GTD Refresher

“Getting Things Done” (GTD) is a powerful method to manage commitments, information, and communication.  The GTD process helps you to:

  • Capture anything and everything that has your attention and concern
  • Define actionable things into concrete next steps and successful outcomes
  • Organize information in the most streamlined way, in appropriate categories, based on how and when you need to access it
  • Keep current and “ahead of the game” with appropriately frequent reviews
  • Keep track of the bigger picture while managing the small details
  • Make trusted choices about what to do in any given moment

There are 5 phases to the GTD process: Collect, Process, Organize, Review, and Do.



Every commitment unfinished is an “open loop”; and when it is tracked in your brain, it will require energy and attention to track and maintain. Once the open loops are captured, you can manage completion by using an external system that takes much less energy than keeping it in your head. Every commitment unfinished requires management in a trusted system until it is done or discontinued.


  • Capture it all (Get it out of your head)
    Every open loop must be in your collection system and out of your head. Keep collection tools nearby so that no matter where you are, you can capture anything that has your attention. The result of this practice is to have everything out of your head. The less you track in your mind, the clearer you will be, and the more important and functional the collection tools will become, which allows for your mind to be optimally clear. This will make your collection tools more important.
  • As few collection tools as possible (Minimal number of locations)
    Have as many as you need, but as few as you can get by with. You need collection tools wherever you are, since things that you want to capture may show up anywhere. However, if you have too many collection areas you won’t be motivated to empty them regularly.
  • Process them to empty regularly
    Emptying the collection tools to process and organize is part of the daily processing routine. Emptying the collection tools does not mean that you have to finish what is in voicemail, email, or an in-tray; it just means that you have to take it out of the container, decide what it is, and decide what has to be done with it. If it is still unfinished, organize it into your system. You don’t put it back into “in”!



Processing is the core fundamental thinking that defines the meaning of each item collected. Outcomes and next actions are determined for actionable items, and the non-actionable items are identified as trash, something potentially actionable in the future, or reference material. This decision process transforms unclear stuff into defined work.


  1. What is it?
  2. Is it actionable?
  3. What’s the desired outcome? If it is multi-step, write it on your Projects/Outcomes list.
  4. What’s the next (physical/visible) action? Write it on the appropriate Next Actions list.


  • Give yourself enough processing time.
    Most people need an hour to an hour and a half per day of total processing time to process new inputs.  You can estimate how much time you need by factoring 30 seconds to process each input. For example, if you get 60 emails a day, you’ll need 1/2 hour of total time to process your email inbox to zero. By total time, we don’t necessarily mean in one block of uninterrupted time. It can also mean total time throughout the day.
  • Processing is not doing, it’s deciding.
    The only “doing” time recommended during processing are those items that will take less than 2 minutes to complete.



Organizing identifies the various placeholders or “buckets” where actions and support material are stored that you’ve processed. The four primary action lists are:

  • Projects
  • Next Actions (with optional subcategories by context such as Calls, Computer, Office, Home, Errands, Agendas (people and meetings) and Anywhere)
  • Waiting For
  • Calendar (for time-specific actions, day-specific actions, and day-specific information only)

Organizing also includes setting up your workspace, a reference system for non-actionable information, and incubation systems (Someday Maybe and Tickler Systems) for possible later actions.


  • Are there any tools already in place that you plan/need to still use? Like a corporate calendar?
  • Where is your email?  Not required, but certainly helps to have your email and lists near each other.
  • Who else needs to see your data?   Does it need to be on a shared server or would local be fine if you go digital?
  • What do you tend to be drawn to–paper or digital?
  • Is security a concern? Are you okay with your information being in the cloud?
  • How would you back it up, if needed?
  • What are you willing to carry around?
  • What tools are you already familiar with?
  • Would you trust putting almost anything into it?
  • Is it scalable?
  • Can you easily learn how to use it?
  • What are you willing to pay for it?
  • What does it need to sync to?


  • A good rule of thumb when choosing tools (especially your Calendar, Waiting For and Next Action lists which will get the heaviest traffic) is “can I maintain this easily if I am sick in bed with the flu?” That will tell you whether you’ve overbuilt it or not.  Don’t build your system at the height of your creativity and complex thinking.  It’s too risky that you won’t be there all the time and won’t be able to easily work your system when you need to.
  • Settle on something as a list manager.   Let go of the idea that the perfect list manager is out there, if it’s holding you back from picking something that will be good enough at least to try. You can always change it later if you really need to.
  • If you’re still on a learning curve with GTD, you may not want to add to that learning curve by picking tools you’re not familiar with. Instead, start with something you already know, like a paper planner.

Pick tools you’ll be more attracted to than repelled by.  Trust your lists for holding your reminders more than holding them in your mind, or your mind will fire you and take the job back.


Get clear – ensure all your “stuff” is processed

  • Collect Loose Papers and Materials
  • Get “IN” to Zero
  • Empty Your Head

Get current – review your system and update lists

  • Review Action Lists
  • Review Previous Calendar Data
  • Review Upcoming Calendar
  • Review Waiting For List
  • Review Project (and Larger Outcome) Lists
  • Review Any Relevant Checklists

Get creative – follow your intuitive thinking

  • Review Someday Maybe List
  • Be Creative & Courageous


  • Review your system regularly.  Sounds simple and obvious enough, but this is a challenge for many GTDers.  The downside of letting Reviews lag is that you risk your mind starting to take back what it downloaded into your system. You start thinking about things more than they deserve and can start to get leaks in your system.
  • Any Review is better than no Review. Don’t have the recommended 1-2 hours to do a thorough Weekly Review? Dedicate whatever time you do have and choose the step that most has your attention for that week.
  • Give it time to make it a habit.  Try at least 4 Reviews before you decide you just can’t do them.  It takes time to groove new habits and create a new reference point. Once you really taste what clear, current, and creative feels like, you’ll move mountains to make it happen, regardless of how busy you are.
  • Stay focused on reviewing not doing. It’s tempting to get in to handling some things you find in your Review. That’s fine for the quick less than two-minute ones, but be careful that your Review doesn’t turn into a catch up on backlog time.
  • Pick a day and time that works for you. This is one of the most common questions we get asked as coaches. Any day works, as long as it works for you. Universally, Friday morning seems to be the most common day. Choose a time when you tend to be brain sharp, not brain toast. I would also pick a time that leaves you buffer room to handle things that would not be good to find/fix if no one else is around (like end of day Friday).


Quick recap:

Capture everything that has your attention (Collect)

Make decisions about what it means and what you are going to do about it (Process)

Park those decisions in trusted places (Organize)

Step back to reflect on those choices from a clear, current, and creative place (Review)

So that you can make the best action choice  (Do)

But how do you create a manageable to-list?

Criteria for Choosing:

Context – What place, tool, or person will the action require? This is the first limitation for choosing–it has to be. If you’re not in the right place, don’t have the right tool, or access to the required person, you can’t take the action.

Time available – How much time do you have to take the action? If you have 20 minutes, consider actions that will take less than 20 minute choices.

Resources – What is your energy like to take the action? You’re probably doing this now more than you realize. Brain alert usually means you’ll make different choices than brain dead. Watch that. Honor that.

Priorities – What’s the most important one to choose based on your roles (20k), 1-2 year goals (30k), 3-5+ year strategy (40k) or purpose (50k+)?

Look at how you’re spending your time ‘Doing’.  This is where the Three-fold Nature of Work model comes in.  It’s a way to look at how you spend your time:

Doing pre-defined work – Choosing from choices you’ve already made on your Calendar & Next Action lists

Doing work as it appears – New things that show up that you choose to work on (not always a bad thing by the way, even though it gets a bad rap as being the demise of productivity)

Defining work – Processing new inputs (swing back to Collect, Wash, Rinse, Repeat.)

Of those three, where do you spend more time than you think you should? And which one doesn’t get enough of your time?


compiled from articles by Kelly Forrister, GTD Times