The Basics of Getting Things Done (GTD)

Getting Things Done, or GTD, is a system for getting organized and staying productive. It may seem complicated on the outside, but the end goal is to spend less time doing the things you have to do so you have more time for the things you want to do. Let’s break it down and see how you can apply a simplified version to your life.

What Is GTD (Getting Things Done?)

Getting Things Done (GTD) is actually two things: A productivity method, and a best-selling book by author and productivity consultant David Allen. It’s been around for a long time, and it’s a staple of productivity enthusiasts everywhere. Put simply, GTD is a method for organizing your to-dos, priorities, and your schedule in a way that makes them all manageable. One of GTD’s biggest benefits is that it makes it easy to see what you have on your plate and choose what to work on next. It also has a strong emphasis on getting your to-dos out of your head and into a system you can refer to. This clears your mind of any mental distractions that will keep you from working efficiently.

This sounds great, but some people thing GTD is too complicated. It doesn’t have to be, but part of the reason why it’s earned that reputation is because there’s no one, rigid, “right way” to practice it. There are lines to stay inside of, but there’s no “do this, then do that, and put these into that category” kind of rulebook. There’s no preferred app to use or journal to buy to make it work. Part of that vagueness makes it easy to personalize it to match your needs, but it also makes it difficult to approach. In this post, we’ll walk you through the basic tenets of GTD from a beginner’s perspective, and offer some tips to help you apply a simplified, more accessible form to your hectic schedule and overflowing to-do list.

The Five “Pillars” of GTD

GTD is an organizational system. It doesn’t put rules around how you actually do your work. Instead, it focuses on how you capture the work you need to do, organize it, and choose what needs your attention. At its core, GTD stands on five “pillars,” or steps to getting and staying organized:

1. Capture everything. Your to-dos, your ideas, your recurring tasks, everything. Put it in a pen-and-paper notebook, a to-do app, a planner, whatever you prefer to use to get organized. GTD doesn’t say to use a specific tool, but whatever you use has to fit into your normal flow. The barrier to using it should be so low that there’s never a reason for you to say “I’ll add it to my list later.” You want to capture everything as soon as it happens so you don’t have to think about it again until it’s time to do it.

2. Clarify the things you have to do. Don’t just write down “Plan vacation,” break it down into actionable steps so there’s no barrier to just doing the task. If there’s anything you can do right away and have time to do, get it done. If there’s anything you can delegate, delegate it.

3. Organize those actionable items by category and priority. Assign due dates where you can, and set reminders so you follow up on them. Pay special attention to each item’s priority, as well. You’re not actually doing any of the items on your list right now, you’re just making sure they’re in the right buckets for later, and your reminders are set. In short, this is quality time with your to-do list, inbox, and calendar.

4. Reflect on your to-do list. First, look over your to-dos to see what your next action should be. This is where the clarifying step pays off, because you should be able to pick something you have the time and the energy to do right away. If you see something that’s so vague that you know you won’t be able to just pick up and run with it, break it down. Second, give your to-do list an in-depth review periodically to see where you’re making progress, where you need to adjust your priorities, and determine how the system is working for you.

5. Engage and get to work. Choose your next action and get to it. Your system is, as this point, set up to make figuring that out easy. Your to-dos are organized by priority and placed in categories. You know what to work on, and when. They’re broken into manageable, bite-sized chunks that are easy to start. It’s time to get to work.

Those are the basic principles of GTD. At its core, GTD gives you a way to get everything you need to remember out of your head and into a system that can remember them for you, organize them, and break them down into pieces you can work with. That way the next time you look at your to-do list, there should be no confusion over what you have time to tackle, or what’s most important. You can spend less time thinking about what to do and how to work and more time actually working.