How to Get Started with Getting Things Done (GTD®) Immediately

Here is a guide designed to get you started on the Getting Things Done® (GTD®) productivity system immediately. If you are in a task management crisis, already know about GTD, and just want to know an easy way to get started, skip straight to the “Getting Started with GTD from Scratch: Pen and Paper” section. If you want a little more background about GTD first, keep reading.

Why I First Started Using GTD

I first learned about the productivity system called GTD several years ago when I was in a fast-moving technology start-up and I found it difficult to keep track of all the projects and tasks on my plate.

The GTD website describes itself this way:

GTD is a total work-life management system that transforms overwhelm into an integrated system of stress-free productivity. David Allen, inventor of the GTD methodology, is widely recognized as the world’s leading expert on personal and organizational productivity.

I was overwhelmed alright! I was getting tasks thrown at me from all over the place (email, phone calls, meetings, conversations), and keeping track of it all in my head, jotting down notes randomly, or slapping sticky notes all over the place just didn’t cut it. I dropped a lot of balls before finding GTD, but GTD gave me a sane way to get back on top of everything I had to do by helping me organize my work by “projects” and “next actions”.  I eventually worked in a position at a different company with much fewer multi-tasking demands and I gradually used GTD less and less.

Fast forward to only a few months ago, and I found myself needing to re-learn and re-implement GTD within a personal context as my wife and I juggled what seemed like thousands of new tasks and chores related to starting a new family in a new city with entirely new life demands. While the system as a whole has a fairly steep learning curve, I found parts of it immediately easy to implement with a huge return on time investment.

The site has a conceptual “GTD Methodology” graphic split into 5 steps that orients you to the system but perhaps raises more questions than answers.

GTD Methodology
Screenshot taken from

I have talked to many people over the years who have attempted to implement GTD and have not gotten very far. They may have the book (all 352 pages!!!) sitting on their desk unread, or they may have even started the book and found the language to be a bit technical. They may have also shied away from implementing parts of it because they were told it had to be all or nothing.

I’m here to tell you that starting GTD is EASY if you don’t allow yourself to get sideswiped by implementation details early on.

Getting Started with GTD from Scratch: Pen and Paper

To get started with GTD, keep the following principles in mind:

  1. Start with the simplest and most powerful concepts immediately.
  2. Learn what works for you as you go and don’t get hung up on implementation details early on.
  3. Add tools, techniques, and details over time as you have time to research it and try out new things.

Let’s start to simplify your initial GTD implementation by focusing on eliminating the source of confusion for most people. Nearly EVERYONE gets hung up on how best to organize their tasks and filing and folder systems. Forget about sophisticated whiz-bang organization for the time being and start with a super streamlined and simple organization scheme.

We are going to get you going with a GTD prototype, and you can make it more sophisticated as you learn the basics over time.

  • Step 1: Get a pen (or pencil) and a pad of paper.
    Go low fidelity first! Plus, your paper doesn’t run out of batteries.
  • Step 2: Conduct a Mind Sweep.
    On a piece of paper, simply list out everything that’s on your mind that may require action or attention on your part. Think of “To-dos” at work (ex. request time off for Christmas) or at home (ex. clean gutters). Think of birthdays and special occasions coming up that may require action on your part, even if you haven’t determined that action yet. Think of fun things, like trips you may want to plan. Anything is fair game. People tend to keep way too much of this stuff in their heads instead of getting it down on paper. Give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm and get this stuff out of your mind.

    • Note: I don’t even know if the “Mind Sweep” is an official part of the GTD methodology listed in the book, I just know David Allen has talked about it as being a key part of his initial work with clients, and I find myself conducting them when I have let too many loose ends accumulate in my life. It is a wildly helpful exercise you will likely want to revisit!
    • If you have 23 minutes, you can listen to David Allen guide you through a mind sweep the way he would with a client.
  • Step 3: Organize your Mind Sweep into a Task Inventory System (my term) consisting of  “Projects”, “Next Actions” or “Someday/Maybe” lists.
    The tendency is to try to over-complicate this right out of the gate. You will have plenty of time to navigate thousands of debates about which tool is best for organizing GTD tasks. Resist the temptation and stick with paper at first!

    • Think of a project as anything that contains several actions. Also realize that where most people fall apart in their productivity is under-estimating how much goes into doing something. Let’s say in your Mind Sweep you have an item for “Dentist Appointment.” This looks simple enough, but you haven’t done anything about it for a reason and you may not even realize why. In reality, you probably haven’t done this because it is a “PROJECT”, not a simple “Next Action.”  Subconsciously you know making this dentist appointment is likely to be a huge hassle, but you haven’t clarified why. Here is what you can do:
      • On a blank piece of paper (separate from your initial Mind Sweep), write the title “Dentist Appointment.” Congratulations, you have a new “Projects” page.
      • Write out the very next action you think you need to take as clearly as possible. Eliminate guess-work for when you revisit this project in the future. For instance, it may turn out you don’t even have a dentist yet. And you don’t even know who a good one is! So, your “Next Action” may be “Ask Joe (at work) who he uses as a dentist on Monday.”
      • Good job, you now have a concrete next action you can take! You also have a specific timeframe involved, so you will want to set some kind of reminder to perform this task on Monday. See Step 5 for more information about executing tasks from your Task Inventory System.
      • You can keep brainstorming useful actions associated with a project or move on to other projects.
      • You can create separate pages for each project or combine them on to one page, whichever technique works best for you.
      • Remember, you can add organizational nuance and layer on tools over time. People get tripped up because they fixate on where to keep and maintain different lists of “Next Actions” and “Projects” and miss that the most powerful concept is having a list to begin with! Compile your key lists first and worry about organization later. De-clutter your mind of this stuff!
  • Step 4: Use the “2 Minute Rule” for immediate action.
    There is a valuable rule in GTD called the 2 minute rule. If you can do it in 2 minutes or less, go ahead and do it. In general it is a good habit of knocking out simple tasks when they come up rather than going to the trouble of writing them down or trying to keep track of them any other way. As you go through your list, feel free to knock out easy tasks that have any value. Feel free to delete the ones that don’t.
  • Step 5: Develop a Strategy for executing tasks that take longer than 2 minutes.
    There is no right or wrong way to do this, but this is another area where people seem to get confused on GTD. There are MANY strategies you can employ for how you tackle (or defer or delete) your backlog of tasks, but here are a few simple things to keep in mind:

    1. Time-sensitive tasks: If you have time-sensitive tasks, you need a way of knowing when to do them. This is another place where people debate tools. Just know that you need to be able to schedule tasks in a way you can trust. Even writing a reminder on your hand or emailing yourself is better than nothing at this point, though you will want to get more sophisticated with this sort of thing eventually by incorporating a day planner, a calendar, phone reminder, or some other time-based organizing device(s).
    2. Creating Weekly and Daily Task Lists is OK: If it helps you to create a To-Do list for the week or for the day that represents a small subset of all the stuff on Task Inventory System, that’s fine. You may find better ways to get things done than creating To-Do lists in the future, but they work fine in a pinch to help focus you on a small number of things during a set time period.
    3. Scheduling time to work on Projects: You may find it helpful to schedule out blocks of time to work on larger projects. For instance, say one of your projects is “Vacation to Hawaii.” Perhaps you and your spouse need to set up some time to discuss the options together, which will generate ideas and more tasks. You can track all the ideas on your “Vacation to Hawaii” Project sheet.
  • Step 6: Create “Waiting For” lists or indicators to help you keep track of items that depend on other people responding to you.
    My guess is that at least 80% of the world’s population does not have a system for keeping track of items that someone else is handling. For instance, say I am trying to make progress on my “Dentist Appointment” project and call Joe to complete my next action. However, I get his voicemail and leave him the question “Hey Joe, I just wanted to call and ask you who you use as a dentist.” It is way too easy to leave it at that, and all the sudden the “Dentist Appointment” project goes off of my radar unless Joe happens to get back in touch with me. If he doesn’t, the project stays on hold until I MAY remember to follow-up with him in the midst of 1,000 other things I’m trying to do three weeks later. The solution? A “Waiting For” list or indicator. This is a simple concept, but so powerful. It is THE WAY to keep a project alive and on your radar even when you’re waiting on someone else to do something.You have a couple of simple ways to get started with this:

    • Create a separate “Waiting For” list to keep track of items and the associated projects that are depending on other people to respond to you. You will know to review this list periodically and follow-up with people if necessary, and/or
    • Put an indicator or note directly beside your “Next Action” or “Project” letting you know you are waiting on something before the project can proceed.
  • Step 7: Review your lists periodically and revise as needed.
    Many people are NOT this organized with the way they think of the thousands of things they need to get done. They live their lives reacting to circumstances and random thoughts popping into their heads rather than systematically thinking through what they need to get done. Just doing this process outlined above and reviewing your Task Inventory System can give you an immediate sense of clarity and start you well on the road to organized, peaceful productivity. As you begin to get used to thinking this way, you are then well-positioned to fully explore the GTD methodology over time, evaluate new tools and techniques, and grow your productivity arsenal.

Maintaining GTD: Letting No Ball Drop Again

The process for maintaining GTD in its simplest form is not much different from how you get started from scratch. The main difference is that you should not be having to do Mind Sweeps every time a new task comes up. You now have an organized foundation! So, here is what you need:

  • Get a physical Inbox!!!

The “Inbox” is such a key concept of GTD, and those who fail to implement GTD may not even understand its power. The Inbox is the place where you corral various things that come across your path that require your attention but you don’t have time to deal with. When in doubt, put an item in your Inbox and process it later! You should use the 2 Minute Rule to execute small tasks immediately if possible, but if not possible, lean on your Inbox as a holding area for stuff crossing your path you need to deal with soon, but not immediately. Gone are the days when you should have scraps of paper or sticky notes lying around. Put everything you need to deal with in an Inbox and set aside time to process what is in that Inbox.

Here is my Inbox right now:

My Inbox for GTD
My Inbox for GTD

There are a lot of miscellaneous things in there:

  • There is a checklist I use when we have babysitters. The checklist helps them know the exact routine we use to put our daughters to sleep at night and it helps us make sure we have provided the right materials for them to pull this feat off. The checklist is in my Inbox because it requires a few minor revisions, but I have not gotten to those yet. I need to review the checklist one more time, make a few revisions, then I can throw away or shred this piece of paper.
  • There is a journal my wife got for me that I need to update and keep somewhere, but I have not figured out where yet.
  • There is artwork done by one of my daughters that I intend to take a photo of and put in Evernote. I am still wincing at the decision of filing it away somewhere or discarding it. My hope is Evernote will let me save the memory without me becoming a hoarder, but again, I don’t have the energy to make that choice quite yet.
  • Underneath all of that, there is yet more stuff that I need to do something with.

Here is the key: This is stuff I did not have time or energy to organize immediately, but I did not leave it lying around the house. I have the intention of doing something with it, and its destination is something organized, not haphazard.

Use a physical Inbox to collect things that need your attention, but always remember that you are ultimately performing “Next Actions” and working through “Projects” no matter what you are doing.

Enhancing GTD

There is a ton more to GTD than what I have outlined above, including elaborate filing systems, or reminder systems, context consideration, task prioritization, and so forth. Many of these are quite useful, but some people do not need all of these things! The needs of a college student are different from those of a stay-at-home mom (or dad in my case), which are different from those of an on-the-go executive.

What I have outlined above is a far more powerful methodology than most people employ and should be a useful way to think about projects for almost anyone, even if you don’t use GTD in all its glory. Too many people try to eat the entire GTD elephant up front by implementing tools and techniques and elaborate filing systems and they miss the power of the simplest form of a GTD implementation. Over time you will likely find you need to consider your “Digital GTD” setup and you will need different ways to surface tasks depending on your context. Add these tools and considerations over time but don’t get stuck on details and throw out everything in the beginning.

Here are some resources to continue your GTD journey as you have time:

  • GTD in 15 Minutes – A more thorough overview of the entire GTD system.
  • The Getting Things Done podcast – A recent and fantastic resource for learning more about the GTD world.
  • Inbox Zero – Applying GTD to your email is critical, but it’s involved enough that it warrants its own focused time and attention. This is a resource to get you started.
  • Things App Getting Started Guide – “Things” is a fantastic and simple task management app for the Mac and iPhone that maps to GTD well. However, even if you don’t end up using it, the guide is a great way to learn more about how “Projects” and “Next Actions” can work together.
  • Evernote – At some point you are likely to want a digital filing system. I have not seen anything that comes close to Evernote. It is powerful and poised to become your external brain and paperless office.

Good luck on your GTD journey. Remember, start with the basics and go from there.

© 2015 Brad Bonham All Rights Reserved


7 thoughts on “How to Get Started with Getting Things Done (GTD®) Immediately”

  1. Thanks for this post! Great job breaking it down into bite-size pieces. It’s like you read my mail (or backlog): I actually have a Dentist Appointment on my “backlog” that’s been there for months!

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