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Getting started with "Getting Things Done"

This article was originally posted during the first week of 43 Folders' existence, and, pound for pound, it remains our most popular page on the site. Please be sure to also visit related pages, browse our GTD topic area, plus, of course you can search on GTD across our family of sites.

GTD coverI’ll be talking a lot here in coming weeks about Getting Things Done, a book by David Allen whose apt subtitle is “The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.” You’ve probably heard about it around the Global Interweb or have been buttonholed by somebody in your office who swears by GTD. (It probably takes a backseat only to the Atkins Diet in terms of the number of enthusiastic evangelists: sorry about that.)

Like I did the other day with Quicksilver, I wanted to provide a gentle, geek-centric introduction to Getting Things Done, so that you can think about whether it might be right for you. It also gives you time to pick up your own copy of the book and get a feel for how David’s system works. (You can support 43 Folders by buying the book from Amazon, but it’s also up at ISBN.nu and, of course, on shelves at your local bookstore). You’ll also eventually want to grab some of the other GTD essentials, like a ton of manila folders, a good label maker, and a big-ass garbage can. It’s time to get your act together, hoss.

The Problem with “stuff”

Getting Things Done succeeds because it first addresses a critical barrier to completing the atomic tasks that we want to accomplish in a given day. That’s “stuff.” Amorphous, unactionable, flop-sweat-inducing stuff. David says:

Here’s how I define “stuff:” anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step. [pg. 17]

Stuff is bouncing around in our heads and causing untold stress and anxiety. Evaluation meetings, bar mitzvahs, empty rolls of toilet paper, broken lawn mowers, college applications, your big gut, tooth decay, dirty underwear and imminent jury duty all compete for prime attention in our poor, addled brains. Stuff has no “home” and, consequently, no place to go, so it just keeps rattling around.

Worst off, we’re too neurotic to stop thinking about it, and we certainly don’t have time to actually do everything in one day. Jeez Louise, what the hell am I, Superman?

So you sprint from fire to fire, praying you haven’t forgotten anything, sapped of anything like creativity or even the basic human flexibility to adapt your own schedule to the needs of your friends, your family or yourself. Your “stuff” has taken over your brain like a virus now, dragging down every process it touches and rendering you spent and virtually useless. Sound familiar?

So how does GTD work?

This is a really summarized version, but here it is, PowerPoint-style:

  1. identify all the stuff in your life that isn’t in the right place (close all open loops)
  2. get rid of the stuff that isn’t yours or you don’t need right now
  3. create a right place that you trust and that supports your working style and values
  4. put your stuff in the right place, consistently
  5. do your stuff in a way that honors your time, your energy, and the context of any given moment
  6. iterate and refactor mercilessly

So, basically, you make your stuff into real, actionable items or things you can just get rid of. Everything you keep has a clear reason for being in your life at any given moment—both now and well into the future. This gives you an amazing kind of confidence that a) nothing gets lost and b) you always understand what’s on or off your plate.

Also built-in to the system are an ongoing series of reviews, in which you periodically re-examine your now-organized stuff from various levels of granularity to make sure your vertical focus (individual projects and their tasks) is working in concert with your horizontal focus (side to side scanning of all incoming channels for new stuff). It’s actually sort of fun and oddly satisfying.

GTD is geek-friendly

When I first saw Cory’s notes about Danny’s Alpha Geek talk, I knew I was with my people. I had been using GTD enthusiastically for a couple months at that point and immediately saw a bunch of common ground.

I think Getting Things Done appeals to geeks for a lot of reasons. Overgeneralizing for effect:

  • geeks are often disorganized or have a twisted skein of attention-deficit issues
  • geeks love assessing, classifying, and defining the objects in their world
  • geeks crave actionable items and roll their eyes at “mission statements” and lofty management patois
  • geeks like things that work with technology-agnostic and lofi tools
  • geeks like frameworks but tend to ignore rules
  • geeks are unusually open to change (if it can be demonstrated to work better than what they’re currently using)
  • geeks like fixing things on their own terms
  • geeks have too many projects and lots and lots of stuff

The OSX angle/warning

A majority of what I’ll be talking about is going to be independent of platforms and specific tools; a lot of what’s happening here will be more about behavior and thinking than the specific flavor of your tools. I will spill the beans by admitting that my own GTD implementation relies primarily on a handful of text files (which I think might appeal to some of the command-line folks out there).

But I do want to warn the Mac-haters that there will be occasional—nay, frequent—detours into the specifics of implementing GTD on OSX. If that’s going to freak you out, maybe you should sit this site out. I’d understand completely (but, fair warning, I really won’t suffer a lot of on-site bickering about it).

Thing is: GTD has attracted a huge audience of PC users—one suspects in part because David Allen sells an Outlook plug-in for Windows. But I’ve had a difficult time finding many deep resources on how to do GTD on a Mac. So I really do want to look at how things like Quicksilver, iCal, BBEdit, NetNewsWire, and the almighty shell script can make this easier for all my Apple sisters and brothers. Deal.

So what next?

I’ve hit the stuff that’s been important to me, but YMMV. If you’re still on the fence, try a few of the links below and check out Amazon’s “Look Inside” for the book—it features the TOC, index, and a few pages from the introduction.

I also encourage folks, both novice and seasoned, to ask and answer questions here via comments (keep it nice, please). It’d be swell if this could be like a book club thing where we round back up after a week or three to look at how people are liking GTD and how they’re implementing it. I’ll be here, and maybe you will too.

Best of "GTD" on 43 Folders

GTD coverAn occasionally-updated list of the most popular articles on GTD. (added 2007-02-11)

  • How does a geek hack GTD? - “So I wanted to start a conversation about how geeks handle their lists, their projects, and their agendas–not so much in terms of the tool they use to store the information, although that’s fair game–as with how they segment the information and decide when to break it into pieces.”
  • Next actions: Both physical and visible - “But, for me, turning anxieties into projects and projects into discrete physical behaviors has a lot of appeal. It takes all the pressure off your brain and puts it back where it belongs: on your eyes, on your hands, and on that fat ass you need to get into gear.”
  • Does this ‘next action’ belong someplace else? - “I’ve noticed that there are often items on my ‘next actions’ list that hang around a lot longer than they should. I scan and rescan and sort and add and delete, but there’s always a few stragglers who hang out there for a week or more. Eventually this starts to vex me, and I try to debug why things aren’t getting done.”
  • Mental dialogues, yak-shaving & the triumph of the ‘mini-review’ - “My mini-review falls somewhere between the glances I give my lists throughout the day and the comprehensive weekly review I do each weekend. It’s basically a 10-minute metamoment where I stop working and just try to re-focus on my goals, and the tactical adjustments needed to get them moved forward today.”
  • What are you ‘waiting on?’ - “The thread that runs through all of these is that the onus is on me to a) make sure these items represent part of a commitment I’ve made, and b) make sure they actually get done (even if it’s not my direct responsibility); otherwise, they should get moved onto my ‘Maybe/Later’ list, right?”
  • A Year of Getting Things Done - (3-part series: 1, 2, 3) - “I recently realized that this month marks one year since I started using Getting Things Done in earnest. With the calendar year closing, it seems like an apt time to look back at what’s worked, what hasn’t, and where I’d like to see GTD heading in the future.
  • Choosing a daily GTD action plan - “I employ an informal Getting Things Done action strategy that’s similar to the one Chris lays out in his post. I often have a theme for a given day, where I choose an approach that’s suited to my mood, my energy level, and the kind and amount of work on my TODO list. (I’m especially a fan of days where I knock down ‘mosquito tasks’ as Chris calls them.)”
  • Fractal Implementation, or, On the Dangers of David Allen’s Finger - “This is my stake in the ground about GTD: if you can stay focused on drawing from its best practices to get more of the important things in your life accomplished, then you’ll be a happy kid. For real. But if, like a seeming majority of people I encounter these days, you allow yourself to obsess endlessly over the minutest details of implementation and maintenance—well, you’re screwed. You’re wasting your time.”
  • Inbox Zero: Processing to zero - “The more email you have been neglecting in your inbox, the more drastic and ruthless your processing must be.”
  • Do a fast “mind-sweep” - “By and large, you’ll discover, your head is flooded with this stuff that you aren’t or haven’t been doing anything about. Not coincidentally, this is almost always stuff that represents some kind of incompletion, functional fuzziness, or procrastination on your part.”
  • Simplify your contexts - “If you feel a gnaw about the loss of your old contexts, try to shunt some of the mental load into sub-projects and better verb choices in your tasks.”
  • Folders for organization and action - “But, as ever, if you’re fussing and thinking and fiddling and wondering about this stuff, you aren’t doing it, and dammit, that’s what this is all about.”
  • Priorities don’t exist in a vacuum - “Unless you can always satisfy the big red letter commitments you’ve created for yourself — as well as the ones that are constantly being generated for you by others — an obsession with priority alone is pointlessly stress-inducing, unhealthy, and unrealistic.”
  • 6 powerful “look into” verbs (+ 1 to avoid) - “Decisions can only be delivered after you’ve nourished them with timely and thought-provoking information.”
  • Productive Talk Compilation: 8-episode podcast with GTD’s David Allen - “Hope you all enjoy hearing the whole series, in order, all in one place. There’s some nuggets of GTD gold in there, if I do say so myself.”


(I’ll continue to add good starting resources here, so check back periodically.)

Getting Things Done book

Excerpts from Getting Things Done

David's sites

Essential resources (Print these—now, Grasshopper)

Other good stuff

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




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