Clear your head with GTD

In September of 2006 I had my first encounter with GTD: Getting Things Done, through Father Roderick who was raving about it on his podcast the Daily Breakfast — now The Break.
As you may know Getting Things Done is a great productivity system invented by David Allen.
So, I decided to buy the audio book: Getting Things Done, the Art of Stress-free Productivity on iTunes and I devoured it!
I always used to feel so swamped with tasks mundane as well as extraordinary that I always felt out of control and lagging behind on everything.

In his latest book Making It All Work David Allen says: ‘the mind is a great servant but a terrible master’; if we hold on to everything inside our own mind we’re going to end up being in a state of information overload-mode. That’s where GTD comes in.

Here’s a short outline on what GTD is, how I use it and how it changed my life *blink* πŸ™‚ :

1. Capture

Capturing anything and everything that has your attention.
I do this by carrying around little notepads with me all the time: one for quotes, one for to-do items, one for nice English phrases I come across for my blog. Every day I put all of it into my in-tray. Of course I also have my email inbox brimming over with lovely amorphous stuff screaming at me: ‘Decide what I mean to you!!!’

2 Clarify

Defining actionable things discretely into outcomes and concrete next steps.
The contents of my in-tray go into my system:
I have a few choices:

  • Is it actionable?


  • Will it take me 2 minutes or less?


  • Do it!


  • I put it in Nozbe, which is my task/project manager

My non-actionable items like quotes or other pieces of information go into my Evernote account

3. Organize

Organizing reminders and information in the most streamlined way, in appropriate categories, based on how and when you need to access them
My actionable items I further organize within contexts:
@ Computer
@ Home
@ Phone
@ Read
@ Martin (my hubbie)
@ Toast (actions I can still do when I feel exhausted)
@ Waiting for

@ Someday Maybe
That way I don’t have to dig through a big pile of actions and look for e.g. all my calls if I have a phone handy. It saves me a lot of time.

The next, very important step is to pick your Next Actions from your lists of Actions: a Next Action isΒ  the one concrete next actionable item for a project. This is critical!
For example, a lot of people have actions on their list like:
craft party hats for my rabbits (too big, it consists of multiple action steps)
or even worse:
rabbit party hats (very vague)
It’s key to break that down into concrete steps like:

  • look up on the internet: party hat for rabbits ideas (@ Computer)
  • draft designs for rabbit party hats in sketchbook (@ Home)
  • make a list of materials you need (@ Computer)
  • look them up in your cabinet (@ Home)
  • go buy new materials (@ Errands)
  • craft the actual rabbit party hats (@ Home)

So ‘look up on the internet: party hat for rabbits ideas‘ is the next action for project ‘craft party hats for my rabbits’.
In Nozbe, I can star that item so it stands out from the rest.

I can also link my actions to Projects in Nozbe. A project in GTD-jargon is something which takes more than one action-step to complete.
A project can be:
Craft party hats for my rabbits
Organize rabbits’ birthday party
Draft Rabbit book proposal
Research designer clothes rabbits

My non-actionable items go mostly in Evernote:
I scan a lot of things and put them in Evernote.
These are a few of my favorite tags (I have 75 in total!):
funny pics
important docs
declutter tips
scans of my photobooks

I also have a physical alphabetical archive system. At work I have this awesome filing cabinet with plain hanging folders labeled with my super-duper Dymo label maker — another great asset for GTD-affichonados. Still working on getting one for my home too. At present I have a stack of alphabetically arranged envelope-folders.

It is a dream of mine though to go (almost) entirely paperless.

4 Reflect

Keeping current and ‘on your game’ with appropriately frequent reviews of the six horizons of your commitments (purpose, vision, goals, areas of focus, projects, and actions — If you are just starting out with GTD, it is fine to just figure out Projects and Actions, the rest will come later.)

The idea is to do a Weekly Review of your system consisting of:

  • Getting clear

Go to inbox and in-tray zero, do a brain dump.
This usually takes up so much of my time that I now decided to get clear the day before I do the Weekly Review.

  • Getting current

Review (Next) Action lists (by context), calendar, Waiting For list (one of my most helpful lists), Project list, any relevant checklists.
Use these as triggers for new actions.
Also mark your Next Actions (in my case with a star)

  • Getting creative

Review your Someday Maybe-list. (This is a list with all the things you might want to do some day but not now, like taking singing lessons, learning Greek, writing a book about rabbits etc…) and lastly:

‘Be creative and courageous: any new, wonderful, harebrained, creative, thought-provoking, risk-taking ideas to add to your system?’ (David Allen – Making It All Work)

However, this Weekly Review is the toughy for me, the bottleneck in my system, because the Weekly Review you should do — well — weekly, and that’s where I fall through the cracks…
I’m still working towards making it a real Weekly Review, because I’m convinced that I won’t dread it as much as I do now and I will be — as David calls it — Captain and Commander a lot more (i.e. being ‘on’, ‘ in flow’ or ‘in the zone’).

5. Engage /Do!

If you have defined good concrete next actionable items for your projects and arranged them into contexts, it would be a piece of cake performing them.
Unless, that is, you go numb to your own lists, like I do a lot of the time, and you resist looking at the lists altogether πŸ™‚

But if you are really flowing with all the steps you will start to experience ‘a mind like water‘, ready to respond perfectly and appropriately to every stimulus, not overreacting and not underreacting. You will be free of distraction, stress, strain; no undue energy will be spent; you will gain power, focus, flexibility, clarity and openness.

I must say am definitely feeling more in control, more focussed and more clear since I have been using GTD.

If you read all the steps it may seem like a lot of hassle to go through, but once you have set up the system, it actually frees up more time for creativity and productivity and don’t we all want that?

If you have any questions or comments regarding GTD, please leave a comment below. You can also follow me on Twitter.

Also take time to listen to the GTD virtual study group podcast by awesome host and productivity coach Tara Rodden Robinson or @ Context, an interview series with people using GTD, also by Tara Rodden Robinson. You can follow her on Twitter too.


19 thoughts on “Clear your head with GTD

  1. Hi there,

    I know the blog entry is more than 2 years old :), but I just finished reading GTD and I’ve so many questions unanswered.

    The very first step is to have an inbox… that’s understandable.
    But in the book I understand it this way, that you empty this inbox in your weekly review. Am I correct? I think that can’t be true.

    I’m at work. Now a new action comes up in my mind. Let’s say it’s tuesday and this action has to be completed at friday. My weekly review for emptying my inbox is monday.
    So as I understand that system I’d review this new action the monday in the upcoming week, which is to late for the action.

    My question is:
    How do you manage this?

    I thought about this way:
    Action: Shopping on tuesday
    Today: Monday

    I put this action in my inbox… and then?

    I’d do it this way (just my interpretation, hope that’s correct):
    – I go through all the steps (actionable -> yes, project -> no, in 2 minutes -> no)
    – Then this action is put on a list right? @Shopping as an example
    – A schedule in the calender is created for tuesday
    – ZTD-style: In the evening searching for my 3 MITs next day (this includes the shopping)

    But this weekly review bugs me a bit. It’s better to clear the inbox right when something goes in or not? Or did I completely misunderstood that chapter in the book?

    A next question is:
    How do you organize your emails? I have uncountable labels in Gmail, but everything piled up in the inbox, marked with different colored stars, all seems important, but isn’t :).
    Some emails I need as long as an shopping-order did not arrive, other emails take some time to response to -> i’ll answer to them later, some emails are very important licensing informations.
    So I want to know… How do you manage your inbox. I need to get rid of the 350 emails in my :(.

    Same questions for your folders on the PC? Any advice? I use to many subfolders and loose focus of my files. Can’t find them or I’m really surprised to find a file where I thought they didn’t exist anymore :).

    But the first question is the most important.
    In your ZTD and GTD combination article I understand this too… to put all actions into the inbox, wait for the weekly review and then assign them to the lists.

    I get many ideas at work for home as an example. I write them down in my notebook (ZTD style ;)). You know what I mean… After i wrote down a note… What am I doing? Analyse (action / project) or leave it in the inbox.

    Hope to read an answer from you and you get this question!

    Best regards,

    1. dear Frank!

      I am so very delighted to read your questions! They are all very relevant! I am very excited to try my hand at anwering them for you, since I recently moved back to working GTD-ninja style πŸ™‚ so this is all in the forefront of my mind right now and I am struggling with the weekly review too!

      I will think about it and will either answer you shortly. I will answer in the comments or even write a whole article about it!
      thanks again, this sort of magnicifent feedback on my blog is invaluable.

      best regards,
      speak to you soon,


      1. Hi Ester,

        thanks for your fast response and I’m glad my feedback was helpful.
        The thing is, that these are the most important questions, which are not answered. Not in the book GTD, nor in ZTD :), so I tried Google, found your blog and thought: “Ask someone who knows both systems.”

        Yesterday I had the same phenomen again. An action (“Waiting for a bill of an article”) that went directly to the inbox. Problem: Task have to be completed until monday. And monday evening is the weekly review. Normally I’d grab that action and move it into the list @Waiting For…

        I’m very curious about your answer how you manage this.

        Glad to hear from you,
        Best regards

      2. hi Frank!

        I did some research and found a very simple answer to your question:
        “Process and clean out your in-basket daily (like you do your answering machine)” .
        So don’t wait to organize your inbox (collection, phase 1 and then organize phase 2) till the weekly review but at least everyday!
        Weekly review is for bigger picture.

        David Allen, in: Personal Inventory Control free article from his website
        Keep posted for more GTD posts from me.

        I hope this answers your question right now

        regards Ester

      3. It answers perfectly, thank you very much Ester! πŸ™‚
        Best regards,

  2. Thank you! I was introduced to this system in its infancy a long time ago and it worked, as long as I worked it, Then I drifted off, and through a job was introduced to a system I just hated!!.. drifted again, and now am looking at GTD newly, and was looking for a way to integrate analog (pads and sharpies) and digital, laptop and iphone… I am now checking out nozbe and evernote.

    As a creative type, I want something more artistic/flexible that I can also use with my creative clients… do you think this is the application for us?

    Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. hi vivien,,

      sorry for the long time it took me to reply to you.
      I still like GTD, but I must say I’ve changed to a more simplistic view of things as proposed by Leo Babauta in : the power of less and Focus, his free manifesto.
      Here’s a link.
      I will blog about it very soon.

      warm regards,

  3. Hi Ester – great article! I’ve been “dating GTD apps” lately, looking for the perfect one – which may not exist. I just signed up recently since I’m a huge fan of Evernote and don’t know – like you – what I’d do without it! Love the Nozbe/Evernote integration … that’s what sold me!

    Here’s my questions for you:
    * What do you do with Nozbe’s Inbox? The inbox as we know is for processing and it seems like I’m forced to create a project, Next Action, or leave it in the Inbox. I created a project for my deferred actions, but wondered what you do?

    * Do you have more than one Area of Focus? If so, how do you do that in Nozbe?

    * Since there’s no real sorting default in Nozbe, do you have a method by which you sort your action items, or do you just identify which ones will be NA’s?

    Sorry so many questions … and thanks so much for any insight!!! πŸ™‚

    1. dear daniel,

      on the contrary! Your questions are a little gem to me and spurred my creativity and productivity. I just drafted a blogpost with the answers to your questions.
      Coming up…

      thanks again!!!!!


  4. Thanks so much for this post that is so “on point”. I was just about to make a flow chart, because I’m spending way to much time on the runway. I can’t believe you’ve done it for me!
    Thanks again for super charging my motivation.
    Thanks to the Monkey Minds for the link, too!

  5. Do you put all next action from e. g. the rabbit hat project into your contextual lists? If yes, doesn’t next action blur out? If no, wouldn’t productivity suffer until weekly review? A puzzle I can’t solve. Am doing daily reviews for now, which may be stressful.

    1. hi Nghi

      Thank you for your excellent question!

      I personally select one or two next actions per project for a week and sometimes I see at the end of the week that I actually naturally moved further along, that’s fine or I just did those one or two actions.
      Good luck with your productivity, if you have further questions let me know!

      best wishes

  6. Cool post Ester. I am glad you enjoy @Context.

    The only problem with my own hats is sometimes get into the discipline to wear them… they seem heavy or too big at times!


    1. hi Augusto!

      thanks for your comment. I really appreciate it!
      You should try a nice tiny bunny hat πŸ™‚

      best wishes

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