How The Art of “Getting Things Done” Can Conquer Your To-Do List

Feb 20, 2017
Post Masthead

There are a number of theories for improving your productivity and getting through the many things you need to check off your to-do list.

Getting things done” (GTD) is a theory that many swear by. It is a system created by David Allen and discussed in his book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (well worth a read if you’re looking for a good productivity book).

David Allen himself has famously said things like people need to “stop focusing on their goals and actually get shit done.” He doesn’t muck around. He’s even described GTD as like learning a martial art:

“If you ever learn the martial arts, you’ll find that the basic moves feel very unnatural and very awkward. Once you do them 1,000 times, you’ll see that’s the best way to manifest the highest amount of power with the least amount of effort.” (CMC Forum).

So, what is this GTD and how does it work?

What is GTD?

GTD (Getting Things Done) is a productivity method that provides a way for the manageable organization of all of your to-dos, priorities and scheduling. While many people view it as overly complicated (it has its detractors), an advantage of GTD is that, once you have it in place, it makes it easier for you to see exactly what you have on and what you should choose to work on next.

A criticism of GTD is that some people find it too much work to put in place. It requires a fair bit of initial organization and some people balk over the complexity. It can be argued though, that GTD is only as complex as you allow it to be. There aren’t any very rigid rules, just guidelines to stay within.

So, how does it work?

First, write everything down

As David Allen states on his website, “you mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” You can adapt GTD however you like, but the first step is always to write everything down. Allen reminds us that we should never rely on our own heads for storing all information on the tasks that take up our time. Sometimes people are tempted to do this out of a false sense of control - writing everything down exposes how out of control things may really be.

Capture everything. Tasks, to-dos, commitments, ideas - anything that will take up your time and energy. There are no rules about how to do so. You might have a preferred to-do app, a plain text note app, a journal or a large piece of paper. The idea is that however you choose to capture everything, it should work for you so that you’re always easily able to add something in the moment.

14670721802_404a68cb70_z (1) Photo credit: nikkibuitendijk via Visual Hunt

Clarify your items

Clarifying requires you to really look at those things that you are giving focus to and decide how much they meant to you. Some things you might find you shouldn’t be paying attention to at all. For those things that do matter, you need to delve into them further.

This means getting specific. If one of your to-do items is to “publish a book”, then you can break that down into actionable steps so that you have a clear path and a defined starting point.

GTD methodology requires breaking things down into even the smallest steps. For example, perhaps “publish a book” begins with researching options for how to publish a book (assuming you’ve already written it!).

This step is largely about bringing forward the things which you really need to be focusing on. As Allen says:

"You can’t manage time. Time just is. That’s not the big issue. The big issue is really space. When people say they need time management, it’s usually because something is feeling out of control or inappropriately focused."

Allen mentions recognizing “appropriate engagement” with those tasks. Sometimes it is the mundane things that are pulling our energy away from the things that really matter. As he says, deciding to make no decision on an item is still a valid decision!


Organizing is about prioritizing and deciding on the appropriate place to store each item, with reminders set to ensure you do them. This might involve adding due dates if appropriate. Items would usually go in one of three places; to-do list for one-offs (pick up milk), project action lists for anything that requires multiple actions to complete (publish book) and calendar items for any meetings or dates to remember (Mom’s birthday, meeting with Jane).

This isn’t the step to start doing things, but to ensure that you have everything organized in the right places with reminders set.


Analyze your to-dos and determine where you need to start. Allen recommends that if you have the time and there are certain items you can get done right away, then either do them or delegate them. If anything still appears a bit vague, look to clarify and break it down further.

The other part to “reflect” is that you should regularly review your to-do list to determine where you are making progress and where you might need to improve or adjust priorities.


This is the final step of GTD and, as it sounds, involves looking at your list and getting to work. Allen says that you should pick the action that makes sense according to your current energy level or priorities. Sometimes, that might mean taking a break!

It’s Not About Busy, Busy, Busy

Busyness is often worn as a badge of honor these days, but it’s important to recognize that busyness isn’t equal to productivity. Most of us have experienced that “I’ve been busy all day, but what have I achieved?” feeling. The idea of GTD is that you’re creating mental space, “seeing the woods for the trees.”

Allen says: "People assume that I am a hardworking, left-brained, results-oriented, OCD, anal-retentive kind of guy. In fact, the reason that I was attracted to this work was that it allowed me to be more creative, more spontaneous, freer. I’m a freedom guy."

By laying out all of your to-dos visually like this, you’re freeing up mental labor and bringing structure to how you go about things. Your day doesn’t have to be about busyness, you can be quite proud of knowing you’ve achieved enough to take a break.

Notes from A GTD User

We talked to Raj, an editor and project manager about his experiences using GTD. He says;

“I think the best thing about it is it allows you to visually see everything that you have to do. I used to be the type of person who would just be like "oh I'll just remember without writing it down," but that didn’t work out when I started getting really busy, so being able to dump everything out onto the list really gives you a mental boost because you know what you need to get done instantly.”

Raj uses to-do app Wunderlist as his go-to for storing all to-dos. He finds it useful because he can categorize items and set dates; however, he does point out that apart from being able to put a star on a list, there isn’t an inbuilt way to prioritize. His method is simply to have the tasks ordered from most to least important.

Using GTD to stay organized though has improved his overall productivity and ability to step away and take a break.


Final Thoughts

Our heads are full of many to-do items, whether they are work, family or personal tasks. It’s easy for everyday flotsam to clog up our brains, deflect energy from important tasks and lead us into the “busyness” cycle, which doesn’t aid productivity.

GTD or “Getting Things Done” is a productivity method that can really help those who struggle to balance out their various priorities. At first glance, it might seem complicated, but realistically it’s designed as a system anyone can follow.

What are your preferred productivity methods? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.