Year for Productivity Session 4: Getting Things Done (GTD) or To Dream the Impossible Dream

year_productivity_graphic_4What does it mean to be productive? Working efficiently, getting the most done with the least effort and time. Working efficiently requires CLARITY about what projects need to be done, what the project looks like when it is done, what deliverables it will produce, and what resources (human and other) are required to produce those deliverables. Clarity needs an organizational tool that can capture all those pieces of information. The human brain, by itself, is not enough. It can only pay attention to a few things at a time.

To-do lists were created to help fill this need. Sometimes they are prioritized, sometimes organized by date due on a calendar. Most of us have made lists only to find it is one more thing to keep track of, so adding to the clutter instead of reducing it. David Allen in his megahit Getting Things Done mentions a woman who, after attending one of his seminars,
looked woefully at her to-do list and remarked, “Boy, that was an amorphous blob of undoability!” (Allen, p. 27)

The core process that I teach for mastering the art of relaxed and controlled knowledge work is a five-stage method for managing workflow. No matter what the setting, there are five discrete stages that we go through in order to deal with our work. We (1) collect things that command our attention; (2) process what they mean and what to do about them; and (3) organize the results, which we (4) review as options for what we choose to (5) do.

(p. 33). So to-do lists are a part of Allen’s system, but a small part and fairly useless without the rest of the system. This lesson was originally designed to be on to-do lists, but like a Pac Man critter it got eaten by the GTD system. The bad news is that there really is no substitute for reading the whole Getting Things Done book. While blog posts like this one can summarize the parts of the GTD system, and Allen’s video embedded below also give a sense of how GTD works, they sound a bit arbitrary without reading how he explains (a) the rationale behind the system; and (b) the steps required to implement the system.

Every person writing about GTD is going to view it and explain it differently. Each mind has perceptual filters that highlight what it sees as the most important elements of the system. So what is in this post is my inadequate way of interpreting the GTD system, and it is hoped that those of you who have used it will jump in with your comments on its utility and how you have used it. We also hope that those who haven’t used it jump in to ask questions of those who have.

So remember that, in our view, the purpose of any such system is to provide CLARITY, which in turn produces workflow EFFICIENCY. Allen is convinced that things are in our minds because we haven’t yet decided what we have to do, and what actions are required to accomplish what we need to do. Therefore the brain continually pays attention to these things which eats up all of our focus.

Therefore, the system starts with what I call (Allen does not) a data dump. Put everything you are committed to down somewhere. Does not matter whether you write it on paper or in electronic form. Does not matter, for now, whether it is a professional or personal commitment. Does not matter for now whether it is an action or a project or a category of work. Just put it all down to begin the process of getting it out of your brain and into a system. Keep adding to it as your brain remembers one more thing. And one more thing. And, hey, oh yeah, whatever you do, don’t forget THAT!

Once you have the data dump, you can start organizing it. Most things should fall into certain categories. Scan your list and then create new lists based on your review. The first is a project, something that has a timeline associated with it. To do a project requires actions, and the actions need to be done by a certain date. We’ll talk more about projects shortly. Secondly, scan your list for items which are actions that need to be done. Most of these will fall under projects, and if they don’t fit into a project you’ve identified, add a new project to that list. Now add your actions under the project they fall into. Your last category is, well, categories. These are things you have to accomplish for your work or personal life but do not have an associated timeline. You can organize them similarly to projects.

Now go back to your projects list. Can you identify the next action that needs to be taken to get this project done? It is likely, that for most projects and categories, you haven’t done the clarifying process of defining exactly what the project is. What is the reason for doing the project? Why? Envision what the project looks like when it is done. What are the required deliverables? Is it your thesis or dissertation? The syllabus for your class? For a Librarian, perhaps it is a guide for a subject or a class, or an outline of an instructional session on finding and using library research resources. Next is the question of HOW? What actions are required to accomplish the deliverables? What decisions do you have to make in order to do the required actions?

Many people have reported having trouble coming up with specific actions that are action items – things to be done. Instead they tend to be fuzzy formulations of goals, say, for example, “write dissertation” instead of (a) search the article-indexing databases in my field. (b) capture the useful citations in EndNote (c) download the papers into Mendeley. (d) search the library catalog for books on my topic. (e) check out the books… and so on. For a librarian a project to create a course guide might be (a) search for other guides on the same or similar topic (b) get ideas from those guides for resources and design of my own guide (c) create guide (d) add resources to guide (e) if the guide is for a course, run it by the professor for approval and (f) publish the guide.  For a professor or teaching assistant, a category of work might be Instruction, while a project might be teach class Ed Tech 2010: Instructional Design.

Once you have everything out of your mind, where your brain can see it, and sorted into projects with their associated actions and categories of things that need doing but don’t have a time line, then it is time to make decisions. This can be the hardest part, and the point where many systems break down. Allen has a useful workflow diagram on p. 38. If something is actionable, then do it, delegate it, or defer it. If something is not actionable, then trash it, add it to a someday maybe list of things to do eventually when the time is right, or add it to a file of reference material – facts you need to know to inform actions, but are not themselves actions.

Allen stresses that for the system to work, the brain has to trust that it works. For it to do so, the final important part of the system is a review. Allen suggests reviewing your lists weekly. Try that until you get a feel for what works for you. If your brain starts nagging you again about things you haven’t done yet, you’ve left the review for too long. Also be sure you have made enough decisions about what actions to take. Some of them may be wrong, but you can go back and correct these. Decision making is a habit that has to be cultivated and gets easier with time.

So those are the basic elements of the GTD system. (1) Do a data dump of all your commitments, (2) sort them into projects, actions, and categories, (3) make decisions, (4) act on the decisions, and (5) review the system for next actions and evaluations of the status of projects and other work.

There are, of course, a lot more details, and it is advisable to read the whole book through at least once to see if Getting Things Done is the system you want to adopt. There are alternative systems out there. One good alternative is the one found in Maura Thomas’ Personal Productivity Secrets. If you have tried or developed an alternative system or your own twist on GTD then let us know about it in the comments.

Lots of software has been developed to make adopting GTD easier. Our suggested readings includes a site that lists and reviews such software. For myself so far I use Evernote, as it as adaptable, easy to search, and works on almost any device. Again please add comments to let us know what system/software/hardware you use.

To bring this lesson back full circle, remember that it is clarity that leads to efficiency. If your system isn’t working for you, examine each part to see if a part or parts isn’t clear enough. For a project, perhaps your mind isn’t clear on what the project is to accomplish. Try again to visualize what it will look like when finished. Or perhaps your list of actions needed to finish the project is missing a crucial step. This is another part of reviewing your system.

May your work be as clear as the light of day!

Suggested Readings

From David Allen:

Allen, D. (2001). Getting things done: The art of stress-free productivity. New York: Viking.

David Allen Website and podcast blog:

David Allen Productive Living Newsletter:

Getting Things Done Page of Productivity Tools for Graduate Students Class Guide:  Includes 45 minute video of David Allen explaining GTD:

YouTube Preview Image


Items relating to GTD but not by Allen:

“Revisiting To-Do Lists as Record Keeping”.  Profhacker, Dec. 13, 2012, keeping to-do lists as records of accomplishments.

GTD Times: the HUB for all things GTD:
GTD Infographic –  A Google Image search turns up many /gtd Infographics.  We think this is one of the best.

GTD-Related Software:

164 Researched GTD Software Programs and CountingInteractive GTD Software Comparison Table:
New Summary of “task management” software for educators:

Selected Alternative Systems to GTD:
Thomas, M. (2012). Personal productivity secrets: Do what you never thought possible with your time and attention … and regain control of your life. Indianapolis, IN: John Wiley.
Forget your To-Do Lists:
For Further Exploration and Insights:
(1)  Do the data dump as described in the lesson.
(2)  Sort it into projects, actions, and categories of work.
Calendar Image courtesy of ammer/
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  • I am enjoying this series very much…thanks! I use a “mixed methods” approach to list making. I doubt I am alone in liking the physical act of writing a “to do” list and then crossing out an item when it is done. I have a long string tied up in my office from which I hang lists related to various projects, using clothes pins. That way I can stand in front of the lists, take them down to add to or subtract from them, and rearrange the order of them. I also save them as documents of what I was doing when. Then I also have small notebooks in which I keep track of how I spend my days, so the time doesn’t just disappear. I use one notebook for the book I am writing, to try and stay focused on that project by jotting down tangents that may derail me. I also have a card file with deadlines for grants and fellowships and other funding opportunities. The more things are in front of my face, the better the chance I have of actually getting it done!

    • Mary

      Thanks for the kind words, Sharon, and I’m fascinated by your system. Very impressive! If you’re willing to share, how long have you been using this system, and how long did it take you to get it “just right”?

  • Erika

    I’ve been easing in to using Evernote to manage my GTD system. There is a great website that gives guidance on how to do this, called The Secret Weapon, I’m not yet fully invested into it, but only because I’ve found it really hard to slow down and spend the time doing it. But between the advice from David Allen’s book and the guidance from TSW, I think I am getting there. (If only I had decided to do this before the semster started!) I’m an academic librarian, also working on a PhD, so I have lots of different types of activities to manage. This is helping me feel better about staying on top of things.

    • Mary

      Thank you, that’s a worthwhile site that I did not know about, even though I use both Evernote and GTD. This just shows the value of crowdsourcing – there is simply too much information out there for any one person to find. Crystal and I hoped that we would be learning as much as we were imparting by teaching this class, and comments like this one show that it is true.