Using GTD® to learn GTD®

In a previous post I wrote about how to get started incorporating Getting Things Done (GTD) into your daily life immediately by setting aside time to conduct a Mind Sweep and compiling lists of Projects and Next Actions. That approach would probably take you anywhere between 30 minutes to several hours depending on how many loose threads are in your life.

In a follow-up post, I suggested a faster way to get started if you are in the midst of complete chaos. This approach consisted of simply starting with the concept of an Inbox to take control of the many inputs into your life. At the end of that post, I suggested starting an “Implementing GTD” Project with a list of Next Actions to keep track of your progress. I’d like to explain this concept in greater detail and suggest that it is YET ANOTHER way to get started with GTD immediately instead of waiting for the perfect system to come together.

In short, you can use GTD to learn GTD, and you can do so immediately. In fact, in starting GTD this way, you will not only learn GTD in a way that reduces friction with your current life situation, you will also learn a powerful way to plan and attack other projects with varying degrees of complexity.

To use GTD to learn GTD, do the following:

  • Start with a blank sheet of paper. On the top, write “Implementing GTD”. This is your GTD Project.
  • You will want to think of your desired outcome for this project. What is it? GTD is on your mind for a reason. What makes it worth considering? Do you want to become efficient and effective with your use of time? Do you want to stop forgetting critical items that need to be done? Do you want to learn how to set proper priority on all the items in your life? Do you just want to get your email under control? Whatever the reasons, think about why you would even take this project on. If it doesn’t have value right now, put “Implementing GTD” in a “Someday/Maybe” category. Oops, if you did that, you would be using GTD!
  • Once you think about why you are taking this project on, you now need at least one Next Action to get started with the project. What is your Next Action? Here are some examples, none of which is necessarily the correct one for your situation.
  • Taking any one of these possible Next Actions may take you in a different direction about how to move forward with your GTD project, and that’s OK.

The easiest thing for a lot of people may be to purchase the official GTD guide (that is surprisingly difficult to find on the web site!) and work off of that. That guide recommends setting aside anywhere from 3 – 6 hours to 2 days if possible. And that’s enough to stop a lot of busy people in their tracks! If you can spare the time, that is a great way to go to implementing a fully thought out system.

GTD Implementation Guide
GTD Implementation Guide

If you can’t spare hours, however, you can still implement GTD immediately by following along here.

If you have taken the step of starting a GTD project and writing down any next actions you can think of, congratulations, you are using GTD. In its entirety? No. But a critical piece that will serve you well for almost any project? Absolutely.

When I began re-implementing GTD in my life, I really wasn’t sure where to begin because it had been years since I touched it, and back then I had a lot of needs around physical file storage that I no longer had in my new life situation. However, I am used to working on complex projects and having to break them down into tiny pieces, all the while juggling known things about the projects with unknown things.

I knew if I waited to have a perfect understanding of the system and time to implement it, I’d never get there on top of all the other obligations in my life. So I started small and strived for continuous learning and improvement over time.

First, I simply created an “Implementing GTD” list and wrote down some ideas about how to get started. It looked something like this:

  • Research GTD best practices for email Inbox (which led me to Inbox Zero)
  • Research  GTD best practices to clean up desk workspace
  • Research GTD best practices to clean up computer files
  • Research various ways to capture task (paper, voice memos, etc.)
  • Research various ways to surface time-sensitive tasks (in software, in a calendar, etc.)

I actually found myself unsure how to proceed early on, but simply researching a particular GTD area yielded its own set of Next Actions. For instance, as I researched “Inbox Zero”, I realized there were differing ideas about what constituted the best approach to Inbox Zero out there. I opted for the simplest possible approach to get started to reduce paralysis by analysis. So, I created an “Inbox Zero for Gmail” project and underneath it I think I had items like:

  • Delete email messages I know I don’t need
  • Archive messages I may need
  • Unsubscribe from any repeated emails I know I don’t want
  • Create an !Action label to move items from my email Inbox into a separate area to take action
  • Create a !WaitingFor label to track items for which I’m awaiting a response

And something like that was enough to get my Gmail account under control. I set aside some time as needed and knocked out each piece. It never seemed overwhelming, because EACH PIECE HAS VALUE! I still have a Mac mail account that is a complete mess, but it is low priority to me because I rarely use it.

As I implemented GTD, I kept revising my lists and applying what I learned. My system quickly evolved and produced efficiencies. There are still “official” pieces of GTD I haven’t needed to apply, particularly in the area around physical file folders. My wife and I keep a rudimentary filing system that works fine for us. If I need to adapt it later, I will. By implementing GTD in this incremental way, I got started immediately and reaped the benefits from improved organization every time I incorporated a change.

The kicker is, this is really how any project can be tackled. There is a movement in the software world known as “The Lean Startup Movement”. It arose because too many major, well-funded projects were failing spectacularly, and entrepreneurs were finding that taking on huge amounts of risk and commitment of resources (time, money and energy) weren’t necessarily resulting in successful projects. Instead, these entrepreneurs were learning the value of starting small, learning as you go, and improving over time through something called an MVP, or a Minimally Viable Product. An MVP is a way to get started in a new venture with what you think will be the simplest, yet still valuable, approach before you commit huge amounts of time and money to it. What we are doing with the approach I’m advocating is a sort of GTD MVP. I will perhaps have more to say about this in the future, but for now, just get started getting organized and learn as you go!






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