What is GTD and why do so many people swear by it?

GTD Meaning Explained

GTD Meaning: Getting Things Done®, commonly known as GTD, is a framework for time and task management, as well as a method for maintaining productivity day after day. It teaches you how to organize and prioritize all the “stuff” in your brain so that you can get more done in less time, reach your goals and have more time available for leisure activities or additional pursuits. 

It’s no overstatement to say that, if applied correctly, GTD can be life-changing.

GTD Meaning: What does GTD mean?

GTD is the commonly used acronym for the time management and productivity method called Getting Things Done ®. Personal and professional productivity expert David Allen developed the Getting Things Done ® task management system after identifying how certain people get more done than most of us without experiencing added stress or more effort. 

GTD is based on Allen’s belief that “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them. ®” Once introduced, GTD quickly became one of the most influential productivity methodologies of the 21st century. His book detailing the system and how to use it, entitled Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, was published in 2001. GTD quickly developed a cult-like following with endorsements ranging from technologists to Howard Stern. By 2014 the book had sold 1.6 million copies. 

Even if you haven’t yet used GTD, you’ve likely heard or used some of its most well-known terms, like “open loop” and “inbox zero.” Out of the GTD framework, however, these terms are often misused. This article will provide a short overview of the GTD meaning and a complete “dictionary” for all the GTD terms and abbreviations commonly associated with it. If you want to quickly get up to speed on what GTD is, how it works and what it can do for you, consider this your one-stop-shop for all the answers.

Beyond the GTD Meaning: What is Getting Things Done actually about?

What problem does GTD solve?

GTD helps prevent you from feeling overwhelmed and suffering from a downturn in productivity because it helps you identify, categorize, prioritize and break everything you need to do down into steps. It also helps you to determine when to work on what. This framework makes it easier to start projects, take the next steps necessary and eventually get them completed. 

If you waste time each day wondering what you should spend your time on or experience interrupting thoughts about one project or task while engaged in another, GTD can help. 

What solution does GTD offer?

GTD’s solution is its workflow. It offers a systematic approach to handling all the “stuff” swirling in your brain all day (and sometimes at night!). It does this by providing a way to take it all out of your brain and organize it digitally or on paper. So you don’t have to think about it until it’s time to act on it.

Once they are out of your head, GTD helps you categorize, prioritize and schedule actionable tasks so you can complete projects and attain your goals. This allows you to see what to spend your time on each day clearly, but it also frees up your mental capacity to truly focus on the task at hand. This process has the added benefit of making things easier and faster for you to get done than without this system.

Who is GTD for?

GTD is for anyone who feels overwhelmed by all they have to accomplish, has too much to do, or has trouble knowing how to spend their time. In short, it’s for anyone who feels their life is out of control and their to-do list is no help. 

GTD can be used to manage and achieve professional and personal responsibilities, small tasks, large projects, and short or long-term goals. It’s for you if you want less stress, more clarity, and the ability to engage in tasks with a fierce focus that will help you become more efficient and productive, so you can finally get things done!

Does GTD make you more productive?

GTD can help you delegate some tasks or even whole projects and even allows you to decide to delete some of your to-dos entirely. This can help you cut through the clutter that slows you down. 

But because GTD also enables you to stop thinking so frequently about all your undone tasks, half-finished projects, and reminders of what you would like to do one day, its real power to improve your productivity comes from how it allows you to focus on one thing at a time with complete confidence that you’ll get to the other items and that the time you are spending on your current task is worthwhile. 

Eliminating self-doubt and the feeling of overwhelm can help you get more done. You can finally focus on what you’re doing, which means you can do it faster and better than before.

Who is David Allen?

American David Allen is the man behind GTD and the creator of the Getting Things Done ® system. Allen’s interest in productivity began when he started working at The Lockheed Corporation in the 1980s and was asked to develop a program for managers and executives there. From there, he quickly became known as a productivity consultant and lecturer. 

Allen is the author of three books: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, Ready for Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Work and Life, and Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and Business of Life

Most recently, Allen released an updated version of Getting Things Done in 2015 and currently runs The David Allen Company with his wife, Kathryn, from his adopted home base in Amsterdam. Together they oversee certifications and maintain the quality standards for their partners worldwide who offer Getting Things Done courses and coaching.

In our 2022 interview with David Allen, he shared how martial arts inspired his book and what he sees as the secrets to successfully implementing GTD.

How to get started with GTD

Getting Things Done can easily be overwhelming, so we created a handy quick start guide with everything you need to know:

You can also check out our other articles on GTD if you’re looking for something specific:

All Getting Things Done Terms Explained:


Only some of the stuff swirling in your head and occupying your thoughts are actionable. If it’s something you can’t do anything about, like an event you have no control over, it’s not actionable.

Something is actionable if it’s something about which you or someone else can take action. It is within your control to do something to move closer to a desired (or forced upon you) result. You want to (or in some cases should) do it. You might not want to pay your taxes or schedule a colonoscopy, but you know it’s the right thing to do, so you will. 

Action Item

An action item is a single task or activity that is well-defined and can be accomplished by one person, usually in a fairly short time without interruption. In the GTD system, this is the only thing that’s ever written on your to-do list (whereas most people subconsciously tend to write a lot of other things on there too).

Examples of action items are making a phone call, writing an outline, and scheduling a meeting. Though each action item may be small, fulfilling one at a time is what lays the groundwork for consistent progress. And regular progress leads to the completion of larger projects and the achievement of goals. 

Area of Focus

Also sometimes referred to as an Area of Responsibility, an Area of Focus is one of the various facets of your work or personal life that are important to you. Often these are areas where you desire improvement or accomplishment, but more than anything, they require long-term maintenance.

Each area of focus is one that you feel is important to dedicate time and attention to. Typical areas of focus include fitness, family, personal development, career, and finances. These are categories, not tasks that are ever complete, but they are often the source of goals and inspiration for projects. For instance, in the area of focus called Family, you may have a goal to teach your kids about their heritage. From this, you create a project to plan a 3-week trip to France to show them where their grandparents grew up.  

Brain Dump

A brain dump is an organised way to get all the open loops out of your brain and into your productivity system. Think of it as “downloading your brain”. Whenever you set up a new productivity system, it’s recommended to do a brain dump to ensure that you really capture all your responsibilities in the new system.


Capture, or collect, is what you do first when implementing the GTD framework in your life. This is the step where you identify all the “stuff” you give attention to in life. They may be fleeting thoughts, recurring questions, ongoing projects, long-term goals, and more. They are the things you purposely and sometimes haphazardly think about because you believe they are important in some way. You can use the GTD Incompletion Trigger List to make sure you identify them all.

In the Capture phase, you write all these things down on paper, type them up or record them by video or voice memo. How you do it is up to you, but getting them out of your head to free up your working memory is essential. In GTD, you will develop the habit of immediately capturing anything you notice taking up space in your head.

More advanced GTD apps will help you with this process. You can learn more about our favourite GTD apps (and which one is right for you) or read our detailed guide on how to do GTD in Notion.

The 14 Best GTD Apps


To clarify is the second phase of GTD. It’s when you make the stuff you captured clearer and sometimes more specific so you know precisely what needs to be done. This is a step most people who don’t follow GTD aren’t used to doing. It’s about asking yourself questions about all the “stuff” you captured that helps you define each thing and what, if anything, you want to do about it.

What does all the stuff you captured mean to you? Most importantly, is it actionable? If it isn’t, you can trash it, save it for later (incubate it), or file it away for future reference. If it is actionable, then you decide what the next relevant action item is and then: 

  • If the next action takes less than 2 minutes, complete it immediately. 
  • If you want or need someone else to do it, delegate it.
  • If you are the one who should take the next action, but it requires more than a few minutes, then do it later. 

If the next action is just one step in a larger project, it gets added to your project list.

This process can be a bit confusing if you’re new to GTD, which is why we created a handy flowchart for the Getting Things Done workflow.

GTD Flowchart Explained


Clutter refers to the mental clutter of things that take up space and occupy your time unrelated to the task at hand throughout your day. You keep thinking of this stuff because you are afraid of forgetting them or they are unfinished. 

Clutter is what you clear out of your mind in the first phase of GTD. Getting rid of it is the first step to feeling less overwhelmed and unable to focus on your current task.


Context defines a place, person, time, situation, or tool you need to carry out a particular task. It may also be defined by the amount of time or energy required. By identifying the needed context of each task, you’ll be better able to identify when you can complete a particular action item. 

Not all tasks can be done at all times, in all situations and places. Identifying the proper context a task requires helps you identify what you should spend your time when. When you have time to do something, context can help you more quickly choose a task to complete without wasting time and mental energy considering those that need a different context. In this way, context enables you to prioritize, given your current situation.

When you’re just starting out with GTD, it’s easy to go overboard and add tons of tags to your tasks. This creates a lot of friction in your system and makes it less likely to work over time. We recommend that you start out with just two types of context: the energy level required for a task and the $10K Value to help you prioritise (even if everything is a priority).

Use the $10K Matrix as your Prioritisation Framework


To engage is the fourth step of GTD. The first three steps lead to this. It’s when you feel good about the task and can focus on it. You simply do what you know needs to be done.

When you follow the GTD system, the next action you take becomes intuitive because it’s informed by the defining, sorting, and organizing you have previously done. Your lists and the context of your current situation guide you.

Getting Things Done itself doesn’t offer a way to determine what exactly you should be doing next. But you can easily supplement the system with a framework for prioritisation like our $10K Matrix (see the picture under the previous point).

Focus Horizon / Horizon of Focus

In GTD, a Focus Horizon is identified as one of 6 levels of work. By considering each one, you can evaluate your life choices and how you’re spending your time to ensure you focus on the right priorities to live the life you want. 

They are as follows:

Ground: Calendar/actions

These are the things you currently have to do and the information you must organize. Without interruption or further input, completing these actions would take 300-500 hours to complete these actions.

Horizon 1: Projects

These are your commitments or responsibilities that will take more than one action item to complete. You probably have between 30 and 100 of these in your life currently.

Horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountability

You likely have 4-7 primary areas of responsibility in your life. These are what lead to your current and future projects. By identifying and evaluating these, you can see if you are doing the right projects.

Horizon 3: One- to two-year goals and objectives

Where will you be and what will you be doing in 1-2 years, given the projects you are focused on now? Getting clarity on this helps you define future projects. 

Horizon 4: Three- to five-year vision

Where is your industry headed and what changes are expected in the next 3-5 years? How will this affect your job and what goals you should be setting? What projects can help you reach those goals?  

Horizon 5: Purpose and principles

This horizon is the ultimate big-picture view. Are you living the life you want and creating a career that aligns with your values? What is your mission? What is your vision for your life? 

Waiting-for List

The Waiting-for list is where you track actions you have delegated. You are waiting for others to complete them so you can take the next step or mark a task or project as completed. 


A goal is something you want to accomplish, requiring more than 2 action items. It can be a short-term goal, like hosting a surprise party, or a long-term goal, like buying an oceanfront beach house in Hawaii after retirement.

GTD doesn’t offer a specific framework to help you set better goals. Here is our guide on how to set goals (that actually work).

GTD System

The GTD System is the task management system David Allen developed after observing how productive people operate worldwide. Its methodology is based on the idea that the more information you have bouncing around inside your head, the harder it is for you to decide what needs to be done next. 

GTD Workflow

The GTD Workflow is the 5-step process for moving mental clutter out of your brain, deciding what needs to be done about it, if anything, when, how, in what circumstances and by whom. The five steps are as follows:

  • Capture
  • Clarify
  • Organise
  • Reflect
  • Engage

GTD Flowchart

The GTD Flowchart is a visual representation of the GTD Workflow.

GTD Flowchart Explained


In GTD, your inbox is a concept that describes all the stuff you have taken out of your brain and put down on paper or in a digital recording format. It includes your to-dos, goals, projects, the information you want to retain, ideas you don’t want to forget, and more.

Some items in your inbox may be in your email inbox, but they may also be in another application, a physical notebook, or a tray where you stash the thoughts you capture throughout the day. If you’re using an app for GTD, it’s crucial to set up an inbox that is separate from the actual to-do list.

Inbox Zero

In GTD, achieving inbox zero is encouraged daily. But it doesn’t mean you have to get all your work done and respond to every email before bed. It means you have identified what needs to be done about each item. You have clarified or processed them. 

Of all the GTD terms, this one is the most misunderstood and misused. 


You incubate the things you don’t need to take action on right now but might need to in the future. They are ads for software you’d like to buy someday, a profile of a hotel you’d like to visit sometime, or an idea for a blog post you could write about next year.

You can incubate these kinds of items by either putting them on a Someday/Maybe list, on a future date in your calendar, or in the Tickler File. Incubating’s purpose is to eliminate distractions and reduce stress.

Natural Planning Model (NPM)

The Natural Planning Model is a way to approach projects that helps you apply minimum effort to attain maximum value. It includes 5 informal steps. 

  1. Define your purpose and principles. 
  2. Envision the outcome. 
  3. Get ideas of how you will complete your project. 
  4. Organize the “why, what, and how” of the project to identify its parts, the sequence of actions required and their priorities.
  5. Identify the next actions for each part of the project to get it started.

Open Loop

An open loop is each unfinished piece of business, incomplete project, undone task, and unachieved goal you have in your head. When they inhabit your brain, each open loop requires energy and attention. Capturing them into an external tracking system frees space in your mind and allows you to concentrate better on each specific task.


The outcome is what you intend to achieve when you can mark a particular project complete.

It’s what you plan to accomplish when you complete a project. It’s the desired result you wish to achieve. Ideally, the outcome should align with your purpose and long-term vision for your life or a particular focus of attention. 

Focusing on outcomes can help keep you on track. When motivation flags, focusing on the outcome can help you think of how you would feel if you didn’t follow through. 


In GTD, a project is different than what you are used to because it is simply anything you want to do that requires taking more than one action. A project isn’t something you do. It is a collection of tasks organized in a sequence toward a specific outcome. And for each project, it’s vital to know the next action item. 

Weekly Review

The weekly review, or reflection step, is the time each week you look back over your projects and lists and make any necessary adjustments or changes. Doing this helps keep your workflow current and relevant. 

Optionally, you may want to review your goals every month to ensure your lists and action items are supporting them and leading you where you want to go.

This is one of the most important, yet often overlooked parts of GTD. We would go as far as saying that no matter what system you use to organise, a Weekly Review should be part of it.

How to conduct a weekly review


A task is anything you can do in a single step. Usually, it is small enough to be done in a single sitting or without interruption. Examples include making a phone call, sending an email, and scheduling an appointment or meeting.

Tickler File

The Tickler File is a subsystem whose purpose is to incubate information or opportunities you may want or need at a future date. It enables you to save information or items for your future self and deliver them at the right time. It’s the place to put items you may want to take action on in the future and activities you don’t want to consider until the right time.

The Tickler File is where you put items you have not yet committed to but want to consider at a later date. You put these items there rather than on your calendar so that you don’t mix commitments with possible actions. 

You can create a Tickler File with 43 physical folders, 31 numbered 1-31 for each possible day of the month and 12 labeled for each month of the year. When you come across an item or have an idea you may want to act on or think about until later, you can put it in one of the folders, so you see them on a date of your choosing. The key to using the Ticker File is to check the appropriate folder each day of the month and, at the start of a new month, decide what to do with the items in that month’s folder. If you don’t wish to act on them, you can put them in a folder for a day later that month or move it to a future month.

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