Getting Things Done: A Productivity System

Does it ever feel like you’re in a constant battle with yourself over productivity? Like there’s one voice inside your head reminding you of everything you have to accomplish today, while another voice is telling you it’s okay to spend just five more minutes looking at funny dog videos on Instagram?

You’re not alone.

Getting Things Done

We all want to be more productive, but it isn’t always as simple as just getting to work. Many of us have a lot going on in our personal and professional lives, leaving us too preoccupied to focus on what we have to accomplish right now. Minds wander, people become distracted, and productivity wanes.

Suddenly, our to-do lists are growing twice as fast as we’re completing tasks.

But what if boosting productivity was as simple as clearing your thoughts? According to productivity consultant and best-selling author David Allen, it is. According to Allen, the mind’s job is to create ideas, not to store them.

Allen is the creator of the “Getting Things Done,” or GTD system. The goal of this method is to help people become more productive and efficient by helping them remove any unnecessary thoughts that distract them throughout the day.

Let’s look more at this productivity system and see how it can help you get more done at work.

Addressing mental burdens that lead to unproductivity

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of the GTD system, let’s get some background on why it’s effective.

In 1956, cognitive psychologist George Miller hypothesized that our working memory can hold anywhere between five to nine chunks of information at any given time. His studies inspired other researchers to look more closely at memory and how we store information–and while we still don’t know definitively how much information we can stow away in our minds, psychologists and neuroscientists both agree that our working memory has a limited capacity.

It also doesn’t help that many of us working in today’s fast-paced knowledge economy feel like we’re constantly trying to juggle multiple tasks. Not only does multitasking deplete our mental energy, it can also clutter our working memory by forcing us to use our mind as an extension of our to-do list.

The Getting Things Done approach is a response to the mental clutter that inhibits our productivity and creativity. Allen believes that once you pull these ideas (or looming deadlines) from your mind, you free up more mental space that can be used for creativity and innovation. The GTD productivity system has been used by people around the world as a way to increase productivity, maximize efficiency, and even reduce anxiety.

So how does it work? 

Using the Getting Things Done approach

The Getting Things Done approach helps with organizing tasks and priorities so that you’re able to manage your day more easily. The system is broken down into the following five steps:

  1. Capture
  2. Clarify
  3. Organize
  4. Reflect
  5. Engage

Implementing GTD

These steps will help you record your ideas, turn them into actionable tasks, and then execute those tasks. Here’s how:

Step 1: Capture your thoughts

The first thing you need to do is record everything you need to remember––and we do mean everything. Capture your ideas, assignments, projects, goals, upcoming appointments, and anything else that’s been on your mind.

You can write these thoughts down in your notebook, in a spreadsheet or Word document, a task management app, or anywhere else where you can track your information. The goal here is to make an external copy of the important information you have stored in your working memory. It’s kind of like when you back up your smartphone, except this time, you’re making a copy of your thoughts.

Step 2: Clarify how you’re going to complete your tasks

The next step is to turn your thoughts into measurable actions. If you wrote down “work on marketing plan” during the first step, here’s where you clarify what exactly you should be doing. You could say something like “come up with three new strategies for email marketing” or “make a list of 10 prospective micro-influencers.” You want to make sure that you know exactly what you need to do in order to achieve your desired outcome.

Step 3: Organize your to-do list

Once you’ve determined what you need to get done and how you’re going to do it, it’s time to prioritize your tasks. Arrange your list into categories like urgent, important, medium priority, and so on.

Alternatively, if you have a lot of deadlines you’re working with, you can prioritize your tasks by due dates instead. And if you don’t have any hard deadlines and you’re struggling with prioritizing your tasks, think about which assignments deliver the most value and make those your top priority.

Step 4: Reflect on your list

Now that your to-do list is planned out and prioritized, it’s time for a little quality control. Reflection is when you go through your list to see whether you can make any adjustments to improve your productivity system. Perhaps you didn’t capture all of your thoughts, or maybe you have complex tasks that you can break down into smaller assignments. Now’s the time to optimize your list.

Also, keep in mind that reflection is designed to be an ongoing process. Your goals and priorities will likely change over time, so you should try to revisit your list every week or so to see whether there are any updates and modifications you can make. This will help to make sure your GTD system stays aligned with your actual goals and objectives.

Step 5: Engage in your activities

The final step takes you out of the planning stage and puts you into the doing stage of the GTD system. This is where you’ll actually start getting things done. The goal of this step isn’t to start tasks, it’s to complete them. You’ll want to knock items off your list one-by-one so you can devote 100% of your mental energy to completing one assignment before shifting your focus to the next task.

Tips for implementing Getting Things Done

There’s no hidden secret to making the Getting Things Done system work for you. You just have to be disciplined enough to stick to the program, even during the beginning stages when you’re just getting used to the system. You also need to be consistent with capturing ideas and reflecting on your list so that your productivity system stays up to date.

What’s great about GTD is that you can use it with a variety of tools. If you don’t feel like learning how to use a new task management application that supports the GTD approach, you can:

  • Create tasks in a notepad, on sticky notes, or in a to-do list
  • Write tasks on a piece of paper and store them in a physical inbox or filing cabinet
  • Use smartphone list-making apps like Apple Reminders or Google Keep to create a digital to-do list

Getting started with GTD is relatively easy, but you have to keep the momentum going. This means being methodical with your weekly reviews and strategic with the way you prioritize your tasks. Your goal when implementing GTD shouldn’t simply be to get more things done­­. It should also be to help you get the right things done––i.e., completing the things that create value.

Get productive with GTD

Regardless of whether you’re leading a team or you’re just managing your personal responsibilities, the GTD approach can help you complete tasks and tackle challenges more efficiently. It’s a great way to clear your mind of any distracting thoughts that chip away at your productivity, while also providing you with a system that allows you to track assignments and measure your progress over time.