If you have spent any time looking for productivity systems online, then you’ve probably come across the GTD Flowchart. GTD is shorthand for Getting Things Done, one of the most successful productivity methods in the world, created by David Allen in 2001. Getting Things Done’s promise is to help knowledge workers tame task overwhelm and information overload. And while you could read the 267 pages of the book, it’s much quicker to implement the system by following the steps outlined in the GTD Flowchart. After all, the underlying philosophy of GTD is deceptively simple. So here’s everything you need to know to get started with GTD in under 10 minutes.
Why do you even need the GTD Flowchart?
Imagine walking into your home office to start your day. You’re bracing for a busy one, a day filled with back-to-back Zoom calls, memos to write and two client pitches. Yet you know that the minute you step into your office, chaos will be unleashed.
In your office there are stacks of papers shuffled across your desk and untethered cables hang off the side. Your whiteboard is pockmarked with scribbles, lists and messy diagrams. And adding insult to injury, when you open your laptop your desktop is littered with PDFs, screenshots and unfinished PowerPoint presentations.
Your day hasn’t even begun, yet you’re in a state of panic.
Now replay the scene, but this time everything is exactly where it’s meant to be. The papers are in neat stacks. The whiteboard is squeaky clean. The cables are neatly fastened together with zip ties and best of all — the only icon on your desktop is the recycling bin.
The second office is calm. It’s inviting. And the precursor to a productive day.
Now let’s extend this office metaphor to your to-do list.
One to-do list system has a never ending set of lists. Ideas and tasks are scattered across notebooks, email inboxes and devices. There’s no order — no organizational system to keep things in place.
Another to-do list system — a dream system — has properly defined tasks and lists. There are due dates, priorities and tags to help you map out your day. Everything is exactly where it’s supposed to be.
David Allen’s Getting Things Done Flowchart is the key to the second office — it’s how you achieve, in Allen’s words, “Mind like water.” All you need are a few simple principles and some key behaviour changes so that you can focus on your tasks while ditching the unnecessary worry.
What is the GTD Flowchart?
The GTD Flowchart is a graphical representation of David Allen’s productivity method from Getting Things Done. It takes the 5 steps of GTD and arranges them in an actionable flow chart to help you process all the inputs, tasks and responsibilities from your busy life. Here’s what it looks like:
You can think of the GTD Flowchart as your turnkey productivity method to decide how you treat any piece of information that comes your way. To understand just how useful it is, let’s take a quick refresher on the 5 steps of GTD:
Step 1: Capture (aka “How am I supposed to remember this all?”)
David Allen famously said “your mind is made for having ideas, not holding them,” a quote that distills the first step of the productivity method. If your brain is constantly running at 100 miles per hour, keeping all of these thoughts in your head leads to worry (that you’ll miss a task), overwhelm (from the sheer volume) and confusion (about relative priorities).
To avoid this angst, Allen recommends that we use a “Capture Inbox.”
The “Capture” step is the simple act of getting all of these ideas, tasks and thought fragments out of your head and into a trustworthy place.
The beauty of GTD is that it’s tool agnostic. So that reliable place could be a notebook, a task manager or a No-code tool (like Notion). Just as long as the destination is consistent (and not your head).
To implement step 1, first pick a capture device. As you go through your day and new tasks (or thoughts, ideas and plans) appear, simply put them into your inbox. And then get on with your day.
Now before we move to step two (Clarify) you might be asking yourself: “Wait a minute, this sounds just like a to-do list?”
There’s a subtle, yet critical nuance here. With a typical to-do list, you capture a task (“Mail my tax payment”) and immediately put it on a list (“Finances”). This two-step capture can be daunting (or too slow) if you’re at the gym, driving in your car or in an important meeting.
GTD adds a step that says, “hey stop worrying about that item, we’ll get to it later. Just write down whatever came to your mind.” This extra step is well worth it, because it frees you from constantly worrying about these tasks that are “in transit.”
If you’re new to GTD (or in fact any new productivity system), we recommend that you start with a Brain Dump to get all open loops out of your brain and into your new system.
Step 2: Clarify (aka “What am I really trying to do here?”)
Like any complex system, GTD is about behavior change. If you follow the “Capture” process, by the end of the day, you’ll have a long list of items in your inbox. The “Clarify” step is where you triage the inbox to take your half-baked ideas and turn them into actionable items.
This is the step that breaks many aspiring GTD’ers. The Capture Inbox feels great, but it’s only the first step. Now it’s time to focus on narrowing down the tasks.
Let’s say your inbox looks like this at the end of the day:
- Email Josh to reschedule meeting
- WSJ article
- Flyer for neighbourhood party
- Call Mom to wish her birthday
- Learn surfing?
- Update bios on website
What should we do with that? Let’s take a quick look at our GTD Flowchart:
The first question to ask yourself when processing your GTD inbox according to the GTD Flowchart: is it actionable? If yes, it’s a task and we’ll process it further. If no, we make a quick decision as to where we file it. Time to apply this to our inbox:
Non-actionable items on our list:
- WSJ Article – great info piece that you read today, but no immediate action required. Time to file this in your reference system.
- Flyer for the neighbourhood party – turns out you’re on vacation that day, so you can trash this item
- Learn surfing – a spontaneous thought during lunch break, but you can’t really fit it into your current schedule. Let’s add it to the Someday/Maybe list.
Actionable items on our list:
- Email Josh to reschedule meeting
- Call Mom to wish her happy birthday
- Update bios on website
Sometimes, items in your inbox might have become irrelevant by the time you process them. A crisis resolves itself, new information makes something irrelevant or you already did it. In this case, you already called your mom. So that item can simply be crossed of.
For the remaining actionable things, we move on to the next question of the GTD Flowchart: is it a single action?
A closer look at your shrinking list reveals: only one of the things you wrote down is a single action: Email Josh to reschedule meeting. Both the proposal and updating the bios on your website include a group of actions.
This is another benefit of the GTD Workflow: instead of randomly starting to update bios on the website because you thought of it in the moment and then spending far more time than initially anticipated, you stick to your plan for the day and address items later. With a bit of distance (and less Urgency Bias), it’s a lot easier to accurately estimate the scope of a task.
Back to your list. Time to quickly define the various tasks that need to get done for your two projects before moving on to the last step of our GTD Flowchart.
The last question in the GTD workflow is also known as the 2-Minute-Rule. Put simply, if the next action takes less than 2 minutes to perform, simply do it right away. That’s because using any system to organize your tasks takes time. If the task at hand only takes a minute to do, spending 5 minutes organizing it on your lists is too much effort for the expected return.
Looking at your list, you realise that emailing Josh to reschedule the meeting shouldn’t take long. So you quickly circumvent the GTD Flowchart, write the email and then tackle the next actions for your two remaining projects. (But be careful, you could be writing 2-minute emails for the rest of the day.)
Regardless what you’ve identified as the next actions for the proposal and the bio updates, you guess that it would take you a bit more time than you currently have available. Which leaves you with the last decision of the GTD Flowchart.
- Defer it
- Delegate it
You either put the task on your actual to-do list or you decide that someone else is the right person for the task so you assign it to them.
Congratulations, you’ve completed the GTD Flowchart. This is the bulk of work when it comes to implementing GTD and requires the biggest behaviour change.
However, the complete GTD workflow actually has three additional (albeit much quicker) steps. We recommend that you start practicing your task management skills following the GTD Flowchart first. Once you mastered processing your inbox, you can move on to these additional steps.
Step 3: Organize (aka “How do I know what to work on?”)
The next phase is typically done in tandem with “Clarify.” During the “Organize” phase, you’re making another trade-off. You’re adding additional bits of data to your tasks to give your future self the best chance of accomplishing them at the right time. These additional bits are often called meta-data or tags and include:
- A due date
- A person, place or thing
- Next Action
- Waiting on
This is an obvious one, but GTD is very particular about only using due dates if there’s a strict penalty for missing the task (i.e. paying your rent).
A person, place or thing
In GTD parlance, these are called contexts, but you can think of them as tags. A tag could be “My Boss” which would tag all the tasks related to your boss (yet spanning different Project Lists). A place (“my office”) which specifically tags tasks that you can only do in your office. Lastly, a thing (“my phone”) which would tag all the people you need to call.
As a Los Angeles resident who sits in a lot of traffic, the “phone” context is extremely handy. I can immediately pull up everyone I need to call (again, across all my Project Lists).
GTD is very action-oriented and forces you to think about the specific task that moves a project towards completion. For example, once you download your W-2s to pay your taxes, the “next action” might be to input the W-2 info into TurboTax. Dedicated GTD systems like Omnifocus will have targeted filters aggregating all your next actions into a clean view.
How many times have you been stuck waiting for others to complete tasks before we can move a project forward. You may have to wait for your boss’ edits before you can send out the proposal, and this task would be tagged with a “Waiting On” tag.
Step 4: Reflect (aka “How do I prioritize these tasks?”)
The Weekly Review, is another place that trips up aspiring GTD enthusiasts. Up until now, we’ve focused on the accumulation, clarification and organization of tasks. But now, we need to come up with an execution plan.
This ritual (typically conducted on a weekend) has you review all your Project Lists and their associated tasks. Based on the due dates, contexts and tags, you can then start to map out your week. Some go as so far as creating dedicated time-blocks on your calendar for each activity.
The Weekly Review also helps you focus on your dreams and longer-dated priorities. By reviewing all your Project Lists you’ll inevitably check-in on your Someday, Maybe List — a more clinical definition of a Bucket List to ensure that you’re moving it forward.
Step 5: Engage (aka “What should I work on?”)
The last step, is to just do the dang task!
Yet in an age of digital overwhelm, where does one begin? This is where the investment in Clarifying and Organizing really pays off. You can never go wrong by working on your “Next Actions,” since they will move your projects closer to completion. You may have an entire day in the car, so you could start chipping away at the people who need you to call.
As you become more familiar with GTD, you might create your own contexts. Many enthusiasts create a context for their energy levels, influenced by the energy management approach detailed in Jim Loehr’s book The Power of Full Engagement. In our productivity trainings, we recommend using the $10K Work approach to identify the tasks with the most leverage.
The beauty of the GTD system is that its principles are pretty rigid, but once adopted, they can be easily customized to any work environment. You can pick and choose what works for you (we have our own list of favourite tips to get more things done today).
David Allen is adamant that when there are “open loops” in our minds — whether they are unfinished tasks or poorly specified-projects — it exacerbates our worry and anxiety. Whether a 267 page book is the antidote — is for you to decide. But following the 5-steps is certainly a leap in the right direction.