By Leo Babauta
I get a lot of email about Getting Things Done (GTD), mostly from people just starting out who have various questions about implementation, starting out, or sticking to the system. I thought I’d start a FAQ to help those with similar questions.
Now, let me first say that this is not a complete FAQ, but I’ve taken some of the most common questions. I’d like you guys to help out by submitting other questions that I can add to the list when I update it.
Let me also say that I am not the absolute authority on GTD — I am but one blogger, one practitioner, and I am just sharing what I’ve learned from experience and reading other sites. But I hope it’s of some use!
What is GTD?
The official answer is given by David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done (buy it here) on his website, Davidco. The full answer is here, but he’s the most important snippet:
GTD embodies an easy, step-by-step and highly efficient method for achieving this relaxed , productive state. It includes:
- Capturing anything and everything that has your attention
- Defining actionable things discretely into outcomes and concrete next steps
- Organizing reminders and information in the most streamlined way, in appropriate categories, based on
how and when you need to access them
- Keeping current and “on your game” with appropriately frequent reviews of the six horizons of your
commitments (purpose, vision, goals, areas of focus, projects, and actions)
Implementing GTD alleviates the feeling of overwhelm, instills confidence, and releases a flood of creative energy. It provides structure without constraint, managing details with maximum flexibility.
Also see the Wikipedia entry on GTD.
How do I start?
Well, the book gives you a step-by-step approach, but the most important steps for starting out are:
- Processing all the papers in your desk and inbox to empty.
- Processing your email and other inboxes to empty.
- Capturing all tasks and ideas on a notebook or mobile device.
- Setting up an easy reference filing system.
- Creating context lists for all of your actions, along with a project list, a Waiting For list and a Someday/Maybe list.
- Using a calendar or tickler file to remind you of future tasks or appointments.
- Doing a Weekly Review to keep the system together.
How long will it take to start?
Well, the longest part for many people is processing all the papers on their desks and elsewhere and getting all their inboxes to zero. This can take anywhere from a few hours to a day or three. Next longest is setting up a filing system and your lists. That can take an hour or two. The other stuff doesn’t take setup time, usually. So altogether, you could be looking at a day or two (or more if your life is super disorganized). David Allen recommends you set aside a big chunk of your time for a day or two to clear everything off and get it set up.
Now, although this sounds like a big commitment (and it is), I have to say that it is worth it. This step alone is worth the price of the GTD book — getting everything cleared and organized is a huge accomplishment and an amazing feeling. It’s why so many people love GTD.
Is there an easier way to start?
Yes. You don’t need to implement all of GTD at once. Really, you should go with what works for you — there is no one way to do it. A minimal starting point could be any of the following:
- Just start with capture. All you need is a notebook and a pen, and start writing everything down, so you never forget stuff again, and you get it out of your head. If you feel like doing more, use the notebook to create some context lists — your next actions (see below) organized into the contexts in which you do them (work, home, errands, calls, etc.) so you can just look at the actions you can do right now.
- Clear out your inbox. The next step, if you’re ready, would be to process all your papers. Gather them in one pile, and work from top to bottom, disposing of each one until you’re done. This is an amazing feeling. From here on out, get an inbox, and use it as your one point of entry for all papers (including Post-its and phone messages and receipts and everything else). If you’re feeling ambitious, take the next step and do the same with your email inbox.
- Filing. A simple start could also include a simple filing system. All you need is a filing cabinet (or a drawer dedicated to your filing needs if that’s all you need), some manila folders and some labels. Have plenty of them on hand so you can create a folder quickly and easily. Use a simple alphabetical system.
I’m overwhelmed by my inbox and all the stuff I need to sort through!
This can be very overwhelming, especially if you’ve got large piles of paper scattered all over your desk and in drawers and on the floor and in the car, etc. But it’s doable. First of all, gather them all up and put them in one pile. If it’s too huge to put in one pile, make two, but don’t start creating a whole bunch of piles. The key is to start at the top of the pile and work your way down, one document at a time, so if you have two piles, consider the second pile just a continuation of the first.
Next, if you don’t have time to process through all of them at once (and you should try if you can), then just set aside the pile for now and process it in chunks. I would recommend setting aside an hour a day to process your pile. Again, start from the top, and dispose of each document. When you get to the bottom, buy yourself a treat!
Is GTD a cult? Why is it so popular on the Internet?
GTD is often accused of having a cult-like status, but in truth it just inspires a lot of passion. Why? First of all, because of the feeling of getting your desk cleared and your inboxes to empty. Seriously, as I said above, this is an amazing, awesome feeling. Second, because of the simple power of concepts like next actions, context lists and the weekly review — they are not anything complicated, but they work extremely well, and people love that.
Third, because of the open-source nature of the tools — this is what gets so many geeks. They love being able to use their favorite gadget, or computer program, or show off their programming skills by just using an automated text file, or the textile feeling of a good pen on good paper. It’s all about individual pleasures, and setting up your cool tools to create a setup that works for you. It’s the geek in us that loves GTD.
What tools do I need?
As mentioned above, a minimal setup would include a notebook, pen, inbox, filing drawer, folders and labels. However, there are many other tools you could use, including but not limited to:
- a mobile device such as a PDA for everything – capture, lists, reminders
- an electronic labeler for neat labels
- a calendar or calendar program (highly recommended)
- computer software (off-line or online) to handle your lists or your capture
- a tickler file, either using folders (see next question) or software
- index cards for capture and lists
For more on tools, see the tools section of my Massive GTD Resource List.
What is a tickler file or 43 folders, and do I need it?
A tickler file, as spelled out in the book, is a system of 43 folders: 12 folders labeled for each month, and 31 folders labeled for the days of the month. So the way it works:
- If you have a piece of paper (or a concert ticket, etc.) that you don’t need to think about until later this month, put it in one of the daily folders (let’s say the folder labeled “20” if we want to look at it on the 20th of this month).
- If you don’t need to think about it until a later month, put it in that month’s folder.
- Each day, you look in the folder with today’s date on it (if today is the 20th, I’ll look in “20”) and see what you need to think about today. If you want to postpone it until later, simply put the paper in a later folder. In this way, you could have a recurring reminder. Each day, the folder with today’s date should be at the front of the pile — rotate yesterday’s folder to the back of the pile.
- At the end of each month, rotate the past month’s folder to the back of the month folders pile, and look in the next month’s folder — take out the papers in it and redistribute throughout the 31 day folders.
It’s an ingenius system, and if it appeals to you, give it a try. However, many people (myself included) find this system a bit cumbersome, especially given the ease-of-use of today’s computer calendars (I use Gcal). Using a calendar program, you could just mark a reminder on the date in the calendar. You can even set up recurring reminders.
Hi-tech vs. lo-tech?
This is the real question for GTD users when it comes to tools: do you go with a paper system (such as the Moleskine, the Hipster PDA, the PocketMod, etc.) or with a digital system … or as many people do, a combination of both. Of course the answer is that it’s a highly personal question, and you should go with the tools that work for you — and especially the tools you love to use. If that’s a PDA, then go for it. If that’s a Moleskine, that’s great too. Usually it takes a little bit of experimentation to find the right tools — however, I would caution against obsessing over tools, as this is the biggest waste of time for most GTDers — pick your tools, and go with them. Focus more on actually doing your tasks than what cool tools you’re going to use.
You’d think that geeks on the Internet would go with digital tools, especially online ones or with PDAs or smart phones. And many do. However, there is a large number of geeks (myself included) who end up using analog (paper) tools such as the ones mentioned above. Why? That’s an often debated topic, but the reasons usually have to do with simplicity, ease of use, portability, ease of expansion and modification, and especially the tactile pleasure of using paper and a good pen. Ultimately, it’s something you’ll have to choose for yourself.
Here’s one of the best papers on this, and one that opened my eyes to the possibility of paper a while back: GTD LoFi HiFi Whitepaper (it’s got more HiFi stuff since I first read it, I think, but still interesting).
What’s the best GTD software?
There are so many out there, it would be impossible to choose just one. And it really depends on your needs and personal preferences. A couple of things to read:
I’m stuck with Outlook at work. Can I set up Outlook for GTD?
Absolutely — many people have. I would recommend reading various implementations, including:
What about implementing GTD on a Mac?
The Mac is a great GTD tool. 43Folders blog is an excellent source for more information, or see this MeFi thread for some good stuff:
- Ask Metafilter: Getting Things Done on a Macintosh
Is it OK to have multiple setups on my computer, PDA, and planner?
Again, what works best for you is what you should go with. But my recommendation? Simplify. It’s hard to continually check and update different lists and calendars on a computer, a PDA and a paper planner. You are more likely to use and stick with the system if you just have one place to check and update. Find the one that works best for you and stick with it.
Next Actions, Contexts, Projects
Next actions – what are they?
Basically, for any project (and a project is anything that takes more than 1 action), you need to ask yourself, “What is the very next physical action necessary to move this project forward?” It is this “next action” that you put on your to-do list. The problem with many tasks that we put on our to-do lists is that they are not really something you can do, but a mini-project. For example, “Write report” is a project where the next action might be “Look on Internet for three sources for report” or “Call Larry to get stats for report”.
See “Why What’s the Next Action is the Most Important Question” for more.
I have too many next actions (or projects) — what should I do?
It’s true that having a long list of next actions can be overwhelming for many people. Note: this advice also applies to too many projects. There are a few ways to deal with this:
- Realize that you don’t need to do all of these next actions today or even over the next few days. It’s just good to know all of your commitments, instead of having them pop into your brain over and over at the wrong times.
- If this list cannot be accomplished this week, move the less urgent ones to your Someday/Maybe list and just leave the ones you intend to accomplish this week. Then, in your Weekly Review, move those tasks you can accomplish next week back up to the current context lists.
- Simplify — eliminate or delegate those tasks that aren’t really essential, or that no longer need to be done.
- Crank out as many of the smaller tasks as possible, to shorten the list. You’ll still never clear your list, but you can make it more manageable.
A few next actions seem to hang around on my lists. Suggestions?
If you have some stubborn next actions that stay on your lists for a long time, you should take a look at them in your Weekly Review. Why are these actions so hard to remove from your lists? Here are a few suggestions:
- Perhaps you don’t want to do them — in that case, do them first thing in the morning, before you check email, and don’t do anything until those tasks are done.
- Or perhaps you don’t need to do them — if they’ve been on your list a few weeks, they probably aren’t that urgent. See if you can eliminate them or delegate them.
- Perhaps they aren’t really next actions. Often there are projects on our list that are disguised as actions. See if the task actually involves more than one step (for example, “Call Larry” might actually be, “Call Nina to get Larry’s number”), and then put the real next action on your list instead.
- Perhaps the tasks are too intimidating. In that case, break them down to smaller tasks. “Write Report” could be “Write first paragraph of report” or “Outline report” or “Write report for 10 minutes”.
- If it turns out this is something you need to do, but perhaps not right now, move it to your Someday/Maybe list.
How granular should a next action be?
When a next action is intimidating, as I suggested in the previous question, you can break it down to a smaller level (“granularize it”). But how small do you break it down? That’s really a personal preference — do you work better in 30 minute chunks, 2 hour chunks, or 10 minute chunks? Give it a little thought and experiment.
Some ideas to try:
- Do the next action — write the report until you are done, or until you need a break.
- Use a time chunk — again, the amount of the chunk depends on you, but it should be something you can do without taking a break. If you can work 2 hours without a break, in one burst, then that should be your level. If you can only work 10 minutes before needing a breather, that’s your level.
- Try a small unit — 5 pages, or 2 things on the outline, or 50 lines of code.
- Try a larger unit – a chapter of a novel, for example.
How many next actions for one project should be on my lists?
If you’ve got a project that consists of multiple physical actions, how many of those actions should you write on your list? The answer is at least one — every active project should have at least one next action on an active context list. If you’d like to put more, that’s really up to you, but be aware that having all of your project’s actions on your context lists can be intimidating and overwhelming.
My recommendation is to go with one or two at the most. And if you have 2-3 next actions from a project listed on your context lists, be sure that each of them can be accomplished without something else being done first. For example, don’t put “Mail letter” and “Buy stamps” on your list, as you cannot do the first without first doing the second. The first action (“Mail letter”) is known as a dependent action — you can’t do it without doing something else first. Don’t list dependent actions on your context lists, as it wastes your time to look at actions you can’t actually do.
When you’ve completed a project’s next action, don’t just check it off. Be sure to write the project’s next “next action” on your list, so the project continues to move forward. If you forget, that’s OK — during your Weekly Review, one of the most important parts of the process is making sure that each project on your projects list has a next action listed on your context lists.
How do I handle every day or every week actions?
If you have tasks that recur every day or every week (let’s say laundry, or a daily report), there are a number of ways to handle this:
- Put it in your calendar or tickler file as a recurring task. Every day (or every week, or however often the task needs to be done), you should see it in your calendar, and note it on your list as something that needs to be done today.
- Today list — this is not actually a part of GTD, but if you want, you can have a Today list where you note the things that need to be done today — such as your daily report, or one of your Most Important Tasks (MITs). Don’t put anything that doesn’t absolutely need to be done today on your Today list, or it will become useless. I suggest only having three things on this list.
- Context list — you could just put the task at the top of the appropriate context list, and then every day, when you check your context list, you’ll see it there.
- Routines — this is also not explicitly a part of GTD, but you could create a separate list for Daily Routines and Weekly Routines where you make sure to check off items each day or each week. Actually, GTD allows for other lists, such as checklists, so this could technically be a part of GTD.
What contexts should I use?
This is a highly personal choice, and also takes experimentation to get it right. The main idea is to group your next actions so that when you look at a context list, you are only looking at tasks that can actually be done right now, in the location you’re in with the tools you have. So if you look at your Home list, it should not contain items that can only be done from your work computer. Similarly, your Work list should not contain your errands that can only be done on the road. You can further break down a context such as Work if there are different contexts at work. For example, if you use different work locations, and some tasks can only be done at one of the locations. In that case, you should not be looking at those tasks if you’re in the other location where the tasks can’t be done. If you start to notice that there are next actions on your context list that you cannot actually do right now, that is either because 1) your contexts need to be re-examined; 2) the task is not actually a next action but a dependent task or project; or 3) the next action belongs on your Someday/Maybe list.
Sticking To It
I have trouble sticking to my Weekly Review. Any suggestions?
This is a toughie for most GTDers (including myself). It’s best to analyze why you’re having trouble, and address the reason. Here are some suggestions:
- If the weekly review is taking too long, shorten it by processing your inboxes to empty the day before, and making sure your process for the review is streamlined.
- If you find that you get too busy and keep pushing the Weekly Review back, try first thing in the morning on Monday. Schedule an appointment for two hours, and don’t let anything interrupt it.
- If that doesn’t work, do it on Sunday afternoon, when you have more time.
- Reward yourself for completing it. Actually, completing the Weekly Review is in itself a reward, because it’s nice to get your system organized, so remind yourself of that. But also give yourself an external reward.
For more on this, see How to do the Weekly Review in under an hour.
Help! I’ve falllen off GTD and I can’t get back on.
This happens all the time — people get gung-ho about GTD and then a couple months later something comes up that gets them too busy to keep the system organized, and it falls apart. Luckily, GTD is super easy to get back into — in fact it’s easier to get back into it than it is to get started in the first place, because you already know the system and you probably still have all the right tools — it’s just a matter of setting yourself up and getting updated. It’s actually fun to start again.
- Try some cool tools that you love to use. For me, that’s the Moleskine notebook, as it is just a pleasure to use. For others, that might be a PDA or a cool online app. The tools you use are important, as they make you want to use the system. However, don’t obsess over them.
- Keep it simple. Many people make complicated systems that are hard to hold together. Start simple, perhaps with paper tools or the simplest online tools, and don’t get overboard.
- Try with a minimal version (see the top of this FAQ for more). You don’t need to start full blast — just do a few things and then add later if necessary. You may find that the minimal version is all you need.
How do you stick with it once you get started again? See the next question.
I have trouble sticking with GTD.
How do you stick with GTD if you keep falling off it? Try these suggestions:
- Weekly Review. The key to sticking with GTD is the Weekly Review. Keep it short and simple, but be committed to it. If you only start with a minimal system, be sure to still do the Weekly Review. It keeps your system up to date, even if you get too busy to keep it up to date throughout the week.
- Habits. GTD is actually a series of habits (see Zen To Done for more), and the problem is that we try to adopt them all at once. If you’ve been reading Zen Habits for awhile, you know that you’re more likely to be successful if you try to adopt one habit at a time. Try that with GTD — just do one habit first, then the next, and so on. You are much, much more likely to make GTD a habit as a whole and stick with it using this method.
- Start small. Instead of doing the whole system at once, try a minimal version (see the top of this FAQ for more). The minimal version is much less hassle to maintain, and therefore you’re more likely to use it and stick with it. Keep it simple.
- Tools you love. Again, using tools you love make it more likely that you’ll actually use them, and therefore stick with the system. Again, don’t obsess over the tools, but pick ones that have a great appeal to you.
- Online forum. A good way to stick with anyone is to find a group that’s doing the same thing. Try these forums to help you stick with it: