What is GTD?

What is GTD?

by on 07/04/2014

What is GTD?
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I often get asked: “What is GTD?” This being the commonly used abbreviation of Getting Things Done, the excellent time man­agement system. David Allen published the book of the same name in 2001.

GTD quickly became popular. It is a complete system which focuses, initially, on your daily tasks and how to organise them.  This “bottom up” approach appealed to many people more than the more common “top down” approach, which starts with the focus on the big picture first – such as goal setting – and getting that in place.

GTD’s Focus on Tasks

In essence, GTD is a system for recording and managing your tasks. Practically speaking, our day does consist of multiple tasks. If we can keep track of these accurately and conveniently we will naturally manage our time well.

And this is just what GTD aims to train us to do.

With GTD, any job consisting of more than one task is called a project. So projects can be quite small.

The “Trusted System” behind GTD

To track our tasks Getting Things Done talks about the concept of a “trusted system”.

This means a system which enables us to record every task, and which we can trust to remind us at the right time that a particular task needs doing.

Applying GTD means you need to create your trusted system and then apply it rigourously and consistently.

So it’s really a big deal deciding what your trusted system will be.

In his book, David Allen does not recommend a specific trusted system. And, in fact, many people fail with GTD because there is no specific system recommended.

And back in 2001 it wasn’t possible to find GTD tools which would suit a huge number of people. And the systems used by those who were successful with GTD ranged from using a Filofax and notebook, to using the now antiquated Lotus Notes.

But, today, with the advent of smart phones and tablets I can recommend a specific GTD software which will suit a huge number of people.

For implementing GTD, Evernote is the best system.

Best for Implementing GTD: Evernote

Getting Things Done and Evernote are both comprehensive systems, the former for managing every task in your life, the latter for organising any information.

These two are made for each other!

Evernote is the best GTD software because it’s easy to:

  • Have one Evernote notebook for your “To dos”, a second for your “Filing”
  • Quickly find any information you want – including the next task you need to do – by careful and consistent use of Evernote’s Tags

If you find other GTD tools or GTD software which suit you better, by all means use them. But for the rest of this explanation I will assume that to implement GTD, Evernote is your choice.

Now let’s get back to GTD; what it is, and why it’s so powerful.

The GTD “Workflow Diagram”

The best way to understand GTD is by applying it as you keep referring to the Workflow Diagram David Allen has created.

I remember being confused by this chart when I first read it: but don’t worry – I promise that after a few repetitions (and especially as you start to apply it) it will become completely clear.

David Allen divides the GTD method into 5 sections:

  1. Collect
  2. Process
  3. Organize
  4. Review, and
  5. Do

Allen’s Workflow Diagram covers the first 3 of these sections: Collect, Process and Organize.

Reviewing and Doing are covered in separate chapters of the book.

The Workflow Diagram:

GTD Workflow diagram-w1000-h1000

To help clarify the chart I have given coloured borders to the boxes relating to “Collect”, “Process” and “Organise”.

The 5 Processes of GTD


GTD is very much about keeping your workspace, your brain, and your systems clean and clear.

This means a clear desk, an empty email inbox, and an in-tray which will have things in it. But you work through it until it’s empty on a regular basis.

This clarity also applies to your mind! It creates stress to remember too much – knowing that you might forget some of it. So you are highly encouraged to write everything down in your trusted system. For now, anything you think of that you have to do write it on a scrap of paper and put it in your in-tray.

Once you have collected everything to do – every loose end – you can pass on to:


Next, you go through each item one by one deciding what shall be done with it.

First, Allen gets you to ask yourself: “Is it actionable”?

Items which are non-actionable are dealt with in the next process – “Organize”. Allen gives three categories of non-actionable items:

  • Trash (rubbish)
  • Stuff you may do in the future, or might not. This will be a “wish list”, which he calls “Someday/Maybe”
  • Reference material

More about this in the next section.

If it is actionable there are also three possibilities:

  • Do it yourself, now
  • Delegate it to someone else, or
  • Do it yourself later

David Allen’s “Process” category forces you to make a decision as to the fate of every item in your in-tray and your email inbox.

In the next section: “Organize”, you act on that decision.

Do it now

If it’s quick – Allen says two minutes or less – you can do it there and then. If not, then you’ll either “defer it” – make a note in your “trusted system” (your diary, or Evernote) to nudge you to do it later or…

Delegate it

Do it later (“Defer it”)

If it’s a longer-than-2-minutes task, or if it’s a project (which, you’ll remember, Allen defines as being a job consisting of more than one task) then you need to do two things.

First, make a note of the project on a project list. You will be reviewing this project list regularly to make sure it is moving forward as appropriate.

Again, I suggest your project list is in Evernote. To do this, each project will have one main note and to show that the note is related to a project, give it a tag which is recognisable to you as a project tag. Eg: “P Double email signups”.

Secondly, you need to decide: “What’s the next action?” for the project, and then treat that action the same as a task (which is what it is). Additionally, add to the note the project tag you just created for the main project note. Then, when you want to, you can see everything relating to a project – the main project note, to dos, and filed items – by simply viewing that tag in Evernote.

Overlap Between “Process” and “Organize”

In fact, Process and Organise are carried out simultaneously as you inspect items one by one. The division into two is somewhat artificial and this can be confusing.

So, just remember that Allen has two separate categories here just to help explain the process.

I think another reason he creates a separation is that it enables him to focus attention on the question: “What is the next action?”

Failing to ask this question is what keeps items stacked up in our in-tray, in our email inbox, and in piles on our desks. And, having helped thousands of people to get themselves organised, Allen has identified that a large number of people do fail to ask the question.


So far, you should have collected together everything that needs acting on, and then “Processed” each item, one by one, so you know what to do with it next.

In the Organize part of the process you carry out the process you just decided on for each item – depending on whether it is actionable or non-actionable.

If it’s actionable, you do something with it – as in the chart. If it is non-actionable, then you trash it or file it or categorise it as “Someday/Maybe” (easily achieved with an Evernote tag.

One way or another, you get that in-tray, and email inbox, empty! And that is a good feeling.

Let’s just review that process one more time,

  1. You collect everything together that needs action – let’s focus on your in-tray.
  2. You “Process” each item one by one to decide firstly whether it is actionable or non-actionable, and secondly which of the three possibilities for each of those choices you will apply.
  3. Now you “Organize” that item, which means that if it’s actionable you do it now, do it later (Allen calls this “defer it,”) or delegate it. And if it’s non-actionable you trash it, put it on your “Someday/maybe” list, or file it for reference.

Remember that the only items that go in your calendar (and this is Important in Getting Things Done) things which are truly time sensitive. So putting to do’s which are not time sensitive in your calendar is a no-no.

At the end of the “Organise” process you will have emptied your in-tray, emptied your inbox, cleared your desk, and have everything necessary stored in a trusted system to remind you appropriately.

Now we have finished with the workflow diagram and our attention switches to “Review” and “Do”.

In the Review process you check everything that’s on your plate and mentally prioritise tasks and projects. Then finally you are ready to Do – carry out the actions you need to in the knowledge that every eventuality has been taken into account.


Reviewing is two-fold:

  1. During your working day, you check email, diary, to-do list, and projects at a frequency which suits you and keeps you feeling comfortable.
  2. Periodically, and again as a frequency which keeps you feeling comfortable, you review your overall system and make sure everything is in its place. This will vary from person to person, but might include a quick review each morning first thing and a longer, weekly review once a week of perhaps 1 to 2 hours.

For the first of these reviews – the one that occurs throughout the day here are a few thoughts.

Your Email

Your email inbox should be kept empty. If an email necessitates a later action, then send it to Evernote (one click from many email programs) to record that action, then delete the email.

Email is best managed with a “triage” system, which includes having a secondary email box which you filter most of your email to. This is described in my post: Avoid Email Bloat – Save 30 Minutes a Day.

Your Diary

You will probably want to look at this first thing in the morning, if not the previous evening, to find out what’s going on during the day. As I said, there shouldn’t be anything in here unless it has to be done, or you have to know about it, at a specific time.

Your To Do List

I recommend you organise your tasks in Evernote using tags to indicate priority. This enables you quickly to see the tasks you have classified as most important and urgent. And it also enables you to change their priority almost instantly – without needing to move them from one list to another.

The priority tags I recommend are Now, Next, Soon and Later. How I use them is described in my post: Time Management using GTD and Evernote.


How you deal with projects depends somewhat on whether you have two projects on the go or twenty. But the principle is similar.

Allen’s rule is that every project must have at least one task – which makes sense. You may have several tasks, or even more for one project. However, many tasks there are then each one needs to have a priority tag – as mentioned in the section above.

Beyond that, you need to check each project as often as you are comfortable with – perhaps weekly? – to make sure everything is on track with it. You can also check that your prioritisation of the tasks belonging to the project is suitable.


So now we get on to the final of the five parts of GTD – “Do”.

If you have done the previous four parts well, then this part will be a piece of cake!

If you’re using Evernote, then you simply click on the “To do” notebook, hold control (on the PC) and click on the “Now” tag and there should be five or six items in there.

Browse them briefly, choose one to do, and do it.

When it’s done, cross it off, and choose another one.

It really is as simple as that. All the work is with the preparation; once that has been done well, then knowing what to do next is a matter of simply:

  1. Being happy you have checked your diary
  2. Being happy you have checked your email
  3. Choosing an item to do from Evernote, which is tagged “Now”

Now, a few extra points about Getting Things Done, which are significant, but which I haven’t mentioned yet.

Extra GTD Points

  1. Don’t keep things in your head – write them down. Relying on your memory causes stress because you might forget it. Clear your mind and get your tasks written down.
  2. Classify your tasks by “Context”, to the extent that this is helpful. “Context” means where you are, or who you are with, at a particular time. Some people can do without contexts; others need four, five or more. “Work”, and “Home” are two contexts that many people use. Others might be “Errands”, “Marketing meeting”, or “Car”. Use Contexts as you need to. They are easily added with another set of Evernote’s tags.
  3. Don’t differentiate between work and domestic tasks. After all, if you forget to do domestic tasks. It can impact on your work, and vice versa. So your GTD system should encompass all tasks throughout your life to work the best for you.
  4. The final stages of the review process David Allen specifies are to periodically review your areas of responsibility, your 1-2-year goals, your 3-5-year goals, and your life goals. You might like to do this annually.


What is GTD (Getting Things Done)?

At the beginning of this article I asked the question: “What is GTD?”

Let’s hear from David Allen. First of all, what is his aim for Getting Things Done?

“It is possible for a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control.”

Doesn’t that sound good?!

And, next, he says that, GTD is based on:

…two key objectives:

  1. Capturing all the things that need to get done – now, later, someday, big, little, or in between – into a logical and trusted system outside of your head and off your mind, and…
  2. Disciplining yourself to make front end decisions about all of the “inputs” you have let into your life so that you will always have a plan for “next actions” that you can implement or renegotiate at any moment.”

I think that’s a good summary to end on.

The Best Time Management – GTD + Evernote

Getting Things Done has been my favourite time management system since I discovered it 10 years ago. It has a simplicity all of its own as well as being hugely adaptable to your particular circumstances.

There are many GTD tools around but by far the most comprehensive for me is Evernote. This combination has provided me with the best time management system I have ever used – and the last one I’ll need!

If you have any thoughts on “What is GTD”, please add to the comments below.

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