The GTD Method

"Getting Things Done" - a summary of the method

The personal productivity consultant David Allen (2001) has proposed a simple and effective approach for managing  your day-to-day tasks or activities. Based on years of experience in teaching knowledge workers how to deal with their backlog of unprocessed issues, the method is known as “Getting Things Done”, or GTD for short. GTD is intended to minimize stress and anxiety while maximizing productivity—in the sense of maximizing the number of useful tasks performed, not in the sense of maximally achieving a given objective.

The intended result of applying GTD is being able to keep up with a high workflow in a relaxed manner. The main principle is to get everything that is nagging you out of your mind and into a trusted external memory (file system), so that you can stay focused on what you actually have to do now, rather than on various ideas, plans and commitments for later. GTD uses the following stages:


Collect (1)

The first phase is to collect everything that catches your attention as potentially relevant to your activities, whatever its subject, importance or degree of urgency. This includes incoming letters, emails, phone calls, reports, articles from magazines, agenda items, suggestions and requests from other people, and personal ideas and memories. For the collecting process, you need one or more collection tools, which can be physical (trays, folders, notebook, etc.), or electronic (email application, outliner, or word processor, on a computer or a PDA). These together define your “in-basket”.

Collection is just the first step: to gain control over the collected materials, you need to empty the in-basket regularly. Emptying means deciding what to do with—not actually doing—the items in the collection. This happens by processing and organizing the items one by one.


Process (2) & Organize (3)

 The first question to ask is: “What is this stuff?” Note that “stuff” is a catchall word, which can refer to an email, something at the back of your mind, a note, a voice-mail, a scrap from a newspaper, etc., i.e. any item that has been collected. More precisely, the crucial question is: “Is it actionable?”, i.e. does it require you to perform an action?

  if it is not actionable, there are three possibilities:

o      eliminate the item if you really will not use it (i.e. throw it in the trash bin);

o      incubate the item for possible implementation later (i.e. store it in a Someday/maybe file that you will review at a later time);

o      reference the item if it does not require action but may need to be consulted later (i.e. store it in a Reference file, which is organized so that items are easy to classify and retrieve).

if it is actionable, then you have to decide, “What is the next physical action?”

o      if there is more than one action required, store it in your Projects list.

o      if the action requires less than two minutes, it is not worth the effort of entering it into the system: better perform it immediately.

o      if you are not the best person to do it, delegate the action to a more qualified person/organization, and keep track of whether you get back the desired result by entering a note in the Waiting for file.

o      if the action is to be done on a particular day and time, defer it to this moment, and note it on your Calendar.

o      if the only time constraint is that you should do it as soon as you can, put it in your Next actions file.

When you review your Projects list, for each project you should start developing a Project plan. This in general does not mean a formal scheme with milestones, deadlines and objectives, but a formulation of the overall goal or desired outcome, with a focus on the list of next actions required to move towards this goal. Once these actions are defined, they need to be reviewed, which means that they should follow the part of the flowchart that describes the decision tree for actionable items. There is in general no need to plan actions far ahead: once the first “next action” is done, the next “next action” will probably become obvious. 


Review (4)

The reviewing phase is crucial to remind you of what you still have to do. The daily review includes reviewing first your Calendar (which are the things that you have to do imperatively on this day?), and then your Next actions list (which are the things that you should do as soon as practicable?). The weekly review is a more in-depth review of all your (potentially) actionable files (In-basket, Calendar, Next actions, Projects, Project plans, Waiting for, Calendar and Someday/maybe). It is essential to get an overview of what has to be done in the coming period, and thus get the feeling of being in control. Concretely, it means that you make sure that the different files in your external memory are kept up-to-date. This will include a complete cleaning of your desk, email, and other collection places, and thus some further processing and organizing according to the flowchart.

 A regular review is important in order to develop and maintain genuine trust in your system. Most people who are not applying GTD do this kind of review a few times a year, for example at the beginning of a new year. This gives them a great feeling of clarity, control, and purpose. These good intentions, however, quickly dissipate when new, unprocessed things start to accumulate, and previous plans become outdated because of changing circumstances or lack of follow-up. If they would do such a review systematically every week, this feeling of control and goal-directedness could become permanent.


Do (5)

Having all your lists of to-dos up-to-date, what should you do right now? Allen proposes three models for deciding which action to perform. The first is the “four-criteria model for choosing actions in the moment”, which advises that you consider the following factors in the listed order:

1. Context: What can you do here and now? You cannot do the same actions when you are at your desk as when you are walking in the street. The context limits your choices to the tasks you can (practically) perform. If you have a large number of “next actions”, it is recommended to classify them by context (“office”, “home”, “errant”, etc.), so that actions requiring the same context can easily be performed together.

2. Time available: How much time do you have now? Fit the duration of the next action you choose to the amount of time available: if the time is limited, do only short actions.

3. Energy available: How much energy do you have at this moment? Adapt your choice of action to your level of physical and mental energy: when you are tired do only routine actions, and keep difficult actions for when you feel more energetic.

4. Priority: What are your priorities? Given the context, the time and energy available, what action should be done first? The two following models help you to answer that question.

The “threefold model for evaluating daily work” proposes the following possible strategies:

(1)       Do work as it shows up

(2)       Do predefined work

(3)       Define your work

Is the work that shows up (1) the most urgent thing you have to do? When you accomplish tasks as they appear (answering a phone call, chatting with a colleague passing by, replying to an email that just arrived, etc.) by default it means that you are deciding that these tasks are the most important ones at this moment. Alternatively, you can decide, if possible, to postpone the work that shows up, in order to focus on your predefined work (2). This means that you systematically go through your Next actions list. If you do not have any next actions listed, or if you do not feel confident that the listed “next action” is the best thing to do, you have to define your work (3). This is similar to the reviewing phase, where you clear your mind by updating your system of to-dos.

Still, to be confident that what you are doing is truly important, you need a deeper insight in your general goals and values. The “six-level model for reviewing your own work” can support such clarification. Allen uses an airplane analogy to define the levels (Allen, 2001, p. 51):

-                50, 000+ feet: Life

-                40, 000 feet: Three- to five-year vision

-                30, 000 feet: One- or two-year goals

-                20, 000 feet: Areas of responsibility

-                10, 000 feet: Current projects

-                Runway: Current actions

You can define goals for different terms or time-spans, from tasks to undertake immediately (Runway) to missions that extend over the rest of your life span (Life). The latter require you to answer almost philosophical questions, like “What is my purpose in life?” It is important to engage from time to time in this “vertical thinking” (Allen, 2001, p.  20-21), and write down and review those lists of goals, so as not to be constantly chasing priorities at the runway level. 



Allen, D. (2001) Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, (Penguin).

Heylighen F. & Vidal C. (2008) Getting Things Done: the science behind stress-free productivity (ECCO working paper 2007-08), to appear in Long Range Planning

Wikipedia contributors. (2007) Getting Things Done. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.