How to Make GTD Work for You

By Emily Roner | Updated: 13 Feb, 2020

Getting Things Done by David Allen is one of the most popular productivity systems. Unlike structured systems like time blocking, GTD is based on a flexible, five-step framework:

  1. Capture - Take notes on all your thoughts. This clears your mind and prevents you from forgetting key ideas.
  2. Clarify - Decide if your thoughts are actionable and, if they are, determine how urgent they are.
  3. Organize - Create reminders for all of your action items.
  4. Reflect - Review your to-do lists frequently to ensure you're staying on track.
  5. Engage - Do the work that's on your list in the most efficient way possible.

Depending on your perspective, these vague steps are either freeing or frustrating since there is no clear path forward. GTD can be the foundation for whatever productivity habits make the most sense for your lifestyle.

Here's how to make it work for you.


Figure Out What Your Priorities Are

A central part of GTD and most other productivity systems is being able to quickly identify your priorities and act on them. Ruthlessly prioritizing is critical since, if you're like most dynamic professionals, you'll never have enough time to complete every item on your to-do list. Accepting this will help you narrow your focus to the activities that matter most.

Here are some questions that will help you prioritize your tasks. As you go through them, think about your work and personal responsibilities:

  • What are the consequences of not completing a task? If they're small to non-existent, don't do it.
  • Does the task require your authority or expertise? If not, delegate it to a junior employee, assistant, or service provider.
  • What tasks do you have to complete this week to prevent severe consequences? Put these at the top of your list to do first.
  • What projects have the most significant impact on your happiness and success? Make these your secondary priorities, and, after you finish your urgent tasks, allocate most of your time to them.
  • What tasks have flexible deadlines and don't have a significant impact on your success? Use these as buffer projects when you need a break from your more urgent responsibilities.

The goal is to ruthlessly shorten your to-do list until you're left with the activities that drive your success and happiness.

Related: 6 Actionable Ways to Be Laser-Focused on Your Goals


Choose a Tool to Help You Stay Focused

One of the reasons that people struggle to adopt GTD is that there isn't an obvious tool they should use to stay organized. Keeping all of your ideas, priorities, and reminders in one place makes it much easier for you to stay focused and achieve results.

Here are a few types of tools that will help you implement GTD:

  • Bullet Journal: This is a method of journaling that's designed to help you organize your thoughts and quickly come back to the things you want to remember. Official bullet journals come with guides to help you use them effectively.
  • Task management tool: If you like receiving deadline reminders, task management tools are great options since you can set up notifications that will help keep you on track. Easy-to-adopt options include Trello and Asana.
  • To-do list app: If you prefer going with the flow and completing tasks when you have the time and interest, a simple to-do list app like Todoist may be enough to help you stay focused. If you choose this option, create separate lists for tasks you've committed to doing each week and ones you hope to get to eventually.

Choose whichever tool you're most comfortable with and will come back to daily. If you have limited experience using time management tools, you may want to trial a few options to find out which one is the best fit.


Adopt Supportive Productivity Hacks

Though GTD is great at helping you focus on your highest priority activities, it does very little to help you boost your productivity. To accomplish the majority of your top priorities each week, you need to adopt supportive productivity hacks that will help you work efficiently.

Here are some highly effective options:

  • An inbox management system. To prevent email from hindering your productivity, you need to adopt an inbox management system that helps you get through email efficiently. See our inbox management guide to learn how to create your own.
  • Default options for everyday decisions. Decision fatigue from making too many decisions is a huge productivity killer. Combat this by having default options for day-to-day decisions like what to eat for breakfast, what you should wear, what to eat for lunch, and other unimportant choices.
  • Task batching. Doing similar tasks back to back improves your focus and helps you work more efficiently than jumping around between lots of different tasks. If you juggle multiple types of responsibilities, you can take this a step further and spend each day of the week focused on a different kind of work.

Adopting these productivity hacks and others ensures that you have the time to complete your priorities.

Related: Alleviating Decision Fatigue with Delegation and Planning


Never Skip Your Weekly Reviews

One of the biggest reasons why people struggle to see progress from GTD and other productivity systems is that they skip their weekly reviews. Taking the time to pause and review your progress every week, boosts your productivity by allowing you to fix the issues that are slowing you down.

Here are some steps you need to do to have effective weekly reviews:

  • Review your to-do list to see what items you did and did not complete. This includes evaluating your progress on long-term projects.
  • Determine which uncompleted tasks you should add to the upcoming week and which ones you should eliminate from your to-do lists.
  • Review collaborative action items and create reminders to follow up with all the people you're working with.
  • Compile all of the new action items that came up during the week and create your to-do list and schedule for the upcoming week.

As you complete your reviews, look for trends. If you're repeatedly falling behind on a large percentage of tasks, then you're overestimating how much work you can complete in a week, working inefficiently, or a combination of the two.

On the flip side, if you find yourself having a lot of free time at the end of the week, you may want to reevaluate your goals and decide if you're doing all that you can to achieve them.

Remember that GTD is whatever you make of it. If you invest the effort, it's a useful productivity system that can easily adapt to your lifestyle.