How Can I Wrap My Brain Around GTD?
December 14, 2006 12:19 PM   Subscribe

I've bought and read most of David Allen's Gettings Things Done. I've also read a ton of things on line. But I'm still having a bear of a time wrapping my mind around GTD. I feel like I understand it on one level but I don't know how to fit it into my normal daily workflow. What is it that I am missing?

I understand the basic tenets of GTD, i.e. carrying stuff around in our minds, getting it down in a reliable system, doing the GTD workflow to process and sort things, etc., but for the life of me I can't figure out how to plug GTD into my day. I'd like to use it for both personal and professional productivity. I find myself alternating mentally between wanting to grab a physical paper notebook, popping open a spreadsheet or notepad, or looking for a web-based software tool, to sit down and list my stuff. I can't make up my mind how to implement GTD for me and it seems like there's as many opinions as users.

Is there a list somewhere which goes through step by step to get started with GTD? I'd like an outline that says...

First Steps with GTD:
1) Read the book.
2) Buy a blank notebook and turn to the 1st page.
3) On the 1st page write freeform everything that is on your mind. Don't stop writing until you can't think of anything else you need to do. Move to the 2nd page if necessary.
4) "Step 4"
5) "Step 5"

Second Steps with GTD:
1) "Step 1"

I realize this may seem like a lot of hand-holding but everything I read I feel like I'm diving into the deep end when I'd prefer to slowly walk from the shallow end towards the deep end. I am completely willing to start with a base non-technology oriented solution just to get rolling.

I feel like I'm missing an "a-ha" moment and am starting to feel quite frustrated about the whole concept especially for a system that's supposed to make me feel productive and organized.
posted by dgeiser13 to Grab Bag (25 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
GTD centers around it's lists, and it's inboxes. The inbox is a nebulous thing, and you need to determine where your data/information is coming from to really implement it. That could mean your email and phone (ie. transcribed into notes in a pile). Figure out the minimum number of inboxes that will make you not miss anything, and then every day (or more) go through them, and convert them into the actions and projects that need to be done.

Personally I don't have the complete GTD system. I have my inboxes as quicksilver (kgtd scripts), and a moleskine notebook I carry around. I keep my lists in KGTD (mac scripts on top of omnioutliner).

As for starting to use his system, the book has a great several pages of 'trigger' words. And a chapter on starting it. Just pick up all the physical stuff, and drop it in your inbox. Then start going through the mental obligations you have and making them physical (note cards or whatever). Put those in your inbox. When everything is in there, start processing it.
posted by cschneid at 12:34 PM on December 14, 2006

I wrestled with the same problems, had read books, perused newletters, acquired tools, on and on. But I just couldn't make it happen; I couldn't integrate GTD into my working life.

But then I changed jobs. And I told myself from day one that I'd use GTD to control what promised to be an out-of-control workload.

And I've never looked back. So it seems (for me at least), a clean slate, a chance to start over was what I needed to seriously use GTD in anger.
posted by Mutant at 12:44 PM on December 14, 2006 [2 favorites]

A great way to get started is to form a workgroup to meet weekly for lunch and discuss how you're implementing GTD personally. My wife did this with 4 other coworkers for several months. It was basically a productivity book club, with reading assignments, etc. All were beginners, and a few (including my wife) have gone on to be quite adept.

I myself have been using GTD for a few years, and would feel lost without it. I got started with a stack of printer paper (one thought/action per page). Today, I'm essentially paperless. Outlook and Palm. I only have one physical Inbox at home for my wife to deposit incoming snail mail or drop other items I need to put away or otherwise act on.
posted by Bradley at 12:45 PM on December 14, 2006

I also found it helpful to look at some pictures on Flickr of the different ways people have implemented GTD. Search for the tags GTD or gettingthingsdone.
posted by suasponte at 12:45 PM on December 14, 2006

I wrote a piece on how I implemented Getting Things Done in my life, including specifics about how I did my braindump and processed everything. The article includes a couple of diagrams.

Note that GTD works great if you stay on top of it. If you let it go, though, it's like anything else — the wheels come off and you're back to where you were before.

I'm still looking for a way to implement a GTD workflow into my digital life, particuarly writing for the web.
posted by jdroth at 1:21 PM on December 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

I found that this checklist provided an excellent distillation of the GTD concept.
posted by ajr at 1:53 PM on December 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

GREAT blog post, jdroth. I'm in the thralls of implementing GTD, and your essay was really helpful.

dgeiser13, I urge you to consider which of these categories you fall into:

1) LUDDITE: you avoid complex technology whenever possible (doubtful since you're on MeFi)

2) OLD SCHOOL: you like technology, but you're more productive with stuff you can hold in your hand and manipulate with your fingers than you are with "dragging" windows around of a screen.

3) MIDDLE SCHOOL: you're fine with tech solutions for some things -- like email, but not for other things. You prefer a calendar you can write on to a PDA or online calendar.

4) NEW SCHOOL: you're happy being paperless.

I'm probably middle school. I'm a programmer and designer. I'm on the web about 8 hours a day, I own an iPod, digital camera, several computers, blah blah blah. But I'm also over 40. I grew up before computers took over the world.

So my problem is that I love technology, and I'm easily dazzled by the latest toy, but I have to be careful that I buy (and download) things that I'll actually use.

I recently realized that I'm MUCH more likely to succeed with an organizational system if I minimize the digital tools. So I'm switching from Google Calendar to an old-school calendar book. Thought I love my cellphone and iPod, every PDA I've ever bought has wound up in a desk drawer. So I'm going with traditional files, filing cabinets, hand-written lists, and cork boards.

Naturally, given my career, I have to work with computer files. But my computer files are all the nuts and bolts of specific projects -- which works fine for me. Meta-info -- info ABOUT projects, to-do lists, etc. -- must be on paper for them to be meaningful to me.
posted by grumblebee at 1:59 PM on December 14, 2006 [2 favorites]

If you let it go, though, it's like anything else — the wheels come off and you're back to where you were before.

True enough, but one of its virtues is that it is easy to get back into it. Backsliding is not fatal, and in fact having organized yourself once before, it's easier to do it again.

Clearly you are paralyzed by the potential ways to implement GTD. So I'm going to tell you what to do. Buy a notebook and start with lists on pen and paper. Use the default lists Dave suggests. Buy or scavenge a tray to use as an inbox for physical things (bills, letters, etc). Buy or scavenge a small filing cabinet and a big bunch of manila folders. Get your copy of Getting Things Done, and find the chapter in the middle about setting things up and processing your in-box for the first time (in a few hours, when I'm home, I'll get my copy and provide the exact reference). This Sunday, spend the afternoon following his instructions. I will add one extra instruction - either draw your own copy of his workflow diagram for prcessing stuff, or photocopy it out of the book, or whatever.

After the great purge on Sunday, look at your lists and your calendar first thing every morning. Through the day, look at that diagram, and follow it. Update your lists and calendar accordingly, and do that next action.

Do the simplest, vanilla, by-the-book GTD you can. After a couple of months, then tweak it. It is more important that you begin somehow than that you choose a particular way. In any case, you do not have the experience right now to know how to tweak for your needs - you don't even know your own needs! Do it the vanilla, GTD-book way, until your problems with the plain GTD have become apparent.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:00 PM on December 14, 2006

All this organization talk is turning me on. I'm going to have to buy this book.

Seriously. I need it.
posted by papercake at 2:04 PM on December 14, 2006

My stumbling block right now is the big purge/set-up you have to do at the beginning. To REALLY do it will take me several days for full-time work. For instance, I have a gigantic room full of piles and piles of crap that I have to dig through. I realize that not all of this crap needs immediate attention, but the sad thing is that some of it does. In fact, I have to go in there many times a day to retrieve things.

I deeply deeply wish that I could take three days off work, get it done, and move on. I would be SO much more productive if I could do that. But I can't. And I can't imagine being able to do that for at least six months. I just have too many projects that I'm committed to working on.

So I'm torn between trying to implement GTD without first doing the big purge, which seems counter to the whole system, and doing the big purge bit-by-bit, over the next few months and THEN starting GTD. Or something in-between.
posted by grumblebee at 2:15 PM on December 14, 2006

grumblebee, why not divide and conquer. Partition that crap into 6 notional chunks. Take a series of Sunday afternoons to deal with each chunk.

Ground rules:
1. no getting diverted by what you find. For that afternoon, you are processing that chunk of crap, not anything else you happen to notice or remember.
2. no adding new stuff to the room of crap. From now on, all new things go into the GTD system.
3. If you have to go in to retrieve something, once dealt with, it goes into the GTD system, not back into the room of crap.

If you can't take a series of Sunday afternoons, then timebox. Set aside a regular 15 minutes a day for the room of crap. Same rules as above, but instead of the chunk being a notional block of crap, it is whatever you can do in 15 minutes.

Every inroad you make on the room of crap will make you feel better, and should make it a little easier to attack the next bit. And the room of crap will disappear before six months is up.

If you have to wait until you have three clear days, you will never ever make it, because I guarantee that six months from now those three days will have been eaten up by apparently unavoidable commitments.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:34 PM on December 14, 2006

Response by poster: cschneid: Thanks for the feedback. I'll read the "trigger" again.

Mutant: That's probably why I'm trying it now. I got laid off and I am trying to start my own IT business and I thought since I'm at the beginning of a venture and my slate is relatively clean I thought now would be a good time to give it a shot.

Bradley: Do you have any other inboxes besides the one physical Inbox?

suasponte: Thanks for the feedback. I hadn't thought of that.

jdroth: Nice! That's almost exactly what I was looking for. At least that'll get me to a point where I feel like I've done some of the heavy lifting involved at the beginning.

ajr: Thanks! Another good article.

grumblebee: I would say that I probably fall between 3 and 4 on your scale. Like I don't like PDAs but I love online calendars. The thing is, I'm completely happy to start with an all manual system because I think you can develop a greater understand of something when you have to work in/with it in a slower methodical manner. As I become comfortable with it I can then swap out pieces of it with their digital analogues if I think it wouldn't hinder the process.

i_am_joe's_spleen: Yes! I think paralyzed is a very apt word. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction.

grumblebee: Ultimately, I would like to use it for both personal and professional but since my professfional is the only one that's relatively clear I'll do that to start.

In reading all of the thoughts I think it's clear I have so much on my mind and I am so worried about forgetting to do specific things (which GTD is desgined to help) that I can't seem to clear to my head enough to even get started. That's why having a step-by-step getting started list which I don't have to hold in my mind (a GTD tenet) is the right path for me.

I wonder how many are completely overwhelmed by their own already overwhelming things plus the overwhelming idea of GTD.
posted by dgeiser13 at 2:41 PM on December 14, 2006

Good advice, iajspleen, and I hope we're not hijacking the thread, but maybe my problems dovetail with the OP's problems.

So it sounds like you're suggesting that I go ahead and start using the GTD system BEFORE finishing the big purge. My guess is that, for me, this is the best solution. Otherwise it will be months before I start. It sucks, though.

I'm thinking that I should completely separate my life/stuff into pre-GTD and GTD categories. In other words, I should create an inbox, etc. and PRETEND that I'm starting with a clean slate. And I should only add NEW stuff to the inbox.

Then, when I have time, I can go through the crap room and sort it out -- slowly adding it into the system.

Sort of like the crap room is someone else's room -- a friend that I'm trying to help implement GTD.
posted by grumblebee at 2:44 PM on December 14, 2006

i disagree with iajs

you need to dive in and devote an entire weekend, week, month to it.

otherwise that pile you meant to do next weekend becomes less relevant as your system is already in place and hobbling along at 75% efficiency.

all or nothing. trust me. i have a stack of papers on my desk from two months ago mocking me as i type this.
posted by Señor Pantalones at 3:54 PM on December 14, 2006

I hope you're wrong, Senor Pantalones. There's no way I can stop and devote a month to this right now -- or in the near future. I'm too loaded with commitments (that will entail letting other people down and hurting myself financially) if I stop everything.
posted by grumblebee at 4:04 PM on December 14, 2006

I've been working on implementing GTD myself. I think the biggest thing to remember is the "one thing at a time" rule. For me, the idea being the Inbox is that you're collecting everything into a vertical stack. Then you take the first item off that stack and either do it, develop a project, or delegate it (see Allen's workflow diagrams).

I've been doing it relatively piecemeal because like grumblebee, I don't have the block of time to do everything right now. But as new things occur to me, I write them down on an index card (one card per thought) and throw it in the inbox. Then at least once a week, I go through that inbox and do what I can. I think I'm making inroads.

Bradley: do a little more reading, especially of Merlin Mann's 43folders website and if you have a Mac, look into OmniOutliner and Kinkless. The point of GTD is to develop a system that works for what you need, which will be trial and error. Just keep trying new ways until you find a system that works for you. If you're hitting a road block, stop and think about what EXACTLY is stopping you, and how you can get around it.

Then just DO it.

Also, I've read that David Allen says it can take two years for you to really get comfortable in your own system. Patience.
posted by bibbit at 4:12 PM on December 14, 2006

I didn't mean Bradley, I meant dgeiser13. Blame the holiday party I just got home from.
posted by bibbit at 4:13 PM on December 14, 2006

I actually kind of agree and disagree with Senor Pantalones.

First, is the three day estimate really true? Remember, the great initial process is very very ruthless. Is it actionable? No, then biff it or file it. Yes, then can I deal it in two minutes? Yes, do it. No, defer it by writing an item on your list, or delegate. I suspect your three days esimate is based on an assumption that you will complete all the goals associated with the things in the pile of crap, but that's not what you're going to do. What you're going to do is capture and sort the next actions associated with those things, for completion as time, context and enery allows.

Second, assuming Mr Trousers is right, suppose you do limp along at 75% efficiency, neglecting the room of crap - great! 75% is better than nothing at all. And if you survive a few weeks without getting engaged with the room of crap, you'll find it easier to slough off most of its contents.

Third, and back in agreement with Senor P: three days, dude. It's not a long time, over a six month window. Really, if you were sick with the flu, or hit by a truck, couldn't you take three days off without the world coming to an end? I bet you could. If you want to get into GTD because of the benefits it will bring in meeting your commitments, then it should be worth it. Right now you're like someone who doesn't want to pay their debts until they've saved some money...

I think my approach will work for you, grumblebee, but I think Senor P is right if you can manage at all.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:21 PM on December 14, 2006

Really, if you were sick with the flu, or hit by a truck, couldn't you take three days off without the world coming to an end? I bet you could.

It's funny that you say that, because I seriously considered telling everyone I was sick, staying home for three days, and finishing the job. If I was more dishonest, I would have done so. I felt like explaining that if everyone just cut me three days of slack, I'd be much more productive in the long run.

I got myself in this mess by not promoting myself for years and then suddenly doing so. All of the sudden, I got tons of job offers (you're all weeping for me, I know), and in my giddiness, I said yes to all of them. So now I'm writing a book, writing two magazine columns and one web-site column, doing three freelance jobs, holding down a full-time job and running a theatre company. Obviously, I need to pace myself a little better in the future and try not to take on so much stuff.

In the meantime, I wish someone would write a GTD-like book about emergency situations. Yes, I would LOVE to have the system in place NOW. It would really help me manage times like this. But I DON'T have it in place, and I don't have time to implement it (fully) and won't for months.

Which is why I was wondering if it would be a good idea to do a mini-GTD for these eight or nine projects I'm working on. In other words -- for now -- forget the phone bill (I don't mean FORGET it, I mean don't worry about whether or not it's part of GTD), the family-birthday list, the dentist appointment, the room full of crap, etc. Just focus on the current barrage of projects, using GTD, dig myself out of project hell, and THEN add all the rest of my life to GTD.

I'm also trying to figure out, in the long run, what kind of GTD-like system will work best for me. I don't usually take on this much stuff at once, but I always have -- and probably always will -- be doing 15 different, totally unrelated projects (at a SLOWER pace). Computer programming, drawing, writing, directing plays, blah, blah, blah. I'm trying to figure out if all of them -- plus the household bills, etc. -- should be treated as one big job (one in-box, one tickler file, etc.) or many sub-jobs with their own separate GTD systems.
posted by grumblebee at 5:44 PM on December 14, 2006

Post your own AskMe, grumblebee, and then we can answer it in its own thread.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:53 PM on December 14, 2006

If you struggle with being organized, and you've tried and failed to use lists, daytimers, etc., check out Time Management for the Creative Person and other books by Lee Silber.
posted by TechStuff at 10:00 PM on December 14, 2006

Grumblebee - I'd say you'll get some value out of implementing GTD for some things now. One of the nice things about the system is that it's very explicit about the fact that you can't "do" a project, only an action. All that stuff you have that you can't think about now is a project you have a commitment to (something like "process room full of crap"). Put that on your projects list, and think of one action you could do to improve it - maybe "spend 10 minutes finding important stuff in the crap and putting it in the intray to process".
Now you're in the clear with GTD - you have a project you're reviewing, and stuff is moving forward. You're always going to have stuff you can't do now.
posted by crocomancer at 1:55 AM on December 15, 2006

Thanks crocomancer and others. I feel bad that I've taken up so much space in someone else's thread. I hope my issues will also help the OP.
posted by grumblebee at 5:26 AM on December 15, 2006

For me the big shift is to a clean slate mentality. if you can't dive into the piles right now (paper or email) segegrate them into a box (or folder) and start fresh. Then act immediately on each paper or email when you first read it (respond, toss or place in a folder for later action). Keep the desk and inbox clean. When you have the energy start reducing that old box of stuff.
posted by vega5960 at 12:23 PM on December 15, 2006

grumblebee, i also hate and fear starting new things. but i'm gradually implementing GTD with pretty decent success. here is my not-so-secret, non-patented method:


drink the coffee.
set the timer for ten minutes.
do a fast, messy mind-dump onto a piece of paper: write down every single thing you're thinking you should do.
when the ten minutes goes, set it again if you need to and keep listing.

when you have the list mostly completed, attack it with three highlighters:
*yellow for PHONE calls you need to make
*pink for stuff you have to do at the COMPUTER or on email
*green for HANDS-ON chores (errands, cleaning).

set the timer for 15 minutes and plow through the phone calls. ideally do this during lunchhour, so you get people's voicemails instead of having to chitchat. you'll be surprised how fast a phonecall can be- most take less than 2 minutes. cross them all off. DONE!

grin and pat yourself on the head.

set the timer for 15 minutes, sit at the computer, and send every single email you've been putting off writing, one at a time, in no particular order. again, it's amazing how quick you can do this- an email usually takes under 10 minutes to write. cross them all off. DONE!

your timer will ding before you're done. that's ok.
set it again and keep going.

the reason you keep setting it is psychological. you can't commit to a lifetime of productivity, that's madness. but you CAN commit to 15 minutes of productivity.
plus, if you get sidetracked by metafilter (damn you, hive mind), the timer snaps you out of it and keeps your digressions brief.

hey, wait a sec, you just finished all your emails!
cross them all off. DONE!

grin and pat yourself on the head.

now the errands.
scan the list. are there any you can do on the way to wherever you're going next? get up and grab the stuff you need (drycleaning, bills, etc) and stuff them into your shoes so you can't forget to take them out the door.

congratulations! you just implemented GGTD (Ghettto Getting Things Done), and you processed half your inbucket in the meantime.

grin and pat yourself on the head.
posted by twistofrhyme at 7:37 PM on December 25, 2006 [2 favorites]

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