Getting Things Done: How to take control of life

Taking control of your finances is easier when the rest of your life is in order. If your mind is swamped with worries about work, or home improvement projects, or obligations to friends and family, personal finance can become a low priority. You have other Stuff to worry about.

David Allen's Getting Things Done provides a system for tackling all of the Stuff in your life. I've avoided mentioning Getting Things Done before today. But I'm currently writing a couple of articles that will make more sense if you're familiar the concept, so an introduction is in order.

Introduction

Getting Things Done (GTD) is about productivity. Its aim is to help you do more while feeling less stressed. Rather than explain the system — other sites have done so already — I want to share how I implemented it in my own life. Since I didn't follow things to the letter, and since many of you are probably unfamiliar with GTD, I'll begin with a brief description. The following has been simplified.

How ‘Getting Things Done' Works

Our lives, says Allen, are filled with too much Stuff: we think about Stuff, we worry about Stuff, we never get all the Stuff done that we need to do. His solution is to gather all of the Stuff into a single Collection Bucket. When all the Stuff is in one place, the top item in the Bucket is processed. When the first item has been processed, the second item is processed. Everything in the Collection Bucket is processed — one item at a time — until there's nothing left.

Whenever an item is taken from the Collection Bucket, ask yourself: “Is this actionable?” In other words, “Is this something that I can take care of right now?”

If the item is not actionable:

  • toss it in the trash,
  • file it for future reference, or
  • place it in a regularly-reviewed tickler file for possible future action.

If the item is actionable:

  • do it, if it will only take a few minutes,
  • delegate it, if it's somebody else's responsibility, or
  • defer it.

Using this system, most items are processed immediately. Some items are deferred. Deferred items may be:

  • placed on a calendar if they must be done at a specific date and/or time, or
  • put on list of Next Actions if they're things that need to be done ASAP.

There's a special subset of actionable items called Projects. These are multi-step tasks. Each Project gets its own file, and the Next Action for each Project is placed in the Collection Bucket.

After the GTD has been implemented, the Collection Bucket should be emptied once a week (or as often as necessary). That's it. That's the system.

Here's a graphical representation:

[flowchart demonstrating Getting Things Done steps]

Scott Moehring, a former (unofficial) GTD coach, created an outstanding advanced workflow diagram [PDF, 321k].

[GTD advanced workflow diagram]

I have this hanging above my desk as a constant reminder. Moehring has graciously granted me permission to offer this as a free download.

Adapting the System for Personal Use

One of my mantras is “Do what works for you”. The Getting Things Done system is presented primarily as a tool for business use, but it's easily applied to one's personal life. They key is to modify it so that so that it fits the way you live and work. Here's how I got things done:

  1. Preparation
    I made a trip to an office supply store to pick up:

    • file folders,
    • an automatic labeler,
    • four 12×12 tiles of cork,
    • a nice wooden inbox,
    • thumbtacks,
    • scotch tape, and
    • a few other items.

    (If you're feeling frugal, you can do without this stuff. Allen says that ideally you would buy the best quality components you could afford — if your tools are a pleasure to use, you're more likely to use them.)

  2. Collecting Stuff
    I gathered together all of my Stuff, both physical and mental, and piled it on the kitchen table.

    • To gather the physical Stuff, I walked from room-to-room with a box, into which I stacked all the Stuff I could find (e.g. magazines, photographs, junk mail, to-do lists, letters, etc.).
    • To gather the mental Stuff, I walked from room-to-room with a stack of index cards, onto which I wrote all the Stuff that occurred to me (e.g. put away clothes, clean cat food area, hang painting on guest room wall, organize DVDs, prune laurel from back porch, etc.).
  3. Sorting Stuff
    Collecting all my Stuff in one spot took several hours. Next, I began to process it. Mostly this was easy. I just started with what was in front of me, picked it up, and asked myself what the item was and what needed to be done with it.

    • If it was something I could deal with in just a few minutes, I dealt with it. (For example: books that needed to be shelved.)
    • If it was something that needed to be dealt with soon, but that would take longer than just a few minutes, I set it aside in a Next Actions pile. (For example: canceling cell phone.)
    • If I no longer needed the item, I threw it out. (For example: house flyers.)
    • If it was something that I wanted to keep for Reference, I made a new file folder (labeling it with my handy automatic labeler). (For example: all of the various songlists I jot down for future CD mixes.)
    • If it was something for somebody else, I put it in a Delegated pile. (For example: anything related to the bathroom remodel, which Kris was in charge of.)
    • If it was a part of a larger Project, I stuck it in a folder marked Projects. (For example: organizing all of my writing, from high school til today.)
    • If it was something that needed done on a specific date, I entered it into iCal. (For example: my upcoming dentist appointment.)
    • If it was something that didn't need done right away, I stuck it in a Tickler file to process later. (For example: scheduling a poetry night.)
    • If it was something that was just an idea, something that I might want to do someday, but it won't kill me if I don't, then I put it in a file marked “someday/maybe”. (For example: buy a nice leather easy chair.)

    The sorting process took an entire day. When the kitchen table was clean once more, I had several file folders filled with to-do lists. I also had a stack of Next Actions.

  4. Organizing Stuff
    I tucked my reference file folders (and there were several dozen of them) into a desk drawer. I put the Projects file into my inbox (because I needed to break it down later, creating individual files for each project). Most of my organization, though, involved the stack of action items:

    • I hung the aforementioned cork tiles on the wall next to my desk.
    • I labeled the top corkboard “Next Actions”.
    • For each action item, I created an index card. (Actually, I used some old business cards — they're the perfect size.)
    • I tacked the index cards to the cork in no particular order.

    After two-and-a-half days, I was finished. My version of the Getting Things Done system was set up and ready to use.

  5. Doing Stuff
    When using the canonical GTD system, you process the Next Action, no matter what it is. For my purposes, I made an exception. I cherry-picked. I selected a few cards at a time, and then I did whatever they said: clean car, buy mini-to-mini cable, check hoses on washing machine. If the action was something that I know comes up repeatedly (clean car, for example), then I tucked it in a drawer for later use. After my initial Brain Dump, I had 53 Next Actions. I did eleven of them the first day. I did six more then next. The rest I tackled over the following weeks.

Ready for Anything

You know that freedom you feel when your on vacation? That wonderful sense that there's nothing to worry about? That's what this system attempts to give you. When I exercise the discipline to get things done, I'm happier. Things seem to fall into place.

Some of you probably believe this is silly. It probably seems like a lot of effort to take care of something that you can do in your head. The point, though, is that this system gets everything out of your head.

When you're trying to juggle 53 Next Actions in your head (along with a dozen Projects, a dozen someday/maybe wishes, a score of calendar items, and a bunch of other ideas), it can be overwhelming. It's easy to feel stressed, or bewildered, or desperate. With the Getting Things Done system, everything is out of your head and on paper. You don't have to think about things anymore. You just do them.

Conclusion

Getting Things Done offers a solution for creating order out of chaos. Unfortunately, I tend to lose focus on the system with time. Things happen, and I forget to process my inbox for several weeks, and then it becomes intimidating. Weeks turn to months. Eventually the chaos returns. When this happens, I perform a system reset. I start over from scratch.

But even the experts have trouble sticking to the system. Scott Moehring — who shared the advanced workflow diagram posted above — told me:

I go on and off with GTD, but it is always part of what I do. I am always happier when I follow it. […] I collect almost everything, but it falls off in varying degrees from there. My worst part is the Weekly Review, and I think it is the most critical part. Two things really help me, though: keep it as simple as possible, and manage your e-mail this way.

I'm sure you can imagine the ways in which GTD concepts can be extended to your financial life. In the future, I hope to share some of the ways I've combined the two.

Additional Resources

or more information about Getting Things Done, you may be interested in:

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Mike
Mike
13 years ago

Great implementation of Getting Things Done in your life. It’s always nice to see someone using the system to be more productive. I adopted GTD a few months ago and I feel much more calm. Keep up the good work!

Brenda
Brenda
13 years ago

GTD is such a crock. These are basic organizational and decision-making skills. “Do it, delegate it or defer it”. Well, yeah… what else would I do with it? Those are pretty much all the options. How does a person who doesn’t already possess these basic common-sense skills function in life, period?? I just don’t get it.

NLG
NLG
13 years ago

Thanks for this post, it is interesting to see how different people apply GTD in real-life. I like your system because it is physical, you are sitting at your desk (probably blogging), you look up and you see a list of everything you need to do. It sounds like it would be hard to ignore. There are also some interesting software solutions for tracking your tasks in a GTD manner. I use MonkeyGTD through http://www.tiddlyspot.com myself. The software enables easy tracking of projects, and all associated tasks including scheduling in a built-in calendar. Other options include GTDTiddlyWiki, and d^3. The… Read more »

Ralph Whitbeck
Ralph Whitbeck
13 years ago

I think the biggest add to this post is your personal experience in setting this up and making it work for you…the system is great from a generic point of view. But starts to get complicated when you try to mold your life around it.

Great to hear that other people lose interest in the system after awhile. I will say it can get discouraging as it’s a lot of work keeping it going…but I feel it is so worthwhile in the in the end.

NLG
NLG
13 years ago

Brenada, I’m sorry, but I think you are missing the point. GTD does not tell you how to decide the action for a particular task in your life. The larger idea of it is to help you organize those tasks more effectively to make the best possible use of your time, with the minimal amount of stress. It helps you to keep track of everything, ensure tasks aren’t forgotten, and keeps you focused if your mind wanders off to your favourite virtual beach. It is especially great if you are managing several different projects (I myself use it for household… Read more »

musti
musti
13 years ago

Welcome to 2005, dude.

Vincent
Vincent
13 years ago

Take it easy, Musti. Not everyone knows about GTD.
I’ll give a thumbs up for GTDTiddlyWiki as well; it’s my main tool for organization now days.

Jonathan
Jonathan
13 years ago

Hey all!

Awesome post! I thought I might add a little to this.

Every Friday, I post reviews of Firefox extensions. (Firefox+Friday = Fireday reviews)

Back in August, I posted a review of an extension called GTDGmail. It clamps onto GMail and uses the GTD methodology to organize your life. 🙂

Thought some would be interested in this.

http://www.dcs-media.com/technology/Detail.aspx?ArticleId=470

Again, Great post.

Jonathan D.

John Doe
John Doe
13 years ago

I’m really glad that you mentioned that you and even the pros lose focus on it I always felt it was my fault that I have a hard time keeping such things up. Very nice article!

WallerBlog.com - A Financial Advisement Blog
WallerBlog.com - A Financial Advisement Blog
13 years ago

I could agree with you more. Its so hard to keep your finances organized when the rest of your life is hectic. (Learned that the hard way) I’ve just started my own personal finance blog and this was actually on my list of things to blog about. If it’s alright, I’ll probably just link you you when I get to that topic. Thanks for the info!

Matt
Matt
13 years ago

I like the system; good approach. I think I might have to add the book on my list of books to read. I’m just now finishing First Things First which takes a similar approach, could try giving it a read when you have a chance.

JP
JP
13 years ago

I dream about simply and systematically organizing like this but never get to it…
Seriously, very good information here!! It starts with the little stuff.

Y.Knott
Y.Knott
13 years ago

If you have to build a card index in order to shelve books and prune laurel, then, perhaps, you may be over-complicating things. GTD is a perfectly reasonable office-organisation tool that has become a web cult. How long before the first mention of Moleskines and Space Pens ?

Y.Knott
Y.Knott
13 years ago

Oh, and I counted nine Ammazon Affiliate links in the body of the text. Was this an ‘actionable item’ under the ‘verb,, ‘blog about GTD’ ?

jf
jf
13 years ago

that GTD pdf made me feel stressed by just looking at it.

Coupon King
Coupon King
13 years ago

Sweet review and informative article. I just visited your site from delicious. I have been meaning to pick this book up now I’m going down tomorrow and buying it at the bookstore. Keep up the good content!

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

I counted nine Ammazon Affiliate links in the body of the text

This is a valid criticism. I was so busy worrying about the actual text of the article that I hadn’t noticed that I’d “seached-and-replaced” an Amazon link into every spot where I mentioned the book by name. Not cool. I’ve fixed the problem.

Tom
Tom
13 years ago

My personal opinion is that GTD is a repackaged version of the 7 Habits Time management quadrant technique with FAT (File/Act/Trash) thrown in.

Still lots of people I know love the GTD system so maybe I’m the one thats an “old fuddy duddy.” To each his own productivity!

Peter
Peter
13 years ago

The main problem with the GTD system is that it overcomlicates most simple tasks. At some point you are spending more time organizing and planning the work than actually doing the work. In many cases it would be more effective to stop planning and just DO IT!.
I also fail to see how a system that requires more steps and more work is going to help people who are already having trouble keeping up with everything.

Serena
Serena
13 years ago

GTD sounds interesting… but overwhelming. Similar stratgies are recommended by Flylady – http://www.flylady.net – tailored towards home life and emphasis on jumping in where you are – not worrying about organzing your whole life in one go…

Julie
Julie
13 years ago

GTD is a great way to get a handle on everyday tasks as well as future projects. It seems that one should be able to keep track of a to-do list in one’s head. That is the way I used to operate, I am generally a very organized person. However, with the introduction of my twin infants, the to-do lists became jumbled with feeding times, nap times, etc. Thank you for the information, I will give it a try!

ulrica
ulrica
13 years ago

thx for posting this – i actually hadn’t heard about GTD until today. maybe it’s because i’m in sweden.. but i like the idea & i’ve already gotten started on organizing some stuff. i find myself often thinking about “all the things i need to do” & it gets too much inside my head, which prevents me from actually doing them. i get exhausted from just trying to figure when i’ll have the time for them. i’ve read the previous comments & i see that many seem to think this just causes additional tasks/stress.. which might be true if you… Read more »

Bihar
Bihar
13 years ago

what great advice. the flow chart makes sense.

Rebecca
Rebecca
12 years ago

The crucial and basic flaw to the system is finding/making the time to do all the steps. People mostly try to cram too much into their lives and this system doesn’t address that cause.

And, that pdf? Incomprehensible…

Dan
Dan
11 years ago

For implementing GTD you can use this web-based application:

http://www.Gtdagenda.com

You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
A mobile version and iCal are available too.

John
John
11 years ago

I use Wipee List (http://wipeelist.com) which really helps me out a LOT!

Harry
Harry
11 years ago

Thanks, that’s a great post!

There is another nice web app specifically designed for tracking goals and todo list, and time tracking, etc, it is called GoalsOnTrack.com. It’s free at http://www.goalsontrack.com.

joe johnson
joe johnson
8 years ago

The David Allen training is a total joke. What a waste of time. Do yourself a favor and maybe buy the cd’s but definitely DO NOT go to the training. Now THAT is a waste of time and money. Better yet, go to the 43 Folders site and since they pretty much STOLE all of that system and claimed it as their own, you can get it for FREE there. And if you are unfortunate enough to get duped into one of their $750 training, DO NOT buy any of their crap they are selling! First of all, their trainers… Read more »

Miro
Miro
7 years ago

Well. I’ve tried to download pdf version of GTD diagram (with link “free download”) but I’ve redirected to page…https://www.getrichslowly.org/ !!!! 🙂 What’s happened with those pdf’s?

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