This was originally posted as a single article on OnOrganization.com, it’s been updated and posted here as a 5 part series
Saying that “the first step is admitting you have a problem and are powerless over it” may sound familiar to many. I feel I had to go further than that to accept that I needed help with my personal organization. I was drowning in “Stuff” and the cracks that stuff was slipping through had become gaping holes. I eventually found GTD and it saved me from my self-inflicted chaos. For this first series I want to give an overview of the GTD system. Next series I’ll cover my own implementation and some of the key realizations I’ve had about the GTD methodology.
Getting Things Done, or GTD, if you aren’t already aware, is the personal organization system created by David Allen and published as a book in 2001. It has become very popular with Geeks in the technology community. While there are many other explanations of GTD available, I will try to sum it up for the uninitiated.
The basic philosophy of GTD is that your brain is wonderful at evaluating data and making decisions but terrible at remembering the things you’ve committed to do. These commitments, either to yourself or someone else, take mental energy to remember. Your brain tries to be helpful and remind you of everything you have committed to, it’s just really bad at organizing this stuff. It’s also really bad about picking the right time to remind you of something. As David Allen says “You never remember that you need toilet paper when you are at the store.”
GTD helps you create a “Trusted System” giving you a way to capture and store these commitments outside your head. Trusted means that once you put something in to the system, you will come back to it at the right time. Your brain can trust you will see those items again and so it doesn’t need to hold on to everything. When your brain lets it all go, it frees up that energy for doing the creative stuff that your brain is good at. David calls this “Mind Like Water”. If all of the little reminders stop going off you can focus on doing the things you need to do. This system holds all of these commitments and the steps needed to complete them.
GTD has 5 stages.
- Collect all your stuff outside of your head.
- Process the commitments this stuff represents and what the next action is.
- Organize those commitments and actions into a trusted system.
- Review everything at least weekly.
- Do the tasks.
I’ll cover each of these stages in detail.
Collecting all your stuff, from the many different inputs you have, helps ensure every commitment gets processed. Processing allows you to make decisions and form plans from the pile of stuff you have collected. Organizing those decisions and plans in a structured way streamlines retrieving the info when you need it. Reviewing the whole system keeps it current and helps your brain trust it. Finally you can Do the things you have committed to, confident that you are choosing the best action to be taken at any time.
Collecting is all about not trusting your brain to remember tomorrow, or 5 minutes from now, the thought it just had. You must capture all of these thoughts and your commitments as they happen. An important piece is being able to capture anywhere, anytime. GTD calls this “Ubiquitous Capture”. This usually takes the form of a notebook, smartphone, or voice recorder.
One of the benefits of capturing everything outside of your brain is it keeps distractions down. If a new thought, commitment, or piece of information pops up to distract you while you are focusing on something, just jot it down and then go back to what you were doing. Your brain can be confident that it won’t get lost or forgotten, because you captured it. Then it won’t keep distracting you in an attempt to keep from losing this new input. This works for things you interrupt yourself with as well as anyone who attempts to inform you about, burden you with, or commit you to something new.
As you collect stuff, it lands in a series of inboxes. This can include your email inbox, voice mail inbox, a physical inbox on your desk, or a note pad you carry in your pocket. As stuff collects in this series of inboxes, you process the stuff as often as you need to keep it off your mind. Then, once a week, you commit time on your calendar to process all of the inboxes till they are empty. Then you know that everything from all your inboxes ends up in your system. This is a key to trusting your system, processing everything.