How to Use David Allen’s GTD Method on Your Phone or Laptop
One method, one tool, one platform. Keep things dead simple.
David Allen published Getting Things Done almost 20 years ago, in 2001. The book went on to sell 1.6 million copies around the world, and its popularity helped spread the concept of the GTD productivity method.
Short for Getting Things Done, the GTD method is a time management and organisation process based on the simple concept of getting things out of your mind and onto paper. Once it’s there, you don’t have to worry about remembering things anymore, only about structuring them. This not only brings more clarity to your workflow, it also helps you release a lot of stress.
Back 20 years ago, you would have had to write things down on sheets of paper, use an eraser to shuffle items around without losing track of everything. Then you would have had to store all your lists in a safe place, far from kids, water, the dog, or any risky spot prone to compromising the readability of your lists. Finally, updating those lists would also require constant switching between an eraser, a pencil, and extra paper.
Nowadays, technology is here to help. A laptop (or a phone), an app, and a little bit of organisational skills are all you need. Technology makes organisation 10x easier than what it was 10 years ago.
In this article, I’m going to show you how to implement the GTD method in my favorite productivity app: TickTick. To do so, we’re going to follow the steps of the GTD method, only on our laptop rather than a notebook. I will use desktop screenshots throughout the whole tutorial because I don’t use the app on my phone, but it is also available on mobile and works the same.
Let’s get started.
Step 1: List it down
Open up your TickTick app and create a list to store everything you have to do. Create a Master list for that purpose, using the left side menu and clicking on Add List.
Why not use the default Inbox? Because Inboxes get swamped, unorganised, and you don’t associate an inbox with “I have a good overview of what I have to do”. A master list is a lot more reassuring.
Think of everything and anything, the simplest task to the most daunting one, and put everything in there, one after the other. Don’t worry about forgetting items. You can always finish this tutorial and add items later, once you get the hang of it.
Here is an example of a list you could end up with:
The first step is really easy but can take a while, so make sure you don’t rush through it.
Step 2: Create projects and contexts
The second step is to move most (preferably all) of the items in your Master list to their respective Projects. Projects are series of tasks that add up to an outcome. The more specific the task, the better. This means you might have to split some of the items you listed in your Master list into smaller tasks. For instance, say you want to try a new cake recipe with your kids next weekend. You might have written in your Master list:
Try this new cake for kids on Sunday
But do you have the ingredients? Are you planning on buying them if you don’t? If this is a new recipe, did you check you have all the necessary tools? You were planning on doing this with Michael, but is he even home on that day? Depending on your answers, you will realise that this seemingly simple item is actually a small project on its own, that could contain these subtasks:
- Double check if Michael has football practice
- Look at recipe requirements
- Make list of stuff to buy
- Go to store to get stuff
- Make recipe with Michael
Let’s create a project called “Try New Cake on Sunday”. Create a new list outside of your Master, and add the cake tasks to that list. Do this for all your tasks. You will most likely add a lot of tasks overall when you start thinking in projects, because you will have to split up everything in smaller tasks. Remember, the more specific the better.
Tip 1: Project names and tasks should start with a verb, because they need to be actionable. “New cake Sunday” could be a project name but doesn’t call for action. “Try new cake Sunday” is much better.
Tip 2: To set a priority for a task, use 3 exclamation points. A drop down menu will appear where you can choose High, Medium, or Low priority.
Here is an animated example that explains the process of creating projects and moving tasks away from the Master list.
While you’re creating your projects, you need to keep something else in mind: Context.
Here is the definition of context, according to the Collins dictionary:
“The context of an idea or event is the general situation that relates to it, and which helps it to be understood.” — Source
That’s exactly what we’re looking for here. Ideally, you need one context per task. In the official GTD guidelines, assigning context is a step on its own. But thanks to technology, it’s actually easier to perform this action while you’re creating projects and tasks.
Let’s assign contexts for our “Try new cake Sunday” tasks. To do so, edit the task name and add a hashtag (#) at the end, followed by your context name. In TickTick, those are called tags.
Here is an animated example:
Step 3: Dissociate
This is where all the power of the GTD method comes into play. It’s also the part that usually confuses people the most. But again, technology makes it a lot easier to follow.
You’re now going to have to separate the actionable tasks from their parent project. The sorting criteria will become the context. This will enable you to batch the tasks that have the same context together, while still making progress on multiple projects at the same time.
Attention: this is NOT multitasking. You’re still doing one thing at a time, but you’re moving forward with different project as you complete them. I highly recommend AGAINST multitasking in general, with anything.
The purpose of sorting by context instead of project is to be able to batch things. Say you have to go to the grocery store 3 times a week. One time for normal groceries, another time for skin care products, and a third time because you forgot about that cake on Sunday. Your context here is clearly “running errands”. With that in mind, wouldn’t it be easier to buy everything in one trip? With TickTick, you’re able to see all your scheduled errands in one place, so you don’t forget about the cake on Sunday.
How? When you to the tags menu, you will see all your contexts. Click on one to see all the tasks it contains, regardless of the project. As simple as that.
Here are 2 explanatory screenshots to clarify the different sections inside the app:
A project with its tasks and associated contexts:
A context with its tasks and associated projects:
In the second picture, you can see all your errands in one place.
Step 4: Getting Things Done
Now, you have your tasks split in projects, and you can tackle those tasks by context. But how do you actually plan when to do what? Well, you put them in the calendar. This is one of the most powerful options available in TickTick.
In the TickTick calendar, click on the three dots in the top right corner, and select Arrange tasks.
This tool is extremely powerful. Here, not only can you see your tasks sorted by Project (List), Context (Tag), or Priority, you’re able to drag and drop those tasks straight into the calendar.
If you’re already using another calendar service, like Google, you can import it into the TickTick calendar too. You will then see what space you have left for what tasks.
The goal is to bundle tasks with the same context together. This way, you can spend one evening doing email, one afternoon running errands, one morning on meal prep… In this example, the contexts (tags) are colored for even more clarity. More on this in a minute.
TickTick is a very powerful tool with a ton of options, and I don’t use nearly all of them. I like to keep things simple. But in the case of the GTD framework, there definitely are some extra tips that can assist for more efficiency.
Color coding is available for tags (aka contexts), and lists (aka projects).
This option is extremely powerful because it gives you even more clarity when using the calendar view. When you choose View Options in the calendar (using the 3 dots in the top right corner), you can decide which color attribute to highlight in the calendar:
This is a bit tricky to understand at first.
For example, here is the calendar showing tasks colored based on context (tags):
And here is the calendar showing the exact same tasks, colored based on projects (lists):
It all depends whether you prefer to have an overview of how much time you spend on each project, or on each specific context. In the GTD method, Allen recommends a context overview, and that is what I tend to use the most as well.
B. Smart lists
I know I keep using the word powerful, but smart lists are a very powerful tool. They allow you to filter your tasks based on criteria that is not available by default in TickTick.
For instance, smart lists are a great way to split upcoming tasks by timelines. Here is an example setup, to make sure you don’t miss your project “Organize vacation”:
You can also create a smart list with tasks that don’t have a due date. Those are easy to lose sight of, because they don’t show in the calendar by default. With this list, you’re able to double check at any point in time what needs a deadline:
C. Managing overdue items
We just talked about smart lists, and they’re also perfect to keep track of overdue items. It’s easy to lose sight of these because although they do show in various lists and tags, there’s not one place where you can see them all together. With smart lists, you can create that place.
The beauty of this is that you can go into the calendar, select only your Overdue list in the Arrange tasks side panel, and drag and drop them to a new spot in the calendar. The new due date will automatically get updated across all your Projects, Contexts and Calendars.
There’s a lot more to say about smart lists. You can use them for a thousand different things depending on your sorting criteria. Have fun with them and see what’s possible, but remember that the most efficient systems are often the most simple ones.
D. Folders, parent tags and subtasks
You can create folders for Lists, aka Projects. This can be useful if you have projects that somewhat belong together. When you click on the parent folder, all the tasks inside this folder show in the main window, regardless of the list. That’s very useful.
The same folder structure principle can be applied to tags. For each tag, you have the option to define a parent tag. You can’t have parents inside of parents, so complexity is limited. But it can still get pretty tricky.
I do use subtasks because sometimes it’s easier than going back into tags and creating new separate tasks. It all depends how specific you were in the first place. You could have your project structured like this:
TASK tag A
TASK tag A
TASK tag A
TASK tag B
TASK tag B
TASK tag B
But also like this:
TASK tag A
TASK tag B
In this case, the second option is more structured.
I hope you found this tutorial helpful. Technology has made it easier than ever to implement productivity in your life. But it has also made it even easier to get distracted, waste time, and forget why you checked our phone in the first place. The latter is unfortunately the winning side for a lot of people. Technology can be both a productive empowering tool and the number one hurdle to productivity.
To avoid the negative side effects of technology, the best way is to keep the way you use it dead simple. This means minimising the stimuli as much as possible: less apps, less notifications, less dependency.
On the other side, to amplify the positive side effects, the best way is to find what works for you, keep your tools simple and light, and avoid complexity.
The system I just presented works for me, and can be a great source of inspiration for making your own. Maybe you will find it works as is for you too. But at the end of the day, the point is this: keep what you want, remove what you don’t like, and find what works for you. Once you did find what works for you, stick to your system, and don’t let distractions get in your way. That’s the way to make technology your best productive friend.
Thanks a lot for reading! I interviewed 50 productivity experts and made a 150+ page guide out of the project. This is road-tested advice from real people who get things done. Get it for free here.