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Natalia Rossingol

Getting Things Done (GTD) Method - And 5 Steps to Apply it

There's one universal method to get things done, and it works! Learn how to apply it properly and zip through your tasks quickly.

How often do you get overwhelmed, buried under a list of uncompleted tasks that grows daily? If you are at the point where you think you cannot handle it, there is a solution. The GTD method will add more structure to your work and life and let you finally take control of it.

The beauty of this system is that it kills two birds with one stone: it both increases your personal productivity and has a beneficial psychological effect on your mind.

So let’s explore the GTD method, describing its structure, pros and cons, and showing how exactly it can improve your time management skills.

What is the GTD method? 

Thinking in a concentrated manner to define desired outcomes and requisite next actions is something few people feel they have to do… But in truth, it is the most effective means available for making wishes a reality. - David Allen, "Getting Things Done"

The “Getting Things Done,” or simply GTD, method is a time management system developed by David Allen, a productivity consultant, who described it in his book “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity”.

The GTD method is based on the idea that since human cognitive capacity is limited, we can only remember so much. However, we still use our mind as storage, relying on our memory and overloading it. As a result, we are not only unproductive – we stress ourselves out, which, in the long run, can cause burnout and workload paralysis.

Allen developed a logical productivity system that would help us get rid of our mental clutter and put our thoughts in order so that we can focus on what matters most.

The essence of the Getting Things Done method lies in storing information in an external system rather than holding it in your head. This way, you get more clarity and control, and you manage to do all the tasks easily, meeting deadlines and providing better quality.     

Something automatic and extraordinary happens in your mind when you create and focus on a clear picture of what you want. - David Allen, "Getting Things Done"

This strategy works great for situations when you have to work on multiple projects simultaneously. However, it will be of much use even when you simply need a more organized and systematic approach to handling your assignments.

In any case, given the importance of time management in the workplace, the GTD system can help you out.  

Pros and cons of the GTD method

Like any other method, the Getting Things Done one is a coin with two sides that has their own advantages and drawbacks:

The Pros:

  1. It makes you more decisive. We often waste a lot of time on indecision, hesitating and procrastinating, unsure what we should do next. The GTD method helps you clearly understand what you want to accomplish, see a desired outcome, and figure out the specific steps you need to take to reach that outcome.
  2. It reduces the cognitive load. The GTD system clears your mind, letting you focus on priorities. Besides, when your mind is uncluttered, you’re more likely to get into a state of flow – a mental state when you’re deeply immersed in an activity, generating brilliant ideas and simply getting satisfaction from the process.
  3. It gives you a sense of control. When you have all your information stored in one place, it’s much easier to make adjustments. You can change priorities and reschedule things when needed, and it won’t make you terrified – because you will see how to fit the change into your system so that the system doesn’t fall apart.

The cons:

  1. It can be time-consuming. The GTD method requires effort to be set up – you will have to put some thought into it, as it concerns the vision of your future and will determine the course of your actions.
  2. It is a complex system that can be hard to maintain. As we know, the components of a system are tightly interconnected. Doing some things right and the rest wrong, or doing only some things while ignoring the rest will mean a failure.
  3. One of the problems in this regard is that the GTD method is often treated as a work-only system. This is a mistake because work is just one part of our life. Other things like health, relationships, and house maintenance also require our attention – and even more, they directly affect our work, so it makes total sense to include them in your system as well.

What are the five steps of the GTD method? 

Getting things done, and feeling good about it, means being willing to recognize, acknowledge, and appropriately manage all the things that have your consciousness engaged.- David Allen, "Getting Things Done"

The Getting Things Done method consists of 5 steps used to catalog and organize your tasks to manage them effectively:  

Step 1. Capture

At this stage, you put the information that is currently stored in your head into an external place. In other words, anything that has caught your attention and is or can be meaningful to you (like things you need to do, events you want to visit, or ideas that have come up to you) must be captured and stored in a written or digital form.

The point of this is to simply collect your thoughts, getting them off your mind. What’s very important, you have to capture all of them, without an exception, and regularly, at the very moment they come to your head.

You can use different capture tools:

  • Physical notebooks
  • Electronic devices
  • Audio note-taking devices
  • Various apps like Todoist, Trello,

To help yourself organize your own thoughts, you can use incompletion trigger lists – lists Allen recommends to make when you need to do a mind sweep. As the very name suggests, these lists must include things that are in your area of focus, but not completed yet.

The incompletion trigger lists are of two types:

Personal, which cover areas like:

  • family (activities you want to do with your spouse/children/parents)
  • health (doctors, check-ups, diet, sports)
  • leisure activities (books, movies, travels, people and places to visit)
  • errands (groceries, banks, pharmacy)
  • home / household (repairs, construction, plumbing, electricity) etc.

Professional, which can include the following:

  • projects (both started but not completed and those not started yet)
  • meetings (upcoming meetings, meetings that need to be set or requested)
  • planning (goals, presentations, and conferences)
  • communication (calls, emails, phone calls, memos)
  • staff (hiring, firing, feedback, morale, reviews)
  • professional development (trainings, skills to develop, career research, resume.)

Collect information and capture tasks - this is all you have to do at this point. There is no need to try to organize or analyze it, as this is what we do at the stages that follow.

Step 2. Clarify

Now when you’ve got some material to work with, you can ask yourself two questions:

  1. What is it? - You define the items on your list, reformulating them in a clearer way.
  2. Is it actionable? - Here you decide what to do with the items, thinking whether you can or should do them, in the first place.

If you think the item doesn’t deserve you attention, then it’s non-actionable. In this case, you’ve got three options of how to handle the item:

  • Delete (trash) it. These are things that are not useful or that you have no interest in. For example, you can cancel a job interview if you’re no longer interested in a position.
  • Incubate it. When you might want to do something in the future, you incubate it – like, there is a possibility you will want to do some research or get a formal education sometime later.
  • Reference it. These are potentially useful items that you may need in the future, so you file them away as reference material. For instance, you may want to use some books or articles as references.  

If you decide that a thing on your list deserves your attention, then it is actionable, and you have to specify the next action. This next action is a visible physical activity you need to take to either continue working on the issue or complete it. Once you have figured out what this action is, you have to choose out of the three options:

  1. Do. If it takes less than 2 minutes, do it immediately – make a phone call or reply to an email the moment you understand you have to.
  2. Delegate. Ask yourself if you’re the right or the only person to do the task. If not, delegate it to someone who is a better fit or to someone who is available and doesn’t mind it.    
  3. Defer. Anything that takes more than 2 minutes should be deferred. You schedule these things for later.

Step 3. Organize

After clarifying your items, you will need to categorize them, moving the items in specific spaces, like:

Calendar. You use a calendar for the next actions that need to be done at a particular time. These can be divided into three categories:

  • Things that need to be done at a specific time, like appointments.
  • Things that need to be done on a certain day, like conferences.
  • Things related to a specific day, like when a project should be started, given a deadline.

Waiting for list. This contains delegated stuff that is still waiting for the appropriate person.

The project list. It includes all the projects you have started but not finished yet. In the GTD method, a "project" is everything that includes more than action to be done.

Next actions list. These are items you need to do to actually complete the projects. You group these according to “contexts” – environmental constraints or tools required to finish the project, like “home,” “computer,” or “bank.”

Someday/ maybe lists. They include items you cannot do right now because they’re irrelevant at the moment, or because you haven’t committed for them yet.

Trash bin. Here you discard things that have no value to you, like learning a new skill that is no more relevant.

The Archive, where you keep information that has potential value. It can be divided into two groups:

  • Reference materials – information you use rarely so there is no need to keep it at hand.
  • Support materials – information you use more frequently.

Step 4. Reflect

To get the most use out of your work, you should reflect on it. You make a pause and let yourself analyze your actions, checking if you’re moving in the right direction. This part of the GTD methodology is what people typically struggle with; however, it helps you clarify priorities and manage your to-do lists.

David Allen suggests using two types of reviews:

  1. Daily reviews. You do them either once or twice a day, in the morning or in the evening. You review your next actions, calendar, projects, waiting for, and someday lists, which lets you see what you need to do on that specific day or how you handled it.
  2. Weekly reviews. They will require an hour or two of your time every weekend, to see how the system is working. In a weekly review, ou update your to-do lists, capture more stuff, and asses your work. 

Step 5. Engage

Now when you’ve organized your stuff, you can actually get things done. At this point, you need to choose what to do at any given time. There is no single answer what to do and when – to figure that out, you can use any time management technique (like the 4 Ds of time management, time blocking or time boxing.)

Allen also suggests using the 4 Criteria Model that can help you understand which actions you should take at a specific moment:

  1. Context – the environment that offers possibilities or provides limitations for performing a specific action. For example, some actions will require a certain person, tool, or a place to be done.
  2. Available time. You see how much time you’ve got and act accordingly. If you’ve got an appointment in one hour, and it takes 30 minutes to drive to the location, you can do another task that doesn’t take much time.
  3. Available energy. Some tasks require much mental energy or physical strength to be accomplished, so it’s not smart to engage in complex tasks when you’re feeling tired or mentally exhausted.
  4. Relative priority. Choose the tasks of the highest priority and focus on them first.

Your job is to make the best choice possible. Of course, your choice will be intuitive but the work you’ve already done will help a lot.   

While actually completing your assignments, you can use the Threefold Model for Identifying Daily Work, which consists of the following elements:

  1. Doing predefined work – doing the tasks from your calendar or lists.
  2. Doing work as it shows up – doing unexpected tasks.
  3. Defining your work – breaking new projects into actionable steps.

The Getting Things Done method by David Allen is a great time management technique that can both help you manage your tasks effectively and clear your mind. If you feel you’re falling behind, try this system, pairing it with other time management techniques if necessary. After all, it’s not about how much time you’ve got, but how you use it.

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