Let’s time travel back to the year 2001. I was a newly-minted college graduate. The Blackberry 5810 was the hottest device in tech. Trent Dilfer was a Super Bowl champion. It would take another decade for our lives to be dominated by Instagram-scrolling. That’s whenI picked up my first copy of David Allen’s productivity classic Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free productivity. This book invokes a paradox of emotions for RadReaders. For starters, with its ridiculously high “purchased to read” ratio it’s a classic Tsundoku Book. (I.e. the Infinite Jest of productivity.) And for those who have attempted to Get Things Done (aka “GTD“), it clocks in at 352 pages. Seriously, who has time for that?
Personally, the book transformed my career. The philosophy made hitting deadlines effortless and fast-tracked many of my BHAGs while helping me be an attentive manager. Using GTD felt (and still feels) like the ultimate cheat code — to this day, I’m still bewildered by how few professionals have a system to organize their projects and priorities. (If you’re one of them, we’ve got a pragmatic solution for you.)
However, in the past 20 years, a ton has changed about work and the tools we use. Look no further than 2001’s “hottest tech.”
David Allen created his famous system using manila folders, physical inbox trays and yellow legal pads. Clearly it has withstood the test of time. But it was also designed before iPhones, What’s App, Inbox Zero and Slack. Let’s face it, GTD is in need dire need of a revamp. Here’s how I would tweak GTD to work in 2022.
Table of contents
- Intro: What are the 5 steps of the GTD system?
- 1. Capture inboxes decrease anxiety (Keep)
- 2. Next actions ensure that you push projects forward (Keep)
- 3. The Weekly Review: How nothing falls through the cracks (Keep)
- 4. GTD fails to address prioritization (Modify)
- 6. Avoid GTD Bankruptcy by removing aged tasks (Modify)
- 7. Drastically reduce the number of Contexts (Modify)
- 8. Put a time cap on the 2-minute rule (Modify)
- Is GTD worth reading?
Intro: What are the 5 steps of the GTD system?
In the words of David Allen, the promise of GTD is to achieve “mind like water.” Every task, idea and thought fragment goes through the following Five-Step GTD process:
- Collect — Capture every task into a single “inbox tray”
- Process — Clarify and specify the activity to determine if it’s a project, task or reference
- Organize — Assign the right meta-data including Due Dates, contexts and energy levels
- Plan — Use a Weekly Review ritual to prioritize, schedule and assign your tasks
- Do — Get started by having the right tasks always find you
Here’s a short video illustrating these 5 steps (and another on implementing GTD using Notion).
We’ll now examine the 8 ways we would tweak GTD to work in 2022:
1. Capture inboxes decrease anxiety (Keep)
If you’re reading this post, your mind probably operates at 150/mph. You bounce between tasks, thoughts, reminders and meetings — accumulating a lengthy list of “to-dos” along the way. In the span of a few hours you might come up with something like:
- Pay my rent
- Check if my boss sent back the edits
- Spend quality time with my daughter
- Look up a new financial advisor
- Change my LinkedIn bio
- Make a reservation for my wife’s birthday
In a traditional to-do list, as these tasks arise, you’d put each one of them on a corresponding Project List (indicated in bold):
- Pay my rent → Home
- Check if my boss sent back the edits → Project Neptune
- Spend quality time with my daughter → Kids
- Look up a new financial advisor → Finances
- Change my LinkedIn bio → Internet Presence
- Make a reservation for my wife’s birthday → Wife
But the reality is that these tasks arrive too quickly and frequently. If you were to stop and input them as they came along, your attention would be fragmented. Yet if you try to remember them all, it becomes incredibly stressful (and the Zeigarnik Effect kicks in). That’s why most people resort to some haphazard combination of a calendar, notebook, emails to themselves and a to-do list.
GTD separates the step of capturing a task and then putting it on the appropriate list with the Capture Inbox concept (i.e. Step 1, Capture). This becomes a holding pad for all incoming tasks – that eventually get processed into the appropriate list (i.e. Steps 2 and 3, Process and Organize).
This step allows you to keep moving through your day, with the confidence that none of these tasks will fall through the cracks. However, it comes at an additional (time) cost. You have to empty your Capture Inbox at the end of the day, by assigning each task to its appropriate project list. Depending on the number of tasks, this can take between 2 and 10 minutes.
This trade-off is well-worth it and one of the most re-used components of the GTD method.
How do you incorporate a GTD Capture Inbox?
Most GTD-specific task managers (Things3, Omnifocus) have dedicated Capture Inboxes. No-code tools like Notion, Airtable or Coda let you synthetically create Capture Inboxes by using filters. And you can even mimic this effect with traditional task managers (Apple Reminders, ToDoist) by creating a dedicated Project List called “Inbox.”
2. Next actions ensure that you push projects forward (Keep)
The GTD method also makes it clear that the entire point of having tasks is to make progress towards your projects (i.e. groups of tasks). Let’s say you’re trying to “Pay your taxes.” This requires you to have a series tasks that need to be completed in sequential order. The tasks may look like:
- Gather all my W-2s
- Gather all of my charitable deductions
- Scan all the paper documents
- Mail the package to my accountant
- Set up e-pay
- Check to see if refund arrived
Paying your taxes is a very linear project. Until you complete steps 1 and 2, you shouldn’t even consider Step 3.
Similarly, you may have another project called “Complete client proposal” with the following tasks:
- Draft outline in Google Docs
- Create skeleton document in Google Slides
- Request custom charts from Design Department
- Write section 1
- Write section 2
- Submit to my boss for review
- Send presentation to printers
Once again, what’s the point of “Write Section 2” if you haven’t “Created the skeleton document.”
GTD’s strength comes from the fact that it forces you to define the sequencing, so that you are always 100% clear about the next thing you should be working on — in GTD parlance, the Next Action.
Furthermore, GTD-specific tasks managers will give you customized views so that you only see these Next Actions aggregated across all your projects. (I.e. in the image above, the 3 tasks in red.)
How you can incorporate “Next Action” in a traditional task-manager?
The simplest way to incorporate this approach is to create a “Next Action” tag in your task-management tool. You’ll have to update these Next Actions as you complete the preceding task, but this will enable you to filter for this tag across all of your projects.
3. The Weekly Review: How nothing falls through the cracks (Keep)
One of the central principles of GTD is that it restricts the use of Due Dates. In the post You’re Due-ing it Wrong, I argued that fake due dates don’t work. Here’s why:
Fake due dates don’t work. Our brains are way to clever for that sh*t. It’s why we know that we can drive 70 mph (in a 65). It’s why we are totally OK jay walking across Fifth Avenue.
Therefore, the criteria for using a Due Date is very precise:
You can only use Due Dates if there’s a severe and immediate penalty for not hitting the deadline
So Due Dates are totally acceptable for paying my rent and planning my wife’s birthday.
But they are not acceptable for scheduling a 1:1 or Downloading DuoLingo to learn Spanish.
The GTD-specific app Omnifocus recommends using due dates sparingly as a GTD best practice:
Use due dates to honour your commitments. Just make sure that you’re only using due dates for things that are actually due. If you’d like to get something done by Friday, it might be tempting to assign that something a due date of Friday, even though it isn’t technically due. The problem with assigning due dates arbitrarily is that it becomes difficult to distinguish between what’s actually due and what you’d like to have completed by a given date. The end result is typically a growing number of “overdue” tasks and projects resulting in heightened stress levels.
You can quickly see how this becomes problematic. Without a due date, there’s no forcing function to complete your task. Enter the Weekly Review. It’s a catch-all process to review all of your tasks (and projects) to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks. Done correctly, it’s a planning and prioritization exercise that sets the tone for a winning week.
However, here’s the catch. The Weekly Review is like broccoli. We know it’s a super-food, yet very smart people find lots of ways to avoid eating it. In my years of leading productivity trainings, I’ve realized that people take on way too much during their Weekly Reviews. They use it to reflect on life’s biggest questions. They use it to audit their time. They use it to set their 5 year goals.
Instead of using this kitchen-sink approach, focus on the top-right quadrant of Planning and Prioritization. This will ensure that you don’t take on too much and can complete it in under 25 minutes. David Allen calls the Weekly Review the “critical success factor” describing the ritual as:
The time to gather and process all your stuff. Review your system. Update your lists. Get clean, clear, current, and complete. You have to use your mind to get things off your mind.
Here’s how you can implement a Weekly Review:
Every week, run through the following checklist:
- Get your Capture Inboxes to zero
- Review all your Project Lists and their Next Actions
- Review tasks where you’re “Waiting On” an action from someone else
- Review your calendar for the upcoming week
- Set your priorities using the $10K Work Method
- Review your Someday/Maybe Project List
- Review your aged tasks
(We’ve got a free Weekly Review Course to help you implement this.)
4. GTD fails to address prioritization (Modify)
GTD is notorious for not directly addressing prioritization. The philosophy is centered around the belief that the combination of the proper next action and accurate meta-data (i.e. contexts, which we’ll address later) will enable the right tasks to find you.
Here’s GTD coach Michael Gorsline on the challenge of deciding priority in a vacuum:
From the Getting Things Done perspective you don’t want to assign “priority” to action items on the front end for a couple of reasons. The first is that priority always depends on the constellation of situations at hand. From a GTD view you just can’t decide priority in a vacuum. To the question, “What is the priority?” the question that needs to be asked to answer it is “…the priority in what context?” When you know more about the the given situation in the moment, the priority becomes clear.
However, as the number of projects and tasks grow, it becomes extremely difficult to prioritize (when everything’s a priority). The absence of prioritization can lead to procrastination or focusing on actions that release dopamine (like Inbox Zero). Here’s Redditor Homemade tools in the r/GTD subreddit:
People also tend to use lack of prioritization as a means of procrastinating the tasks that they truly need to complete. We like to satisfy ourselves with a few good check-offs, even if we’re checking off unimportant tasks.
How to incorporate prioritization into GTD:
Any prioritization framework (i.e. High/Medium/Low, Eisenhower Matrix, $10K Work) can be added into your task manager through the use of tags. We recommend combining Leverage and Skill and using the 4-quadrant approach of $10K Work:
You can also download our free $10K Task Manager Template (in Notion).
5. Use multiple capture inboxes (Modify)
In 2001, email was barely a thing. Yet today, we are bombarded with emails, Slack messages, Google Docs, notifications, and tweets from every direction. According to McKinsey, the average knowledge worker spends 28% of their week writing and responding to emails. But the number of informational inputs have multiplied. Here are some representative activities across various channels:
- Email (i.e. Gmail, Outlook, Superhuman)
- Notes (Apple Notes, Evernote, Drafts)
- Chat (Texts, Telegrams and What’s App)
- Social media notifications (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram)
- Project Management notifications (Asana, Notion, ClickUp)
- Google Doc comments
- Articles to read and videos to watch (Instapaper, Pocket, YouTube Watch Later)
While we strongly recommend moving tasks out of email, every knowledge worker should identify an additional set of inboxes that jives with their workflow. If you’re a heavy online reader, consider a Read-Later app and if you collaborate often across projects, consider centralizing your communications in Asana.
Another powerful feature is using voice-recognition (i.e. Siri and Hey Google) in conjunction with automations (i.e. Zapier and Integromat) to speed up and centralize your capture inboxes.
Ultimately, the inboxes in your life will depend on your general tech stack and your GTD app of choice.
6. Avoid GTD Bankruptcy by removing aged tasks (Modify)
The strength of GTD is also one of its biggest drawbacks. By making it so easy to capture tasks, these tasks will quickly accumulate and cause cognitive overload. One of my coaching clients had over 100 incomplete tasks, some over a yeaer old.The famous “mind like water” quickly becomes the to-do list of shame. This overload turns to paralysis, which in turn leads to GTD Bankruptcy.
Here’s GTD aficionado Rick Galan on how untethered productivity expectations can catch up to you:
But even for the most successful people, there will be a lot of things that make it onto your to-do list that you’re never going to do—all those someday/maybe projects and aspirational recurring habits and things that seemed urgent enough to put a due date on in the moment but then the due date came and went without you doing them and nothing actually happened. That is your to-do list debt.
How to avoid list-of-shames and GTD Bankruptcy:
A simple triage process (during your Weekly Review) can serve as a weed-whacker for your productivity system. During this review, sort all your tasks by “date created.” Scroll down (or up) to the oldest task and ask yourself “Am I really going to do this?” If it’s been there for 4 review cycles, chances are you’ve answered your own question.
7. Drastically reduce the number of Contexts (Modify)
Contexts are GTD’s version of tags. They can be people, places or things and are meta-data that facilitate the approach of the right tasks finding you. Here are some examples of contexts:
- Call Mom (Context = Phone)
- Brainstorm New Hire Report (High-Energy)
- Sweep garage (Home)
- Update Keynote slides (Desktop)
However, there’s a trade-off with contexts. They take a damn long time and often don’t end up being being helpful. Yup, they can often turn into colossal time sucks that add little future value.
Furthermore, as our communication tools have exploded since the book was written, notes an anonymous Redditor again in r/GTD:
Contexts in GTD originally revolved around the tools and the places that things were. With a few exceptions (errands and a couple location-specific contexts for tasks that are truly location-constrained), I have the tools and places everywhere I am since I bring my phone and computer with me at all times, everything generally gets grouped into either a “Home” or “Work” context, which really means “Personal Time” and “Work Time” since my “work” takes me to a lot of different places, including home.
This poster goes on to consider adding effort-based contexts:
Creating one context list of more workman-like tasks (file expense reports, scan documents, peer review deliverables, etc.), another for similar batch-able tasks like email replies and whatnot, and a final one for “deep work” that I need to be in the right mood and have several uninterruptible hours to engage in.
How to reduce contexts:
If you’re new to GTD, we recommend simplifying contexts to the Task Value (applying $10K Work) and effort-based ones described above (i.e. Energy Levels).
If you’re a more seasoned GTD pro, we’d recommend keeping the “Waiting On” context and setting up contexts for the key people in your life (i.e. your spouse, kids, boss and direct reports).
Now here’s where GTD shows that it’s a bit long in the tooth. The book was written long before iMessage, Tweets, Slack Messages and What’s App groups. You could fill an entire day full of 2-minute tasks and you’d be doubling down on low-value work.
8. Put a time cap on the 2-minute rule (Modify)
In the world of information overload, one of the most controversial parts of GTD is the 2-Minute Rule.
“If it can be done in less than two minutes, then do it now.”
The rule was initially conceived to save you the time of adding meta-data to each task in your Capture Inbox. After all, if you could just “Reschedule the team meeting” with a quick email, why bother with adding it to a Project List and then adding multiple contexts. While well intentioned, this rule didn’t age well. In Superhuman’s 2021 State of Email Report, they identified the burnout tendencies of email, Slack and Zoom overload.
From this pie chart, it’s easy to infer that you could spend your entire day responding to 2-minute tasks. Another challenge with the 2-minute rule is that we are quite naive in estimating how long things will actually take (thanks to Parkinson’s law). Here’s Redditor u/Jose602 on the challenge of the 2-minute rule:
The other thing is that even if that task itself takes less than 2 minutes, there are often other steps involved in getting that task done. For example, if it’s a “quick” email, that often times means opening up an app or web page where you’re encountering other things that will draw your attention and either slow you doing that supposedly quick task or entirely knock you off course entirely. Even the relatively short length of time that it takes to open an email app or web page can be enough time for you to just think of something else that pulls your attention away from that simple task.
How to fix the 2-minute rule:
Steer clear of the 2-minute rule when you are working on your high-leverage, high-value tasks. Give yourself a strict quota when you tackle these low-value tasks and limit them to periods during which you have low energy.
Is GTD worth reading?
GTD is worth reading if you have the time and commitment to putting the ideas into action – it requires a significant investment. The nature of knowledge work has changed considerably since the book was written in 2001 and the methodology needs to be updated. The biggest change is the volume of digital information we consume daily, making the Capture, Next Action and Review components the most relevant. On the other hand, the high task volume impacts the 2-minute rule and Contexts, as it requires too much updating and can lead to GTD Bankruptcy.
If you’re looking for a quick dose of increased productivity, check out our collection of 13 tips for getting things done that you can implement today.