A beginner’s guide to Getting Things Done®

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September 16, 2014

A beginner’s guide to Getting Things Done®

Getting Things Done is a time management technique that took the world by storm when it was first published in 2001. It was created by David Allen after years of research and practice in the field of productivity methods. (As some of you already know, Zenkit founder and CEO, Martin Welker had the honor of interviewing Mr. Allen for The Next Web this year.)

GTD has remained popular until this day, and enjoys a strong following around the world. If you’re new to GTD, this guide will introduce you to the main principles. If you’re an old hand, keep your eyes peeled for next week’s article on how to set up GTD in Zenkit.

What is GTD?
Getting Things Done (GTD for short) is much more than just a way to get things done. It is a framework for organizing and tracking tasks, such that you can 100% trust that the things on your to do list truly are the things you need to do.

GTD forces you to add both context and structure to tasks — getting things out of your mind and into a space where you can start working on them.

The basic concept of GTD is that your brain is excellent at having new ideas, but terrible at remembering them. For example, it remembers that you need to get a present for your mum’s birthday next week, but instead of reminding you when you walk past her favorite store, it just leaves you with a nagging feeling that you should have bought something… for someone…?

When used properly, GTD is a foolproof system that helps you take your vague ideas, whims, inspirations, and late night musings, and turn them into actions. The idea is that once you trust your system, your brain will stop trying to keep track of everything, thus reducing stress and freeing up brain-power for more productive things. Sounds awesome, right?

GTD relies on a series of lists that you use to organize everything that comes to your mind. To implement GTD, you need to capture and process the ‘stuff’ that enters your life, following a workflow of 5 steps.

Capture: Collect what has your attention. This is anything on your mind, from emails that require action, to brilliant ideas that come to you in the shower. You could use a notebook or app, or even an email to yourself as an ‘inbox’. Whether it’s a to-do, something you enjoyed, something you need to remember for work, write it down. Make sure you check all of your different inboxes regularly.
Clarify: Process what it means. Ask yourself if it’s ‘actionable’, if it’s something you need to do something about. This is a very quick step insurance for trip that you need to do regularly. Later on I’ll show you how to process quickly using a simple decision tree.
Organize: Put it where it belongs. File it away as a reference, add it to your calendar, add it to your task management app, or simply move it to the trash. You can also add ‘context’ here. I’ll talk more about this later, but in short, contexts are a way to tag tasks with the person, place, or thing you need to get something done. ‘Office’ or ‘home’ are common location contexts. ‘Phone’ or ‘Email’ are common thing contexts.
Reflect: Review frequently. Look over your lists — every one of them — and make adjustments if you need to. Do a weekly review to clear up your lists and clear out your mind. Failure to review regularly means things pile up and the whole system breaks.
Engage: Simply do. This step is the simplest of all, if you’ve set up your system well! If you regularly work through the first 4 steps, then you know with 100% confidence that the things on your list are things you need to do to make solid progress towards achieving your goals.
Next up are your lists: ‘inbox’, ‘next actions’, ‘waiting for…’, ‘projects’, and ‘someday’. These lists form the backbone of the GTD system. Each thing that needs your attention lands in the ‘inbox’ list, then percolates down to other lists through the clarifying and organizing steps. How you process and sort these lists determines which things you act on, and which you don’t.

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