If you feel disorganized or overwhelmed or do not know where to start doing the various tasks you need to do, I have some good news. Imagine a personal productivity system that will free you from this stress. This system that I bring you today will automatically help you always choose the next task to be done. This is how you will set priorities and achieve great results.
Did you like it? This is the promise of the Getting Things Done method, or simply GTD, created by David Allen.
GTD can be understood as a flow chart. At the entrance, you place all the demands you have in your life. These demands go through a series of steps for you to decide what task to do next. Just follow the flowchart and you will always know what the next task to be done is, according to a logical order that adapts to each situation in your life.
This system has already been used by millions of people around the world. Even though it was created almost twenty years ago, GTD remains the preferred method of personal productivity for many people. And the reason is simple: the system really works.
In today’s Arata Academy Summary, we’ll take a closer look at how you can apply GTD to your life. We will understand how to set up your sequence of activities, how to set priorities in your projects and how to apply tags so that you always know the right task to be done.
You will finish this summary ready to take your personal productivity to the next level. Let’s start by understanding the basic principle of GTD.
All your life’s demands must be in a unique and reliable system. The less demands you have on your mind, the better.
The basic principle of GTD is to get the demands out of your head and put them all in a single, reliable system. Our mental energy is attracted to incomplete tasks. It is as if they were open circuits, which are draining our attention because it is not where it should be. When a task is completed, that task leaves our head and stops draining our energy.
Our mind is an excellent tool for imagination, connecting ideas and creating solutions. But it is a terrible storage tool.
When we use our mind to remember everything we have to do, we cause an overload. Thus, we can neither remember everything, nor leave free space for the mind to create ideas and imagine solutions.
The way out of this is to put all our written demands in one place. To gain efficiency, you will have a single place for all the tasks you have to do in life, organized by project, context and priority.
Imagine what your days would be like with such a system. You start your day by opening the system. Then the system automatically tells you everything you have to do that day. And the best part: it already shows you the tasks in the correct order and with all the details you need to start acting with high productivity.
This can become a reality if you incorporate the five steps of the GTD into your workflow: collect, process, organize, review and do. Now let’s look at each of these five steps in detail.
First step: Collect all your demands in inboxes as soon as they appear in your life. That way you don’t risk leaving anything out.
The first step for having a reliable system is to collect absolutely all your demands in inboxes. Inboxes are physical or virtual places where you collect the demands that appear in your daily life. It can be your mailbox, a physical tray for collecting mail or a list in a task manager.
At GTD, these inboxes are the place where your life’s tasks begin to go through your new flow of productivity.
You can have as many inboxes as you think are necessary, but the ideal is to have as little as possible to handle your demands. A good number is to have three inboxes: one single virtual inbox, one physical inbox in your home and one physical inbox in your office.
The first step is to choose a task management application. Ideally, it should be an application that can be installed on your phone and on your computer and that synchronizes your tasks between these different devices.
There are hundreds of such applications. Choose one that has the ability to create multiple lists, that allows you to add repetitive dates and tasks and that lets you tag or label tasks.
This task management application will be your virtual inbox. Whenever a demand arises in your life, you should write this task down in your task manager inbox, simply and quickly. The reason for transferring the task to your inbox is that it makes your mind calmer. You don’t have to take up mental space worrying about remembering that subject.
For example, you opened the refrigerator and saw that milk is missing. Take the cell phone and write it down or tell the virtual assistant to write it down in your task manager: “buy milk”. Another example: you received an email from someone asking you to do something. Take note of this demand or simply forward the email to your task manager.
Your physical inboxes should be predefined places for you to place objects that reach you and that need some action. Usually these physical inboxes are trays where you place mail, bills received, documents and other physical items.
If you can take a picture with your phone and turn these physical items and virtual notes into your task manager, that’s even better.
The important thing is not the specific way you collect, but the attitude of always collecting everything that appears in your life in mailboxes. Don’t keep things in your head. Don’t try to remember everything, filling your mind. A task manager is able to store all of this in a much more efficient way than your head.
The first time you apply the GTD to your life, you have to do a general collection. You have to think about all areas of your life and start writing down all the tasks you have to do in your inbox. After this initial collection, the act of collecting should become a habit in your life. Whenever something new appears that requires your action, write it down in your inbox.
The second step will be to process the meaning of each item that you have collected to define what needs to be done about it.
Second step: Process your inbox item by item, without leaving anything behind. Separate what is actionable and what is not.
After collecting your tasks, the second step of the flow is to process each item you have collected to understand what you are going to do with it. To process an item, you must ask yourself three questions: “What is it? Is it actionable? If so, what is the next action?”
The first question, “What is this?”, serves only for recognition. Sometimes we collect an item in the inbox because we think it is important, but when we are going to process it, we realize that it was not so important.
So, the essential question is: “Is this item actionable?”. If the answer is no, you have three things to do: discard, incubate or keep it for reference.
If the item is not actionable and there is nothing to do with it, simply delete it from your task manager. For example, imagine that you wrote “Yesterday the price of gold fell by ten percent”. But so what? Are you going to invest in gold? Does this information have any practical aspect that deserves a specific action on your side? In fact, you shouldn’t even have written something that isn’t actionable. With practice, you will notice when certain information is not actionable.
If there is no action needed now, move that item to a list called “Someday / Maybe”. This list will keep incubated ideas, which in the future may turn into action. The “Someday / Maybe” list stores tasks that you are not going to do now or are not sure if you are going to do.
If the item has not been discarded and will not become an action in the future, it can be kept for reference only. For example, let’s say you did a medical exam, took a picture of the result and threw it in your inbox. There is no action to be taken with it, but you may want to consult this data in the future. Then simply move that item to a reference list. The reference list must be a file storage system different from your task manager. After all, we are not dealing with a task.
The question that will change your personal productivity is: “What is the next action?”
The essential core of a good productivity system is to tell you what the next task is. In GTD, this question is asked when processing.
You first collected a demand in your inbox. Then you started processing it and understood that the item was actionable. Now you need to ask yourself: “what is the next action?”
This answer can take you two ways. If the next action is a task that you do at once, it should be moved to a list of single tasks. But if the next action needs several steps to take, it must be transformed into a Project.
A Project is any task that needs more than one step to complete. For example, you took notes that you need to change your glasses. This task is not accomplished with a single action. You don’t just go to the optic shop and buy new glasses.
This task is actually a project, which needs several steps to be carried out. You need to make an appointment, go to the eye doctor, do the exams, get the prescription for the glasses, go to the optician to order the glasses, wait for them to be ready, go to the optician to get the glasses, and then you need to check the lenses.
See that what seemed like a simple task is actually a sequence of steps that you need to take. So what you are going to do is have a list of projects in your task manager, where you will add the project “Change the glasses”. Within this project, you will list all the steps you need to take to complete the project to change glasses.
Each step of this should be a unique action, something that can really be done. The ideal is to break all tasks into small steps that can be taken in practice, as this avoids procrastination and facilitates the execution of tasks.
If the task takes less than two minutes to complete, it is not worth writing down in the system. Just do it right away.
At this stage of processing, if you saw a task that is actionable and it takes less than two minutes to do, do it right away. Such a simple and fast task does not even deserve to be placed in your task manager. The time it will take you to write it down and organize it is greater than the time it would take you to perform the task.
Now, if the task takes more than two minutes, you have two ways to go: delegate or defer. Tasks that do not need or cannot be done by you should be delegated. For example, let’s say that in your work you need to have a report with a detailed analysis of information. But you have an intern who can do it for you. Then you delegate the activity to the intern and advise on what the most important data to be examined are. Then simply delegate that task to whoever is able to perform it.
Tasks that you delegate to others should be listed in a list in your task manager called “Waiting/On Hold”. There you write down all the tasks you have delegated and to whom you delegated them. This is how you can keep track of things and don’t forget to check how those tasks are going. If necessary, you can also note down the date that the person committed to perform that task. So, when the date arrives, your task manager warns you and you can check with that person how things are going.
For tasks that cannot be delegated, you have two options. If the task has a certain date to be done, it should be placed on a list in your task manager called Calendar. This list must be exclusive for tasks that can only be done on that day. This way, you will be setting aside a specific block of time to handle this task.
Beware of the temptation for you to assign a specific date for all of your tasks. If you do this, there is a risk of becoming overwhelmed and frustrated when you are unable to handle things and accumulate multiple commitments past the due date. For example, reading a book, buying milk or cleaning the garden are not tasks that in general require booking a specific day and time in your Calendar. For these tasks, you simply follow the sequence of what the next action to be done is, but without having to dedicate a special date for it.
Returning to the example of glasses, your appointment with the eye doctor is a task that can only be performed on that day and time of the scheduled appointment. On the other hand, you may want to go to the optic shop on a certain day, but that does not mean that this is a task that should be included in the Calendar list.
Those tasks that don’t have a specific day to be done should be on the list of next actions for each project. So you will have a list of next steps to be taken within each project to complete each of those projects.
Third step: Organize your tasks in context to always know what to do in any situation in your life. Contexts serve as filters for action.
Organizing is the third step in the GTD flow, after the Collect and Process steps. At this stage of organization, you need to make sure that all your lists are ready according to what you have processed. Recalling, the lists are: Delete, Sometime / Maybe, Reference, Oh Hold, Calendar and Projects with the next actions.
It is also in the Organize stage that you must add context tags to each of your tasks.
Think of these tags as filters that will tell you exactly what to do in each situation in your life. We talked a little about this in episode 137 of the Hello! Seiiti Arata.
Basically, you need to take each task that you have listed among the next actions of a project and add tags for places, time available, available energy and priority.
For example, in your list of tasks to change glasses, the appointment can only be made when you are on the phone. Then this task must be labeled with the tag “phone”.
If you have a task that can only be done in a specific place, that task should be labeled with the tag that has the name of that place. In some task managers, this can even be a geolocation tag. So, when you are in this place, your cell phone will display a notification to remind you to do the task you have to do in that place.
With this, you can filter your tasks according to the context you are in. For example, when you are on the phone, you can filter all tasks that have the “phone” label and do all of them.
In addition to the place, you can also add tags for available time. You can check whether that task will take a long or short time to complete. In order to do that, you can use markers with the number of minutes you estimate it will take perform that task. If you are unable to make these estimates, you can use more generic labels like “S, M and L”, for example. The same can be done for tasks that require little or a lot of energy on your part.
Finally, you can mark tasks with priorities from one to four. Priority one is for what is urgent and important. Priority two is for what is non-urgent but important. Priority three is for what is urgent but not important. And priority four is for what is neither urgent nor important.
The advantage of this is that you can combine the tags to always find the right task at the right time. For example, when you are at home and have fifteen minutes available, you can filter your tasks so that the manager shows only the tasks with the “home” and “M” placeholders.
Fourth step: Review your lists to keep the system always reliable. Collect something every day and review everything once a week.
The only way you can reduce the stress of having to remember everything you have to do is if you trust your productivity system to be reliable. To do this, you need to do two things: collect everything that appears in your life in the system and review it once a week to ensure that everything is in place.
In your daily life, the act of collecting is very simple. Whenever a demand has appeared in front of you, you just throw it in your inbox. This can be done very quickly, without complications. Did you run out of milk at home? Write in the task manager or even tell the phone to “buy milk”. This “buy milk” demand will stay there in your inbox.
Do this every day, whenever a new task arises for you. When collecting, don’t worry about details. You don’t need to write well, put labels, set deadlines, nothing like that. This will be done during its weekly review, the fifth stage of the GTD.
The weekly review is a step that must be done in the right day, time and procedure. The recommendation is that you do it on Friday afternoon, to end the week and start the rest period of the weekend with a free mind. But it can be done any day and time that fits your routine best.
The script is a kind of checklist in which you define the points you will make during the weekly review. This roadmap should start with emptying your inboxes. Take each item, in the order they appear, and ask the questions in the Process and Organize steps.
Remembering, first you ask “What is this? Is it actionable?”. If not, you delete it, put it on the “Someday / Maybe” list, or save it to a reference list. If so, you ask yourself “What is the next action?” and then put it on a list of separate tasks, on a project or on the Calendar list if the action has a certain day to happen. When you do that, you also tag each task with the context of place, time available, energy available and priority.
After emptying your inboxes, you can have other items on your weekly review script. For example, you can check your bank account statement, prepare the shopping list for the week or schedule for next week’s events. Anything that makes sense for your life and leaves you with the feeling that everything is up to date and in order.
Fifth step: Perform only the next action. From task to task, you will see your big dreams come true.
The fifth and last of the GTD’s five stages is Doing. A productivity system only makes sense if you really do what you plan to do. There is no point in having everything organized in a reliable system if this does not result in practical action.
To do this, you must focus only on performing the next task. Forget the big picture, the difficulties of the next day, the pile of tasks that are waiting for you. Focus only on doing the next action.
With everything you have in hand, this will be very easy. The system will practically tell you what to do next. The most productive way to do this is to look at the manager for priority one tasks that can be done where you are now.
For example, let’s say you are in your office. What are the tasks of priority one with the office marker? Filter the manager and it will show you what to do next. You can refine the filter by combining the available time and energy markers. What are the tasks of priority one with the office marker and a time of thirty minutes?
When you make filters like that, you take out of the way everything that cannot be done at that moment. This makes it much easier to know what the next step is.
Your day-to-day life should focus on this Doing step. Remember that your goal is not to polish the system, organize the tasks or make everything beautiful. Your goal is to produce. Leave the organization for the weekly review. If something new appears, simply collect it in your inbox and leave it to organize in the weekly review. But in your daily life, just focus on doing what has to be done.
When properly implemented, GTD can be the difference between having stressful days and extremely productive days. This system can put an end to that feeling that you can’t handle everything you have to do. GTD does not solve all productivity problems at all, but it is an excellent start to put everything in place and give you the opportunity to start producing better.
One of the points that the GTD does not address, for example, is time management. How can you do the tasks in order to optimize the time you have each day?
To deepen this subject, I prepared a special class on the Productivity Ninja course just to talk about time management. You can see this special class right now here.