The Basics of “Getting Things Done”

Matt Stauffer

Some paper and binder clips with text "Notes from Getting Things Done" written on them

David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” system (GTD) is one of the most-talked about productivity systems around, but the book and its diagrams and terms can seem overwhelming at first glance. We’ll talk here about a few of the basic concepts of GTD, and show you how to connect it with your workflow.

Why GTD?

In introducing GTD, Allen often describes a simpler world and simpler jobs where success and productivity is measured by how many “widgets” (his term for a generic product) you produce. At the end of the day, you’ve made a certain number of widgets, and you’re expected to have made another number; your only responsibility is to make sure those numbers match up.

The problem with work like campus ministry is that our responsibilities aren’t as simple as cranking out widgets. We wear many hats and are responsible for many outcomes, few if any of which are as simply measured as a widget. What do you write on your to-do list? “Disciple Jenny to become a lifetime follower of Jesus”? “Meet fundraising goal”? That to-do list becomes just one more thing to remember and stress about.

GTD has become so popular because Allen recognizes the way that all of those responsibilities–“stuff”, he calls them–bounce around in our heads, never really settling. As Merlin Mann describes it, we “race around from fire to fire, praying [we] haven’t forgotten anything.” GTD helps us simply address our “stuff” and get it all in the right place.

The Foundations of GTD

Let’s take a quick look at some of the key components of GTD that you can begin incorporating it into your workflow today. This will be only a brief skim over the surface of the system; for a more in-depth look at the system, buy the book.

  • Collect: First, just work to get your myriad tasks and things you “should” do collected into a few key places. The purpose here is to move everything from your head, your desk, your drawers, your notepads, and the various other places you might collect things you “should” look at, and move them into a few inboxes designated for collecting your tasks. Try starting with an email inbox, a physical inbox, and a general task inbox.
  • Process: Now it’s time to turn those collected items into real, actionable tasks. A few times a day, set aside some time to process the tasks in your collection boxes. If they’re not actionable (actionable meaning you can do something about them), throw them out or file them for reference. If they’re actionable and can be done in less than 2 minutes, do them now. If they can’t, either delegate them to someone else, or defer them by putting them in your real to-do list. Allen calls this the “Do it, Delegate it, Defer it” rule.
  • Organize: Move the tasks into organized units. If any desired outcome has more than one action step–that is, if you have multiple tasks that would together end in a particular responsibility being met–then that outcome is a “project.” Likewise, if any task has more than one step, it’s not a task, it’s a project; split it up into its multiple components and call it a project.
  • Review: The first hard step is to collect and process your tasks; the next hard step is to remember to do them. Allen recommends setting aside time to review your entire to-do list once a week, and review your more immediate needs (“next actions”) on at least a daily basis.
  • Do: Finally, just sit down to do the tasks. If you struggle with deciding which task to approach, Allen recommends applying the following four criteria: Context, Time available, Energy available, and Priority. What tasks can be completed where you are right now? How much time do you have between now and your next commitment? Which tasks require the sort of energy you have right now? Which task that fits the above three criteria will give the greatest payoff?

If you follow these five steps, you’re well on your way to benefitting from the beauty of GTD.

A full implementation of the GTD system incorporates “contexts” (helping you separate home tasks from office tasks from campus tasks), project planning methods, file folder systems, physical organization, reminder systems, “tickler” files (great for recurring yearly responsibilities and events), and more. But don’t get overwhelmed! The book explains the system terrifically and simply–and even if many of the aspects of GTD aren’t for you, you can still put some to use.

Check back soon for deeper thoughts on some of the specifics of GTD, and some specific applications of GTD: Inbox Zero, the Trusted Trio, software reviews, and more.

Photo from Flickr user Teo

Disclosure: Amazon links are affiliate links that will go to support Staffhacker.

By Matt Stauffer | Posted: Dec 04, 2010
Category: Time & Task Management | Tags: , , | Permalink | Post a comment | Trackback URL.


  1. December 6, 2010, 10:45 am | Permalink

    GTD is really great. Fantastic paradigm on whatever level you choose to implement it at.

    For the context of a campus staff worker, what are some examples of “projects” and the “tasks” that might make up a project?


  2. Hilary Cook
    October 5, 2012, 6:50 pm | Permalink

    This blog post motivated me to do something I had been meaning to do for years! I organized all of my emails in my various inboxes into files and all of my documents as well! I can find things so much faster now and that goes a long way in the job that I currently have.


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