Initiating a Getting Things Done System

David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) is a powerful and effective system for managing projects, tasks and responsibilities. For a detailed look at the system, I encourage you to read his latest book, Making It All Work.

Understanding how to use GTD is a significant task in and of itself, and implementing it is initially beyond most of my clients’ patience. What I’ve found as an effective alternative is to help people start with a sort of “GTD Lite” model and move to the full GTD system when and if they feel ready. For most people the lite version meets the majority of their needs for a long time.

I want to be perfectly clear, I think there are significant advantages to working your way through the entire GTD process of identifying the areas of responsibility in your life, your goals, every project you have agreed to work on or imagine wanting to work on someday. For instance, every time I’ve gotten my inboxes down to zero or helped my clients get theirs to zero a huge feeling of relief flows through.

My experience is that most of my clients won’t invest the time until they have had a chance to try some of the process. So, because I feel that many parts of the GTD system have value even when they’re not a part of the whole method, I deconstruct the system and present these initial steps, any of which may improve your system.

  • List the major areas of responsibility in your life – E.G., Family, Work, Health, etc.
  • Focus on one area of responsibility to initially get under control – usually “Work”
  • List all of your outstanding projects in that area – divide any you want into subprojects
  • List one “Next Step” or task per project or subproject – use verbs and keep them very basic
  • Set a weekly time to review your lists and do housecleaning of completed and not entered tasks and projects – look ahead and behind on your calendar to remember items to note
  • Collect all the papers you still need to act on or decide on in one “Inbox”
  • Collect all emails that still need action or decisions in one file
  • Each day make a short list to accomplish from your “Next Steps” items – optional if you work off a computer list you can filter
  • Use your calendar only for events you agree to do at a scheduled time – don’t just skip an appointment, formally reschedule it
  • Start with current items and fill in inactive projects when you have time – keep cleaning up your desk, files, etc., but get started on creating a task list and accurate calendar.

You can do most of the above on a computer – MS Outlook, spread sheet, notes, email, etc. – or you can do them on paper, or even mix the two.

I want to emphasize two processes that, in my opinion, GTD needs to succeed. You need to review lists or you won’t relax (unlooked at they’re virtually worthless), and it doesn’t help much to make long lists of future steps (they tend to just clutter things up).

I think GTD’s power comes from its flexibility, its intuitive prioritization and the fact you don’t need to “believe” in or buy anything for it to be helpful.