What is GTD (Getting Things Done)?

What is GTD (Getting Things Done)?

Book notes to capture the basics of this productivity system

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How to leverage the system to visualize and execute on your vision

if there’s no single technique or tool for perfecting organization and productivity, there are very specific things we do to facilitate them. — David Allen

If you’re not familiar with the GTD (Getting Things Done) method, it is a fantastic methodology that allows for clear, holistic life management.

The growth of tools like Notion have also made it possible for individuals and teams to construct workspaces to fit their needs, allowing for more in-depth customization of workspaces and dashboards.

If you haven’t read GTD, or could use a refresher, here are the top takeaways you can implement in your workspace.

Benefits of GTD

  • Decrease decision fatigue
  • Allow for creative flow — by knowing what’s coming next
  • Awareness of open loops
  • Ability to take action where it’s needed

The Extended Brain

We (1) capture what has our attention; (2) clarify what each item means and what to do about it; (3) organize the results, which presents the options we (4) reflect on, which we then choose to (5) engage with. — David Allen

This methodology helps standardize mental processes in order to build awareness of when you’re using each phase, and plan actions based on where they land in the process.

Horizontal & Vertical

Horizontal control maintains coherence across all the activities in which you are involved.

Vertical control, in contrast, manages thinking, development, and coordination of individual topics and projects. — David Allen

David Allen’s groupings of work into horizontal and vertical offer a clear breakdown of how a productivity system functions.

The Horizontal applies to processes you execute across all areas, projects, and tasks. For example, if you have a system that tracks due dates, objectives, and tasks, that system applies to all projects. For a system to work, it has manage actions and projects in a way that suits your workflow. Tracking

The Vertical focuses your attention on the alignment between Projects, Outcomes, and Long-Term Goals. This is the 30,000 foot view of your focus, energy, and attention, spanning across professional and personal goals. Reviewing the relationship between Projects and Goals helps ensure you’re investing time in the right places, and avoiding projects that don’t align with your vision.

Horizon 5: Purpose and Principles

Horizon 5: Purpose and Principles This is the big-picture view. Why does your company exist? Why do you exist? What really matters to you, no matter what? The primary purpose for anything provides the core definition of what the work really is. — David Allen

This is probably the most challenging aspect of GTD, as it requires the most abstraction and introspection. Asking yourself why you exist can take some time to work through, but provides the foundation for short-term goals, projects, and individual actions you undertake.

Horizon 4: Vision

Horizon 4: Vision Projecting three to five years into the future generates thinking about bigger categories: organization strategies, environmental trends, career and lifestyle transition circumstances. Internal factors include longer-term career, family, financial, and quality-of-life aspirations and considerations. — David Allen

What are some tangible decisions you can make in the next 3–5 years that can get you closer to living the life you want? What do you imagine your life looking like, from professional and personal standpoints?

Horizon 3: Goals

Horizon 3: Goals What you want to be experiencing in various areas of your life and work one to two years from now will add another dimension to defining your work. Often meeting the goals and objectives of your job will require a shift in emphasis of your job focus, with new accountabilities emerging. — David Allen

Goals are the most actionable, as they can be impacted with your present-day decisions, in terms of what projects you take on, and which projects are prioritized. Further, re-assessing your goals on an annual basis, allows for higher-level calibration of your time, energy, and focus.

Horizon 2: Areas of Focus

Horizon 2: Areas of Focus and Accountabilities You create or accept your projects and actions because of the roles, interests, and accountabilities you have. These are the key areas of your life and work within which you want to achieve results and maintain standards. — David Allen

In terms of where Areas fit into your larger workspace, Areas are categories that allow you to create tangible goals across each, allowing you to get specific. Identifying Projects as living within FamilyHealth, or Professional, for example, allow for a broader look at where your time and energy are being allocated, and how they fit into your goals, vision, and principles.

Organizing Projects, Ideas, and Resources by Area also allow for curated views of multiple types of information at once, which can be helpful in making connections that would be hard to identify otherwise.

Horizon 1: Projects

A project is sufficiently planned for implementation when every next-action step has been decided on every front that can actually be moved on without some other component’s having to be completed first.

Your mind goes through five steps to accomplish virtually any task:

  • Defining purpose and principlesOutcome visioningBrainstormingOrganizingIdentifying next actions

— David Allen

Why rely on Projects to organize work? Many of us rely on to-do lists to quickly add and view outstanding tasks, but the lack of structure is limiting when it comes to working toward specific outcomes.

Projects provide a framework to:

  1. Organize actions in a sequence
  2. Identify which actions are dependent or time-sensitive
  3. Orient actions to a larger goal

Beyond a Group of Actions

If projects were just a collection of Actions, we could use simple notes or to-do lists.

Deciding to take on a project starts with the why:

  • What is the desired outcome?
  • How does this get me closer to reaching my goal?
  • Why take on this project versus something else?

Understanding the Why of a project directly influences which actions you decide are necessary. By consistently referring to your Why, you often and directly judge actions by their ability to move you closer to completing a project.

Ground: Actions

In short, Actions are work at the what lead to the completion of Projects, which lead you closer to achieving longer-term goals. In terms of scale, Actions are the smallest units; writing an outline for a blog post, summarizing an article, compiling research for a YouTube video. Actions also allow you to focus in on one piece of a project at a time, as well as map out the entirety of a project, by outlining what actions need to be completed.

In GTD, there are two types of Actions:

  • Time-Based: Actions that need to be done by a certain date/time
  • Next Actions: Actions that are next up or highest priority for a given project

When planning a project and setting up Actions, it’s important to make this distinction. To be on the safe side, only give actions a date/time if there is a clear external deadline (or if you work better with giving yourself deadlines). This allows you to regularly refresh projects by selecting which Actions are up next, or highest priority.

Note: Not Everything Needs to be an Action

It’s easy to become overzealous — especially at the planning stage — to over-engineer your Actions list. Be careful. This can quickly become overwhelming and dissuade you from using the system, or leading you to abandon it altogether.

GTD offers a useful framework for identifying types of actions. Before formalizing an Action, consider this: can you?

  • Do It: if it takes less than two minutes, don’t bother logging the Action, just do it.
  • Delegate it: Can someone else take on this Action? Is it someone else’s responsibility?
  • Defer It: If it’s not critical to your objectives, consider lowering the Action’s priority

The Four-Criteria Model

This may fall into the over-engineering camp, but worth considering if you’re managing multiple projects simultaneously.

When giving attributes to Actions, add the following information:

  • Context: when and where can I complete this action?
  • Time: how much time is required? The Pomodoro technique could work well here
  • Energy: How challenging is the action?
  • Priority: What absolutely needs to get done, as soon as possible?

In your workspace, these criteria can easily be added using Properties, creating tags for each level.

Process Control

The more common idea of checklists, however, refers to a listing of the contents of a topic, procedure, or some arena of interest or activity, to be utilized either at a specific time or whenever you engage in a particular kind of activity. — David Allen

A game-changing tactic that lends itself well to productivity tools is creating templates for specific actions – a version of ‘process-control.’ Whether you’re a teacher, entrepreneur, or content-creator, it’s likely that there are certain actions that follow the same rhythm, the same flow. By creating an action template, you’re pre-configuring a page with content to spur action; it could be checklists of mini-actions, guiding prompts, or statements to get you into the ideal mindset for that action.

Time-Based Tools for Actions

There are two Notion-based tools to help manage progress across Actions:

  • Reminders: setting reminders for Actions allows you to switch focus onto other Actions, while avoiding too much time passing before circling back to an important action
  • Due Dates: If you work more effectively with deadlines, assigning Due Dates to Actions allows you to utilize a Calendar view, visualizing when Actions need to get done across multiple projects.

On Routines

All of your Projects, active project plans, and Next Actions, Agendas, Waiting For, and even Someday/Maybe lists should be reviewed once a week. — David Allen

Daily and weekly routines are critical to maintaining any productivity system. I can’t stress this enough. Even the most basic workspace will get unruly if it’s not regularly reviewed, purged, or re-assessed based on the progress you’ve made on Actions and Projects. This is directly tied to the note above on not over-engineering projects to include Actions that don’t need mentioning.

The Weekly Review is the critical success factor for marrying your larger commitments to your day-to-day activities. — David Allen

Reviewing the previous week allows you do do a few important things:

  • Assess your performance and completion of tasks
  • Update status of all active projects
  • Sort items in Inbox
  • Re-calibrate the up coming week based on these takeaways
  • Frame the upcoming week with a primary goal

In some cases, it may make sense to do a version of this on a daily basis. If you benefit from building an opening and closing routine for the day, establishing a review/plan process can provide even more value, as long as it’s not too burdensome or you have a daily routine already in place.

Regardless of your routine’s details, daily and weekly planning are key aspects maintaining a healthy workflow. Having views for “This Week” and “Today” give you quick access to your short-term goals and objectives.

One the biggest benefits of a finely-tuned workspace is the control over what you make visible in each view. Simply having a look at upcoming actions gives you immediate insight into what you’ve planned, whether or not your plans are achievable, or whether you need to recalibrate plans.

Weekly Review

you take a look at all your outstanding projects and open loops, at what I call Horizon 1 level (see page 55), on a weekly basis. It’s your chance to scan all the defined actions and options before you, thus radically increasing the efficacy of the choices you make about what you’re doing at any point in time.

All of your Projects, active project plans, and Next Actions, Agendas, Waiting For, and even Someday/Maybe lists should be reviewed once a week. — David Allen

Spaces to Review

  • Inbox
  • Project Statuses
  • Upcoming Actions

The In-Tray (Inbox)

Things you name, you own. Collected but unnamed stuff owns you. — David Allen

Quick note: for this post, In-Tray and Inbox are used interchangeably

A fundamental aspect of Getting Things Done is Capture — a process of collecting items, ideas, links, and articles, in order to sort them at a later time. If you think about when and where a creative idea pops up, it’s a challenge to switch back into organization mode, in order to move that note into a Project or Area. The In-Tray allows for you to collect what you find to be relevant, and sort into Spaces like Notes (ideas that are not quite projects yet), Projects (catalogued by Not Started or Someday/Maybe), or Resources (Library or Learning databases).

One thing to keep in mind is that this system ONLY works if you have a system for reviewing your Inbox (weekly at the minimum) in order to prevent this space getting unruly, making it more of a mental lift to leverage. Clearing your In-Tray regularly can also provide the mental clarity that comes from knowing you’ve collected important ideas and artifacts, and they’re all organized

“The first time you pick something up from your in-tray, decide what to do about it and where it goes. Never put it back in ‘in.’” — David Allen

David Allen organized In-Tray items into three main categories, No, Yes, Maybe.

Ask: Is it actionable?No: Trash (Trash) ArchiveYes (Later): Store in appropriate place (Incubation) Projects Not StartedMaybe: Might be useful later (Reference) Books, Resources

If we use the Manifest system as an example, In-Tray items will probably land in one of three places:

Projects, with Not Started TagLibrary: wither in Books, Resources, or LearningArchive: For things you’re not quite ready to trash

Final Thoughts

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one. — David Allen

As you’re put these components into practice, it’s important to retain perspective on what your system should do. A productivity system should give back more than what’s put in, otherwise, it’s not helping reach your goals.

And it bears repeating: start small. You may have a workflow that looks vastly different than the GTD framework. If so, identify what areas you haven’t addressed. Perhaps, you focus heavily on tasks but not on their broader impact. Or you dream big but struggle with the individual steps to achieve them. For many, there are likely one or two aspects of GTD that are developing further.

Ultimately, actions and projects exist to fulfill a larger purpose. Actions without projects don’t work toward a goal. Projects without objectives don’t either.

Establishing your Short-Term Goals, and Long-Term Vision are essential to align your work with your purpose; work that doesn’t move you in that direction is ultimately not worth doing.