home when you are. If you’re going to contact him, you actually need to ask your landlord for Jeff’s email. But your rent check is due, and if you’re going to go talk to your landlord, you should probably get your rent check ready…
I could go on and on. Decision-making can be very involved—and very draining. Identifying processing as its own phase is actually very liberating. In the spirit of “naming the demon,” it allows you to say, “Yes, processing is real work. It takes time and effort, and it may be difficult. That’s okay. I am accomplishing something.”
- It keeps you honest. If you are processing and doing at the same time, you are often tempted to settle for less. We all unconsciously plan our work not only by what we really should do, but by how energetic we feel at the time.
Suppose you are processing a note you wrote to yourself that says, “Steve – don’t shred receipts.” You saw a new coworker violate some trivial company policy yesterday. It isn’t a big deal, but you do need to inform him so he can avoid the mistake when he sorts receipts again next week. You happen to know that if you send him an email, he’ll never see it. He has too much on his plate right now. You need to speak to him in person. But at this moment, you are too tired to walk down to his office. You start to feel tempted to send Steve an email instead. That’s really good enough, right?
But what if you don’t have to walk down to Steve’s office this moment? You could just put it on your to-do list for later. You can easily do it sometime before the end of the week as long as you don’t have to do it now.
This maintains your objectivity. To settle for an email would be lax. If you had to act now, you might resort to email. But if you can act later, you can resolve to speak to Steve in person—no superhuman willpower required.
- You make the future stage of doing much easier. You will probably find that you come to your to-do list ready to accomplish something. But if you have to start by processing information, your momentum disappears. You have to make decisions and can’t take action. It’s draining. But if you are able to leap right into doing, you are more energized and more efficient.
- It gives you the ability to begin your phase of doing with a clear sense of your priorities. Because you’ve already processed everything on your to-do list, you are familiar with what’s on it. You know intuitively what’s important because certain items inevitably stuck out to you while you processed.
Let’s return to the previous example of your neighbor Jeff. All this stuff related to him and his recycling bin is not very important. But a few items down in your inbox is an urgent, overdue bill—a high priority. You put that bill in your inbox yesterday, but when Jeff’s recycling bin caught your attention this morning, you forgot all about the overdue bill. Both items now need to be processed. But if you proceed not only to process, but also do, the Jeff task before you get to the bill, you may run out of time to handle the bill today. Plus, the whole time you’re working on the Jeff task, you will have this nagging feeling in the back of your mind: “Is this the most important thing for me to be doing right now? What else is in my inbox?” If you do all your processing first, you will notice the bill and tackle it first with the confidence of knowing that it is your most important task. Jeff can wait.
- Travis wants to get coffee. This is a to-do: I need to check my calendar and then email Travis with some suggestions of times and dates for coffee.
- Get oil changed. This is a to-do: I need to drive down to my car guy and ask him to change my oil.
- When I study for my English exam, make sure I know the chart on page 45. Notice the “when” attached to this item. This is a to-do to schedule: at a certain date—not now—I will need to study the chart on page 45.
- The book from my boss. This is tricky. The book represents a to-do: I need to read the bibliography. But the book itself is “reference material,” so to speak, for that to-do. So my conclusion from processing this book is that it is really two things—two determinations. For the moment, that’s all I need.
- The note from Ben. I’d like to be able to look up and see this note from time to time. This is decoration.
- The outline I need to proofread. As I pick up the outline and look at it, I remember I have actually proofed it already and found no typos. My coworker must have forgotten. So now this outline represents a to-do (email my coworker and give him the all-clear). And the piece of paper itself is trash. (So notice again that this single item was processed as two things.)
Again, notice that I have only made “interpretations.” I haven’t even moved my body. That’s all that processing is—making decisions about what things are (and what work they require).
Guidelines for making this phase work
- Process every item in every inbox every day. Otherwise you can’t trust your system: items can go into limbo for too long between the time you collect them and the time you process them. And when my items often go into limbo, I will start to worry, “If I capture item x right now, who knows when I’ll get around to processing it! I can’t rely on myself here. I may miss a deadline.” (As I mentioned above, it’s good to have a master list of all your inboxes for quick reference, so you can make sure you’ve checked all of them.)
A Side Note: The Time Required to Process
Processing every inbox to zero every day (along with organizing and reviewing, stages 3 and 4 below) takes at least an hour a day for me. If that makes you nervous, think about it this way. Everyone processes. Everyone spends that time. But if you do it the GTD way—all at once—you’re definitely going to save time in the long run.
When you see a mountain of items in your inbox waiting to be processed, you may be tempted to think, I don’t have time to process all that. Not true. In fact—it sounds trite, but it’s the truth: you don’t have time not to.
When you are just getting started with GTD, you will have a backlog of stuff to process. Your inbox may be a foot deep with paper. In that case, it isn’t realistic to hope to process to empty right away. You will need some deep-cleaning to get there. But don’t get discouraged—you are on the path to a greater peace about your work.
- Process only once a day. Once you process an inbox to empty, try not to touch it again until the next day. With some inboxes, this is obvious. For example, why clean out your desk tray more than once a day? For other inboxes, you may have to learn new habits.
- Process in order, one item at a time. Process items in the order they appear in the inbox, and only process one item at a time (these are psychological tricks to keep you from skipping to the easy items first).
- Follow the “Two-Minute Rule.” If while processing some item you realize, “I could actually do this right now in less than two minutes,” then go ahead and do it immediately. It’s actually faster in this case to allow the small interruption than to continue with phases 3, 4, and 5.
Where most of us really fall off the wagon on this rule is email. Some people leave their email apps open all day long. You may even have your phone set to notify you every time a new message comes in. This is not a helpful habit.
If someone needs an instantaneous response from you, he should call or text. To ask you to check your email hourly is, from a productivity perspective, crazy. Checking email once a day is ideal, and two or three times is a gracious plenty.
The bottom line is this: the more you do all your processing at once, the more efficient you will be; the more you process in small batches, the less efficient you will be.
Phase Three: Organizing
Organizing is the work of putting items where they belong based on how you have processed them.
Organizing follows processing very closely. It takes the decision that is the result of your processing and makes it physical.
- If you processed something as a to-do, put it in your to-do list.
- If you processed something as a to-do to schedule, use a tool to save it for later (more on this in the side note below).
- If you processed something as a to-do to delegate, put it in someone else’s hands.
- If you processed something as decoration, decorate with it.
- If you processed something as equipment or reference material, put it in a drawer, file folder, closet, etc.
- If you processed something as trash, throw it away
Side Note: Scheduling to-dos
There are several good methods for scheduling to-dos.
- Write them on your calendar (or day planner, agenda, etc.) on a future date.
- Use to-do software with scheduling functionality to postpone them.
- Use a paper or electronic 43 folders system.
In a sense, the phase of organizing is intuitive. It’s obvious. Everyone knows how to do it already. But in practice we often botch it.
Think about your workspace right now. Do you have any items visible that really just represent a to-do for you?
Suppose you need to call Beth, so you have a yellow sticky note that says “call Beth” stuck to your pencil cup. On the surface, this makes perfect sense. You need a visible reminder to call Beth—it’s too important to forget. But this solution is dysfunctional: the sticky note is useless to you in its current location. It sits there, nagging you indiscriminately, even when you are busy with other things and couldn’t possibly call Beth.
You do need to see that sticky note—but you when you’re ready to make a phone call, not when you’re reaching for a pencil. In the meantime, that sticky note is just a piece of physical and (much more importantly) psychological clutter in your workspace.
But—let’s be honest—most people’s workspaces are filled with stuff like this.
Another classic example: when we have to pay our gas bills, instead of writing it on our to-do lists and putting the paperwork in a “bills to pay” folder, we leave the bills out on the surface of our desk where they can nag us. We use the physical item itself to remind us of the to-do it represents. This creates messy, morale-killing desks.
Most people tend to beat themselves up over their messy desks. “My desk is so messy! If only I were more organized. I just need to sit down and tackle some of this stuff.” But that’s just another way of saying, “If I finished all my work, then my desk would be clean.” Well, yes, obviously; if you have no work, you will have a very clean desk. But it’s never going to happen. We’ll always have work. And there is a secret to maintaining clean, morale-boosting desks even in the midst of all our business.
What is that secret? Well, first, notice this: workspaces reveal not a failure to do but a failure to organize. And we don’t organize because we don’t trust our systems. We think if we file something away, we will forget about it. So we leave things out where we can see them.
But this habit backfires. It makes our workspaces noisier. Our desks quickly fill up with all kinds of unorganized stuff. The very method we had intended to make important items prominent has simply made all items prominent. And when everything’s prominent, nothing is. The truly important things we need are hidden in plain sight among the rest of the mess.
So here’s the alternative, and the secret to a clean desk: file everything away. All of it. Keep the surfaces in your workplace clear of “reminders.” Now how will you know what’s urgent and what isn’t? You simply look at your to-do list.
You don’t need physical items left out around your workspace to remind you of things. Your to-do list will do all the reminding you need, if you simply read it once a day (phase four below). And your workspace can be spotless from now on.
When you are reasonably faithful in all five phases, this works flawlessly. No extra time commitment required. You can simply make better use of the time you spend already. Once you get rolling, you will actually start saving time.
Suppose I have an urgent gas bill I need to pay. I may think, I should really put this bill in my “bills to pay” folder and put a to-do on my to-do list. That would be neat and tidy. But won’t it be “out of sight, out of mind”? If I don’t have this bill here in front of me, I might forget about it. If I have it tucked away somewhere—well, who knows if I’ll ever see it again!
So I leave the bill out on the surface of my desk where it can nag me. I need that nagging. Without it, I might forget about the bill. Classic codependency.
The solution is to file everything away—yes, everything—and trust my to-do list to tell me what’s important. When I review my to-do list, I will see “pay bill by March 20” and remember how urgent that task is. Then I can go to my “bills to pay” folder, retrieve the bill itself, and get everything done neatly and punctually.
In my experience, this is the phase where many people start to get stuck. Lots of people think, “I don’t really know if I’m the type to keep a to-do list.” People feel they won’t be able to maintain a to-do list, or they think of it as too rigid and orderly for their management style.
This is a misconception. Everyone keeps a to-do list.
The difference is that some people keep theirs written down, and others keep theirs by spreading gas bills all over their desks.
Let’s take the results of my processing above and organize them.
- My to-do of checking my calendar and emailing Travis: this can go on my to-do list. Technically, they are two separate actions, but I might as well just write them together since the connection is obvious.
- My to-do of getting my oil changed: this can also go on my to-do list. I like to use to-do list software that allows me to categorize my to-dos. This one I would categorize as an errand. Next time I drive out to return my library books, I might check my to-do list for other errands. Then I will remember that I need to get my oil changed.
- My scheduled to-do of studying the chart for my English exam next month: if I put this on my to-do list now, I will have to ignore it until I the day I actually need to start preparing for my exam. And ignoring items on my to-do list is a very dangerous habit to form. Instead, I may determine that this to-do needs to be scheduled until March 15. I can forget about it until then.
- The to-do of reading the bibliography of my boss’s book: this can go on my to-do list.
- The “equipment” of the book itself: I can stash this on my bookcase or closet—somewhere out of the way—until I get around to using it. If I’m afraid I won’t be able to find it again, I can just attach a note to the corresponding to-do on my list, saying “book is in closet, 3rd shelf.”
- The “decoration” of a note from Ben: I’ll stick this to my whiteboard for a few days so I can notice it from time to time. (Unlike the example of the “Call Beth” sticky note from above, this note won’t nag me since it doesn’t represent something I need to do. It is just decoration.)
- The to-do of emailing my coworker: since I can do this in less than two minutes, I’ll go ahead and do it right now (remember the “Two-Minute Rule” mentioned above). No need to put it on a to-do list for later. It’s almost as fast to send the email immediately as it is to create a new to-do item.
- The outline from my coworker, which is trash: chuck it!
Guidelines for making this phase work
- Write to-dos as physical action steps that require no further decision-making to complete. This is essential. To-dos should have concrete verbs and concrete objects.
“Problem with invoice” isn’t a to-do. “Decide what to do about invoice” is more verbose but no clearer. “Ask Susan about invoice” is better, but still somewhat vague (it is not physical). “Call Susan to ask about mystery charge on invoice” is great. It will make my work easier later on.
Essentially, you want to write instructions as if your future self is an intelligent person who knows nothing about the task yet. This eliminates the need for any further processing, when your future self is in the mindset to get to work. This helps your future self maintain momentum.
- If you realize you’re going to need a complex series of to-dos to accomplish your goal, call it a “project” and write out all the steps separately. This is just a psychological safety mechanism to keep your plans clear in your mind.
For instance, perhaps the mystery invoice charge task becomes:
- Inform Susan of mystery charge on invoice.
- Compare charges to last year’s invoice.
- Google for our contractor’s phone number.
- Call our contractor to confirm charges are listed correctly.
- Send invoice to billing.
- Write our contractor a thank-you card.
At this point you may be feeling overwhelmed and thinking, “Gosh, is all that really necessary?” Well, often, writing out all these steps brings enormous clarity and relief when you might otherwise experience the kind of stress that comes from vague uncertainty about your future responsibilities. Knowing precisely what will be required of you in the future prevents stress in the present. It’s worth it!
But if the sequence of steps in a project is so obvious or ingrained in your memory that you would gain nothing by writing it out, skip it. The point is that all the work of defining next actions, whether it’s one or many (and whether they’re defined on paper or only in your mind) should be completed in the organizing phase and not afterward.
- Give yourself permission to spend money. If your workspace is cramped or messy and tools are cranky or difficult to operate, you’ll probably (unconsciously) resist using them, creating stress and friction in your workflow. Small up-front purchases (for example, an extra file cabinet) will pay for themselves many times over productivity gains.
- Use only one to-do list. Crucial. It doesn’t matter what kind of to-do list you use, but all your to-dos must be consolidated in one place. If they’re split up, you can never be certain that they’re accounted for. You can’t “trust the system.” I recommend an electronic to-do list with cloud syncing that will also work on other computers and a smartphone. (Wunderlist is a simple, free option, and my first recommendation to GTD newbies.) However, a spiral-bound notebook can work just as well if you carry it around with you. Often, the system that makes you most comfortable is the right one.
A Side Note: Organizing Files
Some people have a difficult time knowing how to organize their files. Here are my recommendations for painless filing:
- Make sure you have a filing system with plenty of extra space. If your system is cramped, you will hate it and avoid it.
- Decide what kind of folders you want to use (hanging file folders, normal file folders, or normal-inside-of-hanging) and have plenty of them on hand. Use them liberally. Buy nice ones so you won’t hate using them.
- Divide your filing system into three sections: to-dos, projects, and reference.
- The to-dos section is for paperwork related to individual items on your to-do list—that is, to-dos that are stand-alone and not associated with any project. You can label the folders in this section according to the “context” (David Allen’s word) where the action will take place. For example: “errands,” “phone,” “desk,” “staff meeting,” or even “John Doe,” if you need to collaborate with John on a task.
- The projects section is for paperwork related to entire projects, including the individual to-dos they comprise. You can label the folders in this section according to the project name. For example, “New Bookshelves,” and “Acme Job Application.”
- The reference section is for paperwork not associated to any task. For example, a list of telephone extensions at your office. You can label the folders in this section topically. For example, “Purchasing,” “Advertising Ideas,” and “Meeting Agendas – Old.”
- If you are not sure where you should file something, put it in multiple locations. If file x could belong in folders a, b, and c, photocopy it twice and put it in all three locations. Or, if it’s too long to photocopy, just write a note that says “Looking for file x? It’s in folder a,” and stick that into folders b and c.
Phase Four: Reviewing
Reviewing is the practice of reading your entire to-do list once a day.
In order to be certain that you don’t lose track of items on your to-do lists, you should read through your entire to-do list once a day, after you’re done processing and organizing. Even if your to-do list has dozens of items on it, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can read through it. I keep a complex and lengthy to-do list and find it very easy to read through the whole thing in two or three minutes a day.
Reading through your to-do list gives you several advantages.
- It brings amazing clarity about your priorities. As you see everything you have to do in one place, certain items will stand out to you (“Oh, that one’s urgent!”). Other things will recede into the background (“That one can wait”).
- It ensures that nothing falls through the cracks.
- It gives you peace of mind. You will be able to say at any time, “I may not be able to get everything done, but I know that I am tackling the most important items first.” This is very powerful. It’s also (I believe) very healthy. It gives you the ability to leave some things undone and still be at rest.
Phase Five: Doing
Doing is accomplishing the items on your to-do list.
In some ways, this is the easiest phase of all. Once you’ve completed phases 1–4, doing isn’t so bad. Your mind is clear, your to-dos are clearly defined, your workspace is neat, and you have a clear sense of your priorities. Now you get the satisfaction of knocking items off your to-do list.
If, as you are working on doing, you catch yourself slipping back into processing or organizing, it means you didn’t complete those steps thoroughly.
Remember, all five phases of GTD are real work. Just because you’re spending time collecting, processing, organizing, and reviewing doesn’t mean you’re not accomplishing anything. You are. In fact, people who don’t isolate those phases and perform them deliberately, in sequence, are probably being much less efficient and productive than you.