Rediscovering GTD

February 6, 2013 • #

For the last month or so, I’ve been readopting the GTD methodology for organizing my work, personal and business. I read David Allen’s book back in 2007, and attempted to adopt the workflow. This was before having any sort of smart device, so workflow systems were much different back then. My system when I initially jumped in involved pens and pads, inboxes, folders — most of the recommended elements from the book. I didn’t last long, and since then I’ve only dabbled around really getting back into it. Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin’s recent podcast series on the subject spurred me back into giving it another serious go.

Without getting into the weeds of the system, I’ve always seen three pillars to GTD that are critical to reaping benefit:

  • Ubiquitous capture
  • Breakdown your work into discrete, actionable tasks (processing)
  • Weekly review of projects and actions

There are more elements to the total system, but these are the core functional components of GTD that I’ve adopted, eschewing the parts about the 43 folders and some of the other fiddly things like labelmakers and lettered reference file cabinets. I think a contributor to my initial dropoff with the system was not appreciating that you can adopt only some elements of the total system, as long as you’re closing all the loops.

Here’s a snapshot of how I’m reintegrating GTD into my daily flow:


I’m a heavy user of OmniFocus for everything task-related. The notion of “ubiquitous capture” is the first step to getting the thoughts, ideas, and tasks out of your brain and into the flow. For me, ubiquity means it needs to enter the river of material to be processed either through my Mac or my iPhone, one of which I’ll have at fingertips at all times. I love the tangibility of pen and paper, but I’m not trustworthy enough to have that at all times. There are OmniFocus versions for Mac and iOS, so that gets that piece out of the way. Plus they stay in sync over the air. If something you need to do something about enters your mind, there needs to be a frictionless way for it to enter the pipeline.


This is probably what I struggle with the most. This is where the majority of the thinking comes into play; What project is this action part of? Should I just do it right now? How many smaller actions does it need to be broken into?

Effective processing requires regular attention. If you just load up the inbox for weeks on end without sorting through each item and determining the next action (which could be deleting it), you end up working through tasks right out of the inbox. I can sort through the cruft in my inbox with vigilance and a heavy delete-key finger, but where I tend to fall off the wagon is with keeping the processing frequent enough not to get behind. I’ll find myself after a few consecutive hectic days cherry-picking actions to tackle right in the inbox, instead of hitting things from a higher level based on project importance or context. This can lead to wheel-spinning and procrastination, and put you right back to thrashing around with all that data in your head.

This time around, I’m putting more energy into the processing steps. Failure there is a large part of why I fell out with GTD some time back.


The weekly review is processing’s older brother, meant to walk you through each of the projects on your plate, reorganize them, enter any missing actions, and just generally get a “control tower” snapshot of all the runways in front of you. OmniFocus has an awesome “review” mode designed to handhold you through looking at each and every project in your OmniFocus database one by one. With a full force inbox dump, plus effective processing, it’s insane how many projects end up in the system. A good, regular review is a healthy way to clear the decks and make way for the projects that you’re actually going to do. This is another area I’ve struggled with in the past, it’s one of the last steps in truly closing loops and making sure your task database isn’t filled with garbage to fight with.

The unspoken “fourth pillar” in all of this is, naturally, doing. Inboxes, apps, text files, and folders aren’t going to actually accomplish those next actions for you. Many blog posts out there neglect to mention this most-critical piece of the flow (it seems obvious, right?), but it’s important. Making sure that the actions are as mindlessly straightforward as possible in the processing phase is critical to making the actions so easy, you hardly have to think while you’re cranking. GTD mostly serves as a method to create order from chaos. My personal objective is to get comfortable enough to make the system second-nature. I don’t want to think while I’m doing, at least not very much.

Related links:

Topics:   productivity   workflow   habits