Stop Slacking! and Start Getting Things Done – A Noobs Guide

by Shenron on July 7, 2012


Getting Things Done, or GTD, is the name of a productivity program that was invented by a man named David Allen. It has gained a near cult following because of its effectiveness to help people do just that; get things done. While the program is fairly straightforward, this article is going to help you weed through all of the different ways that it can help you with your daily tasks and show you why the program works. Since this site is called “Social Hacks,” we’ll be taking a close look at how this effective time management hack can help you be more productive during the day instead of wasting time on things that don’t matter.

If you want to skip right ahead to what the hell GTD is about, feel free to skip the section called “The Basic Idea.”

History

Let’s start with a brief history of what the GTD program is all about so you can get an idea for the guy who’s behind it all. If you couldn’t give a monkey’s you know what about who David Allen is, feel free to skip along to the “meat” of the article so you can get to hacking your life.

David Allen is a productivity specialist (At least that’s what Wikipedia says). He went to UC Berkley to complete his degree and has had jobs ranging from karate instructor to travel agent. His real prowess comes from his ability to help people become more productive with their lives. His company, the David Allen Company, is a productivity tools company and helps people and corporations streamline their efforts so they can save money and be more….(drumroll please)…. more productive!

While his background may not be terribly exciting, David Allen is seen as a pioneer in the productivity industry and his methods have been employed and used by thousands the world over to start being more productive. While you probably can’t afford a $600 one day seminar that the David Allen Company holds, you can probably afford to pick up the book or at least pay for the electricity to keep your computer running while you finish this article. :)

Supplies

This may be a bit of a stretch to ask you to go out and pick up supplies for a program that you’ve never tried before, but trust me that you’re going to need them. All of this stuff can be picked up at an office supply store, or probably even a local grocery store for that matter, so don’t worry that any of it is particularly hard to come by.

-> huge helping of manila file folders

-> A massive garbage can

-> And a label maker or a steady hand and a fine tip marker for labeling everything

The Basic Idea

So, before we jump into the nitpicky stuff about how all of this stuff works, let’s first tackle the “big picture.”

The primary problem with our lives is that we have too much stuff floating around in our heads. And by stuff, I don’t mean the calculus you learned in your senior year of high school, I mean problems. Things like who’s going to get the kids to school, what’s going to be for dinner, how secure your job is. Stuff.

Because stuff has no “home,” David Allen believes this is why we get so frazzled and stressed out. In order to properly reduce stress and start getting things done, we have to find a permanent place to put all of these things in our head and in our lives so that we can start focusing our energy on the tasks that matter and throw out all of the things that don’t. Sounds simple enough, right?

The problem we have as human beings is that we simply can’t figure out a good way to go about doing this. It makes intuitive sense that we should get rid of the things that don’t matter and focus on the things that do, but rarely does anyone actually ever do it. We’re living from second to second with no real plan in place of how we’re going to get through the laundry list of tasks we have to accomplish in a given day, week, or year. The GTD program helps tackle those woes so that there’s a very clear and understandable path to the light at the end of the tunnel.

While it’s incredibly oversimplified, here’s the general gist of what we’re going to be doing with this program.

-> First, you want to identify ALL of the stuff that’s going on in your life that isn’t in the right spot or doesn’t have a place at all.

-> Next, you’re going to want to get rid of all of that stuff that you don’t need any more or that is completely irrelevant to your life.

-> Set up a place that you feel comfortable working and getting through the things that need to be done.

-> As you work, put all of your things into the place they belong instead of cluttering your head or desk again.

-> Do your tasks in the order that’s most important and that makes the most sense.

-> Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. The only way for this plan to work is if you continually move through these basic steps and ingrain them into your habits and memory.

The Beauty of The Program

What’s great about the GTD program is that it’s adaptable to all aspects of your life. Whether you’re an office dweller who works just below the boss of a fortune 500 company or you’re a stay at home mom who’s looking to cut down on the amount of time spent dilly dallying during the day, GTD can be adapted to help you save time and energy.

Write. It. Down

No, seriously. Write it down.

The ENTIRE point of this program is to get you to get things out of your head and into a different place. If you can write whatever it is that’s on your mind down onto a piece of paper, a note card, anything, you’ll feel a lot less cluttered and in control of what you’re doing. It may take a while to get used to writing everything down, but every idea that comes into your head can be written down and acted on later.

Buy yourself a nice notepad that you can keep with you at all times that can be your idea journal. As you ride the train to work and remember that you need to email your boss about your vacation time next week, write it down.

The goal of writing literally everything down is to empty your brain completely. Every idea you have when you wake up in the morning should be written down so that you don’t become overwhelmed with what you have to do for the day. Once you’ve had a huge brain dump onto the paper, you can go in and organize it all.

Remember to try not to have more than one place that you write everything down in. By keeping everything in the same place it will make it easier for you to find everything and organize it later on. Multiple notebooks is just going to add to the stress of your day, so keeping all of your thoughts in one place is the key to success.

Obviously, this “writing” technique can be transferred over to the computer pretty easily. We’ll move on to computer tools later in the article so you can be productive both on and offline.

MAC Users

GTD is extremely nerd friendly. This means that because geeks are generally disorganized and use their computers to accomplish a lot of their work, GTD has manifested into a computer based program that adapts very well to computer users. As a result of this, the age old debate of “Mac vs. PC” has made it into the picture once again and unfortunately, it seems as though PC has won.

Many of the programs and utilities that we’ll be talking about to help you get a handle on your tasks and your life are available for both Mac and PC, so you won’t have any trouble there. However, there’s an occasional plugin or application that you won’t be able to get ahold of on a Mac and you’re going to have to find a workaround. Some people think that this Mac/PC divide within the GTD community happened because David Allen released a plugin for the PC email client, Microsoft Outlook, and didn’t release one for Mac at the same time. As a result, many PC users had the upper hand when implementing the techniques outlined in the GTD books and Mac users were left to figure things out for themselves.

Having said all of this though, there are some fantastic user created applications that accomplish the same things that the PC ones do, you’re just going to have to look around. A quick Google search for “Mac GTD” yields plenty of results of programs you can use to dive right into the program with PC users.

In the Office with GTD

This is probably one of the biggest user groups of the GTD program. People working in offices are inundated with distractions, so cutting them down is a crucial step in getting more things done. Once you have your to-do list in place, you can start systematically working through what’s important and what can be thrown out as your day goes on. These tips will help you accomplish your goals faster and more strategically.

Note: Many of the hacks and tricks we have listed below, as well as variations of them, can be found at 43 Folders. We’ll get to who 43Folders is in a few minutes, but for now just know that they’re an extremely well known GTD blog that has been helping people stay inspired and get things done for a long time now.

If you don’t have one already, get an inbox. Anytime someone has a memo for you, put a big sign up that says “put it in the inbox.” I’ve heard of people putting a small table outside of their office door or cubicle with a tray on top of it so that people can just drop off whatever memo or invoice it is they need to and go on their way. By not interrupting you with a new piece of paper to add to the probably already cluttered desk you have, you can focus on the task you’re working on until you’re ready to see what the memo is all about.

Do Not Disturb signs are a great way to get more done without offending anyone. It’s recommended that you put one of these signs outside of your work space for at least an hour after you arrive at the office. Use this time to keep to yourself and get through the tasks that need the most attention right away. If you don’t tell people to not bother you for the first hour or two that you’re at the office, you could just end up talking and shooting the breeze with everyone instead of actually working. If they need to get ahold of you, they can leave a memo in your inbox for you to see when your personal time is up.

While it may be rude to implement this little hack if you’re in close proximity to other workers, some people find it to be the best way to prevent interruptions and to get more done. If your office allows it, bring an iPod with you so that you can listen to music while you work to hopefully help drown out some of the outside noise and chatter while focusing on your work. If you seem preoccupied and your ears aren’t available for people to hijack, you can focus on the tasks that you need to get done instead of gossiping.

Meetings are useless. It’s a well known fact at this point. You may come across as the office rebel if you refuse to go to meetings, but if they seem unproductive, politely decline attending. If the meeting can be summarized in a few lines via email, better yet. The whole purpose of GTD is to effectively manage and utilize your time and many times meetings do just the opposite. If you can sit at your desk and knock out more things on your to-do list than you can sitting in a meeting, go for it.

If possible, take one day every few months to go through your entire workspace and clean it out. Anything that you’re no longer using or think you’ll use, chuck it. Some people recommend having a “dead space” where things like old bills can be filed for a few months after they’ve been paid just in case a problem arises with them. If something comes up, you’ll still have them on file. But after the closet or dead space gets filled, it’s time to throw everything in it away and start from scratch. Chances are if nothing happened with your electric bill for 9 months after you paid it, it’s safe to get rid of it.

Index Cards

You can buy a box of index cards for a couple of dollars, so there’s really no reason you shouldn’t have a pile of them sitting around already. Index cards have made their way into the GTD arsenal because of how small they are and how easy they are to pull out and write on. A suggested trick you can utilize is to take a small binder clip and put together a stack of maybe 20 index cards and keep them in your wallet or purse. As things come into your mind, write them down on the cards and when you get home or to the office, properly file the index cards in your to-do pile. By writing things down on these index cards throughout the day, you’re “closing the loop” of an idea by making sure it isn’t just put into your memory but is put somewhere constructive.

If you really want to get fancy you can buy many different colors of index cards for different parts of your life. Work things can go on blue index cards, while things relating to your kids can be put on pink for instance. You can buy multi-color packs of index cards for pretty cheap as well, so there’s no excuse why you shouldn’t have these mini index card folders with you everywhere you go.

Top 5 Online GTD Applications

With most of our lives revolving around our digital presence these days, it’s easy to see why some folks are making the move from traditional pen and paper routes to a more technology driven medium. While there are literally hundreds of apps and plugins you can buy and download to help you implement GTD into your life, these are some of the best ones available on the web today.

Remember the Milk

This online application has been around for a few years now but still remains one of the most popular. It’s a fully fledged organization tool that helps you do things like remember the milk. It’s completely free to use, but if you’re in need of a little more control over how your data gets synced with various accounts like Google Calendar etc, you may want to upgrade to the pro version. What’s also great about RTM is that you’re able to also get an application for your smartphone that will allow you to sync lists to your phone while you’re on the go.

ThinkingRock

This is one of the few cross-platform applications available. That means that it’ll work on Windows, Mac, and Linux without any problems. ThinkingROck takes the GTD method to heart and has a complete interface designed to help you streamline tasks and get your ideas and to-do’s out into the open. It may take a while to get used to how the program operates, as it has a tough learning period, but once you’ve gotten the hang of it, it may become your favorite GTD app yet.

ActiveInbox

Here’s an application that rarely gets much attention because it has a pretty small userbase. I’m honestly surprised that more people don’t have it installed. In short, it’s a free Gmail plugin that gives you complete control over emails that come in and go out. By being able to tag them with things like “Awaiting Reply,” “Urgent,” etc, you can get a better idea of what you need to reply to and what you can let slip for another few days. ActiveInbox allows you to schedule your emails for a later date so that if you don’t need to or can’t reply to them right away, you can tag them to be replied to at a later date.

Microsoft Outlook

While I’m not a huge fan of this application because it doesn’t suit my email needs very well, there are a slew of plugins available for the software that turn it into a GTD machine. David Allen, the GTD founder, developed an all in one GTD plugin himself. A simple internet search of “GTD Outlook” will give you what you’re looking for. It integrates all of the methodology he talks about in his book into the email client so that you can get started with GTD right away.

ToDoist

The name couldn’t be any simpler. ToDoList is similar to Remember the Milk, but it instead is completely compatible with applications like Gmail and Google Calendar. It also helps you work through big projects by breaking them into parts and showing you how best to go about working through each part. You can also download the app to your smartphone (iPhone or Android) and sync your to-dos with the web based application anywhere you go.

Best Offline Applications

OK, so we may get a little bit of rough feedback for this one, but we honestly believe it’s the best route to take.

A pen and paper is the best way to keep track of your GTD lifestyle offline. You can try and download applications for your computer that work while you’re not connected to the Internet, but the amount of time you’ll spend fighting with syncing after you’re back online is just not worth the hassle.

You can pick up a variety of notebooks that vary in price from just about any store in town. However, there’s something empowering about owning a nice pen and a nice notebook to keep track of all of your thoughts. They may be a little “dated” now, but Moleskine notebooks have gained a reputation as some of the best in the industry. They’re built well and can take a beating before it’s time to throw them away or retire them completely.

Calendar Recommendation

Part of the secret of GTD is not only writing down your stream of consciousness and to-do lists, it’s getting everything organized so that you have a place to start when it comes time to tackle your agenda. These great calendar applications are some favorites of GTD users and business people alike. Some may be better suited to your needs than others, so be sure to look at a few before settling on one. Oh, and lots of them can be customized, so if something doesn’t look quite right to begin with, chances are you’ll be able to modify it a little bit to get it up to speed.

The Web Based Variety

Oprius

Oprius combines what’s great about calendars to begin with and tosses in a few extra surprises for you to use as well. With things like email reminders and email integration, Oprius is a pretty great solution for someone that’s looking for a fully fledged calendar without a lot of frills and plenty of support.

Airset

While I’ve never used Airset personally, I’ve heard that it’s pretty great for small business or people who work on group projects pretty frequently. Airset allows you to integrate your calendars and to-do lists with entire groups of people so that your projects always stay in sync. There are also things like reminders and extras built in, but the real power really lies with the group sync capability.

The Offline Stuff

Jet Task

Hands down, Jet task is my favorite piece of software to use. It’s a little pricey at about $50 a year, but it’s well worth every penny. Jet Task allows you to categorize and organize everyting on your computer into tasks so that you make sure you get to everything possible. Need to send an email before the end of the day? Jet Task can help you. You have the ability to attach files to your tasks so you can check proposals right before big meetings and the rest with it. Jet Task definitely has the corporate profile in mind, but if you work from home and find yourself getting lost with your projects all day, this may be the perfect solution.

Mozilla Sunbird/Lightning

If you’ve ever used the Mozilla email client, Thunderbird, you know how great the support is for the products. Sunbird/Lightning are calendard applications from Mozilla that can either integrate into your existing Mozilla email client, or can be installed as standalone calendar applications for storage or sync wherever you’d like them. Essentially the same client, Lighting allows you to simply install an extension within the Thunderbird email client, while Sunbird is a self-installer. Either option works flawlessly.

Chandler

If you’re a fan of open source software, Chandler may be for you. It allows for much of the same functionality as say, the Microsoft Outlook plugin, but is entirely open source. That means it’s free. You can make personal notes and organize a personal calendar as well as share your to-do list across small groups. If you have an office you’d like to have a calendar application for, you can set up a Chandler server of your own and automatically sync everyone’s work computer with the main servers so everyone is always on the same page.

Best To-Do List Software

While you may think this is the same as the “Best GTD software” section above, it’s a bit different. While some folks like to incorporate GTD into all aspects of their life and have a fully integrated software solution that allows them to do just that, some people just want a to-do list to help them stay more organized.

Things

We talked earlier about how some applications are only available for Macs. This is one of them. Simply named “Things,” this application is the ultimate to-do list for Mac OSX and above. You can organize your life into different sections so that your work to-do lists don’t interfere with your personal ones. You also have the ability to schedule reminders at different times of the day so that you can receive email to let you know something needs to be done. The greatness of the software lies in the design. There are no unnecessary columns, meaning that space doesn’t get wasted in the attempt to design a slick looking product.

Text Editor

If you head over to ToDoTxt you’ll see that you don’t necessarily need a powerful to-do list manager to take care of your tasks for you. Instead, you can rely on a simple text editor that every computer comes with. It may take a bit of getting used to, but with the apps available at ToDoTXT, you’ll be able to set up a fairly easy system for keeping track of all of your to-dos in a file called todo.txt. By using Dropbox, you can keep track of your ToDo list anywhere you are.

My Life Organized

Very similar to “Things,” this is essentially the Windows equivalent of that software. It’s a bit more in-depth in terms of how it’s laid out visually, but after the small learning curve you should be able to figure out how to navigate the hierarchical structure of the program. It organizes your to-dos as subsets of one another. For example, in order to send Mark an email about his proposal you first need to read the proposal, get his email address, forward it to your boss, etc. My Life Organized lets you structure your list so you accomplish all of those tasks before tackling the big one. It’s about $60 for the professional version, but it’s well worth the investment.

GTD Resources

Before we forget, it’s probably wise for us to include some resources for you to check out as well. While we’ve done our best to help you get started with the GTD lifestyle, there are still hundreds of things still to learn. If you want to keep up with GTD news and ideas, these few websites and sources will help you learn some cool tricks as you adapt to your new GTD lifestyle.

ZenHabits

Trying to capture what Zenhabits is all about is like trying to fit marmalade into a jar in the month of June. As a short quote from their about page suggests, they’re all about finding simplicity in your daily life to help you better organize the chaos that is living. They post things like GTD tips and tricks, as well as other ways you can help reduce the clutter going on to help you focus on what really matters. They only post once or twice a week, so it’s probably wise to sign up for an RSS feed to be notified when they finally do get around to posting something. We highly recommend this blog. Leo Babauta Rocks!

43Folders

Quite possibly the most up to date productivity website around, 43 Folders has been helping people be more productive since way back in 2004. The whole premise of the website is that it’s supposed to give you plenty of tips and tricks to help you get your life under better control so that you can focus on the creative projects that matter to you. Because they’ve been posting for almost 8 years now, there are literally thousands of articles to read through. They put a very clear warning on their About page that you shouldn’t use the website as an excuse to procrastinate but should instead use the knowledge you gain there to go out and make a real change in your life.

Lifehacker

This one is probably not a surprise to anyone, but Lifehacker has plenty of awesome guides to help you get more done during the day. Their tips range from the mundane to outright crazy. It may take a week or two to get into the guide styles and tips that are posted, but once you start finding topics that you’re interested in, it’s very easy to get addicted to their weekend projects and productivity suggestions.

Final Words

When we set out to write this guide we didn’t really know where it was going to take us. There is so much to learn and to know about the Getting Things Done world that it would be impossible to put it all into one article. We hope at the very least we’ve built a very firm starting block for everyone to build off of and jump into the rest of the GTD world with. We will of course be back with periodic updates and more articles about more specific GTD techniques, but for right now we hope you’ve at least gotten a few ideas from this article that you didn’t have before. Any tips of your own are always welcome in the comments below. And who knows, we may even feature them in an article in the future.

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