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Introduction to GTD

GTD – Getting Things Done – is a book by David Allen, giving a series of principles for managing the day to day tasks and projects we all have to do. It is based on the idea that if we get everything that concerns us out of our heads, and into a single trusted system, which is then reviewed regularly, we will leave our minds clearer, and be better able to respond to new inputs.

GTD is all based on David Allen’s excellent books. You’ll get far more from reading the books than from any web site.


This article is intended to cover just the basics of GTD, so you can understand what we’re talking about here even if you’ve not read the book.. If you find the ideas interesting, though, I’d strongly recommend you buy the book, as it really does cover the ideas well, and in a lot more detail than I will here.

David Allen’s GTD involves clearing your mind of all the things you keep remembering and thinking about, that are nagging at you to do them. The idea is that if you can get these things written down, into a system you trust, and know that you’ll be reminded of them at the appropriate time, you can get them out of your head, and use all that spare head-space for something more useful. Storing cheese, perhaps.

The Workflow

One of the unusual things about GTD is that it gives you a full workflow for managing your ‘stuff’, rather than just a load of tips and tricks, or methods for dealing with one part of it.

David splits the process up into five distinct stages…


First, we need to collect all the things that are worrying us, or that we need to do something about. David calls this a ‘Mind Sweep’ – sweeping everything that’s on our minds into our system. He suggests one idea to a sheet of paper, and throw them all into an inbox to process later, but the actual method doesn’t matter too much, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the flow of ideas. In DA’s language, anything that holds some part of your attention is an ”open loop”. Personally, I collect new ideas in my iPaq, either using the voice recorder, or Pocket Informant’s Alarm Notes, where you just scribble on the screen – it doesn’t convert the scribbles into text, just stores them as scribbles. Machines from palmOne have Notes, which is very similar, or you can download Diddlebug. Anything that can be used without needing to think much should do the job – index cards, sheets of paper, or whatever. A small packet of business-sized cards, with or without a preprinted template is a quick and portable capture mechanism.


Processing is the act of going through all the items in your inbox, that you collected earlier, and deciding what they are, and what you need to do with them. They might need throwing in the bin, they might need storing somewhere for later reference, they might just need reading. For many things, though, you’re going to need to actually do something about them. The question to ask here for each item is “What’s the next action?” This is the very next thing you would do about this item, if it was the apropriate time, you were in the right place, etc. If this one action would complete the item, then it’s just an action to do. If it won’t, then it’s a project, and you’ll need an extra reminder so that when you’ve done that action, you won’t forget about the item.


You need to keep organised lists of all the things you have to do, and although these could be arranged in various ways, David has specific suggestions for how to do this…

Action lists

These are the lists of next actions you need to do. David recommends splitting these into a few lists, based around ‘contexts’. A context is either a place you need to be, or something you need to have with you to be able to do that action. A list of phone calls could be one context, things you can only do at home or only at the office could be others. Your contexts are unlikely to be the same as mine, and we’re probably both different from David. MarkTAW has a nice article on picking contexts – it’s easy to get carried away.

David suggests placing an @ symbol in front of each of these lists – @ for Action – if you’re using computer based lists (Outlook, Palm, etc), the @ sign will make them sort to the top, which is useful, as these are the lists you’ll be referring to most often.


I mention above the idea that some items will take more than just the next single action to be complete. These things are projects, and you need to keep a note of them on a separate list, and try to make sure that everything on this list always has at least one connected action on the action lists.

Linking projects to their associated next actions is one of the most discussed parts of GTD, and the trick I use has become known as The PigPog Method.


Things you need to talk to people about. If you group the items by person, when you’re next speaking to that person, you can quickly get a list of all the things you needed them for.

Waiting For

If you’re waiting for someone else to come back to you, or waiting for delivery of something you’ve ordered, but it’s something you still need to keep track of, it goes on this list. It’s for anything that isn’t for you to do, but that you need to remember about. You may need to chase some of these things up, but you’ll pick that up when you review, and then they’ll go into either an action list or your Agendas list.


This is the list for anything that you’re not ready or not able to do yet, or just don’t want to. If you want to learn Swedish at some point, but you don’t have time to start yet, it goes here. If you have to prepare a report for your boss, but the relevant information isn’t available until next month, you’d make a note here.


In many ways, reviewing is at the heart of GTD. If you don’t review your lists, you won’t be able to trust them, and your mind will worry about them again. That’s what we’re trying to avoid here. How often, and when, you review may depend on who you are and what you do, but David suggests a single review once a week. Many people find a smaller daily review helps a lot, too. The weekly review is where you tie up your projects with their actions, and make sure nothing has been forgotten about. It should also include getting all of your inboxes emptied, and all of your notes and messages processed.


This is kind of the point of all this. If you don’t do things, you’re not really Getting Things Done. You’ve got all the things you want to do listed – the only question is how to pick which one to do now. Again, David has advice – and it starts with the way we organised our action lists. If you went along with his suggestion, you have your lists organised by context, so you can probably only do things from one or two of the lists right now anyway – so the rest of the lists can be ignored. After that, it comes down to how much time you have, how much energy you have, and how important the things are.


Personally, I feel better organised using GTD than without it. I don’t have the type or level of workload that really needs it, so I probably get less out of it than some other people do. Lots of people report very big changes, though, and I’ve yet to hear of anyone who didn’t get anything out of it, unless they’ve been pushed into it without actually being interested.