How To Be Productive and Get Things Done Using GTD

by Ramesh Natarajan on August 24, 2010

Do you need more time to do the things that you enjoy? Of course, you do. For geeks there are tons of technical projects to mess with, but we don’t have enough time.

Over the years, I’ve tried few time management and productivity systems. While they all helped me grow, there is something in those system that didn’t go well with my working style and thinking.

Few years back, I came across David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD), immediately it just felt right for my working style and thinking. I cannot imagine my life without GTD anymore.

GTD is not about telling you what software or tools to use to become productive. GTD is a productivity framework that you can tweak it to match your working style.

Why GTD for You?

  • You won’t like any system that tells you to do things exactly as explained in that system. GTD is not a rigid system, it’s a framework!. It provides the high-level building blocks, which will guide you in implementing a solution that you think is appropriate. This is the #1 reason why GTD is a great fit for geeks.
  • Geeks like to pay attention to details. Apart from providing a high-level framework, GTD also explains in detail about how to implement the framework with a well thought-out approach.
  • You don’t need to worry about assigning your tasks with High, Medium, Low (or A, B, C) priority anymore. You don’t even need to sequence the tasks in the order you like to complete. In GTD, you do a task based on the context, the time available, and the energy available.

Getting Things Done (GTD) is a productivity framework.

Overview of GTD

According to David Allen, everything that needs your attention are called “Stuff”. This may be as simple as buying milk from the grocery store, or completing the proposal for the multi-million dollar project. Anything that takes up space in your RAM (mind), are called as stuffs. Not all stuffs are actionable. But, all stuffs needs to be collected, processed, organized, and executed appropriately.

5 Different Phases of GTD

1. Collection Phase

You are always collecting stuff. Some stuff comes to you directly, and some gets collected for you in the background. For example, emails get collected in your in-box in the background. You also need physical in-boxes where you can collect stuffs. At home (and work), have a physical in-box, where you thrown-in anything that needs to be processed. I have following 4 different in-boxes, where I collect my stuffs.

  1. Office email in-box
  2. Personal email in-box
  3. Physical in-box at office
  4. Physical in-box at home.

The amount of things that goes into the in-boxes doesn’t bother me anymore, as I don’t process them as it shows up. Also, while I’m not in front of computer, if an idea for a project strikes me, I typically send an email to myself from my phone, which will get collected in my email in-box for later processing.

2. Processing Phase

You should process the items in your in-boxes frequently. Please note that processing doesn’t mean doing. Don’t DO anything on this stage, except processing. Process the stuffs collected in your in-box once a day (or  how often you feel comfortable). Following is my processing schedule.

  • Office Email: Three times a day. Critical system alerts that comes to my cell phone is not part of this, as those needs immediate attention.
  • Personal Email: Once a day. I used to check personal emails multiple times a day. But now, I check only once in the night time before going to bed. (I was able to get to this stage of checking personal emails once a day, as part of my personal on-going 30-day-habit development project, where I try to develop new habits by trying it out for 30 days.)
  • Office Physical In-box: Once a day. At the end of the day before leaving work.
  • Home Physical In-box: Once a week. I used to do this daily, but later I realized it is enough to do this once a week for my style of work.

Keep the following items in your mind while processing items from your in-boxes:

  • Start from the top and go down. For example, start with the email on the top and work your way down, or take the 1st item from your physical in-box and work your way to the bottom.
  • Process only one item at a time.
  • Once you’ve taken an item out of your in-box for processing, don’t put it back in your in-box.

How to Process?

  • Take one item from the in-box, and ask yourself – “Do I need to do anything about this item?”. Otherwise, “What is the next action for this item”?. You should come-up with a clear answer for this question. Initially this might be hard. Once you get used to it, identifying next action for every email (or physical item) can be done in matter of seconds.
  • If there is no action, you should trash the item, or archive it for reference, or put it in your incubation list.
  • If there is an action, you should do it immediately (if it takes less than 2 minutes to do it), or delegate it to somebody, or defer it for later by putting it in the appropriate next action context list (more on that below).
  • I typically process my email in-box in matter of 10 or 15 minutes. Again, processing doesn’t mean you complete every single task in your in-box.

3. Organizing Phase

Any item that you’ve deferred for later should be put in the appropriate next action context list. In GTD, there are no priorities. You only have context.

For example, “withdrawing money from the bank” may be a high priority task, but you cannot do much with that task when you are work. At work, you should be doing work related tasks. While driving and running around, you should be doing your errands. When you are in the server room at the data center, you should be doing the tasks that can only be done directly on the console or on the server.

All tasks should be organized around the context in which it needs to be performed. This might be different than how you are used to working, but once you get used to this, it will be effortless, and you’ll be super productive. I like to keep my next action content lists very simple.

Following are my next action context lists. The tasks in these lists contain only the next actions (not some vague project, or high level tasks).

  • @Home – Next actions that can be completed only when I’m at home.
  • @Work – Next actions that can be completed only when I’m at work.
  • @Call – Tasks that can be done when you are on the phone. Even when the cellphone is always with me, I’m might not have the energy or time to make a call anytime I want.
  • @Errands – Tasks that needs to be done when I’m outside. For example, deposit check in the bank, buy milk, etc.
  • @DataCenter – Tasks that can be done only when I’m physically at the datacenter in front of the servers.

I used to have around 10 next action context lists. Now I’ve reduced it to the above essentials, which works great for me.

Apart from the next action context list, you also need the following list.

  • Project List (Work) – This is your master list for all work related projects. Any project that cannot be completed with one next action, should be tracked here. For example, “Configure Dev Server” is a project that needs to go as an item in the work project list. However, the next action for this project, “Install Red Hat OS from DVD” should go as an item in the @DataCenter next action context list.
  • Project List (Home) – This is your master list for all home related projects. For example, “My daughter learning swimming” is a project that needs to go as an item in the home project list. However, the next action for this project, “Go to YMCA website and get swimming class schedule for kids” should go as an item in the @Home next action context list.
  • Someday/Maybe List – This is your master list for all items that you might consider doing it some day, but it is not important now. This list has more than 100 items for me. For example, “Learning Spanish” is something I want to do someday, but not now. So, it is in my Someday/Maybe List.

While organizing, apart from putting things into the appropriate next action context list, or project list, you also need the following.

  • Calendar – Next actions that needs to be done at a specific time should go here. Treat your calendar with full respect. Do not put any wishy washy tasks here. Put only the next actions that you WILL complete on that specific day and time.
  • Day Specific – Some tasks are only day specific (not time specific). Put this in a day specific list. Do not put a day specific item in your calendar for a specific time. Keep both of them separate.

Fig: GTD Workflow

4. Do It! Phase

When it is time to execute, you should not be thinking about what needs to be done, or you should not be checking your email for items that needs to be done, or you should not be looking at a one big long to-do list with priority and try to figure out what needs to be done.

Instead, depending on your current context, you should look at the items in that next action context list, and decide quickly on what you want to do. For example, if you are at work, you look at @Work list, which will have all your previously defined next action that needs to be performed. If you are driving, and have the time to make a call, look at the @Call list, which will have all the previously defined calls that you should make.

You’ll have multiple next actions in your context lists. When it is action time, you should pick one item from the context list and execute it. The question is: which item should you pick?. Since there are no priorities assigned to the tasks in the context list, use the following as a guideline to decide which take needs to be executed at any give time.

  • Your available energy. Certain tasks needs to be done when you have full energy. You don’t want to work on the “Create logical network diagram for new server room” tasks at around 4:00 pm, when your energy level is low. Rather, you want to perform this task in the morning.
  • Your available time. If you have 10 minutes, before going to a meeting, and would like to do something, check your @Work context list for next actions that can be completed quickly in 10 minutes and do it.

When I’m really doing something, I’m doing one of the following:

  • Do items based on the next action context list.
  • If I’m not working based on my context list, I’m working on planning. Thinking through on my projects and defining the next actions.

What I never do is to try to complete the work as it shows up, which is useless most of the times, and you might not be working on tasks that matter most.

5. Review Phase

You have to review your system once a week. I do it every friday evening. Following are some things that you might want to do as part of the weekly review.

  • Review your project list and define next action required for them.
  • Review your professional and personal goals and create new projects as required.
  • Review your current week calendar and process any notes from the past meetings.
  • Review next week calendar and plan appropriate next actions.
  • Review all next action context list.
  • Do a mind sweep and dump everything in your in-box for later processing. (If time permits, process them after the mind sweep).
  • Review your someday/maybe list and look for any projects that you want to work on.
  • This is also a good time to process all your in-boxes before you complete the weekly review.

There you have it. That is how I get things done.

I strongly recommend that you give Getting Things Done (GTD) a try. There is nothing for you to lose, other than spending $10 for the book, which will dramatically change the way how you get things done.

GTD Resources:

Give yourself some time to try and understand the GTD framework. As you progress, tweak the system to suite your style of working. This system doesn’t require you to use a specific software, or binder, or anything like that to get organized. You can even use a simple pen and paper and get started. GTD works for everybody, as it provides a flexible framework, that can be tweaked for your working style.

Keep in mind that to become productive, what software you use to get things done is not important, rather your attitude and approach towards execution is important.

I wish I knew about this system in 2002 itself, when David Allen released the book. I started using this only from late 2007. There are only few things I call as life changing. This is definitely one of them, as it totally changed the way how I execute a project and get things done. I will never work in any other way.

How do you get your things done? Leave a comment, and share your productivity tips.


Linux Sysadmin Course Linux provides several powerful administrative tools and utilities which will help you to manage your systems effectively. If you don’t know what these tools are and how to use them, you could be spending lot of time trying to perform even the basic administrative tasks. The focus of this course is to help you understand system administration tools, which will help you to become an effective Linux system administrator.
Get the Linux Sysadmin Course Now!

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like..

  1. 50 Linux Sysadmin Tutorials
  2. 50 Most Frequently Used Linux Commands (With Examples)
  3. Top 25 Best Linux Performance Monitoring and Debugging Tools
  4. Mommy, I found it! – 15 Practical Linux Find Command Examples
  5. Linux 101 Hacks 2nd Edition eBook Linux 101 Hacks Book

Bash 101 Hacks Book Sed and Awk 101 Hacks Book Nagios Core 3 Book Vim 101 Hacks Book

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Markus August 24, 2010 at 2:22 am

I’ve found a software that helps me GTD. here.

2 Guru Prasad August 24, 2010 at 2:23 am

It was a pleasure reading the article..hope this brings a change in my lifestyle as well.Thanks again for this article.

Guru.

3 roko August 24, 2010 at 7:22 am

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and results !

I’ve read about GTD before and I’m applying it as best as I can.

I see two flaws:

First, it is related with the “someday list”. You could tend to put too much things there.

Second, you need a “cylon” mind (systematic mind) to get things done using this method. This method is for highly organized people. I think.

Thanks again !

4 roko August 24, 2010 at 7:23 am

I forgot to tell you: I will try with some recommendations you write here: Several lists depending on “location” is a great idea, and reading personal email once a day is another one. I’m deleting my personal inbox from the pda !

5 Ramesh Natarajan August 24, 2010 at 8:46 am

@Roko,

For me, checking personal emails all the time used to be a big addiction. For example, when my daughter is playing at the park, I’m watching her, and still checking my personal emails for no apparent reason. Not anymore! When I’m at park with my daughter, I just play with her, and not let my emails distract me anymore.

The amount of mental clarity I got just by deleting the personal email from my phone, and checking it once per day at night, is huge.

Keep me posted on how it went after you’ve tried it.

6 nill9 August 24, 2010 at 10:22 am

thanks very interesting

7 nullAndNada August 24, 2010 at 11:12 am

nice. btw, is there a good application out there where i can organize my dailywork? googled a little bit and found some, but better would be if someone already tried one and can say it’s nice and useful

8 Xavier August 25, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Good article as always. Im gonna check this out since I’m not exactly the most organized person. Thanks for the advise.

9 e_wolf August 26, 2010 at 4:11 am

The advice to check the inbox not more than few times per day is very helpful for me.

Re tool, I would recommend this.

Also, “Time Management for System Administrators” by Thomas A. Limoncelli is a great source of both professional ane personal advices.

10 balmar August 27, 2010 at 5:04 am

Thanks, great article.

Since a wast majority of my todos come via email (and since I’m still using Pine), I asked Pine to order my inbox according to subject. When a new mail comes, I either completely do/answer/save it immediately (see the two-minutes rule above), or I forward it to myself with the following inserted in front of the subject field: either
- a deadline in yy.mm.dd format for tasks with deadlines
- “$[two-digit number]” where the number represents priority, for tasks to do but without explicit deadlines. (E.g. The Geek Stuff emails automaticly receive $05 in front of their subject field).
Then the rule is to process those tasks with deadlines in order, but if I have say 5 days before the next deadline I’m doing all $[digit] stuffs from $01 up to $05. So e.g. I read recent The Geek Stuff articles every time I have five days before my next deadline task.

Also, questions I ask and need answers from other people get a question mark inserted in the subject line.

So Pine is sorting according to subject line, and I have a pretty nicely organized todo list in my inbox without the need of transferring emails or opening other applications.

11 roko August 28, 2010 at 2:06 pm

@ramesh: yeah! to do things good you must focus on it and avoid all the external stuff that could distract you. I mean, not only at work but the life itself.

I just remove my personal email from the cellphone and now I’m checking it in certain hours.

I think I need to put things when they belong.

Thanks again ! your articles are very helpful !

12 vamshi August 29, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Thanks for your guidelines. I was looking for a idel way to execute my stuff @Work & @Life. Hopefully I will succeed implementing these methodologies..

13 Sathiya August 31, 2010 at 11:21 pm

Really useful article. Thanks.

Most of the things are maintained through Email… And i use Gmail always. This priority inbox in gmail is of great use: http://mail.google.com/mail/help/priority-inbox.html

14 Craig September 15, 2010 at 8:49 pm

Very nice article… dare I say ‘inspiring’???? :)

As sad as it sounds, one of my work buddies bought me GTD a couple years ago, and whether due to my unwillingness to change, my poor attention span, or a general inability to break bad habits, I didn’t get anywhere with it. This article, however, really does make me want to reconsider. I very much appreciate how you’ve translated GTD into the real world (or maybe I’m just a Cliffs Notes kinda guy).

One question I have though is how do you handle unplanned interruptions (say walkups by individuals at work) with varying priorities (both from your perspective and theirs)? Do you allocate specific time in your day for this type of thing? Or maybe limit the interaction to the 2 minute rule?

I certainly appreciate any additional thoughts you have, and again thanks for sharing!

15 Derek November 1, 2010 at 3:25 am

Nice summary – and a good reminder of the key points. I’m also a GTD fan, although I have simplified the system greatly.

For me, pointed reminders via gmail and cell-phone work well for appointments and regular tasks. Make sure that gmail is set to remind you *in advance* (e.g. 1 week, 1 day, 1 hour… this countdown technique has a strong effect on me). For ad-hoc, day-to-day stuff, I carry a few small cardboard notes (e.g. use old business cards) with ONE item per card. When done, I tear them up. Bigger lists – those needed for projects – can be be kept in Google docs.

@roko says ” you need a “cylon” mind (systematic mind) to get things done using this method.”

No! That’s the whole point! Very few of us have “a systematic mind” and should anyway NOT be using our minds for keeping diaries and remembering “doing things” lists. Keep these things external and free your mind for thinking – that is the essential core of GTD.

16 Derek November 1, 2010 at 3:30 am

@Craig

Have a look at a good article on unplanned interruptions. There’s also a shorter note here. I like the comment “My first question when asked to do something is ‘when do you need this to be done by?’ – this knowledge ensures that I can prioritise it fairly with the other work on my lists. “

17 Mark November 8, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Good article, and a nice short clear introduction put in geek terms.

Big flaw: Driving != @call, driving time is for driving only!

18 Akther June 30, 2011 at 1:53 pm

It’s realy interesting. I want to implement GTD in my life. million thanks to Ramesh.. expecting more and more..

19 Briain November 30, 2011 at 5:50 am

Ramesh, you’re the man! I’m relly impressed at your output of productivity. Shows it works! I’m giving GTD a try. Thanks, buddy

20 nitin January 13, 2012 at 5:03 am

hi
its really amazing. got to read this book, i already have this book.

21 Antonio Gonzalez April 2, 2012 at 1:48 pm

This one is Amazing. Wish I had knew about it sooner.

Is there an App someone can recommend to use as a helping tool?

22 Derek April 3, 2012 at 1:39 pm

@Antonio – try “TODO.txt” – available for most mobile platforms. here.

23 Biju Joseph October 25, 2012 at 7:49 am

Great read. Immediately got down and have ordered the book at Amazon. This read has given me a push to implement things which have long been in the back of my mind.
Thanks mate

24 Anoop July 9, 2013 at 2:02 pm

Thank you very much

25 vaino May 14, 2014 at 8:00 am

I real get interested in this article on how to get things done always it help me to organize myself how to get my work done on time.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: