This post provides you with a version of GTD that anyone can do, that requires basically no implementation, that will provide massive benefits versus having no system. This is not a full version of GTD. There are important things missing. The motivation for writing this post is that I have heard people say they tried GTD and gave up because it was too complicated and/or they didn't want to do all that work. The truth is that GTD is extremely simple - it removes things from your life rather than adding things - and the maintenance time is minimal.
Once this system is working for you, it'll be easy to add in missing parts when you say "My system works great, but I wish it did X." You can add a waiting for list, a someday/maybe list, or a tickler file once things are rolling. What I present here is a useful core, such that as long as you keep it going, you will avoid the chaos that so often happens without a good system in place.
The centerpiece of GTD is the list (several of them). Note that these are not to do lists. David Allen explicitly says to not use to do lists, because they don't work. All you need is one of those 99 cent spiral notebooks and a pen.
You need these four things:
- A calendar to remember things that absolutely have to be done at a certain time or on a certain day. A calendar is a list of tasks and the date/time they are due. If you're using a spiral notebook, it will help to dedicate one page per month, with each page divided into sections for each week. Calendar apps are everywhere - the only thing that matters is that you use it.
- An inbox to capture stuff as it comes in. An inbox can be a piece of paper where you write down reminders of things as they come in. The inbox is literally nothing more than a raw, plain text list of things you'll have to deal with later. An online word processor or notes app is fine too. The key is that you have one inbox only.
- A projects list. This is a list with all your active projects on it. Each entry has just enough information to remind you what the project is supposed to accomplish. If you start a new project, it goes on the list. If you remember a project that isn't on your list, you put it on there. If you complete a project or put it on hold, you cross it off. It goes in the same place as your inbox, so if you're using a spiral notebook, the projects list also goes in the spiral notebook. If you're using Evernote, the projects list goes in Evernote.
- A place to store reference material and next actions for each project. You will need a physical location to store the reference material. That might take the form of a filing cabinet for papers or a new directory on your laptop. Each project gets its own list. It has to go in the same place as your inbox and projects list.
If you're using a spiral notebook for everything, colored tabs can be handy to let you know where your calendar, inbox, and projects lists are. It's not hard to find your stuff in a blank notebook, so it doesn't matter now. You can solve that problem after it appears - too many thing in your notebook is a good problem to have.
Here's how you use each of component:
Calendar. If you promise to do something at a certain time or on a certain day, you put it on your calendar. At the start of the day, or anytime you're curious, you check what is coming up. That could be tasks due today or tasks due in the next couple of weeks. The critical thing is to get everything on your calendar so you can experience the comfort that comes with knowing you aren't forgetting anything. Nothing else goes on your calendar. The calendar is not a list of things you'd like to do if you have time. It's not a reminder storage system. It's not a place to capture thoughts. The only function of the calendar is to ensure that you remember the dates and times associated with any promises you've made. If you don't put everything with a date or time on the calendar, no matter how minor, you'll constantly be devoting part of your brain to remembering to do those tasks. There's no excuse for that. It's distracting and stressful.
Inbox. During the day you have things coming at you. Email requests, people stopping by to inquire on the status of a project, or an idea for a new product. You can't typically deal with those things at the time they come in. Your client Alice calls and asks you to send an overview of the progress on her project, but you can't work on it right at that time, because it will take a few phone calls followed by an hour of writing, and you have to leave for a business lunch with Sally in ten minutes. You put "Send Alice an update on the project" on your inbox and go off to lunch.
You could write something on a sticky note and attach it to your monitor. As long as you're in your office, in front of your computer, and the other 15 sticky notes don't distract you, it's a great way to ensure that you do it. It's better to just put it all on one list that you can take everywhere and that you can review when you're waiting for your meal to arrive at the restaurant. The sticky note thing isn't going to work if you're at home and you realize you need to buy toilet paper. You could try it, but it would be awkward if your boss walked in and saw a sticky note reminding you that you need to buy toilet paper, assuming you actually remembered to create the sticky note when you arrived at work.
The purpose of the inbox is that you have one place holding everything you have to do. The benefit is in the reviewing, not the writing down. When you get back from lunch, you are reminded that you have to work on the update for Alice. Since you have only one inbox, and you constantly review it, you know you'll never forget anything. If you have a specific deadline to send it to Alice (imposed by her or by yourself) you can put something on your calendar when you return. It's not just regular tasks that go in your inbox. Anything needing a decision goes in there. If someone sends you several spreadsheets that might be useful at some point for Sally's project, but you don't have any use for them right now, you can make a note in your notebook so that you can deal with it properly when you have the time. When you're out of energy at 4:30, you download the spreadsheets, check their contents, and make a note in the project list for Sally's project. You then return to your inbox and cross the item off, possibly leaving a note to indicate when you completed the task. If in the course of checking the spreadsheets you notice that something is missing, you send an email requesting the rest of the data, and then you make a note in your inbox so you know to check back if they haven't sent it by Thursday.
The inbox gives you the freedom to do things at the appropriate time. Once you have a working inbox, you'll stop doing things as they come in out of fear that you'll forget about it. You have the freedom to think deeply about the things that pay the bills rather than thinking about buying a card for your aunt's birthday. This all comes at a very low cost. It doesn't take much time to write things down on a notepad. You may not be able to remember life without the stress and distraction that comes with constantly trying to remember a gazillion unrelated things as they cross your mind. As long as you put everything in your inbox and review your inbox regularly, you will experience that stress-free, distraction-free environment.
Projects List. Having a list of all projects means you can periodically review everything in your life. Have you forgotten to do anything? Are there any upcoming deadlines? Do you have ideas for moving a project forward? Is this something that sounded good, but now is just a waste of your time, and should therefore be put on hold or trashed? Constant review of your full projects list is important to catch things that are slipping through the cracks. It's also an excellent way to get an overview of how you're spending your time and, more important, how you're not spending your time - you'll know that based on the projects that aren't showing progress. One of the great dangers of the traditional to do list is that you don't see the tradeoffs involved with saying yes to things. You feel good because you're making progress on dozens of projects. By never looking at what you're not doing, you don't really know if the things you're doing are the things you should be doing. A comprehensive review of all projects doesn't have that loophole. No more silently ignoring the consequences of your decisions.
Next Actions. If you don't know the next actions necessary to complete a project, that project is no longer active. When you're deciding what to do next, you start by thinking about which projects are the most important, and then you find next actions that you can complete right now. If a project doesn't have any next actions, you need to figure out what they are.
Be careful not to get sucked into the "optimization trap" where you feel like you have to do the exactly optimal thing at a point in time. You're going to do all of your next actions anyway. You know which projects are the most important at a point in time, and it's usually easy to tell what to do just by looking at your next actions list. If you can't decide on the "best" next action to work on, pick one at random, pick the easiest, pick the most desirable, or pick the least desirable. It doesn't matter. Trust your instinct. As long as you're regularly reviewing your projects list in its entirety, nothing is going to slip through the cracks. There are more productive ways to spend your time rather than assigning 9.3/10 to a next action for project A and 9.2/10 to a next action for project B. (I have heard of people who do this, by the way. I would be bored to tears if I tried that.)
That's it. You now have a full productivity system. One that can be improved upon for sure, but one that will dramatically improve the quality of your life. There's nothing difficult, complicated, or time consuming associated with any of the four components. You will save time, have less stress, and make progress on the important projects in your life.