12 Years of Getting Things Done.

A detailed look at David Allen’s remarkable time-management system, as I celebrate my 12th anniversary of being a daily practitioner

The mid-2000s were a trying time for me in my personal life — I had just quit pursuing creative writing for a career but hadn’t yet come up with the idea for CCLaP, and I had just gotten out of a particularly trouble-filled relationship, one that would prove to be my last in the 15 years since — but one great thing that did come out of those years was that I was introduced to David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” (GTD) time-management system which has transformed my life, a system I still practice daily and that is the main thing to thank whenever I’m faced with the common question by friends, “Sheesh, Pettus, how do you manage to get so much stuff done every day?” It’s been a long time since I wrote about the subject, so I thought today I’d do a detailed look at how and why the GTD system works, how I in particular implement it in my life (including the little customized tweaks I’ve introduced in the last 12 years), and why you too should be GTDing every day whether you’re a business professional, an artist, or anything in between. (And just to make it official, let me assure you that I am not affiliated with Allen or his companies in any way, nor am I getting paid or otherwise compensated for today’s writeup.)

Invented by a ’60s Berkeley graduate and Buddhism practitioner turned corporate productivity coach, the heart of the GTD system is interestingly enough based around the Buddhist concept of “mindfulness;” namely, that the way we become most efficient at whatever we’re doing is by being in a headspace where we can concentrate fully and completely on whatever subject is at hand. This is the biggest problem with the modern world, Allen argues, that most of us actually have 10 or 20 or 50 things we’re trying to juggle in our heads at any given moment, and that we’re expending so much energy trying to keep all of them at the top of our minds so we don’t forget them, we can’t fully lose ourselves in anything we’re actually trying to get done at any given moment. So if I were writing this blog entry, for example, but also needed to stop at the bank by the end of the day, my brain would constantly be interrupting itself every five minutes with thoughts of, “Don’t forget to go to the bank,” “don’t forget to go to the bank,” “don’t forget to go to the bank,” and thus my mental flow of writing this entry would be disrupted back to zero each time, making it take three or four times as long to write it than if I could just fully concentrate on it and nothing else while I was physically sitting here in front of my computer.

Allen calls these distractions “open loops;” and the premise behind GTD is to take these open loops the moment each one pops into your brain, decide what the steps are that would change that open loop into a closed one, then record those steps in what he calls a “trusted system” that’s external to your brain. So in the example we’re using above, the moment I realized that I needed to stop at the bank by the end of day (a thought I likely had right when I woke up that morning), I would stop for ten seconds and stick that thought in my trusted recording system, in a way and manner so that I was guaranteed to be reminded of it later; then when I sit down that afternoon to write this blog entry, I can safely do so without having to think of a single other thing going on in my life, then simply check my trusted system when I’m done writing to be reminded of what else I need to do by the end of that day.

In GTD terms, then, this means that every new piece of input in my life (what Allen refers to by the generic term “stuff”) goes through a five-step process; this is essentially the hardest part of the system, learning how to make these five steps a daily unthinking habit, but once you do then the steps themselves are remarkably easy, and unlike other time-management systems are blessedly free of specialized jargon or specialized equipment, a big reason why the system originally appealed so much to me as a broke artist in the first place. These steps in order include…

Capture

One of the most important parts of GTD is simply assuring that you actually are collecting and recording every single random piece of input that occurs in your life on a daily basis; this is the only thing that allows you to get it out of your head in the first place, which means that you have to do it in a way so that your brain is actually trusting that it’s all getting recorded. So, for example, I myself have four “inboxes” in my life, that pretty neatly cover every single way that new stuff comes in — an email inbox, an “inbox” folder on my computer, a cardboard box in my apartment for all physical new stuff, and an inbox section of my particular GTD trusted system, the online app Nirvana (but more on that in a bit). And if, say, over the course of a single day, I get a coupon in the mail that’s only good on October 1st; an email from a friend that deserves a long and thoughtful answer; an ebook from a publisher who would like it reviewed by CCLaP staff writer Karl Wolff; and a random thought while web-surfing about how it might be fun to one day attend the 2020 World’s Fair in Dubai; all of these get stuck into their respective inboxes the moment they come in, to be dealt with at another time when I’m ready to sit down with each inbox. This is the crucial first step that makes everything else work; and admittedly, this can actually be the toughest part when you’re first starting out, simply making sure you’re stopping for five seconds and actually tossing every single one of these things into inboxes when they first enter your life.

Clarify and organize

Although the next two steps are technically different processes, it’s actually easier to explain them as one big related thing; namely, when it’s time to sit down and empty your inbox, you take each new piece of stuff found in there and ask a series of questions about it (clarifying), then do certain things to it based on what the answers are (organizing):

  • Is there an action I need to take to complete this? After all, not everything that comes into our lives is something to be added to a to-do list; for example, in the above scenario, there’s literally nothing to be done about possibly attending the 2020 World’s Fair until I actually get to the year 2020 (or, well, 2019), while in other cases there might be an informational email in my inbox (“I got your flowers — Love, Mom”) that can be thrown away right after you’ve seen it, while in yet other cases I might stick a magazine article I’ve read into my inbox because I want to hold onto it for future reference. In those cases, then, those pieces of stuff go either in the trash after clarifying them, into whatever reference system you might use in your life (whether that’s physical file folders, Chrome’s bookmark manager, etc), or into a special folder called “Someday/Maybe,” which we’ll examine more in step 4.
  • If there is action I need to take to complete this, does it involve more than one step? This is another big key in the GTD system, recognizing that most things in our lives that need to get done actually require multiple small steps, and that it’s the overwhelming nature of confronting all those steps at once that often discourages us from actually doing them. If you’re unhappy at your job, for example, it can seem like a daunting task to get another one; but if you break it down into small manageable steps like, “Update my resume,” “drop that old headhunter friend a line,” “Attend next month’s job fair,” “Take that online class I was checking out the other day,” etc., that can make the process seem a lot more doable. So the organizational step to this clarification, then, is to create in your trusted system what GTD calls a “project list,” which is exactly what it sounds like; you put the name of the project at the top (“Get a new job!”), then proceed to list every small step you can think of underneath. Like your someday/maybe list, this too gets regularly checked up on in step 4, so we’ll once again defer the conversation until then.
  • If there’s only a single action involved to complete this, does it have to be done on a certain day or under certain circumstances? That’s the case, for example, in the coupon I mentioned above; the only step involved there is “Buy the thing this coupon is for,” and the only day I can do that is October 1st. So in that case, the organizational step is to add it to your calendar, which only gets used for things that have a specific date that can’t be changed; in other words, no adding things to your calendar like, “I hope I get this done today!” or “I want to get this done today!” Remember, the ultimate goal here is to create a system you inherently trust; and those calendar reminders will go right out the window if you start getting into the habit of some of those reminders being things you don’t really have to pay attention to.
  • Or conversely, let’s say that I like writing personal letters whenever I’m at my neighborhood cafe in the evening, enjoying a latte and kicking back after all my daytime job stuff is over; so in that case, I would add “respond to my friend’s email” not to a project list but to a similar thing that GTD calls a “context list,” in this case labeled “@cafe” (as in, “do these things the next time you’re AT the cafe,” get it?). Context lists profoundly change from one person to the next, which is one of the things I love about GTD, that there isn’t some rigid organizational system you’re required to adhere to no matter how little it applies to your life; many people, for example, have an “@office” list even though I don’t, while I in particular always have a long “@bus” list that those who drive would never have.
  • If there’s only a single action involved, and it can be done at any time, can it be done by me? That’s not the case, for example, with the ebook I mentioned above, whose publisher specifically wants Karl to review it; so in that case, the organizational step is to delegate it to him, then put a note in my trusted system that mentions that I’m waiting for Karl to get the review back to me. That way it’s no longer on my mind, but I at least have a reminder that I’m expecting something back.
  • If there’s only a single action involved, and it can be done at any time, and it can be done by me, would that action take less than two minutes? Well, then, freaking do it, right that moment. After all, that’s the entire point of the GTD system, to actually be getting things done and out of your life.

Reflect/Plan

So now that you have all these lists with all these actions written on them, how often should you actually review them to remember all the things you need to get done? That’s a very good question! Obviously, the context lists should be consulted whenever you find yourself in that context — pull up the “@cafe” items when you hit the cafe, check out the “@bus” items when you reach the bus stop — but what about more general things like your project lists or maybe/someday list, or the question of how often you should empty out your inbox? That’s yet another nice thing about GTD, is that there’s no formal set-in-stone structure for any of this — the general answer is, “Do them in a way that makes sense for your own life” — although certainly there’s some general practices that have proven to be popular among most GTDers. For example, sometimes it only takes a few seconds to clarify a new piece of stuff that you’ve just put in your inbox, so you might organize it right that moment and put it in its proper place; but sometimes that piece of stuff might come into your life at a moment when it’s inconvenient to stop and clarify it (for example, if I had that thought about the World’s Fair right in the middle of writing this blog entry), in which case you might for example get into the habit of scanning your inboxes at the end of each night for things you can quickly clarify, or at the beginning of each day as you’re having your morning coffee. Or you might be like me where none of the physical things that come into your life typically have particularly strong deadlines associated with them; so when it comes to that inbox, I tend to empty it only once a week, so that I can file everything at once instead of dragging out my portable file cabinet for two minutes every single day. Certainly you should be getting your “inboxes to zero” at least once every week, so that you don’t miss anything important; but what I’ve discovered after doing this for years is that you eventually learn to get a natural sense of what new stuff needs to be dealt with right away and what can wait a bit to be processed, and that your inbox collection habits will eventually start to reflect this.

And as far as how often to check your various lists and decide what actions you should be tackling next, Allen has this clever way of putting it, which is that you should think about your life as if you were in an airplane, viewing it from different altitudes, and realizing that every perspective is important to take on a regular basis. So sometimes, for example, you’re right on the ground itself, and all you can see are the things directly in front you: What needs to get done by the time I leave the office today? What needs to be done before I go to bed tonight? But at other times, the plane has now taken off and you can see a bit of your surroundings: What do I want to get done by the end of this week? By the end of the month? Then maybe the plane gets higher up and you can start seeing the patchwork of farms you’re flying over: What do I hope to eventually achieve in my career? What do I want to complete by the time I’m 40? Before I retire? And then maybe your flight was actually on Virgin Galactic, and you’re now way up in space itself, looking down at the Earth as a big blue ball and getting the biggest picture you can: What do I want to accomplish with my life? How do I want my children to remember me?

It’s important to do reviews and reflections on a regular basis from all these various levels; and that’s where your “maybe/someday” list becomes so important, as something you can trot out once every three or six or twelve months, just to spend a quiet afternoon looking over and quietly contemplating, deciding which of these big-ticket items you might want to now move into your active project lists and try to actually accomplish. Certainly, though, the reviews you’ll be doing a lot more are daily and weekly ones; with me in particular, for example, I scan through every single project list I have at the start of every single morning, a ten-minute process I do with my first cup of coffee at my neighborhood cafe, to decide what 10 or 20 or 30 things I might like to get done by the time that particular day is over, just to return the undone items back to the general pile at the end of each evening and start the process all over again the next morning. Then every Sunday, I do a slightly bigger review than that, giving myself a little bigger perspective of what I want to accomplish by the time that week is over, while emptying whatever’s left in all my inboxes at the same time. I also do a monthly review on the first of each month, which helps me stay motivated and excited about the big-picture projects I’m in the middle of doing at any given moment; when I concentrate too much exclusively on the nitty-gritty details of my daily life, I tend to get a little discouraged by what sometimes seems like no forward momentum, so I think it’s good to look back once a month and acknowledge how much you’ve actually gotten done in the last 30 days, remind yourself that things are actually moving forward in your life.

Engage

The last step of the GTD process, and the most important of all; once you’ve decided on an action item to do next, for God’s sake, do it. For organizational junkies like me, it’s easy to get obsessed with the collating and listing and all the rest; that’s why Allen is always emphasizing that the Getting Things Done system is primarily about…getting things done, and that all the rest of the steps are pointless if you’re aren’t constantly sitting down and knocking things off your lists.

And that’s pretty much the system; although once you do it for awhile, most people tend to add little tweaks and customizations to their own particular processes, which under an open structure like GTD is not only allowed but actively encouraged, the same reason that GTD doesn’t have an official “way” of recording your lists, like special notebooks you have to buy from the GTD Store or anything like that. The main tweak in my own system, for example, is that I’ve discovered over the years that I have a certain list of little recurring items that I try to do every single day, day in and day out without fail, but that sometimes I fail to do because I’m a human being and therefore not perfect — currently on the list as of autumn 2017, for example, are things like take a vitamin every morning, drink a liter of water, do 30 minutes of meditation, write an entry in my gratitude journal, watch a movie, exercise for 30 minutes, read for an hour, and a lot more — and a weekly list of little things as well, like water my jade plant, call my mom and dad, pay off the balance of my credit-card bill, hit the farmer’s market, etc etc. So I in particular actually have two extra context lists of my own invention entitled “@daily” and “@weekly,” with recurring items that in the case of the @daily list, for example, get added every morning at 7 a.m. and erased every night at midnight; and while this is technically discouraged within the official GTD system (you’re really only supposed to add action items when they’re things that absolutely need to get done, and you’re never supposed to get rid of an action item unless you’ve actually done it), I find this special case to be a real benefit in my life, a way of easily tracking all those tiny little recurring daily habits but to essentially start with a blank slate again at the start of every new morning.

And the reason I’m able to do this is because, after a decade of implementing GTD simply through a pen and paper notebook (for those who don’t know, it was Allen who singlehandedly renewed the modern popularity of Moleskine notebooks, by recommending them to his rabid GTD followers), I now use a paid app called Nirvana, which after all this time is the one and only piece of software I’ve ever tried that actually does a decent job at replicating the nuance and complexity you can accomplish doing GTD with pen and paper. Because as you can imagine, with GTD having no official “right” way of being done, yet developing a cultish following of millions of middle-class office workers, everybody and their brother over the last 15 years has tried to make some cash selling “GTD systems” to these people, whether those are special notebooks or special apps; but the problem with most of the GTD software that’s been invented over the years is that it ends up being way too rigid, ironically the very thing GTD was designed to overcome by being created in the way it was. A GTD system is worthless to me if it forces me to input new stuff in a way I don’t find organic and intuitive; or if it offers up a bunch of predefined project lists that I’ll never use; or adds a bunch of useless bells and whistles that directly violate the minimalist spirit of the system; or doesn’t allow me to add customizations like my “@daily” and “@weekly” lists; or if it makes the process of adding and checking off items, moving from my home to a bus to a remote destination, even one iota more slow or complicated than it is to just have these things listed with a pen on a piece of paper in my back pocket. Nirvana miraculously gets every single one of these things right; and that’s why it’s one of the few pieces of software in existence that I feel justified spending five bucks every month on, when normally I abhor software that forces you to “rent” rather than “own.”

Anyway, that’s GTD in a very long nutshell; and while the Web 2.0-era hype over the system has died down to a murmur by now (Merlin Mann, where are you?!), it doesn’t stop it from being an extremely well-thought-out and highly effective process that I encourage all of you to adopt in your life, no matter what your career is or how much you’re trying to get done on any given day. GTD is much more a mindset and attitude than it is a structured program, a worldview that wisely (and healthily) says that in order to speed up, you must slow down, and that the secret to burning through a lot of things is to take the time and energy to fully enjoy each one for what it is. That’s a worldview worth having, no matter who you are.

Next time: All about the new plan to turn my publishing company into Spotify, a project that will be officially unveiled to the public on October 2nd. Caution: Much self-righteousness about the arts ahead!