How To Get Things Done – GTD

Lists are how we track what we need to do but this alone is not enough. Despite an abundance of technology available to help us keep track of tasks, many of us still keep these lists in our heads. We do this for a variety of reasons. They all have a common root. We don’t trust our system. We don’t actually believe that the list is the full list. We know that things have either been forgotten to be put on the list or were not important enough to track.

Since we can’t trust our system, we do what comes natural. We attempt to remember. We deal with issues as they come. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. That is until there is another louder squeak. This inevitably leads to stress and poor performance. The true genius of GTD are the procedures that help us manage lists. The integrity of our lists are what make the system trustworthy. To achieve this GTD is broken up into five different categories, Collect, Process, Organize, Review and Do.


It is essential that every thought, idea, request or demand that you have or receive be collected in a place that can be reviewed later. It is not necessary that you act on these items immediately but don’t be in a situation where you are forced to remember them. Always have a notepad and pen, a mobile computer or a voice recorder with you at all times. If you fail to collect tasks as they come you will lose faith in your system. If you are relying on your memory anyway, you will stop bothering with the system.  All of your tasks and notes should be deposited into a central Inbox so that you can process them at a later time.


Most of us have way more to do than we could ever keep track of in our brains. It doesn’t really help to have a huge lists of tasks stored elsewhere either. At some point we need to organize the tasks into sections so that they are easier to manage. Traditionally this is done only when we are at our wits end. We throw up our hands and say “I’ve got to get organized.” We then stack the papers that are strewn about into neat piles and throw away anything not immediately identifiable.

With GTD this is a daily process. The instinct is to leave anything that we’re not ready to deal with in the inbox whether its an email or a physical piece of paper. Before you know it your inbox is unmanageable and the scenario above is triggered. With GTD this is how tasks get into our lists. Each task begins its life in the inbox. At least once a day, the inbox is emptied by either transferring its contents to a list, the trash or to be archived as reference material.  We accomplish this one task at a time.

Each task in the inbox item is put through a series of questions. It is very important to process one item at a time. An item should never be returned to the inbox. Don’t pick and choose which ones to process. Take them as they come. Processing starts with a question. Is the item actionable? Can something be done about it?


If the answer is no, then there is one of three choices.

  • If it is trash, throw it away.

  • If the required action can not be taken until some time in the future, then add it to your calendar.

  • Some things are purely valuable as information. This information might be handy in the future but there is no immediate action that needs to be taken. We file these away in a bookmark, reference folder or archive the email.

  • Yes

    If there is action to be taken, then determine if it is a single task or a project. Add projects to your projects lists.

    The next step is to determine the next action. What is the next thing to do to further or finish the project.

    If the next action will take less than 2 minutes then just do it.

    Otherwise it needs to be added to a list. Are you the best person to perform this task? If so add the task to your Next Actions list. Otherwise, delegate the task to the person that is. Add the task to your waiting list.


    Keeping everything in its proper place establishes an order that gives us faith in the system. Lists are the proper places for a task. New unprocessed items belong in the Inbox. The name to identify multistep tasks are stored in the Project list. Tasks that are ready to be worked on are stored in the Next Actions list. Unfinished tasks that have been delegated are kept in the Waiting list. Projects or tasks that you may want to do in the future are stored in the Maybe / Someday list.

    Some tasks don’t neatly fit into any of these lists. Some tasks can not be accomplished until some other condition is met first. It might be that a project can not be started until some other project is completed. On the other hand some tasks can not begin until a certain date or time. For these types of projects we have two different tools to ensure that when the time comes we are ready. These tools are the tickler file and the calendar.

    The tickler file is essentially a reminder to deal with a task. You will be reminded of this task either during your weekly review or by checking your calendar. Here is an example. If you are a musician and you might think of a clever new trick you want to use in your next video. Since you are currently focusing on recording the song, it is not the appropriate time to act on it. You are not exactly sure when you will begin working on the video. The answer is to make a note of the idea and add it to the tickler file for the music video project.

    Another method of ensuring that nothing falls through the cracks is your calendar. Anything that needs to be done on a specific date or at a specific time should be entered onto your calendar. It is recommend to use an online calendar with a good reminder system. Some tasks can not be completed until a certain date. For example, the tickets for the concert that you want to attend may not go on sale until a date in the future. Add a reminder to your calendar to purchase tickets on the correct date.


    One of the most import aspects of the GTD system is also the most overlooked. Spending the time to refresh your memory on everything you have is the best way to ensure that none of it slips between the cracks. A review of everything in your system should be accomplished at least once a week. Some things will never be addressed until you have a review. Your tickler file and Maybe / Someday lists in particular are dependant on the review process. If you fail to review your system at least once a week, you will find that you stop using the parts of the system which require it. Your weekly review should consist of five different tasks.

    Review the Next Action List

    Look over each task. How long has the task been in the Next Actions List? Do you actually intend to do it? Be honest. Sometimes we have good intentions but when push comes to shove, it just isn’t going to happen. If you are not going to do it, then trash it. Things change. Has something happened since you added the task to your next actions list that prevents or discourages you from doing this work. Maybe now is no longer the right time. If you intend to work on the project but not right now, move it to the Maybe / Someday list.

    Another common reason for a task lingering on the Next Actions List is confusion over what the task actually is. Typically this happens when your task is actually a project. Ask yourself what the next action actually is and update the task accordingly.

    Review the Project List

    The review process is the time to evaluate the status of each of your projects. How many tasks are left to be completed? How far along in the process are you? It is not until after the review process that you can be confident that a project is completed. As with the Next Action List review, this is the time to ask yourself the hard questions. If no progress has been made on a project since your last review, it may be time to either trash it or move it to the Maybe / Someday list.

    Review the Maybe / Someday List

    Of all of our lists, the Maybe / Someday list is the most dependant on the review process. This is where we store the ideas that we don’t want to forget about. Many of the projects that we are working on now will have some kind of impact on our future projects. While reading our Someday list, it may become obvious that a current project could be tweaked to include a listed idea. Update your project list or next actions as necessary and remove it from the Maybe / Someday list.  It is also possible that one of our current projects may nullify the need of a listed project. In this case remove it.

    Sometimes we have ideas that seem brilliant as we are having them. We may decide to put them on the back burner. Later on, we wonder what in the world we were thinking. We no longer have any interest in the project. These should obviously be deleted. On the other hand, when one project is completed it is time to begin another. Our Maybe / Someday list is the obvious place to look for more work.

    There is another benefit to the review process. During this period, you will almost surely have new ideas. One project will remind you of another project that you want to undertake at some point. Occasionally, an idea from one project combines with an idea from another. When this happens a new idea is born, one that you may have never thought of otherwise. Although, you must be careful not to let your list get too big.

    The longer your list of ideas, the less likely you will be to review them. When a project has spent too long in your Maybe / Someday list, it could be time to remove it. This is obviously a judgement call. At a certain point you need to be honest with yourself. If five years have gone by and you still haven’t planted that garden in the backyard, you might need to consider that you may never do it. The finality of removing an idea from your Maybe / Someday list can be hard. It will clear up time and effort for projects that you will actually work on. This is true even if it is only during the review cycle.

    Review the Waiting List

    Almost certainly at some point, you will find yourself waiting for someone to finish a task before you can move on or complete a project. You may have a varying amount of influence over that person. You may have direct authority over some people. You may be able to directly set their priorities. You may have no authority at all over others. Your options will range from a kind word of encouragement all the way to dropping the project. At the very least, you’re waiting list is a good place to keep yourself reminded of who is holding up progress.

    Calendar / Tickler File

    You’re calendar and tickler files are like your own personal crystal ball. You can get a pretty good idea of what your future holds by looking at what you have planned. The amount of progress that  you’ve made since your last review will help you determine what you can expect. It may be necessary to change an appointment or modify a deadline.

    A tickler file is essentially a reminder with no specific date, time or task association. Without the review process a tickler file is useless. It might make sense to check the tickler file every day to keep this information as a constant reminder. The tickler file must be checked at least once a week to retain its value.

    What’s Next

    Preparation is a waste of time unless it is followed by the actual work. In a future article I will write about [using goals][1]. I will also offer some tips on actually doing the tasks that have been planned.