Are you looking for tips to getting things done today? You’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’re sharing 13 great tips inspired by the iconic productivity system Getting Things Done (also known as GTD). Productivity guru David Allen created GTD around the time Apple released the first iPod. And just like the iPod revolutionised the way we listen to music, GTD brought productivity to a new level.
But the Getting Things Done Methodology can be intimidating. A book of 260+ pages, with 5 main steps (Capture, Clarify, Organize, Reflect and Engage) and sub-steps within each. That’s why we decided to distill the 13 most important lessons from GTD in one article. Whether you’re a hardcore GTD fan looking to improve your system or have never heard of it before, here are 13 tips for getting things done that you can implement today.
GTD Tip 1: Write Everything Down
In his book, David Allen says “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” If you use your brain to remember all the things in your life that need your attention (also known as Open Loops), it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and it becomes impossible to focus on actually doing things.
That’s why a key part of of GTD is to move everything out of your brain. In fact, it’s so important that it’s the very first step: Capture.
It doesn’t matter if you use the torn-off corner of your kid’s coloring book, a sticky note, a piece of creamy notebook paper, the notes app on your phone, or a fully-featured Markdown note-taking app, moving ideas out of your brain eliminates the stress of remembering everything. In fact, if you’re ever feeling stressed or overwhelmed by all the things you have do to, we recommend that you start with a brain dump to regain some clarity.
So if you want to get more done today, try this: make a list of everything on your mind (everything!). And once a new thought pops up, don’t hesitate to write it down immediately. You’ll immediately feel more clarity and at ease, knowing that you no longer have to keep it all in your brain.
Just be careful: this is where Shiny New Toy Syndrome can take hold, as it tries to convince you that it’ll be SO MUCH easier to write everything down if you just had the right app.
GTD Tip 2: Identify What Doing Looks Like
Writing everything down is great, but oftentimes our thoughts are rather vague. We think about taxes, presentations or home repairs – but what do we actually need to do to get things done?
Here’s where the next step in GTD shines: Clarify. Think about what you wrote down. Is it actually something that you could do (a task) or is it actually a collection of many individual tasks (a project)?
For example, many people send cards around the holidays. “Holiday cards” isn’t individual or actionable. You don’t know what doing looks like, which can lead to a feverish Minted order on December 23 hoping rush shipping is still available for your now-New Years cards. Breaking holiday cards down into individual, actionable steps makes a project easier to tackle:
- Order holiday cards
- Order stamps
- Edit address list
So here’s the next thing you can try today: Look at your to-do list. Where do tasks hide behind vague projects? To identify what doing looks like, break each projects down into individual, actionable steps.
Bonus tip: help your brain understand what exactly it is you want to do. Verbs visualise action, so once you have a list of tasks, be sure each one begins with a verb.
GTD Tip 3: Always Have a Next Action
How often do you get distracted when trying to decide which task to do next? Or do you often feel that you lose momentum the second you tick something off your list because you don’t know what to work on next?
Here’s the GTD-inspired solution: when you break down your vague projects into individual tasks, always identify what the Next Action is. For example, once you order holiday cards, the next action may be to write notes in some of the cards.
It’s also helpful to have a next action once you complete a daily task. Rather than have to review your to-do list every time you complete something, a line-up of tasks to complete will help maintain momentum. If you find yourself losing momentum because of an overly ambitious list of next actions, try a two-column approach to your list so you can choose if you want your next action to be easy or hard.
GTD Tip 4: Avoid Fake Due Dates
Here’s a quick one that you can immediately implement and that will have an immense impact on your clarity: Stop Using Fake Due Dates.
In GTD (and from now on everywhere), you are only allowed to use due dates if there’s a severe and immediate penalty for not hitting the deadline. AKA an actual due date.
Things like paying rent or buying your spouse a birthday gift should have due dates.
Updating your resume, rebalancing your portfolio, or calling your mom don’t have real deadlines, but they do have real consequences (especially calling your mom. Just do that today). We are too smart for fake deadlines to work.
So how can you prevent these tasks from going stale on your to-do list?
One strategy is to add meta data such as tags or contexts. If you’re meeting with your manager, you can pull up a list of to-dos with “Manager” as a context to see what you may need help with. If you’re feeling low energy, pull up your “Low Energy” context and plow through administrative tasks. The point is to slice-and-dice your tasks around some criteria rather than view your tasks as one big list. Most good task managers (like Todoist) have one or more ways to add context and filter by it.
The second, even more important strategy is covered in the last tip.
GTD Tip 5: Create a Someday/Maybe List
By now, you’ve probably seen a common theme: you are easily overwhelmed by all the inputs in our life and unless you make a conscious effort to organise them, they’ll get in the way of you getting things done.
Enter the Someday/Maybe List, another unsung hero to help you conquer your to-do list.
Many of the items you come up with during the Capture step will be things you want to do someday but don’t have the bandwidth to tackle now.
These could be places to travel, books to read, a new project around the house, or an idea for a side hustle. There’s nothing to do right now, but it will be a project to tackle in the future. During your Clarify step, add this to a someday/maybe list.
Why not just add them to your to-do list? After all, you plan on doing them at some point?
If you were to add them to the same list as your main commitments, you’d create unnecessary mental load. Every time you look at the list, you’d have to decide: “Is this important now or will I do it later?”.
It might only seem like a split second decision, but they add up, contribute to decision fatigue and ultimately create this lurking feeling of being constantly overwhelmed.
One last warning: Because of the longer-term nature of the someday/maybe list, the when-then trap can hide here (”When I read Atomic Habits, then I’ll become fit.”)
GTD Tip 6: Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time
Once you’ve Captured, Clarified, Organized and Reflected, it’s time to Engage with your to-dos.
Everyone has the same 24 hours in a day, so how do you prioritize what to work on? Many people prioritize based on importance. Simply sort your tasks by priority and start working down the list.
This approach is tempting, but ultimately doomed to fail. Not all tasks are created equal. Some tasks require your whole attention. Others you could do hungover.
So what to do instead? Ditch managing your time and focus on your energy instead. Here’s what you can start doing today (and if you want to dive deeper, check out our complete guide on managing your energy):
- Step 1: Identify your various energy levels throughout the day (using an energy mapping tool is a great pace to start)
- Step 2: Protect your high-energy time windows and fill them with the tasks that require your full attention
- Step 3: Batch tasks that you could do hungover (like paying your bills) together for your low-energy periods
- Step 4: Work on creating more high-energy phases throughout your day
GTD Tip 7: Apply a Prioritization Framework
One of the biggest criticism for GTD? Ultimately, it’s more about “writing things on lists” than about “getting things done”.
And there’s some truth to it. David Allen’s system is great to help you organise all the inputs in your life, which is crucial to go from overwhelmed to fully in control. But it doesn’t offer much advice when it comes to deciding which project to prioritise and what Next Action you should tackle first.
But that’s not a reason to dismiss the lessons of GTD. Instead, supplement your productivity stack with a Priorization Framework.
Our personal favourite is our very-own $10K Matrix:
Put simply, you evaluate your tasks according to two factors: how much skill does the task require and how much impact (aka leverage) will it have?
The resulting matrix helps you decide what to prioritise. High Skill, High Leverage tasks (your $10k tasks) will actually move the needle. Reserve some of your high-energy windows from Tip Nr. 5 to work on them.
Ultimately, we all have a portfolio of $10, $100, $1,000 and $10k work (even the Dalai Lama has to maintain a Twitter feed), and becoming aware of different task values will help you make better decisions when it’s time to tackle your to-do list.
GTD Tip 8: Ditch Multitasking and try Time Blocking instead
Once you Capture everything, prioritize your high leverage work and map your energy levels, it’s time to get to work (or, in GTD parlance, Engage). Especially during high-energy times, it’s tempting to multitask — jump between writing an article, emailing a prospect and delegating a task to a colleague via Teams. But this leads to attention residue and lower quality work.
A better approach is time-blocking, which is simply reserving chunks of time during the day for specific tasks and giving your full attention to that task. Instead of an hour and a half bouncing between three tasks, block out a half hour for each task. You will do more in less time and with higher quality. Isn’t that the point of productivity?
GTD Tip 9: Apply the 2-Minute Rule to beat procrastination
A more controversial part of GTD is the 2-minute rule, which says, “If it can be done in less than two minutes, then do it now.” This simple advice ignores the fact that emails, Slacks, texts and Teams messages can all take less than 2 minutes each, but they add up quickly. Plus completed tasks often generate more work and can require additional responses.
A modified version of the 2-minute rule is to organize them into a block and complete them during a low-energy period. Rather than spread out $10 tasks throughout the day, which will only serve as distractions, block out a half hour and knock out a bunch at one time.
GTD Tip 10: Figure Out Your Why
Getting Things Done is a noble pursuit. But just getting faster at ticking things off your to-do list won’t make you any happier unless you have the right things on your list in the first place.
Put another way, if you’re metaphorical productivity ladder leans against the wrong wall, you just get to the wrong place faster.
So, how do you make sure you work on the right things?
The magic comes from asking the right questions. When you dig into why you want to be productive, your answers may surprise you. In many cases, there are superficial answers — you want to be productive because you want to have more free time, or more time for your side hustle. Maybe you want a promotion and being more productive will put you on the fast track.
But continuing to ask why will get you to the root cause of your motivation. You may discover that you want to be productive so you can feel loved. Maybe it’s so you can love yourself. Maybe productivity is a way to avoid confronting your own mortality. How you answer your 5th Why will inform how to structure and prioritize your to-do list.
GTD Tip 11: Keep It Simple
The GTD book is over 260 pages, with 5 core steps and multiple sub-steps in each step. Most articles explaining GTD requite multiple pages and sections. You may even need a flowchart to visualise the system.
While GTD is an effective system, it is complex and requires constant attention. Otherwise it can become stale, incomplete and a burden. Many GTDers declare GTD bankruptcy, clear out the entire system and start fresh.
Instead of jumping fully into GTD, keep it simple and begin with a few small steps (this list is a great place to start).
Maybe capture everything on your various to-do lists and inboxes into one list. Try time-blocking a few days. Batch together $10, sub-2-minute tasks and complete them in one block rather than spreading throughout the day.
GTD is more modular than many think, and you can test the waters before jumping in.
GTD Tip 12: Start Saying No
The secret tip to get through your to-do list faster? Have less on it.
That’s easier said than done, but a crucial part of getting the right things done is learning to say no. But how do you start? Here are our favourite three tips:
- Set a quota of “pick your brain” meetings instead of having to decide every time someone asks
- Understand that you will never be able to satisfy every invite to short-circuit FOMO
- Start using the hell-yeah-or-no heuristic
Realizing you can’t say yes to everything makes it easier to be strategic in what you say no to, rather than waiting until your calendar is full. Answering your 5th Why and understanding your true motivations will also help. It’s easier to say no when saying yes will not advance you towards your goals.
GTD Tip 13: Perform A Weekly Review
If you take away only one thing from this list of tips for Getting Things Done, make it this one.
David Allen called a weekly review a “critical factor for success” and we couldn’t agree more. Whether using GTD or some other system, set aside time each week to reflect. Use this time to organize your tasks and perform routine maintenance on your system. The review helps you adapt to changes, check where you’re spending energy and attention, identify next actions and reflect on whether your system is serving you.
A key to sticking to a weekly review is to keep it to 25 minutes or less. Most people who fail at a weekly review try to do too much. Keep it simple, keep it enjoyable and prioritize where you can find your personal leverage.
Summary: 13 Tips For Getting Things Done
GTD is a robust, proven and effective productivity system, but it can be overwhelming and confusing if you try implementing all at once. Instead, dip your toe into the GTD water with a few of these tips and see if you can improve your current productivity system today!