An Overview of Getting Things Done – Lists

An Overview of Getting Things Done – Lists

Getting Things Done is a task management system created by David Allen. Its purpose is to establish a framework for tracking tasks so that all necessary resources are available when and where they are needed. A primary focus is to ensure that the system can be trusted as the one source of anything that needs to be done. This is an overview of the system from my own point of view. This overview is derived from the knowledge I gained from reading the book and implementing it in my life. I highly recommend that you purchase and read the book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. It is the definitive source for the processes and procedures of Mr. Allen’s system.

Gettings Things Done is typically referred to by its acronym, GTD. It is not a software application, nor is it contained in a physical binder or notebook. It isn’t even a product for sale. It is philosophy with a set of recommended procedures for simplifying the process of implementing a trusted project management system. Many companies and individuals have created tools to accommodate the GTD System. They come in the form of software or paper products designed to help implement the system. But all that is truly needed is paper, a writing utensil, a calendar and a method of binding multiple pieces of paper together such as a paper clip.


At its core GTD is a collection of lists. There are four types; Projects, Next Actions, Waiting and Maybe/Someday lists. A list might be comprised of lines written on a piece of paper or full pages bound together. For example your waiting list might either have five items you’re waiting on or five pages with an individual item on each page. Each list has a specific purpose.


A project is the name given to a list of associated tasks. To qualify as a project the list of tasks when completed should result in a related outcome. If any desired outcome requires that more than one action is taken, it is considered a project.

 Similar tasks in certain situations could be considered a task or a project. For example “Email Cable company tech support” might be a project with multiple tasks such as; “search for company website” and “find email address on company website”. On the other hand if the other information is on hand the task might be “Email phone company technical support at”.

Next Action:

A next action is a single task that is the next thing that needs to be done to bring a project one step closer to completion. A next action should be clear and concise. If a task hangs around in your next actions list for too long, it’s probably because it is not actually the next action. If you are not quite sure how to do your next action, there is probably another step you are not listing.

 Not correctly identifying the next action is where projects typically get stuck. If your next action is “Fix the bicycle”, it would not be surprising to feel a certain amount of hesitation at performing this task. The reason is that it is difficult to determine the details. How long will it take? What tools do I need? Do I even have the tools? This is of course because “fix the bike” is not actually the next action. A better next action might be “determine what is wrong with the bike”.


Some projects require work or input from other people, who don’t always respond immediately. It is very easy to lose track of a project while it is sitting in someone else’s inbox. That is why we have the waiting list. Keeping a task in a waiting folder accomplishes two things. It keeps a relic of the project in a place where we won’t forget about it. It quickly gives us the status of the project.

 It is not always people that we wait on. Sometimes a task is better left undone until a specific date. Maybe you have written an application that targets the next version of Microsoft Windows that is soon to be released. You would want to wait for Microsoft to release before releasing your application.

Maybe / Someday

It is important to stay focused. You will never accomplish anything if you begin a large new project every day. At the same time, you don’t want to disregard an idea simply because you don’t have time for it at the moment. These types of projects should be kept in a maybe list. But be careful. You do not want to let your someday list get too big. If you are not able or inclined to review it then the list might as well not exist.

The maybe list is also valuable for keeping track of things that you aren’t ready for yet. For example you might keep a list of books you want to read. Or you might keep a list of gift ideas.  Song titles, a storyline, partial poem lyrics, a business strategy, a marketing angle,  this is the place to store all of your ideas.

Whats Next?

Having a logical way of storing the things we want to do in a list is not enough. Next I’ll describe the processes that are necessary to get the work done.