Productivity methods shouldn’t be complicated. To some extent, they should actually be invisible. Their function is to facilitate the workflow so that it’s smooth and streamlined. If we are spending all our time making a ton of lists or trying to color-code every letter, then we aren’t actually getting anything done.

The Getting Things Done or GTD method is one that is meant to provide simplification to the process. It’s not intended to be complex or intimidating. The focus is on a full awareness of everything that’s going on inside of your head at any given moment. And from there it’s about getting it out of your head and into a document, organizing each item, and determining its importance level.

The system was created by author and productivity consultant David Allen, who also wrote a bestselling book in 2001 explaining the process in detail. It’s remained popular over the years because it’s simple and it works.

The focus is on a full awareness of everything that’s going on inside of your head at any given moment.

The Basic Idea

The central idea behind this is that once you have ideas captured (somewhere other than in your mind), you have the freedom to flow and reduce the stress that sometimes comes with too many things on a to-do list. It gives you a clear-cut system so that you stay on track and avoid distractions. And because you document everything on paper or a digital note system, you never worry that you’ve forgotten something important.

The GTD system also has a lot of flexibility because there isn’t one single way to do it. You adapt it to your style of life. And you aren’t required to buy a special journal or app. And like most any productivity method out there, you can take what you like and modify it as needed.

The Five Fundamentals of GTD

The Getting Things Done approach has five steps at its core. These fundamental pieces are in place to help you give some sense of order to the chaos that can be life and work.

  1. Capture.
    In this first phase of the process, your attention is on everything that is filling your mind — every to-do item, every idea, and every task. You record those items within a system of your choice. This could be a notes app, a document on your computer, or a physical notebook.

    The mode of capturing should be something that you are used to and something that you are likely to really implement. And it should also be something that you have access to when you need it. You want to write it all down, and you to make it easy for yourself to always write down to-dos and ideas as they come up.

  2. Clarify.
    Now that you’ve done the brain-dump and put everything down in words, you have to go through the list and figure out the nature of each item. Can you take action on it? If it’s a big idea without a clear action, can you break it down into steps?

    You want to make everything crystal clear so that when it’s time to get to the work of doing, you know what that actually means. If there is no action associated with the item, then it shouldn’t be on the list. Is it an urgent to-do or could you reschedule it for later down the line? Do you need to do it or should it be delegated to someone else? Aim for as much clarity and simplification as possible.

  3. Organize.
    Now it’s time to get all those action steps in order. This is where you decide what category each task should go into and what priority level it should take on. Give tasks a deadline if possible, and put them into specific timeslots on your calendar.

    Set any reminders you need to set, and decide how you want to mark items that are top priority. That might mean putting them literally at the top of the list, highlighting them, or putting a star next to them.

  4. Reflect.
    This system is not a one-and-done type of thing. It’s an ongoing process that you will want to review often and continue to update in order to stay caught up and maintain focus. Note where you are making progress, how you need to adjust priorities, and tweak the method as you need to.

  5. Engage.
    It’s not a productivity system unless you are productive! This is the phase in which you are actually doing. Now that you’ve de-cluttered your mind and given it some organization, you are ready to dive into taking real action. It should be easy at this point to know exactly what the options are and which ones take priority.  

Using these basic principles, you’ll undoubtedly get more done with less stress so you can enjoy life more fully. And as you use the system, it will become second nature so that you forget there’s a system at all and only see the flow.

Make it Work For You

People are not automated machines. (At least not yet!) We are individuals, with individual preferences, and therefore these productivity “methods” are meant to serve as frameworks — not hard-and-fast rules. The beauty of GTD is that it’s very easy to adapt to whatever your style of life and work is currently.

The GTD system has a lot of flexibility because there isn’t one single way to do it.

Now if you’re in the market for a productivity system in the first place, then you probably aren’t getting as much done as you’d like. Your current methods aren’t effective, and your current style of life might actually be getting in the way.

In my experience, the best approach is to (at the very least) give a new system a chance. Sometimes the newness of it is exciting enough to allow you a fresh perspective and measurable success. And perhaps if you’ve always kept a paper notebook, but you are struggling with getting things done, you should switch over to digital to experiment with how a different tool might benefit you.

Use a Reliable “Capture” Tool

Part of the challenge in today’s world is having so many ideas and items on our lists. We are busier than ever and (for better or worse) that means more ideas and tasks than ever. And if you’re abiding by the GTD methodology in an ongoing fashion, this translates to always having access to your master “Capture” list.

You don’t want to lose an idea or forget something that you are supposed to do. You want to get it written down immediately. So don’t put any unnecessary barriers in the way.

If you constantly get ideas on the go, you need a tool that is always with you. If you are using a paper notebook, you might need to take it with you wherever you go. The upside of digital notebook apps is that many are accessible from a desktop, laptop, or a mobile device — meaning a simpler integration into your busy life.

Consistency is Key

No matter what details you modify in a system in order to make it your own, you have to use it consistently if you want to see progress — at least a month so that you have a chance to get in a rhythm.

It’s also great to build consistency and habit around when you focus on it. If you remember step number four, part of the system itself is to reflect regularly upon the list and the process. Most likely, you’ll refer to it daily, since it’s all about productivity. So maybe you check in on it first thing every morning. Or perhaps you make time to really comb through it thoroughly once a week to be sure the tasks are properly aligned with your bigger picture goals. If the alignment isn’t there, then your productivity doesn’t mean a whole lot.

Lastly, you want to keep consistency in where you do the capturing and organizing. It’s best to avoid keeping a few notes on a paper notebook and others on a digital app. Something is bound to get lost or forgotten that way. Keep everything in one place.

Getting things done means DOING THE THINGS.

There are a lot of different approaches to productivity, so if GTD doesn’t work for you, don’t be discouraged. Modify the system as you need to or just try something else. This one happens to be used by a whole lot of people so it’s worth attempting.

And probably the most crucial piece of advice here is don’t get so caught up in steps one through four that you have no time left to spend on step five — actually doing the tasks. Focusing too much on organizing, reorganizing, and organizing again is often a way to procrastinate or put off something that just feels too hard.

Ultimately, productivity is about doing the work (and about knowing WHICH work to do) so make sure the bulk of your time goes there. You can get a more in-depth look at this method by getting Allen’s book, but this five-step framework is all you truly need to get started.

Getting things done is fulfilling. It reduces your stress, minimizes uncertainty, and makes you more of an asset to those you work with. Choosing a simple system to support your efforts is the best thing you can do to give you the boost you need to experience greater flow in work and life.

<- Go back to The Productivity Guide