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A whirlwind tour of Getting Things Done

[Originally sent to Study Hacks Newsletter on 3/27/07]

The Two Big Ideas Behind GTD

Over twenty years ago, David Allen began a storied career of seeking and describing optimal productivity techniques. The result of this work was captured in the book Getting Things Done, first published in 2001. The GTD methodology immediately resonated with the fatigued denizens of the technology-saturated, 500 e-mails-a-day, new economy. It became a national bestseller, selling over 500,000 copies, and was republished in 23 foreign languages. Even today it remains in the top 500 on Amazon’s sales rankings, and has spawned thriving web communities devoted to its teachings (c.f., 43 Folders).

What’s so special about this system? It’s main tenants can be reduced to two big ideas:

You have to control your “stuff.”

Simply put, any obligation, task, idea, or deadline that your keeping track of only in your head is draining your mental resources. This causes stress and makes it difficult to reach the state of relaxed concentration needed to work effectively. A central idea behindGTD is that all of your “stuff” has to get out of your mind. This means that incoming information is quickly shunted to a small number of well-defined collection bins from where it is processed into a trusted system that you regularly review. This idea is devastatingly powerful. Once you’ve taken the time to pour everything out of your head and onto paper you’ll be shocked by the sheer volume of information you mind was trying to juggle and maintain. The sense of relief that follows from this process goes a long way toward understanding the cult-like devotion shown to Mr. Allen by many.

You manage actions

You don’t do projects, you do specific actions. As long as your work is recorded in terms of large-scale lumps of obligations — such as “write book proposal” — it is difficult to get started. Our days are too busy to tackle something so amorphous and intimidating.GTD forces you to reduce everything down to a specific “next action” — instead of “write book proposal,” you might “use Amazon to find ten competitive titles for book proposal.” In GTD , these specific actions are what you manage. At any one point during the day, the decision you make is “what action should I do next.” This approach provides greater clarity to your day-to-day productivity as it reduces everything from mundane chores to making progress on huge life goals down to the same manageable scale.

The hidden advantage of this idea is that it stops you from having to make big picture decisions — “what work is important to my life?” — during the day. In GTD , these big questions are considered less frequently, during, for example, a weekly review, at which point they are transformed into specific next actions which can be processed more mindlessly during the heat of battle.

A Quick Summary of the GTD Methodology

The basic materials you need for GTD are the following:

  1. A small number of collection bins. For example, your e-mail inbox, a physical inbox on your desk, and some sort of notepad or planner that you carry with you.
  2. A calendar.
  3. Next action list.
  4. Project list.
  5. A filing system.


In GTD, when new “stuff” enters your world you need to immediately place it in one of your well-defined collection bins. Stuff, in this context, defines any sort of information that might require you to do something. Note, this includes everything from specific tasks (“return library books”), to bigger projects (“figure out plan for tackling Anderson account”), to brainstorms (“maybe I should start a blog”). Make no distinction between work and personal life. Stuff is stuff…it has to get out of your head.

For e-mail this collection happens automatically (consider your e-mail inbox a collection bin). You will need a physical inbox to collect things such as letters, memos, and notes. You will also need a portable inbox to quickly jot down stuff that you encounter away from your primary workspace (e.g., in a meeting you are assigned to look into a new product). A planner, notepad, or even a sheet of scrap paper (as I advocate in Straight-A) should suffice.


A key behavior in GTD is processing the items that build up in your various collection bins. You need to do this regularly; for example, at least once a day. Here is the processing decision tree laid out by Mr. Allen for tackling this task:

For each item…

  1. Decide if it requires action on your part. If it doesn’t, either delegate, discard or file it for later reference. Otherwise…
  2. Identify the specific next action required by this item. If it requires more than one action then identify the first of these actions and make a note of the bigger project on your projects list. If this action can be completed in two minutes or less, do it right now. Otherwise…
  3. If the action needs to be completed on or by a given date, record it on this date in your calendar. Otherwise…
  4. Record the action on your next actions list.


In GTD, reviews of your stuff occurs at multiple levels. At the lowest level, you are making decisions during the day regarding what action you should do next. This process is simple. First, check your calendar to see if there is time-sensitive material you should be working on. If not, look through your next actions list and choose something reasonable to tackle (given your energy, available time, and location). There are numerous ways you might structure your next actions list to make this decision easier. Mr. Allen suggests dividing it into contexts — such as “phone calls,” “at my desk,” “at home,” “working online” — and deciding what to do next by reviewing the list associated with your current context.

At a slightly higher level, you need to review your next actions list: combining, modifying, and consolidating actions as appropriate. In addition, you need to look over your projects list and, where needed, add actions to your next action list that will help you make progress on the projects you deem to be active at the moment. You should also make sure that any stuff lingering in your head , or in ad hoc piles around your desk, is moved into a collection bin and then processed. In GTD this intermediate review happens once a week. It’s a way to plug leaks and help you reflect on what work you want to get done in the near future.

At the highest level, you want to occasionally check in and reflect on your goals in life, your one-year plan, and where you are headed. Such consideration might lead to the addition of new projects to your project list and/or the deletion of projects that no longer seem relevant.

For GTD to work, all three levels of reviewing must occur regularly.


Following the GTD approach can be summarized as follows:

  1. Get all of the stuff in your life out of your mind and into collection bins.
  2. Process these bins at least once a day.
  3. During the day, use your calendar and next actions list to help decide what to do next.
  4. Once a week, clean up your system and check in on your projects list.
  5. Every few months reflect on the big picture questions in your life and make sure these are reflected in your projects and next actions list.

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