We briefly introduced the GTD system in a previous make up article with a video of a presentation given to Google employees by GTD system creator David Allen.

As Rotarians, keeping up with our obligations is a core principle and a requirement.  Hopefully, we exercise some control over what is allowed to demand our attention, but this is not always the case.  My email inbox is has 10,000+ emails, everyday a mix of junk and critical mail comes at me, people text, email, call and ask me in person to look at something or do something.  Technology which was supposed to help us get a handle on these problems has actually greatly improved ways to communicate, therefore give us things that demand our attention, without adding too many ways to control what comes at us.

GTD is a way to deal with the million things that come at us.

At the core, GTD states that the mind is a terrible place to store your list of things to do.  The mind shifts, from one thing to the next without any apparent logic sometimes, and forgets things that are not in our immediate vicinity frequently.


GTD Workflow - Processing all the things to look at.

GTD is a way to gain some edges to our obligations - meaning it doesn't shrink our todos for us, but it does define where it ends and begins.

To the left is a diagram of how we process inputs in GTD.  

"In" - this is an inbox.  Everything we have to do but can't right now, everything we have to read, file, organize or otherwise demands our attention goes in here.  It doesn't have to be a physical box, or even a single box.  It can include that pocket in your wallet where you keep all your old receipts, a physical inbox, your email inbox, your voicemail or anything else you choose to include.  However, it is a finite set of places that once  you've perused through from beginning to end, everything you have to handle is captured.  Once an agreement has been reached with yourself that you will check this set of holding places with regularity, you will begin placing everything that needs further review into this set of holding places and nowhere else.


So occasionally, we have to review the things in our inbox.  It can be done as frequently or as infrequently as you deem necessary, but according to GTD author David Allen, most people require at least a weekly review.  When we review the inbox(es), each and every thing in the inbox gets asked these questions which we must answer for ourselves:

  1. What is this?
  2. Do I have to do something about it? (is this actionable?)

If the answer to the second question is NO - the things being reviewed can be:

  1. Trashed (ex. junk mail with no useful coupons)
  2. Filed for reference (ex.  credit card statements, your 401k statements, etc)
  3. Placed in a someday/maybe file (ex.  that idea for that book you scribbled on a napkin you want to write someday, that brainstorming scribble you did on the back of an envelope about that trip to Galapagos you want to take someday, etc)

If the thing you reviewed requires some action, it can be processed as below:

  1. Do what it requires if you have time right now (ex.  cable bill --> pay it)
  2. Delegate it (ex. cable bill --> give it it spouse to pay)
  3. Defer it and record it on my todo list if it doesn't have a definite due date (ex. reminder to call mom and say hello because it's been a while)
  4. Defer it and put it on a calendar if it does have a definite due date (ex. cable bill --> write on calendar pay cable bill on September 5th, 2016)

Sometimes, the thing being reviewed requires more than 1 action to achieve the desired result.  For example, if I'm looking at the plans for a backyard shed I told my wife that I would build this weekend, then that takes more than 1 action, so I can't write in my todo list - build backyard shed.  Processing the inbox requires thinking through all the component actions required to build that shed, like making a list of all the tools I'll need to make sure I have, or buy or borrow if I don't, checking the weather this weekend to make sure it won't rain, etc.  These are called projects - anything that requires more than 1 action to achieve the desired result.  Projects have todos or tasks that belong to them to achieve that result.  




So now we've processed all the things we need to look at.  Things have been thrown in the trash, put in a filing system for reference.  It turns out a few of those things require some things done, so entries have been made on the todo list or calendar.  People have been talked to, emailed, called, texted or otherwise had things from your inbox pushed into their inbox (ie delegation).

What to do with that long list of stuff to do now?

The things in our todo list that we have to do are called NextActions in GTD.  The term comes from the observation that people can only focus on and do one thing at a time.  You might say that that's not true and that you're a multi-tasker.  That is a confusion of the term and people simply can not multi-task as computers do - like displaying this website for you while checking for new emails in the background.  If you don't believe me, try holding a pen or pencil on each hand, and draw a circle with the right hand and a triangle with the left hand.  What we can do is answer a quick text after we got the coffee machine going and making coffee.  But the point is, we were making coffee, then answering a text, and not at the same time.  NextActions are discrete actions we can do, and the term is a reminder to focus on the here and now, then move on to the next things.

There are many ways to organize your tasks and todos - alphabetically, by order of importance, by the order we thought of them, etc.  GTD recommends the tasks be organized by the context we can do them in.  No matter how important going over that contract with Bob at work is, you can't do it if Bob is not in front of you and you're home.  NextAction contexts are marked with an @ symbol, to indicate that's where it can be done.

Some common contexts that most people use are:

@office - for things that need to be done when you're at the office/job site/place of work - example:  install new fax machine @office
@home - for things that need to be done when you're at home - example:  look at garbage disposal to see what's making that funny sound @home
@agenda(Bob) - for things you need to go over with Bob while you're with Bob (or anyone else) - example:  go over contract with Bob @agenda(Bob)
@calls - for things you need to call about when you're in front of the phone - example:  call Bob to set up time to go over contract @calls
@computer - for things you need to do when you're in front of the computer - example:  email questions about contract to Bob @computer 
@errands - for things you need to do when you're out and about running errands - example:  buy milk and bread @errands
@anywhere - for things you can do anywhere - example:  think about some ideas to help improve office morale @anywhere

Obviously, these can be modified to organize your tasks in anyway you see fit.  Maybe you work in two offices so two contexts are necessary - @office1 and @office2, or you maintain two cell phones for work and private calls - @callw and @callp - etc.

Organizing tasks in this way prevents leaving a place and then realizing on thing was forgotten.


The article is a very short and simplistic summary of GTD.  If you're interested in finding out more, the Getting Things Done book by David Allen is still available on paperback and in e-book editions.

GTD as described in the original book is a pen-and-paper system.  That's a perfectly valid way of organizing our things to do.  People still keep manila folders with @work, @home, etc labels and sheafs of notepapers with things to do dropped in them.

Now-a-days however, most everybody has moved on to doing this on computers, but the core principles remain relevant.  Doing this on a computer confers certain advantages.

First, using the cloud, the list of tasks can be made available on the computer, phone and tablet, all being used to enter and check-off tasks when you think of them & finish them, maintaining a single, clean list.  

Also, various search functions on a computer allow you to look for things like everything with an @work tag - to tell you what you need to do at work today.

Thirdly, a phone with an app is much easier to carry around than a suitcase of manilla folders or a notebook.  The little convenience means the tasks are easier to access, meaning the system will be used more.


The link below lists all the specialized software tools that can be used to implement GTD on a computer and smart phone.


This usually can be accomplished with a few free apps.  

Thank you for visiting the Rotary E-Club of the Peninsula and we look forward to your return visit.

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