Do you feel like you’re always playing catch up with your to-do list? Are there never enough hours in the day?
The Getting Things Done (GTD) program is designed to help you do the things you _have _to do with less time, energy, and effort so you can do more of the things you want to do. It takes every task and reminder out of your head and into an external system of lists and files so that you can focus all your mental energy on the task at hand. You’ll identify the next action step for every item on your to-do list so that when you have time available you don’t have to think—just do. By gaining command of your day-to-day obligations, you’ll create more time and energy to work toward your long-term goals.
1-Page Summary of Getting Things Done
Do you feel like you’re always playing catch up with your to-do list? Are there never enough hours in the day?
The Getting Things Done (GTD) program is designed to help you do the things you _have _to do with less time, energy, and effort so you can do more of the things you want to do.
The crux of the GTD system is to store every task, reminder, and note bouncing around your brain in an external organization system to free up your mental energy to actually focus on the task at hand. Your brain is great at creating and processing things but not at remembering them, so trying to keep track of everything in your head saps your brainpower from doing what your mind does best.
Through the GTD system, you’ll capture every task and reminder on lists, in files, and on your calendar. **You’ll be aware and in control of your entire workload so you can be fully present in each moment without the nagging feeling that you should be doing something else. **
The five steps of the GTD system are:
- **Capture **all the problems and ideas that are taking your attention.
- **Clarify **what each one means and what you need to do about it.
- **Organize **the decisions and actions you’ve clarified.
- **Reflect **on everything in front of you to choose what to tackle next.
- **Engage **with the task (get it done).
When you first start out, you’ll have a large mental backlog of items to capture and process, and this will take a good amount of time. After you get through it once, you’ll have all the items in the proper place. Then, on a regular basis (for example, daily), you’ll step through the five steps to capture and process new items, then figure out what you want to do that day.
Step 1: Capture
The first step is to capture every idea, reminder, and piece of information and get it out of your head. **Capture _everything—_big and small, short-term and long-term, anything in your life that you feel should be different and that you have some motivation or commitment to change **(anything from career strategy ideas to a reminder to fix that gadget in your junk drawer).
When you make a habit of capturing everything, you can trust that nothing will fall through the cracks. Other people will see your diligence and their trust in you will grow; furthermore, your trust in yourself and your confidence to accomplish things will grow.
Go through your desk, kitchen table, briefcase, and every other nook and cranny that could hold a note or reminder you need to process. Then wrack your brain for every other idea and loose end that’s nagging at you—whether it’s about a meeting you just had or a gift for your mom’s birthday next week.
Put everything in your in-tray. Don’t stop to work on anything else—just** focus on capturing absolutely everything as quickly as possible. **When you’re done, you’ll take time to assess every item.
Step 2: Clarify
The next step is to decide the intended outcome for each item and figure out what the immediate next action is to make progress toward that outcome. The “next action” is the immediate next physical step you can take toward a project’s completion. For example, if the item says “schedule meeting,” you need to decide what you need to do next to schedule that meeting: Check your availability? Book a conference room? Email meeting requests?
This front-end decision-making boosts your productivity because it forces you to determine how to tackle an item when it lands in front of you rather than waiting until you’re up against a deadline. Clarifying next actions turns seemingly daunting tasks into bite-sized actions you can easily complete and feel success with.
Based on the next action you determine for each item, you’ll either:
- Throw it away. If it doesn’t require any action and you won’t need the information later, toss it.
- Keep it for your reference files. These items don’t require any action, but they have information that may be useful later.
- Do it. If the next action takes less than two minutes, do it now.
- Label it a project. The GTD system defines projects as anything that requires more than one step and can be finished within a year—anything from planting your garden to learning new software at work. Put a sticky note on it labeling it a project and put it in a Pending pile.
- **Decide to delegate it. **If the next action will take longer than two minutes, consider whether you’re the best person for the job. If not, put a sticky note on it marking that you’re delegating it and to whom, and put it in the Pending pile.
- Save it for later. Label items that don’t require any action now but you might want to follow up on in the future as “Someday/Maybe.” If you want to create a reminder to reconsider it on a specific date, make a note of that date so you can put it in your tickler file or on your calendar in the next step. Put all these items in the Pending pile.
- **Defer to next actions. **If it’ll take longer than two minutes and you can’t delegate it, label it “Next Action” and put it in the Pending pile.
Here’s a flowchart that shows Steps 1 to 3 more clearly:
![alt_text](https://media.shortform.com/images/getting-things-done-flowchart.jpg ""Flowchart for Getting Things Done"")
Step 3: Organize
In the clarifying step, you made a decision about the next step for each item; now you’re going to organize the items into files, lists, and calendar items.
The author proposes a lot of different lists and files with different purposes, and it can be overwhelming. For now, focus on the big picture point—that each item gets put into its ideal place, which gives you mental confidence that you’ve accounted for everything on your plate, and that it’ll be there when you need it.
Although you threw away some items during Step 2, you might still come across items that, upon further consideration, you decide you don’t need. Trash them.
Now take the non-actionable reference items—whether they’re menus from your favorite food delivery spot or a list of contacts for members of the committee you chair—and make your reference files. There are two types of reference files: subject-specific files for one type of document, such as past contracts you may need for future reference, and general-reference files for anything that doesn’t fall into a specific category.
In order for your reference files to be useful, your organization must be simple and easily navigable. An effective filing system motivates you to keep up with filing new items and makes it easy to retrieve documents when you need them.
Now tackle the Pending pile. Based on what you decided in the last step, put each item in one of the following places:
- Projects list is an index of your projects that are in the planning process, which helps you keep track of each project’s finish line and consistently determine each project’s next action.
- Project Support Materials file holds project plans, research, invoices, and other documents.
- Waiting For list helps you keep track of tasks you’re waiting for someone else to complete or items you’ve decided to delegate.
- **Someday/Maybe list **is a running list of things you want to act on in the future. You must review this list regularly so you can decide when the time is right to pursue one of these ideas.
- **Tickler file **(meant to tickle your memory) is a filing system that holds information, documents, and reminders you won’t need until a certain point in the future, such as a flyer for a play that doesn’t debut for another three months.
- Calendar is for items that need to be done at a certain time or on a certain day, such as appointments, deadlines, or reminders. The only items that should go on your calendar are things that must happen on that day or not at all.
- Next Actions list is a to-do list to be tackled as soon as possible; it’s essentially the catch-all for tasks that are actionable, take longer than two minutes, and can’t be delegated. If you have more than a few dozen next actions on this list, it helps to divide them up into categories based on what you need or where you need to be to tackle them, such as “Calls to Make” or “Office.”
Step 4: Reflect
**Regularly reflect on all your lists and files to help you make smarter choices about which tasks to tackle. **Review your calendar daily and your Next Actions list frequently, so you always know the immovable aspects of your schedule—like meetings and appointments—as well as what needs to get done when you have time available.
The fast pace of life and incoming items makes it nearly impossible to keep your system completely updated on a day-to-day basis, so a Weekly Review is critical for keeping your lists and files clean and current. During the Weekly Review, you’ll:
- Review your Projects, Project Plans, Next Actions, Waiting For, Someday/Maybe lists, and your Tickler File
- Capture anything you haven’t captured yet
- Clarify any items that you haven’t clarified
- Take stock of your whole organization system to make sure everything is running smoothly
- Update your lists
- Clean up and clear things out where needed
In addition to catching up, your Weekly Review is a chance for you to ponder big-picture ideas and projects and consider whether your day-to-day obligations align with your goals and values in life.
Step 5: Engage
The Getting Things Done system is designed to help you make informed choices about how you engage with your tasks, meaning what you do when you have time available. You can only feel confident about what you’re doing if you also feel confident about what you’re not doing at any given moment.
Now that you have a list of Next Actions to do, you need to choose what to work on today, in which order. Use the following three models for choosing which item on your Next Actions list to tackle.
The Four-Criteria Model: Narrow Your Options
This model helps you narrow down your choices based on four criteria:
- Context: Certain tasks require you to be at a certain location or to have access to a certain tool (e.g. at the office or in front of a computer). It helps if you’ve already sorted your next actions into context-specific lists.
- Time available: Some tasks require an hour of focused attention, so if you just have a few minutes before your next appointment this isn’t the time for that task.
- Energy available: Certain tasks require a lot of mental or physical energy, while others don’t need much. Only tackle what you have the energy to take on.
- Priority: After narrowing down your options with the first three criteria, prioritizing will be a more subjective decision based on your intuition and judgment. Use the next two models to help you choose by determining first what category of work an item falls into and then how it fits into your big-picture goals and values.
The Threefold Model: Types of Work
To make an informed decision about whether to take on a task, you must understand which of the three categories it falls into:
- Predefined work is essentially anything on your Next Actions list and calendar, all of which you’ve clarified and deemed important.
- **Work that shows up **encompasses the unanticipated tasks that arise during the day, whether it’s a last-minute report your boss assigns you or the surprise repair your car needs. Prioritize this work when it needs your immediate attention, but don’t fall into the trap of defaulting to what’s right in front of you when it’s not the most important or urgent.
- **Defining work **is the time you spend maintaining the GTD system—clearing your in-tray, clarifying tasks, organizing, filing, and doing two-minute actions. You must prioritize time to do this regularly, ideally during your Weekly Review.
The Six-Level Model: Determine Priorities
In order to prioritize the options in front of you, you need to have a context for how they fit into the bigger picture of your life and priorities. There are six different levels—or horizons—of perspectives to determine your priorities:
- The **Ground is the current action **on your Next Actions list. (Example: You have a phone call to make for work.)
- **Horizon 1 is current projects **with relatively short-term timelines. (Example: The phone call is about a deal you’re trying to make.)
- Horizon 2 is areas of focus and accountabilities, or the roles and responsibilities you have, from job duties to maintaining your health and family commitments. This horizon doesn’t consist of tasks but rather the interests and responsibilities that help to determine what projects and actions you’ll take on. (Example: This deal would increase the company’s sales.)
- Horizon 3 is goals—specifically, horizon 3 encompasses goals for the next one to two years. (Example: Making the deal would earn you major points with your boss.)
- Horizon 4 is vision, or your goals for the next three to five years. (Example: This success would likely lead to a promotion.)
- Horizon 5 is purpose and principles; this is the big-picture context of your life. All your actions, projects, focuses, goals, and visions are defined by and also lead you toward your purpose and principles. (Example: A promotion will put you in a position that allows you to have the career and lifestyle you want.)
Use the Natural Planning Method to Plan Projects
Always have a next action identified for each project you have, so that you’re constantly making progress on your projects. Determining next actions on big projects can be daunting, but simply follow the same process you’d use if you were planning something in your daily life, like a birthday dinner with friends.
This approach is called the Natural Planning Method, and it consists of these steps:
- **Define your purpose and principles. **Your purpose is the intention of the project, and your principles create the boundaries. If you’re planning a birthday dinner, your purpose is to celebrate and the boundaries could be factors like how affordable you want the restaurant to be.
- Envision your outcome. Your purpose is your why, while your outcome is the what: What will a successful outcome look, feel, and sound like? You might imagine your dinner happening around a big outdoor table, with all your friends laughing and sharing food. When you picture something and focus on it, it helps you create it and makes you more excited to achieve it.
- **Brainstorm. **This is the how. Your brain naturally wants to fill in the gaps to determine how to make your vision a reality. During this stage, you might question whether the restaurant is open today, what time you need to go, and whether there’s gas in the car. Use mind maps or other brainstorming techniques to jot down as many ideas as you can without judging or criticizing the ideas along the way.
- Organize. This is the step when you organize all the random thoughts, questions, and ideas from the brainstorming process. You’ll naturally organize them based on logistics, priorities, and what needs to happen first: Call the restaurant to see if it’s open and make a reservation, then invite the guests, then get yourself dressed and ready to go.
- Determine your next actions. Determine what can actually be done now, and who’s going to do it. For dinner, your next action is to call the restaurant.
**Implementing and mastering the GTD system is a lifelong process that helps you manage your day-to-day obligations while keeping your larger goals in mind. **
First, master the principles and practices, cement them as habits, and gain control of your daily tasks. Once you reach this point, take a bigger-picture approach to managing and organizing your life; proactively initiate projects to improve areas of your life. **Ultimately, you can leverage the GTD system to implement new habits, tackle bucket-list aspirations, and create the lifestyle you want. **
Full Summary of Getting Things Done
Introduction: The Getting Things Done (GTD) Program
The Getting Things Done (GTD) program is designed to increase your productivity and effectiveness—not so you can squeeze even more into your already busy life, but so that you can do things with less time, energy, and effort. **When you feel in control of your life and your to-do list, you can be present in each moment without the nagging feeling that there’s something else you should be doing. **When your mind is clear, you can focus and use your creative energy for the task at hand, and in your free moments, you can fully enjoy life without feeling guilty that you’re not doing something “p…
Read the rest of the “Getting Things Done” summary at my new book summary product, Shortform.
Here’s what you’ll find in the full Getting Things Done summary:
- Introduction: The Getting Things Done (GTD) Program
- Part 1 | Chapter 1: Your Organization System Must Fit Your Life
- Exercise: Capture, Clarify, and Organize
- Chapter 2: An Overview of the GTD System
- Exercise: Adapting Your Organization System
- Chapter 3: Project Planning
- Exercise: Apply The Natural Planning Method
- Part 2 | Chapter 4: Set Yourself Up for GTD Success
- Exercise: Establish Your GTD Setup
- Chapter 5: Step 1—Capture Everything
- Exercise: Capture All Your Open Loops
- Chapter 6: Step 2—Clarify Everything in Your In-Tray
- Chapter 7: Step 3—Organizing
- Exercise: Get Organized
- Chapter 8: Step 4—Review Everything Regularly
- Exercise: Review Your To-Dos
- Chapter 9: Engage
- Exercise: Consider Your Priorities
- Chapter 10: Tips for Vertical Project Planning
- Part 3 | Chapter 11: The Life-Changing Habit of Capturing
- Chapters 12 and 13: The Life-Changing Habit of Next Actions
- Exercise: Decide Your Next Move
- Chapter 14: Cognitive Science Backs Up GTD Methods
- Chapter 15: Mastering the GTD Program
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