We’ve all been there. Sitting at our desk, swamped by an Everest of work that needs doing and we don’t know where to begin.

A mix of different tasks, events and projects need attention and you don’t know if you’re ever going to get to sending that quick email to Brian about lunch that you’ve been putting off all month.

Organising your work and structuring a plan of how and when to complete it can seem unattainable—but it’s easier than you think. You just need the right framework in place to organise, prioritise and action your tasks and ideas—and this quick guide to Getting Things Done (GTD) from David Allen can help add structure to your work day and life in general.

Getting Things Done (GTD) Explained

Getting Things Done (GTD) is a life-work management system designed and authored by David Allen. It is used by millions around the world as a way to track your thoughts, projects and ideas. It’s about gathering your ideas, getting them down onto paper or into a digital system, organising the actions around them—and getting things done.

One of David Allen’s best known mottos is:

“your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”

Keeping your mind clear and thoughts organised to achieve results, GTD in its simplest form is organising your life to make it manageable—getting stuff out of your head and into a medium to store them, for review and actioning later.

Let’s have a deeper look at the Getting Things Done philosophy by focusing on the Five Pillars of GTD.

The Five Pillars of GTD

Essentially, GTD is centred around the following flow:

  1. Capturing your ideas and tasks.
  2. Clarifying them.
  3. Organising them.
  4. Reflecting on them.
  5. Engaging with them.

1. Capture

The first pillar of the GTD philosophy is capture.

Capturing everything that demands your attention for the day. Any ideas that come into your head, any calls you have to make, emails you have to send or to-dos you have to complete.

Capturing is about gathering everything together and getting the ideas or tasks from your head and into your chosen medium straight away. The longer you have the idea or thought stored in your head, the more it interrupts your focus. In its research, Microsoft has found that interruptions of tasks is one of the most frequently cited reasons for memory failures during the workday.

Write them down on paper, in a project management app, or record them as a voice memo on your phone—whatever works for you and your workflow

2. Clarify

The next step is to clarify your ideas or tasks by factoring them against these questions:

Is it actionable? Do you need to do something about it?

If it’s a Yes, then ask yourself another question:

Will it take 2 minutes or less to complete?

If yes again, then do it! It could be something like taking out the trash or printing out a report. The aim here is to get the task off your list so you don’t have to complete it later—it’s already done!

If the answer is No, then add it to an action list. This will be your main list of long-term things that you need to do, comprising of longer tasks, completing a big piece of work that may take a period of time, learning another language or painting the bedroom.

Next, ask yourself what needs to be done to complete the task/idea?

Figure out the steps that are needed to complete the task. Write them down onto your chosen medium and plan each step. Painting your bedroom requires you to go out and get the paint supplies, put on some old clothes and prepare the walls. Now that you have the plan down in front of you there’s no barrier to you getting started.

Sometimes, especially in a work setting, you can be waiting for someone to complete a task to allow you to move onto the next step. Maybe you’re waiting for Peter to finish his designs before you can move on with your new advertising campaign. Put what you need to do on a ‘waiting’ list so that when the time comes for you to action what you need to do you’ll be ready.

If the idea is not actionable, then you can either:

  1. Discard it—if you can’t do anything about it there’s no point in letting it occupy your mind.
  2. Keep it as a reference. That could be something that may come in handy at a later date, e.g. an important article that could you help you or your team in work.

3. Organise

Applying the GTD methodology suggests organising your clarified ideas into: Project, Time and Context.

David defines a project as something that requires more than one action to complete. Give your project a title (maybe even a description) and write down the actions that need to be taken to reach your goal in the form of to-dos.

Is your task time specific? Having your meetings and events on your calendar allows you to forget about them until it’s closer to the time. Using a project management app that can remind you when your calendar events are coming up is useful so you don’t have to constantly stress out about remembering your next event.

GTD suggests grouping action by context, too. For example, grouping together everyone you need to call onto a list. This just makes the process of going from task to task easier, allowing you to see what you’ve completed and what is left to complete.

Some tasks may suit being on a context list but also have a time attached. GTD allows you to mix and match these organisational methods to suit your own preferences and needs.

When executing the GTD methodology, it helps to always be thinking ahead. What is the next action on your list that you need to complete?

Any items that can’t be actioned in the near term should be put on a “someday” list. These may be ideas or tasks that you might want to do but that don’t affect your current goals and focus.

4. Reflect

David advocates that a weekly review is a “Critical factor for success.” Reflecting on your ideas and tasks every week to see how they’re progressing.

Here you can see if you have missed a step or if anything has come up since the last review so you can readjust your priorities.

Take your time to review your list—maybe an hour or so on a Friday or Monday, just to see how your list has progressed. Make sure that all of your projects have a ‘Next Action’ attached, and if something needs split up into separate tasks then do it.

Is everything in the right place? Is there anything else that you still need to process?
Assess whether you’re getting nearer to your goal or if you are just reacting to things in front of you.

5. Engage

Now you know what to start with because the hard planning work is done. Just start with the first action on your list. Having the structures in place gets rid of the constant firefighting or organisational anxiety that can happen in everyday work-life as well as achieving our own personal goals.

I have my to-dos organised into priority lists and different categories so I know what to tackle first. If new tasks or info come at you then clarify them and apply the criteria. If not, then store it or lose it.

How to Get Started With GTD

Get a tool that suits your flow to store your ideas, to-dos, events, anything that is demanding your attention.

If something comes out of the blue it can throw your plan and workflow out the window. But putting it onto your list, evaluating what action needs to be taken and then doing it can have you spending more time completing the task than just thinking about it!

Like the reflection stage outlined above, set aside time at the start of the week and review your to-dos. This focuses attention on the stuff that needs doing.

Organise them by type of task and by their priority so you don’t waste time trying to figure out what to do next. When you’ve finished you can easily see at a glance what you’ve completed and what you’re tackling next.

Keeping the method as simple as possible is the key, so beware when your lists are getting overly complicated.

Find a GTD-Friendly System That Works For You

David Allen uses paper to make a note of his ideas, projects and work which suits him when he’s getting things done. I use a project management app to make a note of my new ideas, to-dos, projects and any events that I have coming up. I find this much more useful, simply because everything is searchable—and I can also share them with my colleagues and clients if need be.

Tameday is an effective project management and team collaboration app that allows you to adopt a GTD approach to your work with its quick-add feature, its global add functionality and its tags functionality. Its inherently flexible and easy to use so you can get stuff out of your head from any screen and review later. What’s more, your entire team can adopt the same strategy to boost productivity and get things done more effectively. Everyone is on the same page and knows what they have to do, including your clients.

Try Tameday
Tameday offers a free plan which includes all features. Our paid plans offer more storage and unlimited projects.

Remember, This is Just One Philosophy

GTD works for us here at Tameday but it’s maybe not for everyone.

For some further reading, have a look at Forbes article on Productivity Techniques to try when you’re in a slump where they talk about the Pomodoro Technique and Zen to Done approach. Find a system that works for you and can adapt to your flow of capturing, clarifying, reflection and engagement.