Implementing Getting Things Done (GTD®) In Chaotic Situations

In a recent article, I wrote about an approach to implementing some of the most valuable pieces of Getting Things Done (GTD) immediately and reaping the benefits of having a structured approach to task management without waiting for the perfectly implemented system. This approach consists of setting aside some time (probably anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours) to conduct a Mind Sweep and compile a Task Inventory System (TIS), then determining how to begin executing the compiled lists of Next Actions and Projects found within the TIS.

The benefit of the approach I outlined is that it is a relatively simple way to clear your mind of all the loose threads in your life related to things you know may need to be done or simply clarified before you will have them resolved in your conscience. It also gives you a simple way to start running with GTD without navigating all its other complexities up front.

However, for many people, even setting aside an hour of time seems daunting given the firestorm of chaos they are confronted with in their daily lives. This chaos could consist of rapid-fire project inputs or workflows, interruptions, phone calls, meetings, and so forth. This kind of chaos and the ensuing missed obligations is the very situation that drives many people to explore GTD only to put implementing GTD on hold because of the complexity involved within the system.

The good news is there an even faster way to get started with GTD even if your world seems like it’s trapped in the edges of a tornado. At a high level, this approach consists of three simple steps that can be implemented immediately in almost any situation. These steps are:

  1. Start with an Inbox to capture incoming information
  2. Create a “Demilitarized Zone” to quarantine off potentially useful items that need to be organized when you have some down time
  3. Start an “Implementing GTD” List to track future enhancements to make to your GTD process over time

Let’s go over each of these steps in greater detail so you can start implementing GTD immediately, even if meteorites and bullets are whizzing by your head.

1. Start with an Inbox

The Inbox is one of the most powerful concepts in GTD.  It is a place to capture ideas jotted down on paper, pieces of unread mail, and anything else in your life you know may need to be processed and that possibly contain things you need to take action upon or file away for future reference. If you do nothing else, having a working Inbox will give you an immediate place to begin corralling all of the inputs in your life in one place instead of putting sticky notes all over your desk or your computer and leaving aside piles of various types of paper to compete for your attention at every turn. The Inbox is a place to capture all of your new inputs.

My Inbox for GTD
My Inbox for GTD


I believe GTD officially prescribes a 3 tray system consisting of an Inbox tray, a Read Later tray, and an Outbox tray. The Read Later tray is a place to put articles of interest you may want to read later, and the Outbox tray is a place to put things that will be sent to other people or mailed out. However, even if you don’t have a tray system yet, this is no excuse not to have an Inbox! Start with nothing more than a specifically designated area of your desk if you don’t even have time to go to the store or order the perfect match for your environment.

The goal is to go through your Inbox periodically (for instance, every morning) and clarify what to do with the items in it. Should you file it away? Should you shred it? Should you set up a meeting to discuss it with someone else? Should you make some changes to it and send it to someone else? And so forth. Keep your Inbox clear and keep the clutter out of your life!

2. Create a Demilitarized Zone

The next useful thing to do is to create a demilitarized zone (DMZ) for loose items that may need to be organized in some way, but you know you don’t have time to organize them yet. These are items that won’t fit into the Inbox, and they have likely been lying around for awhile, competing for attention with other more timely items. The solution is to quarantine these into a separate area out of the way of your normal workflow.

Former Vice President Al Gore's Desk. Photo Credit: Photo / Time Magazine

As you see in the picture above, former Vice President Al Gore’s desk looks akin to a white collar war zone. It would be impossible to find a specific important piece of paperwork in this maelstrom of office artifacts without wasting valuable minutes (if not hours!) in the heat of the moment.  The solution for Mr. Gore to begin implementing GTD immediately would be to take the piles of paper off his desk and put them into a DMZ out of the way and to set up a simple Inbox in some area of the desk to begin capturing useful inputs as they occur. He would then have extreme clarity and a simplified, efficient workflow in his critical operations area (his desk) and he could sort through the DMZ in his spare time, even if that is only 5 minutes a week.

Setting up an Inbox and processing it regularly is a bit like putting a stake in the ground and determining not to take on more (dis)organizational debt, and going through the DMZ and eliminating or clarifying the piles of clutter is a bit like paying off accrued (dis)organizational debt.

3. Start an “Implementing GTD” List

An additional way to get started with GTD in the midst of chaos is to immediately create an “Implementing GTD” list. If you finally get around to conducting a Mind Sweep and constructing a Task Inventory System described in my previous article related to GTD, you can think of this as a new Project page with a list of Next Actions.  You can simply take out a sheet of paper and write on it “Implementing GTD”. On the page you could put items like:

This list can be a way for you to track the next steps needed to get more organized with your task management and reference systems without making you feel like you have to have the perfect solution up front before you get started. Start small, start immediately, and enhance as you go. Focus on the key pieces that will help you in your current life situation rather than trying to implement every piece upfront.

© 2015 Brad Bonham All Rights Reserved

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