My GTD setup and workflow

The apps and processes I use to Get Things Done™ and do Deep Work™

Nick Roberts
Oct 27, 2018 · 12 min read
“BUSINESS” Source: Unsplash.

“…There is a way to get a grip on it all, stay relaxed, and get meaningful things done with minimal effort, across the whole spectrum of your life and work. You can experience what the martial artists call a “mind like water” and top athletes refer to as the “zone,” within the complex world in which you’re engaged…”
— David Allen & James Fallows. “Getting Things Done.”

I’m experimenting with the Getting Things Done (GTD) system by David Allen because it’s one of the most popular productivity frameworks I haven’t previously explored. I recently read his book as well as a bit of supplementary material for a concise recap (Allen throws many different lists, artifacts, and frameworks at the reader and so it’s sometimes hard to keep it all straight).

GTD is very compelling, but I’ve found it difficult to implement well. This is a piece intended for other people who find themselves in the same situation: Eager to use Allen’s system and all of the benefits that it promises (less stress, a state of always working on the most important thing, more consistency, etc.), but looking for a good digital setup and a demonstration of the workflow.

I’ve found that many of the most popular to-do list tools don’t adhere strictly to the GTD framework and so your setup will likely require multiple applications and a bit of creativity to get working. When I started, I wanted to see someone walk through their whole day and weekly review and tell me what apps they use, when, and why. That is what I hope to show here.

My setup

Core task application: Things 3

For me, it really came down to Todoist vs. Things as my main decision point. Omnifocus, another super popular GTD app in the space, is a behemoth of features, pricey — though Things isn’t exactly cheap, and seemed a bit over-powered for me, someone just getting into GTD.

Features of Things I liked over Todoist (though they are almost at parity):

Quick add from anywhere.
Thumb-drag quick add feature.

If you’re not in the Apple ecosystem, or it’s just not as central to your life, Todoist is a terrific alternative.

Another factor in my decision was this super helpful article from The Sweet Setup.

Outside of this, I’ve tried a few other to-do list/note apps: Google Tasks, Apple Notes, Google Keep, but these weren’t opinionated enough for me. I wanted something with more structure and intention to keep me organized.

Attachments and note-taking: Things + Apple Notes

I use Things for simple note taking and attachments, since it has an area to add text and links within each task and project. For projects, I’ll use the description area to explicitly write the outcomes which represent the success and completion of the project, so that the project doesn’t remain amorphous and stay there forever.

For heavier-duty documentation, I use Apple Notes because it’s beautifully simple, free, and does exactly what I need it to. The seamlessness of notes syncing across devices is very pleasing. It’s interesting to sketch something on a note on your phone and watch it appear a second later on the Mac version of Notes.

I use a structure like below to match my life areas defined in Things and I file notes in the respective folders.

Some of the emojis don’t really make sense, I know. I chose them so that I could achieve this particular ordering of the folder structure, which aligns to my most-used note folders.

I try to be regimented also in my use of Apple Notes so that I can easily find what I need. I create notes for projects back in Things that require significant numbers of meetings or research and “pin” them to the top of the corresponding folder. Upon completion of the project, I shift the note to the “Archive” folder so they remain searchable. I refrain from creating a note for every new meeting or thought and instead place all related materials in the same note and separate distinct sections using headings (Command + Shift + h), like “Meeting with Charlie 6/11,” with all of the bulleted agenda items below.

During meetings, I harp on generating next actions once we’ve explored a particular problem or settled on a course of action (and even if we haven’t). I then email the notes to everyone in a recap to solidify who is accountable for what, and shift the next actions we defined to the corresponding project back in Things. Even if I know someone else is taking notes in the meeting, I will still try to do this for my own tracking purposes.

Another note about meetings

Prior to scheduling a meeting, I really try to make sure that I need to have it, otherwise I cancel and replace with an email. Synchronous communication is this whole other morass of debate and I tend to fall into the don’t-have-meetings-unless-you-can-possibly-avoid-them camp (see this article by Paul Graham). At a minimum, try to respect other people’s time and only create meetings with super tight and well-defined agendas. Have an outcome or decision in mind as the pretext for setting something up.

Bringing “upper horizons” goals down to the weekly level: Things + Apple Notes + Google Sheets

An illustration to show how I breakdown Someday projects into this week’s Anytime projects.

How does the workflow look in practice?

GTD is very clear on how to do task collection and organization, but not as prescriptive about how you actually work during your day. Allen does give some recommendations on how to choose your actions in the moment. His model is a function of:

However, I still found myself asking: What should the interface between my task list in Things and my calendar look like? Should I block off time boxes to churn through specific tasks? How far in advance? How do I organize a given day?

I know from personal experience that when I give myself a block of time to get a task done, I tend to focus hard, get into flow state, and do it. However, as Allen also notes, the circumstances of your day often change on a dime, so it’s really difficult to calendar out your day or even your week for specific to-dos.

…constant new input and shifting tactical priorities reconfigure daily work so consistently that it’s virtually impossible to nail down to-do items ahead of time. Having a working game plan as a reference point is always useful, but it must be able to be renegotiated at any moment. Trying to keep a list on the calendar, which must then be reentered on another day if items don’t get done, is demoralizing and a waste of time. The Next Actions lists I advocate will hold all of those action reminders, even the most time-sensitive ones. And they won’t have to be rewritten daily. — David Allen & James Fallows. “Getting Things Done.”

Daily flow

So, these are my solutions to the questions above:

Weekly review

GTD emphasizes the Weekly Review as a critical success factor, but what does it contain in a specific sense?

How I do weekly reviews

I took a leaf from this book by Eric A. Bowers and I set up a recurring project for my weekly review that contains headers and tasks:

Conclusion

I hope the methods I outline above help other productivity hackers out there. I know I was previously scouring the internet to find a good digital setup to implement GTD and an applied look at the workflow.

I also realize that some of what I’m doing is not exactly orthodox GTD. For example, I don’t make use of some of the artifacts like “Contexts” and other things. This is just what is currently working for me.

Feel free to comment if you think I could optimize what I have here, or if anything about my setup or workflow is unclear!

Thanks for reading!

Updated June, 2019

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