Conquer your to-do list with the GTD Technique

Learn the art of getting things done

Let’s face it: it’s difficult to be consistently productive. That can be more or less true for digital nomads and remote workers. There are fewer distractions when you work, but you have no one watching over you. GTD, or Getting Things Done is a productivity technique that can help.

What is GTD?

Getting Things Done (GTD) is a personal productivity system created by David Allen. He describes GTD as an “easy, step-by-step and highly-efficient method for achieving a relaxed and productive state.” GTD gives you practical ideas to reduce stress, become more confident, and get more done as a result.

The GTD technique is built around the concept that you have a lot of different inputs. Inputs are things that enter your consciousness and you must decide what to do with them. They could be phone numbers you need to remember, meetings you have to attend, or errands you need to do. The problem is that most people don’t do anything with these thoughts and they just put them off (for example, opening an email that requires action but just leaving it in your inbox and hoping you’ll remember to do something with it later).

By failing to put things where they belong (a to-do list, a calendar, etc.), you become stressed by trying to remember everything. This leads to what Allen calls emergency scan modality, which he describes as a continual state of “scanning the horizon looking for the next fire to put out.” Needless to say, this is no way to be productive.

“The sense of anxiety and guilt doesn’t come from having too much to do; it’s the automatic result of breaking agreements with yourself.” — David Allen

Ideally, you want to capture everything you have to do and put them into an inbox so you can deal with them on your own terms. As Allen says, “your brain is for having ideas, not storing them,” and having a trusted system of completing tasks alleviates the overwhelming feeling of trying to remember everything.

When we’re stressed and overwhelmed, we tend to overemphasize the things that aren’t important and let slide the things that really are. Allen says that the lack of time is not the issue most of us face. Instead, we don’t know what to do next to move our projects forward. For example, if I just merely mentally take note of all my tasks for the day, instead of put these in a trusted system (a to-do list), I might find myself constantly checking my email instead of doing research for my article ideas.

The solution? Have a mind like water.

If you throw a stone into calm water, the water will ripple out exactly as much as it needs to — not too much or too little — and then return to its calm state. And when you apply GTD to your life, Allen says you’ll have a “mind like water.” This means that the only thing on your mind is exactly what you’ve chosen to focus on.

“Stop using your psyche as your system. It sucks. Your psyche and creative energy should be used to make intuitive choices, do intelligent thinking, and be creative.” — David Allen

So how does GTD work?

Allen’s approach uses two important elements: control and perspective. GTD advocates using trusted tools and a consistent routine to help you keep track of the things you need to do and remember. The GTD technique has a simple 5-step process: Capture. Clarify. Organize. Reflect. Engage.

Step 1 — Capture: Collect anything and everything that has your attention.

Have you ever had a great idea but were too busy to write it down and then completely forgot about it later? That’s because, as mentioned earlier, your brain is for having ideas, not storing them. Do not use your mind as a system to remind you of anything.

The first step is to jot down clearly all the tasks that have your attention at the moment. You need to capture everything that has your attention in an inbox as soon as you get that “I need to…” thought in your head. You’ll most likely have several inboxes (tasks at work, errands at home, etc.), so it’s important to identify them all so you can routinely process them later and make sure you leave nothing out.

Step 2 — Process: Clarify what it means.

When you review each task, ask the question: is it actionable? This will help you get rid of anything that isn’t worth worrying about. If it is actionable, take a look at the time it will to complete the task. Anything that takes less than two minutes to complete should be done immediately. This way, you can easily get rid of the burden of easy tasks. If this task will take longer, add it to your Action List.

Step 3 — Organize: Put it where it belongs.

Take all the tasks in your Action List and categorize them into clumps of similar actions. This is where the idea of contexts come into play. For instance, a list of phone calls you have to make would be grouped under the “phone” context, or a list of items you need to get from the grocery, will be under the “grocery” context. This will help with batching your tasks.

Step 4 — Reflect: Review frequently.

As you go through your categorized list, make sure to review them often. After all, priorities can change from day to day and moment to moment. Perhaps one or two tasks aren’t as important as you initially thought, or now require higher priority than it did earlier. Remember: productivity is all about constant review and adjustments. It’s important to clean and update your lists, so everything can run smoothly. The benefit of feeling like you’re finally in control of your life by far outweighs the cost.

Step 5 — Engage: Simply do.

Following the first four steps of GTD can make step 5 easier. If you’re on top of your tasks and know what you need to get done each day, it’s easy to just pull up your list and execute the plan.

Check out these tools and apps that build upon the GTD technique to help you become more productive:

Vesper (iOS)

Vesper is a note-taking app that takes a lot of the hassle out of organizing your thoughts. You can easily tag each entry so you can search for a specific thought by keyword later, and all your notes will be synced to your Vesper account (for free!). You can also re-organize your notes with a hold-and-drag motion and archive entries with a simple swipe.

ThinkingRock (Win/OS/Linux)

ThinkingRock manages your goals, projects, tasks, set next actions and contexts using checklists and a calendar. It’s one of the few apps that run on multi-platforms without having your data on the web.

GTDAgenda (Web/iOS/Android)

GTDAgenda is the perfect app for people with serious ambition and vision. This is another app that gives you the ability to track, complete, and categorize your tasks with different levels of goals. At the top level, you can set broad goals (ex. Finish my MBA) that guide your choice of projects. You can set time frames and categories (such as School, Work, Family, etc.) and view your goals sorted either by priority or category — this feature allows you to see if things are out of balance (for instance, having far more goals in the Work category than the Family category). By managing all the cross-referencing between tasks, GTDAgenda makes it easy to keep an eye on the big picture while working through your daily activities.

The Trusty Pen and Paper

Nothing else is quite as flexible and easy to use as the trusty pen and paper. Allen advocates the use of these analog tools saying that “the easiest and most ubiquitous way to get stuff out of your head is by using pen and paper.” Here’s an interesting way of doing the GTD technique using a bullet journal.