Getting Things Done – 01 – Getting organised with the GTD method

This post is the first in a series on the Getting Things Done (GTD) method and how to implement it.

Following on from my presentation on the GTD method, I have prepared a series of five articles on the practical aspects of the GTD method.


Why do you need a method?

As a freelancer, you have to be a multi-tasker. You are a project manager, an account manager, a sales manager and an accountant all rolled into one. And that’s just the business side of your life!

Even if you’re a born organiser, that may not be enough. Forgetting to do things, feeling overstretched or always doing things at the last minute are symptoms of bad organisation.


The Getting Things Done method is a stress reliever.

Getting Things Done (GTD) is a way of organising your life developed by David Allen. The aim of the method is to:

  • reduce anxiety and the feeling of being snowed under,
  • get rid of that “unclimbable mountain” impression you get whenever a task is complex, by breaking it down into “bricks”, smaller tasks that are easier to accomplish,
  • reassess the situation and stay focussed on objectives at all times,
  • keep a positive attitude to tasks that you don’t manage to do.

Allen offers a simple solution: capture all information, ideas and projects that occupy your mind and put them into a reliable system. This “external hard-drive” relieves your brain of the burden of things to remember, so it can concentrate on its main task: doing things and attaining objectives.

The system entails a list of tasks and projects, a file to keep reference documents (that is, all documents that are not immediately necessary for anything specific, but that may be useful later) and a calendar. You can make your lists on paper or software. I’ll be discussing various apps in another post.

Simple, eh? Not really. It’s not as easy as it looks.


A 5-step approach

The GTD method consists of 5 distinct stages that I will summarise here very briefly.

1. Collect

The first stage consists of writing down everything that’s on your mind: precise tasks to do, general ideas, projects pending etc. Don’t be surprised if you end up with several hundred tasks. Then sort all objects and documents that are not in the right place (e.g. all the files piled up on your desk or the contents of a “to do” file).

Then you need to set up a filing system for reference documents: you can then file them in alphabetical order or by subject, whatever works for you.

2. Clarify / 3. Organise

Next stage: take the first document on top of the pile and handle it as follows:

    • If it’s a reference document (e.g.: a bank statement that you should keep), file it.
    • If the action noted is going to take less than 2 minutes, do it straight away (e.g.: confirming you received an email).
    • If the action noted is going to take more than 2 minutes, note it on your task list or your calendar if it’s a meeting or an action to be taken at a specific time (e.g.: call a client between 9am and 10am the next day – the only time she will be available).
    • If it’s a project (i.e. a result to be achieved in several steps) then you will need to plan it.

For example: I noted “Buy new computer” on a scrap of paper. I would put it on my task list as follows:

  • Buy new computer. [my project, i.e. a result to be achieved]
    • Define my budget [my next action]
    • Compare several computers
    • Go to the shop and make the purchase

At this stage, it’s important to clearly define the result to be achieved (preferably with a nice verb, which supposedly encourages action) as well as the next action to be taken to get a step closer to the target (here, define the budget). Once I have completed the first task, the next step is “compare several computers”. Some projects seem overwhelming at first simply because you don’t know where to start. By breaking them down into a series of bite-sized chunks, you get rid of the obstacle. Because, as we all know, the hardest part is getting started.

The collect stage is to be repeated every day. Pile up all documents, ideas or actions to be handled and handle them one by one as explained above.

4. Review

Every week (for example on Friday afternoons, to round off the week nicely), review your task list and your calendar. The idea is to tick off the tasks you have completed, define your next actions, delete obsolete projects etc. In short, you are keeping your list up to date. The review stage takes time, but it is essential. According to David Allen, this method cannot be beneficial unless you are sure you can have total confidence in the system.

5. Actions

So, now you have organised your tasks, you just need to complete them. What you do when depends on four criteria: the context, i.e. where you are (in the office, travelling, at home, on the telephone, etc.), the amount of time and the amount of energy you have and also the priority level of the task.

The drawbacks

One of the main criticisms of the GTD method is that you can spend more time organising tasks than actually completing them. That is especially true at the beginning. David Allen recommends setting aside a few days to collect and organise all your documents. Next, taking time to collect every day and review every week are absolutely essential to the reliability of the system. This demands considerable discipline, that may be difficult to maintain in the long term. Generally though, you should find more pros than cons, as long as you remain flexible and don’t let the system dominate you.

Relieving stress: Allen has the key!

As far as I’m concerned, David Allen has kept his promise: within the first few months, I felt less stressed by work. Four years later, I never feel snowed under. I do feel overloaded with work, but not submerged by the mountain of things to be done.

  • My mind is liberated, because it relies totally on the system.
  • I really feel on top of things. By planning each action and therefore anticipating, you make enlightened decisions about what you do (and especially about what you don’t do straightaway). You no longer feel submerged by your workload. You control it.
  • This method really helps make the most of slack periods. If I have a whole afternoon free (it doesn’t happen often, but it does happen), then I quickly choose what to do in my “to do” list, according to the four decision-making criteria (context, time, energy, priority).
  • The last advantage, and by no means the least: you become more reliable each day and that is reflected in the service you offer your clients.



Does it still seem a bit hazy? In the second post, I’ll be talking about the tools and devices I use. The following post will give you an example of the method I use each day. In the meantime, feel free to post your comments!

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