When faced with a never-ending list of tasks, it's natural to feel overwhelmed or to react to each task as it comes.
Feeling swamped leads to a growing list of unfinished work, causing stress to pile up. On the other hand, being reactive wastes valuable time on activities that contribute little to our overall productivity.
The Getting Things Done (GTD) method offers a solution to these problems by providing a structured framework to help you stay in control, prioritize what truly matters, and allocate your time effectively for better productivity and balance.
In this article, we will explore the fundamental principles of the GTD method, sharing valuable tips and strategies that can improve how you handle your daily tasks.
What is the Getting Things Done method?
Getting Things Done, aka the GTD system, focuses on clearing your mind of stuff—be it answering emails, organizing a meeting, or writing a book—by moving them to a trusted external system. With your mind clear of constant distractions, you can have greater control, clarity, and focus.
GTD could be the perfect time management strategy for you if:
- You are juggling multiple projects simultaneously and feel overwhelmed by competing priorities.
- You need help executing your to-do list effectively.
- You prefer structured and systematic approaches to managing tasks.
If you'd like to take a deep dive into GTD, we recommend reading David Allen's book Getting Things Done: The Act of Stress-Free Productivity.Learn more
Does the Getting Things Done method work?
Getting Things Done is an effective time management and organizational system backed by cognitive science.
- It eliminates indecision: By establishing the following actions for each task, you create an implementation intention or if-then planning, which allows you to act decisively and efficiently in any situation. You eliminate time wasted on indecision, as you know the necessary steps to reach your desired outcome. As David Allen aptly states, "The key to Getting Things Done is what does done mean, what does doing look like, and where does it happen."
- It reduces cognitive load: Research shows that increased cognitive load reduces creativity and leads to poor decision-making. When you offload thoughts and tasks from your mind, your brain feels less overwhelmed and synthesizes information properly. Furthermore, the Zeigarnik effect explains how our brains are wired to remember unfinished tasks and continually draw our attention to them. Once we create a plan to complete the tasks, the signals stop because we know exactly what to do.
- It leverages the use of external minds: In his book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin argues that humans need external systems to manage and prioritize information. The use of an external mind aids our forgetful memories and frees our minds to wander creatively.
What are the five steps of the GTD method?
The Getting Things Done method revolves around five core steps to help you manage tasks effectively.
Step 1. Capture
Capture everything that has got your attention into a trusted external system. This external system could be a piece of paper or your to-do list app.
Write down any task or stuff as Allen calls it that takes 2 minutes to complete; feed the cat, meet with new clients, check the project budget.
You might be thinking, "Isn't this just another to-do list?"
Unlike a to-do list, you have to be definite and clear about the item or task on the list. For example, instead of writing Call Mel, you’d need to write Schedule call with Mel on Thursday to discuss project budget.
Being clear about each task helps you decide if you really want to spend time on it or if you should discard it.
A trigger list can be an invaluable tool if you're struggling to remember all the tasks you need to accomplish. A trigger list is a comprehensive list of various aspects of your life designed to jog your memory during a mind sweep.
For example, a trigger list might include categories such as:
Step 2. Clarify
Now process everything on your list by asking what each item is and what you need to do to complete it.
Start by asking yourself what outcome you desire for each task. This helps you clarify your goals and set a clear direction. Once you have defined the desired result, identify the next possible physical action to move toward that outcome.
GTD emphasizes a top-down approach, encouraging you to break down tasks into their smallest actionable components. Making each next action as granular as possible allows you to define the steps more clearly and efficiently. For example, let's take the task of calling Mel on Thursday about the project budget. The next step is not picking up the phone to place a call. Rather it might be to send an email asking about their availability on Thursday. The next action would be sending a meeting invitation with an agenda. Then you’d get on the call.
See how that makes it easier to define what you need to do?
When examining your list, you'll likely encounter items that can be acted upon immediately and those that cannot. Different strategies can be employed for each category, as we'll explore below 👇🏾:
For actionable tasks, there are several ways to manage them effectively:
1. Do it
Do anything that takes less than 2 minutes immediately. Need to reply to an email on a time-sensitive matter? Do it now.
However, this 2-minute rule can suck you into a cycle of endless mini-tasks. Use your discretion to decide when to do < 2-minute tasks and when to prioritize something else.
2. Delegate it
If you can't do something because you don't have the time or someone might be better at it, then delegate it. For example, you can ask a team member to help onboard a new member or research information for a report.
3. Defer it
Defer anything that takes more than 2 minutes. Once you determine the next action, you can schedule it for later and do it at the next possible moment.
Some things on your mind might take several steps to be completed. Turn any item on your list that takes more than two steps to complete into a project. According to Allen, “You don’t actually do a project; you can only do action steps related to it.”
For example, creating a project plan for your next project will take a lot of time and several steps to complete.
Non- actionable tasks
Non-actionable tasks are items on your list that you can't or don't need to act on immediately. Here's how to handle them:
- Delete it
While reviewing your list, you will notice some tasks that you don’t want to devote time or effort to now or in the future.
For example, you might want to cancel a meeting that could have been an email.
2. Incubate it
Put everything you want to work on but can't until you can add it to your project list, such as learning a new language.
3. Reference it
There’s stuff on your mind that you might not need to act on but would love to keep a hold on.
For example, you come across a really interesting article about leadership and have some quotes you’d like to remember.
Step 3. Organize
After completing a thorough mind sweep, you'll likely have a lengthy list of tasks and ideas you've captured. To effectively manage these items, Allen recommends organizing them into specific categories or parking them in spaces. Here are some suggestions:
1. Calendar 🗓️
All time-sensitive stuff goes in here, e.g., a dentist appointment on the 3rd of March. These can be divided into three categories:
- Time-specific actions like catching a flight for a conference
- Day-specific activities like your best friend's birthday
- Day-specific information like directions to a conference venue
2. Project lists 📝
Place all projects, tasks requiring multiple steps to complete, into your project list. Examples of projects might include creating a project plan, organizing a conference, or planning a vacation.
3. Reference folder 📂
Store items with intrinsic value that don't require immediate action in a reference folder. This category may include informative articles, inspiring quotes, or valuable resources you'd like to revisit later.
4. Trash 🗑️
For tasks that you can't work on or don't want to devote time to, it's best to discard them entirely. These include items such as the meeting that could have been an email or tasks no longer relevant to your current goals or priorities.
5. Next actions list(s) 💪
The next actions list(s) should include all tasks you can accomplish immediately. These tasks are specific, actionable items that contribute to the completion of larger projects. For example, discussing the budget during a project stakeholder meeting is the next action to help move the project forward.
6. Waiting for list ⏱️
The waiting for list is for tasks that you cannot act on immediately because you are waiting for input, information, or action from someone else. For example, if you need specific data to complete a project report and are waiting for a colleague to provide it, you would add that task to your waiting for list.
7. Someday/maybe list or tickler files 💡
The someday/maybe list or tickler files are for ideas or actionable tasks you would like to work on in the future but can't devote time to immediately. These could include personal goals, creative projects, or business ventures you want to explore. For example, starting a garden may be on your someday/maybe list because it's not a priority at the moment but something you'd like to do in the future.
Step 4. Reflect
Reflecting is arguably the most crucial step in the GTD process. This involves taking a step back, assessing what you've accomplished, and deciding what to do next.
The GTD system involves two types of reviews:
- Daily reviews: These are shorter reviews carried out daily. It can be at the start of the day or the end of the day. Look through your calendar and the next actions list to determine what needs to be done on that specific day.
- Weekly reviews: The weekly review is the backbone of the GTD system and is considered a non-negotiable component. Set aside 1-2 hours each weekend to ensure that your mind is clear and you've captured and clarified all incoming tasks and ideas. You should review your projects, active project plans, next actions list, waiting for list, and someday/maybe list.
Without regular reviews, the GTD system can become less effective over time. Ironically, this is what many GTD practitioners struggle with. According to Allen, it takes a lot of mental energy to capture and make decisions about a large inventory of open loops, especially when they've been undecided or stuck for an extended period.
However, the benefits of regular reviews are worth the effort.
Step 5. Engage
The final step in the GTD process is about choosing what to do and when. Even with a list of next actions, it can be challenging to know the right thing to do at any given time. David Allen offers three models to help you choose the correct item to work on:
The four criteria for choosing actions in the moment
This model helps individuals decide which action to take next by considering factors such as the appropriate context, priority level, energy required, and available time.
- Context: Is this the right context for this action? For example, you can review a report while at your desk but not cook a meal there.
- Priority: Is this the most impactful activity I can do right now? For example, choosing to finish a report over answering an email.
- Energy levels: Do I have enough energy (creative or otherwise) to do this? For example, choosing to do admin tasks over brainstorming a problem when you are tired.
- Time available: Do I have the time to do this now? For example, you can't squeeze a 20-minute task into a 15-minute window before a meeting.
The threefold model for identifying daily work
This model involves identifying daily work involves doing predefined work, doing work as it shows up, and defining your work by tackling tasks that take less than two minutes as you organize.
- Doing predefined work: This involves taking care of tasks you decided to do beforehand from your next actions list and calendar
- Doing work as it shows up: This involves tackling unexpected tasks that arise during your day.
- Defining your work: This is doing tasks that take less than 2 minutes tasks as you organize
The six-level model for reviewing your work
This model involves looking at your work from different angles or altitudes to effectively manage the flow of work.
- Horizon 5: Purpose and principles that guide your life and your decisions.
- Horizon 4: Vision of where your organization is heading and what needs to be done to get there.
- Horizon 3: Goals and objectives you are working towards, such as improving your skills or taking on a new role within your organization.
- Horizon 2: Areas of focus that you are held accountable for, such as your job responsibilities.
- Horizon 1: Current projects that you are committed to working on and finishing, such as launching a new product feature or improving your health.
- Ground: Current actions that you do every day, such as answering emails, creating a project report, or collaborating with team members.
How Director of Product at Float, Michael Luchen, combines the GTD method and time blocking
Michael Luchen uses a blend of GTD and time blocking. He shares how this combination of techniques helps him stay in control of his time.
What are the best tools for the Getting Things Done process?
Several tools and apps are available to manage the GTD process, but it's essential to keep it simple. For those who prefer the analog approach, using pens and paper can be just as effective as filing trays to separate items into different inboxes.
Digital tools such as Asana or Trello, or a calendar app can be used as inboxes to capture tasks as they come in.
Float is another tool that can help plan projects by syncing tasks and items from Asana or Trello into project lists and synchronizing activities on your calendar with your Float schedule. Float lets you visualize and manage your tasks and projects in a streamlined way, allowing you to see what needs to be done quickly while also helping you prioritize your workload and manage your time more effectively.
Here's advice from Michael on finding the right tool:
Some tips to help you implement the GTD system
If you find yourself struggling with the GTD methodology, consider the following:
- Give yourself time: If the GTD looks pretty complex to master, give yourself time. It is a complex system that needs some practice to get used to. According to Allen, it can take about two years to master it.
- Keep it simple: There are a lot of apps, systems, and other tools built on top of the GTD method, and it's easy to get lost in them. When you start, stick to the fundamentals and add supporting tools only when you've got the hang of the basics.
- Don't be afraid to tweak it: Don't hesitate to modify the system to suit your unique needs and preferences. Whether adjusting the specific lists or categories, changing how you organize your tasks, or integrating other time-management techniques, finding what works best for you is essential for success.
- Add a supporting time management system: While GTD is an excellent system for organizing your tasks, how you tackle them remains up to you. If you struggle with constant distractions at work or procrastinate, you should consider combining GTD with a system like time blocking or calendar blocking.
Determine your capacity accurately
The GTD method is great for clearing your mind and organizing your tasks but doesn't change the number of hours in the day.
If you're taking on too much work, you could find it challenging to manage your time effectively. This is where Float comes in—it can help you determine your team's capacity and ensure you're not doing too much work.
With Float, you can take control of your team's capacity and time management. Get insights on who's overcapacity and what your team spends their time on. Plan out your projects in advance to determine the capacity and resources you have available.
The easy-to-use time tracking tool allows your team to log their time as they work, while detailed reports provide valuable data to help you understand how your team uses their time and ensure they work on the most critical tasks.
Get more done with Float
Improve your efficiency by combining Float with the Getting Things Done method and start achieving more today!Try for free