How to Keep Getting Things Done (GTD)

Our phones are constantly buzzing with work emails, social updates, and instant messaging. Wearable technology will multiply this tenfold. We are inundated with a nonstop stream of information that requires decision-making. It’s a wonder anyone can sleep with the constant buzz in our heads. With all this clutter, it’s easy to feel that we are constantly  forgetting something important. One way to manage this is a system called Getting Things Done (GTD).

What exactly is GTD?

David Allen wrote in Getting things Done (GTD) that one way to get clarity, and perhaps a good night’s sleep, is to download the worry into an actionable task management system. His system has been successful for many, including myself. GTD promotes capturing all of life’s distractions into one trusted source. If it’s an actionable item, it should become a to-do task. If it’s just noise then it can be discarded. One important note that David Allen makes, is that if it’s something that takes two minutes to complete, then just do it; a great tip to cut down on procrastination. Once all the to-do items are made, they should be organized into contexts, or categories, based on the type of activity it is and tackled accordingly. Finally, it’s suggested to schedule reviews for updating your to-do list.

For many, adoption is initially successful, but it eventually falls apart due to the constant influx of information of new things to do. It’s simply hard to keep up.  A good deal of people will give up and go back to old habits. Here are some ways I’ve avoided that pitfall and kept getting things done.

Keep it simple

A task management system should be no more complex than absolutely required. Find a method to capture tasks that is always available to you. An app on a smart phone works great, others may prefer a pen and notebook. It’s imperative to capture actionable items anywhere, while you’re checking email or while you’re reading a book on an airplane.

A Note on Contexts:

Contexts can be confusing. Try not to create too many.  Think of them in terms of a place where the work needs to be done or a resource needed to complete the work, i.e. “desk work” or “phone call”

Don’t procrastinate

It’s common for individuals to come to an action item on a to-do list that is so daunting, that a better part of a day is lost staring at the job instead of  completing it.  Look at the task as a larger project and break it down into manageable sub tasks. Your brain will release dopamine as you check off those smaller tasks, and momentum will keep you going until the job is done.

The Pomodoro Technique is something I’ve applied to tackling multiple small activities, especially when keeping focus is an issue. It helped me stay productive especially when completing seemly menial tasks.  However, its prescribed 25 minute bursts of work prevents a “flow,” that state of being in the zone when all other outside distractions seemingly cease to exist. Other productivity articles, like this one from Harvard Business Review, suggest 90 minutes of focused, uninterrupted work with 15 minute breaks in between.

Ignore distractions and don’t live in your inbox

We are taught that to be productive you must multi task. This is the furthest thing from the truth. Multi tasking is more like time splicing, and it reduces our ability to do our best quality work. Don’t feel that you have to respond to every email right away. These distractions will only delay the tasks that you have outlined for the day. Instead, set a few times of day to check your email. If you’re unable to do this, limit the amount of inbox clutter by making a rule to only be notified when you are listed in the “to” field. You can respond later emails in which you are only cc’d.

An email can very easily be turned into a task in your GTD system by filing it according to the appropriate context you created. Archive or file emails as soon as possible so they are not cluttering your inbox, or distracting and slowing you down.

Make it a habit

Habits are formed through repetition. Adoption to a task management system such as GTD requires replacing your bad habits with good. Make it a habit to manage your actionable items in the same system, the same way, every time. Set time once a week to review and manage your task system. Look for trends, areas for improvement, and defer or delegate tasks that have fallen lower in priority. This weekly review is a great time to clean out your inbox and any other source of messages or actionable items.

The art of pruning

Be like a gardener and prune stale activities. Use your weekly review to look over all the items that need to get done. If it seems like you will never get around to doing something, and you’ve deferred it multiple times, then let it go. You don’t want a to-do list full of stale items of things you won’t ever do. This will make your task management system sustainable, and not a graveyard for items that won’t be done.


The hardest part of a GTD system is consistently using it. Once you’ve made using your GTD system a habit, and you’ve made it sustainable through upkeep and diligence, then trust it. You’ll benefit from improved time management, productivity, and, maybe most importantly, focusing on what’s in front of you and not remembering what needs to happen next.  I’ve seen many adoptions fail because of fear of extra time spent using GTD, and falling back to bad habits. It might initially take a little more time upfront to organize a task than ignoring something in your inbox, but the long-term productivity benefits far outweigh this perceived increase in time.

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