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How can I start GTDing?

Okay, first, the background.

I love GTD.  It stands for “Getting Things Done”, and is a methodology for accomplishing more.  Accomplishing more at work, accomplishing more in your spare time, accomplishing more in your creative pursuits, just plain accomplishing… more.  One of the core principles of GTD is to get tasks, ideas, and “things” out of your head and into a trusted system, allowing you the creative and psychic energy to come up with new ideas and focus on the existing things that you want to do.

I learned GTD at work, from the project manager that mentored me.  This was a great head-start.  I was given the perfect opportunity, time, and place to get started and practice the methodology.  I had someone to discuss issues and problems that I encountered when trying to create my own approach to the system; I had a constant influx and outflow of daily tasks that needed my attention and were well-suited to using an approach like GTD; and it was acceptable for me to spend some time focusing on applying this new methodology, since it made me more efficient at my job.

But not everyone has this same benefit.  In fact, changing your existing habits and making the move toward a system that is more efficient can be both challenging and daunting.  Taking a step forward usually looks (and feels) like taking one step back and then two steps forward.  So, today, I’m talking about simple steps that you can take to prime and move yourself to a better system for managing your daily tasks, chores, and projects.

We would all like to maximize how we use our time.  Even those of us prone to procrastinating wish that we weren’t.  It’s not that most of us aren’t interested in getting more things done, simply that we don’t know how to make that happen, or that the processes that are available out there require so much mental investment that they are too intimidating to even find a place to start.

These tips aren’t groundbreaking.  You may already do these, in which case you may be ready to graduate to something more full-fledged.  But, if you feel like there’s some room for improvement in the way you organize your daily life, these suggestions may give you some ideas for how to accomplish that.

Let’s do this.

Record stuff (start writing things down)

I told you – nothing groundbreaking here.  But this suggestion actually is pretty groundbreaking for most people.  So often, I’m out with friends, we have a discussion, and then they exclaim “Oh, that reminds me, I need to do X when I get home”.  That’s all that happens though.  They don’t do anything with that thought after having it pop in their head, other than comment on it.

They may try to hold it in short-term memory, or even simply hope that having it pop in head in the first place will make them more likely that  it’ll come to them when they’re back at home.  It’s possible, but why clog up your psychic energy with this thing nagging at you from the back of your head?

Getting into the habit of recording things is the best, and probably the easiest, thing that you can do to improve your ability to get things done.  Recording can take many forms.  You can carry a notepad and pen in your bag or purse.  Or, you can simply carry a pen and write on yourself (a lot less classy, but you’re much more likely to remember to do something with that information when you get home).  If your cellphone has a notepad application, you can write yourself notes.

When I first decided that I was tired of having good ideas disappear from my limited short-term memory, I went out and bought some moleskine notebooks, grabbed a few pens, and put a set of each in my bike paniers, my backpack, and my laptop bag.  Now, whenever I was out, I was sure to have a notepad and pen with which to capture my ideas.  This system wasn’t bad, but it was annoying having to fish them out when I had an idea.  While hanging out with my friend Jay, he suggested trying a voice memo recorder, and that idea has since become my go-to method for capturing my thoughts.

Voice Memos are the best for me because I can record the thought that I’ve had with a minimal amount of time.  It looks a little nerdy holding your phone up to your mouth and speaking into it like a doctor transcribing, but you can circumvent that by holding it up to your head like you’re taking a call and speaking that way.

The fundamental effect that something like this can have on your mindset is quite astonishing.  Taking that idea out of your head and putting it into a reliable means of short-term storage means that it no longer nags at you from the back of your head, or occupies your precious short-term memory.  Less things like this in your head frees your mind up to have new ideas, and to operate creatively.  Keeping these ideas occupying your limited cognitive abilities limits the amount of creative thought that you have available.  With a mind free to wander, without fear of losing track of something you’re trying to remember, you may be surprised at how much more relaxed you feel.

Zero your inbox

This one is daunting to most and achieved by few.  To get this task complete, I suggest scheduling a reasonable amount of time to get through it.  If you have 600 e-mails in your inbox, you’re probably going to need at least a couple of hours to get through all of them.

The reasoning behind zeroing your inbox is that it clears out your inbox and allows you to use it as it should be used – a landing pad for incoming items.  When I worked as a project manager, and gave a talk about GTD, some of my colleagues later came up to me and said that they used their inbox as an archiving tool, and they could tell which items needed to be dealt with because they left them unread.  This is cheating, and should be avoided.  These colleagues didn’t realize that in doing so, they were numbing themselves to the important items in their inbox, and generating inertia that would prevent them from regularly reviewing and dealing with the items in there.

If you really do have a good archiving system that is in place using your inbox, there’s no reason that you can’t take that one step further and duplicate the folders outside of your inbox.  You’ll be left with an intact and functional archive, and a new, clean inbox that adequately represents the new items that you need to deal with.  This change is usually resisted because they know in the back of their head that their approach is far from a functioning system with clean edges.

By emptying out your inbox and keeping it clean, you help ensure that your system has what David Allen (creator of GTD) calls “clean edges”.  This makes it immediately obvious to you what you need to process, and what you actually need to do.  Keeping these two things separate helps prevent your mind from becoming numb to what you need to accomplish, and let you focus on what is important at the appropriate times (end of the week?  Time to process everything new.  Got a block of spare time?  Skip processing and spend that time to get some things done).

Get into the habit of acting on quick items

Most of the time, our inbox is filled with items that are quick to deal with.  Someone writes us and asks for our opinion on something, we need to bookmark a page that we just got sent, or we need to listen to a song that our friend suggested we use in our next project.

These tasks typically take less than two minutes to accomplish, but we often see the item land in one of our inboxes and think to ourselves “I’ll deal with that later”.  But why later?  If you can deal with an item in two minutes, you might as well take the short amount of time to get it done now.  It’s already eaten up some of your concentration to switch your thoughts to the item and figure out what it is in the first place – why go through that mental overhead a second time?

By making a point of dealing with a quick item when it first comes in front of you, you’ll drastically cut down on the amount of “rust” that builds up around your edges and starts to bleed into your mental energy.  Incidentally, this is an excellent way to start taking on procrastination.  Whenever you feel yourself picking up a task and putting it off until later, ask yourself if you can deal with it in two minutes.  If so, clear it out.  You’ll be surprised at what a difference this can make.

If you want to take this to the next step, an item that lands in your e-mail inbox that requires more than two minutes to deal with can be put into your central task manager and deleted from your e-mails inbox, allowing you to keep your e-mail zero’d out, and dealing with the task of actually processing the e-mail immediately.  This is the start of a more GTD-specific approach.

Perform a weekly review

The weekly review is the most important thing you can do to ensure that you stay on top of things and manage your commitments.  The entire success of someone’s GTD system hinges upon them holding the discipline to perform weekly reviews regularly (… weekly, ideally).

The weekly review is simply an opportunity to go through all of your inboxes and open items, and process them.  Review your e-mail inboxes, and process everything there (move the items that need to be stored or archived into the appropriate places); review your facebook inbox and deal with any items that are there (mark old messages as read, or better yet delete them, respond to any events that are awaiting an RSVP, and block everyone that has invited you to play Farmville or Mafia Wars).

Review any places that you store items that you intend to review later, and review any lists of goals that you’re keeping.  If it’s an appropriate time to review those stored items, do so.  If they’re no longer relevant, delete them, and if they are still something you want to review, but don’t have time to do so, leave them on the list to archive – just make sure that you delete or prune where possible.

More important than anything else, go and gather every single piece of loose paper that you have around your house (sticky notes, receipts, bills, etc.) and process them: create a task to deal with the item, or read it and throw it out, or file/shred that receipt you saved (depending on which is appropriate).

It usually takes me between two and three hours to do a weekly review, but that’s because I’m a multi-tasker by nature, and work more efficiently when I’m doing more than one thing at once.  If you are able to devote yourself to the task at hand, you should be able to get through a weekly review in about one to two hours.  Take note, the first weekly review may take, as you’ll need to figure out exactly what it is that you go through.  A weekly review after you have missed a couple will also take longer, for obvious reasons.

When I first describe the weekly review, and the length of time it is likely to take, they typically express disbelief and astonishment at the notion of setting aside that much time each week.  But, this review process isn’t net new work.  It’s work that you would need to do anyhow.  If you don’t perform the review on a weekly basis in this manner, your going to need to do it piecemeal throughout the week, or worse yet, at a longer, or more sporadic interval.  By designating a weekly time to perform a review, you’re not creating new work for yourself, you’re just committing yourself to performing the work that you already need to do.

By reviewing all of your tasks, inboxes, goals and loose paper on a weekly basis, you’ll be able to spend the rest of your week confident that nothing has slipped through the cracks, and that you’re on top of everything.  Isn’t that a pretty worthwhile trade-off?  Would you be willing to spend an hour each week if it meant that you had no nagging feelings during the rest of your spare time?  I am!

In Closing

These are some of the the ways in which you can begin to introduce more order into your system.  I know some people that think “you shouldn’t attempt to impose order into your life, you should just live in the moment”.  This is great if you can manage all of your commitments and daily routine without requiring any additional coping measures beyond your mind, and continue to live in the moment and enjoy yourself.  However, most of us are adults with a large body of commitments, goals, desires, and pursuits.  Order can help you ensure that things don’t slip through the cracks, and that you can maintain your focus on what’s important, rather than what’s immediate.  Most importantly, order can help you feel comfortable that you’ve got a handle on everything that is important so that you can stay present in the moment and enjoy life as you live through its myriad of wonderful quirks and opportunities.

One final note regarding a weekly review – I would recommend starting out very small and keeping the list of things that you do fairly minimal.  For a long time, I struggled with a weekly review, finding it difficult to appreciate why I needed to do so.  The irony of the review is that it is the bedrock of the GTD methodology, and also the aspect of GTD that most people neglect.  If this is the change you choose to make, begin the process by committing to review one or two things on a regular consistent basis.  Once you’re doing that regularly, you can begin to broaden and add more items to your review.  The key for now should be on building a habit of reviewing your tasks consistently.

Because it may be helpful, I’ve included below the list of inboxes that I review, as well as my entire weekly review process.  I’ve saved the review process as a text file that I open up each Saturday morning when I sit down to begin reviewing.  Having everything written out helps me focus on actually doing the review, rather than on the process of reviewing itself.

Both of these lists (inboxes and the review process itself) are released under a creative commons license.

List of inboxes

Below are the list of inboxes that I review on a weekly basis:

  • All three of my e-mail inboxes
    • two GMail accounts and my UVic account
  • My Facebook inbox
    • I log on to Facebook as rarely as possible as it is a huge time-waster for me.  However, for many people, this is their preferred means of communication.  That’s not an issue for me, I just make sure that I review it weekly to ensure that nothing has slipped through the cracks.
  • The saved voice memos on my iPhone
    • As mentioned earlier, I find the Voice Memos app on the iPhone the best way to collect ideas when I’m on the go.
  • My starred items in Google Reader
    • I often read through RSS feeds I have subscribed to on my iPhone while taking the SkyTrain to and from work.  Whenever I encounter an item that I want to review or deal with later, I simply star it in Google Reader and come back to it during my weekly review.
  • Bookmarks in SoundHound
    • SoundHound is an application for iPhone that will identify any song that it can hear playing through your iPhone microphone.  If I’m out and hear a song that I want to pick up, I identify it in SoundHound and then bookmark it.  I then review and process all of these bookmarks during my weekly review.
  • New Music folder
    • This is the folder where I store any music that has been recommended to me by friends, or that is part of a compilation I’ve recently gotten.  I don’t like keeping entire CDs of music, I prefer to screen them and clear out any of the chaff.  Everything in this folder is dealt with during the weekly review and either brought into iTunes or deleted.
  • Download folders
    • This includes my Safari download folder, BitTorrent download folder, and any other subfolders that you may have where downloads can end up (eg, MSN contacts, or anything like that).  The Safari sub-folder can get quite clogged up with install files for programs I’ve recently put on my computer and the like, and clearing those out is a good habit to get into.
  • ToRead list
    • This list contains all items that I’ve archived with the intent to read later.  This list is less of a typical inbox, as all of the items that end up here are items that I’ve specifically placed myself.  Nevertheless, items here need to be dealt with, either read now, deleted because they are no longer relevant, or left again until I have more time to read them.

Weekly Review

And here is my entire weekly review list:

Loose Paper

  1. Review all loose papers, receipts, etc.  There should be almost nothing for this if I’m staying on top of stuff.


  1. Process e-mail inboxes and process any e-mail sitting there.  Zero out inbox.
  2. Process Facebook inbox
  3. Review all Voice Memos recorded on phone and process.
  4. Review all Google Reader items that are starred and process.
  5. Mark all Google Reader items read.
  6. Process all bookmarks in Sound Hound
  7. Process new music folder
  8. Process download subfolders
  9. Review toRead list


  1. Review previous week of calendar items
  2. Review items completed in the last week (completedWithin:”1 week of today”)
    • The text within the brackets represents the search that I perform in Remember the Milk to get a list of items matching this criteria.  I have this search saved as a smart list in RTM).
  3. Review upcoming week of calendar items


  1. Review Todo Next list
    • Reviewing here simply means look at what I have to get done and making sure there’s nothing there alarming or that I need to make a priority
  2. Review all actions that have been postponed (postponed:”>0″)
    • Items that have been postponed repeatedly might represent a task that I’m never going to get to, or that needs to be broken down further so that I can actually tackle it
  3. Review project lists
    • Make sure there are no projects without a next step – all projects should have some next step that is an action that can be taken to move the project closer to completion.  A project without a next step, like “renovate bathroom” will usually go unfinished, as it’s just too big and nebulous to mentally get a hold of and do something about.
  4. Review Dance Ideas/Practice list
    • Sometimes I just can’t figure out what I want to practice.  I use this list to store any new techniques that I want to work on so that I never end up at a practice session without any idea what to work on.
  5. Review waiting-for list
    • A list of items for which I’m waiting on someone else before I can take any further action.  Reviewing this list should help me remember if I need to follow-up.
  6. Review someday/maybe list
    • A list of items I keep that are things I may want to take on at some point in the future, but are currently outside of my current scope.
  7. Review items that do not have due dates (-Need Due Date list)
    • Items without due dates are not necessarily a bad thing, but I prefer to keep something that has no immediate need for completion on the Someday Maybe list.  If it’s something that I want to get done, I like to set a line in the sand for me to take it on, and then adapt that line when the time comes if need be.


  1. Review goals
    • I keep two lists of goals, one for 1 year goals, and one for 3-5 year goals.  In reviewing these two lists, I’m simply providing myself with an opportunity to determine whether or not I’m staying on track, or if I need to re-adapt my todo list to better maneuver myself towards these long-term aims (or if I should change my goals, given things I’ve learned).

Clean up

  1. Review office Folders and archive anything completed, throw out anything unneeded.
    • This is an opportunity to clear out any project folders that may be remnants of a project I was previously working on, but no longer need to be out and taking up my focus.

That’s all I’ve got for today – any questions, please ask!

  1. dkb
    June 17th, 2011 at 11:56 | #1

    Great summary of your weekly review. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Maureen
    June 17th, 2011 at 13:53 | #2

    Thanks for sharing your process actions about GTD. Helps my own clarity to know how other minds see this function. Tell me: where do you keep your goals list? and (related question:) how do you see it on your iphone? I am starting to use that technology (new iphone) and Remember the Milk and am juggling these things trying to get them to work together, for my peace of mind. ie:”If Mother is happy, everyone is happy” thanks

  3. June 17th, 2011 at 14:52 | #3

    @dkb: Thanks, glad you enjoyed it!

    @Maureen: Good question! I keep my goals (and all of my other lists) stored with Remember the Milk. Because they’re a web application, it means I can access everything from anywhere web enabled. Their iPhone application is pretty good and they just released an iPad application (finally). The biggest concern I had was being able to eliminate redundancy and have everything located in one main repository that I could access from anywhere I needed to. You can check out some of my other posts (like this one: http://adamquiney.com/public_html/blog/wordpress/?p=277, and this one: http://adamquiney.com/public_html/blog/wordpress/?p=795) to see how I’ve set up RTM.

  4. Tess
    June 18th, 2011 at 06:31 | #4

    Super post! I’ve struggled for years to embed GTD into my life. You have re-inspired me!

    Couple of questions:

    Do you transcribe your voice memos into written notes? Do you delete or save them as audio files?

    Despite a voice memo system, there will be times when you scribble down notes, eg on a conference program, or at a lecture (where you can’t use your voice memo device). How do you process all those notes and do you physically store them in a cabinet or box file? I ask because today (Saturday) I am trying to purge notes from recent conferences, seminars etc, and struggling to decide how best to process.

    Many thanks

  5. June 18th, 2011 at 10:55 | #5

    @Tess – Wow, thank you! It means a lot to hear that!

    1. I don’t transcribe voice memos into written notes, per se. What I do is go through all of my voice memos for the week, listen to them, and then process them like I would anything else entering my system. So:

    a) Is this something that I can take care of immediately? If so, just do it again get it done.

    b) Is this an action for me to take, or a piece of information I want to store for reference later?

    – If it’s an action that I can’t complete in two minutes, I put it into my “trusted system”. For me that’s Remember the Milk. For you that may be the same or another piece of software, or even just a notebook that you use to keep track track of everything you need to get done.

    – If it’s a piece of information for reference, I store it in @Evernote (http://evernote.com), of which I cannot speak highly enough.

    2. In general, I aim to go as paperless as possible. With digital information I can have redudant backups of my information, I can access it from everywhere (with the caveat being that security becomes more important) and I have less clutter to worry about. For most of your paper notes, I would go through the same process in item #1. If I wanted to store the note for later, I scan it in and store it in @Evernote.

    (I even scan in the receipts from pants I’ve had hemmed – I got a guarantee honoured by showing them my scanned receipt!)

    Let me know if you have any other questions,


  6. Tess
    June 19th, 2011 at 08:00 | #6

    Hi Adam
    I’ve used Evernote since it appeared. Love its cross-platform capability. Great idea to scan receipts! I also use dropbox and delicious of course.

    I have registered for RTM and noticed you had a blog post about it. Just need to set some time aside to work thro the settings you suggest.

    Also, I’m working through the GTD Outlook 2010 setup guide. I like its simplicity; I trialled the Netcentrics Add-in but it’s too over-specified for me and doesn’t synch well with a blackberry.

    Thanks for your help.
    I’ve added you to my Greader and look forward to reading your future posts!

    Tess :)

  7. June 19th, 2011 at 08:10 | #7

    Sounds like you’re already ahead of the game Tess!

    I’m with you, over-specification is problematic. I prefer a system that has simplicity and elegance to it. Anything that becomes too specific and elaborate loses the ability to adapt and be flexible — two things that are ever-more important for a system designed to capture all of the myriad things that demand our time on a daily basis.

    Stay in touch!


  8. Preston
    July 15th, 2011 at 12:08 | #8

    Thank you for this post because it helped me to get started with contexts on Producteev.


  9. July 15th, 2011 at 12:18 | #9

    Thanks Preston. And thank YOU for bringing Producteev to my attention – this is the first I’ve heard about it.


  1. July 1st, 2011 at 15:20 | #1