Getting Things Done by David Allen

The following article is reproduced from ZenHabits.NET by kind permission of Leo Babauta.

I get a lot of email about Getting Things Done (GTD).

Getting Things Done – A Four Part Series. Part One: An Overview of GTD

Mostly from people just starting out who have various questions about implementation, starting out, or sticking to the system.

So I’ve written this series of four articles to explain what GTD is and how it can help you.

The series will cover the following aspects:

1. An overview of GTD

2. Tools that can help you get started with GTD

3. GTD in practice:  Next Actions, Contexts and Projects

4. and finally: Sticking to GTD

Let me say first of all that that I am not the absolute authority on GTD.  I am but one blogger, one practitioner, and I am just sharing what I’ve learned from experience and reading other sites. But I hope this article series will be of some use to you in implementing GTD!

What is GTD?

The official answer is given by David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done,  but here’s the most important snippet:

GTD embodies an easy, step-by-step and highly efficient method for achieving this relaxed , productive state. It includes:

  • Capturing anything and everything that has your attention
  • Defining actionable things discretely into outcomes and concrete next steps
  • Organizing reminders and information in the most streamlined way, in appropriate categories, based on
    how and when you need to access them
  • Keeping current and “on your game” with appropriately frequent reviews of the six horizons of your
    commitments (purpose, vision, goals, areas of focus, projects, and actions)

Implementing GTD alleviates the feeling of overwhelm, instills confidence, and releases a flood of creative energy. It provides structure without constraint, managing details with maximum flexibility.

How do I start?

Well, the book gives you a step-by-step approach, but the most important steps for starting out are:

  • Processing all the papers in your desk and inbox to empty.
  • Processing your email and other inboxes to empty.
  • Capturing all tasks and ideas on a notebook or mobile device.
  • Setting up an easy reference filing system.
  • Creating context lists for all of your actions, along with a project list, a Waiting For list and a Someday/Maybe list.
  • Using a calendar or tickler file to remind you of future tasks or appointments.
  • Doing a Weekly Review to keep the system together.

How long will it take to start?

Well, the longest part for many people is processing all the papers on their desks and elsewhere and getting all their inboxes to zero. This can take anywhere from a few hours to a day or three. Next longest is setting up a filing system and your lists. That can take an hour or two. The other stuff doesn’t take setup time, usually. So altogether, you could be looking at a day or two (or more if your life is super disorganized). David Allen recommends you set aside a big chunk of your time for a day or two to clear everything off and get it set up.

Now, although this sounds like a big commitment (and it is), I have to say that it is worth it. This step alone is worth the price of the GTD book — getting everything cleared and organized is a huge accomplishment and an amazing feeling. It’s why so many people love GTD.

Is there an easier way to start?

Yes. You don’t need to implement all of GTD at once. Really, you should go with what works for you — there is no one way to do it. A minimal starting point could be any of the following:

  • Just start with capture. All you need is a notebook and a pen, and start writing everything down, so you never forget stuff again, and you get it out of your head. If you feel like doing more, use the notebook to create some context lists — your next actions (see below) organized into the contexts in which you do them (work, home, errands, calls, etc.) so you can just look at the actions you can do right now.
  • Clear out your inbox. The next step, if you’re ready, would be to process all your papers. Gather them in one pile, and work from top to bottom, disposing of each one until you’re done. This is an amazing feeling. From here on out, get an inbox, and use it as your one point of entry for all papers (including Post-its and phone messages and receipts and everything else). If you’re feeling ambitious, take the next step and do the same with your email inbox.
  • Filing. A simple start could also include a simple filing system. All you need is a filing cabinet (or a drawer dedicated to your filing needs if that’s all you need), some manila folders and some labels. Have plenty of them on hand so you can create a folder quickly and easily. Use a simple alphabetical system.

I’m overwhelmed by my inbox and all the stuff I need to sort through!

This can be very overwhelming, especially if you’ve got large piles of paper scattered all over your desk and in drawers and on the floor and in the car, etc. But it’s doable.

First of all, gather them all up and put them in one pile. If it’s too huge to put in one pile, make two, but don’t start creating a whole bunch of piles. The key is to start at the top of the pile and work your way down, one document at a time, so if you have two piles, consider the second pile just a continuation of the first.

Next, if you don’t have time to process through all of them at once (and you should try if you can), then just set aside the pile for now and process it in chunks. I would recommend setting aside an hour a day to process your pile. Again, start from the top, and dispose of each document. When you get to the bottom, buy yourself a treat!

Is GTD a cult? Why is it so popular on the Internet?

GTD is often accused of having a cult-like status, but in truth it just inspires a lot of passion. Why?

First of all, because of the feeling of getting your desk cleared and your inboxes to empty. Seriously, as I said above, this is an amazing, awesome feeling.

Second, because of the simple power of concepts like next actions, context lists and the weekly review — they are not anything complicated, but they work extremely well, and people love that.

Third, because of the open-source nature of the tools — this is what gets so many geeks. They love being able to use their favorite gadget, or computer program, or show off their programming skills by just using an automated text file, or the textile feeling of a good pen on good paper. It’s all about individual pleasures, and setting up your cool tools to create a setup that works for you.

It’s the geek in us that loves GTD.

“Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity”
by David Allen is available from


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