Not-so-controversial opinion: Your brain isn’t made to store information. That’s because, when your mind is cluttered with to-dos and reminders, you have less brain power to spend on the work you actually need to do.
That’s the central principle behind the Getting Things Done (GTD) method. By moving your to-dos out of your brain—and into a to-do list tool—you have more brain power for the work that matters. Here’s how to get started.
The GTD—or Getting Things Done—method operates with the belief that the more information you’re mentally keeping track of, the less productive and focused you are. Instead of relying on your brain, the GTD methodology encourages you to store all of your work information in an external, organized source of truth. That way, you always know the answer to “What do I need to do next?” without worrying about work falling through the cracks.
GTD is an acronym that stands for Getting Things Done, a productivity method first developed by David Allen in 2001. Allen describes the GTD method in his book, "Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity."
GTD is a popular time management strategy because of how simple it is to implement and how powerful it can be in practice. Even if you aren’t aware of it, your brain is constantly “on” in the background, shuffling and rearranging your upcoming to-dos to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. Whenever you introduce a new task to the mix, your brain needs to think through everything you have on the docket and reprioritize your work relative to this new task.Read: 18 time management tips, strategies, and quick wins to get your best work done
Instead of trying to store all of your project information in your brain, the GTD method uses a five step system to capture and catalogue your to-dos into an external source, such as a work management tool. Your brain isn’t built to store large bodies of organized information—but work management tools are. By externalizing this information into actionable items, you’re better set up for long-term success.
The tools you use matter. Look for a tool that lets you capture and organize personal, project, and program-level information. The GTD method doesn’t just help you organize your personal to-dos—though it’s great for that—it can also help you capture non-actionable reference work, work that other team members need to complete, and goals related to the work you’re doing.
Instead of storing that information in different places, the GTD method helps you input and organize it into one tool such as a work management tool. Naturally, we think Asana is a good option. Asana brings the GTD method to life by organizing your work and reducing your mental strain so you can complete your high-impact work on time.Try Asana for free
The Getting Things Done method is just one time management strategy. Like all time management techniques, it has its pros and cons. The strategy you choose to implement depends largely on which skills you want to improve with time management.
The GTD system is easy to set up and flexible to use. It:
Reduces the cognitive load and mental strain that comes from trying to remember everything that’s on your plate.
Eliminates multitasking so you have more time to be in the flow.
Builds a central source for all information—even non-actionable information.
Provides a clear sense of the work on your plate so it’s easy to reprioritize or reschedule if necessary.
Before you get started with the GTD method, here are some limitations to keep in mind. The GTD method:
Takes time to set up. If you’re not already using a task management system, create one to document all of your work.
Can be too flexible. The GTD method only helps you organize your tasks—it doesn’t help you schedule your weekly or daily work. Some people struggle with this level of open-ended flexibility. If you’re one of them, pair the GTD method with another time management method, like time blocking or timeboxing.
The five steps of the Getting Things Done method set you up for success. These steps help you catalogue and organize your upcoming work in an external tool like Asana, so you’re no longer mentally keeping track of upcoming to-dos. Then, once your work is organized in the GTD method, you can start executing on tasks.
Before you can organize your work, you first need to capture it—in a place outside of your brain. David Allen calls this your Inbox—regardless of what tool you’re using. That’s because any task, piece of information, or reminder (or, as Allen likes to call it, “stuff”) goes directly into your Inbox. Think of this less as an email inbox and more as a task list of data to be processed later.
If you’re trying to improve personal productivity, consider using a to-do list to track your work. Alternatively, if you work with a team, try a work management platform to not only capture and track your own work, but to organize and manage your team’s work as well.
Don’t worry if the work you capture isn’t organized or well documented. The first step is simply getting your stuff out of your brain and into an external source. Capturing is the first step towards organizing your to-dos into a better productivity system.
Make sure you’re using a system that makes it easy to capture information. A key tenet of the GTD method is capturing information as soon as it enters your brain. That immediately lightens the load—and helps ensure nothing falls through the cracks. Where applicable, make sure to add additional context like documents, collaborators, due dates, or key details.
The best way to capture all of this stuff is to use a virtual system—not an analogue one. Written to-do lists provide the wonderfully satisfying feeling of crossing something off, but they’re also the worst way to keep track of your to-dos. In reality, a written to-do list is often disorganized, prone to mistakes, easy to lose, and ineffective.
Naturally, we recommend Asana. Asana is a work management system that organizes work so your team knows what to do, why it matters, and how to get it done.Learn more
Once you’ve captured everything, it’s time to clarify. During the Clarify step, you’re turning the information you’ve captured into actionable tasks, detailed notes, or robust context. The Clarify step and the Organize step go hand in hand—as you Clarify, you also Organize this work into the appropriate project.
To Clarify, make sure each item in your inbox has enough information, including:
An actionable title (we recommend starting with a verb).
Any context, documents, files, or collaborators that need to be looped in on the work.
The associated project initiative, to-do list, or goals the item is attached to.
Any associated context, like the stage the work is in, the associated budget, estimated working hours, or priority.
Whether or not this work is blocked by other deliverables, or waiting for additional information.
Don’t worry about moving these to-dos just yet. You’ll move to-dos from your Inbox into the appropriate project during the Organize step.
As you Clarify, add an associated priority to each item. Inevitably, things come up, deadlines shift, and priorities change. With a clear sense of every task’s priority, you can rearrange due dates if necessary so you’re always getting your highest-impact work done—and you know what to delay or delegate if needed.Read: Four ways to manage tight schedules and shifting priorities
Sometimes, quickly completing work is easier than triaging and Clarifying it:
If an item takes less than two minutes to complete, do it right away. That not only removes it from your mind—but also from your list of to-dos.
If something doesn’t fall under your responsibilities, delegate the work to the right person for the job.
You may have jotted down items that represent more than just one task. For example, imagine you got inspiration to create a new ebook, and you added a quick reminder to your Inbox. Creating an ebook takes many steps and involves many stakeholders. So during the Clarify step, break that initiative out into several, separate tasks. Create a task for “Outline ebook,” a task for “Review outline,” a task for “Draft ebook,” etc.
Alternatively, if the item you captured represents an entire project or program’s worth of information, use a project management tool to capture all of the moving pieces of that initiative. For example, if you’re working on a new product launch, use a project management tool to track the different pieces going into the launch—the engineering and product development side, the go-to-market strategy, the press release, and so on.
While you Clarify, you should also Organize. During the Organize step, move items into the appropriate projects in your work management tool. You can think of projects like virtual folders to store important, related information. By organizing and moving to-dos into their relevant projects, you turn these to-dos from notes into actionable work.Read: 11 project templates to start your work on the right track
Each time you arrive at an item in your Inbox—after you’ve Clarified and added any additional context—move it out of your Inbox and into the appropriate project. If you haven’t already, set up projects to house your various initiatives. We recommend:
A project for all of your actionable work, sorted by priority
A project for notes or reference materials
A project or tool to track personal and team goals
A project for initiatives you don’t have time for but want to revisit in the future
A project or section for blocked work
A team project for shared information and meeting agendas
Organizing is a critical part of the GTD method—but the exact organizational system you set up is up to you. In Asana, everything that’s assigned to you automatically goes into your My Tasks. This is a view of all of the work you need to complete. You can create additional sections in your My Tasks to organize high-priority work that’s due today, work that’s due this week, and longer-term work.
We’ve all saved to-dos as “unreads” in our inbox to get back to later. But these things take up mental space and aren’t actually productive. Instead, turn each to-do into an actionable task—and immediately move it into the appropriate project.
At the end of the Clarify and Organize steps, your Inbox should be empty. Everything should have been moved to the appropriate project or working doc so that the next time you check your Inbox, you’re triaging brand new tasks.
The GTD method isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it method. Instead, you need to frequently review your tasks and reprioritize if necessary. That’s why it’s critical to understand the priority of each task. If new tasks are higher priority than older work, understanding each task’s relative priority helps you reschedule your work and easily juggle shifting priorities.
The Reflect step can be a slippery slope—the last thing you want is to constantly be checking your Inbox, since that cuts into potential focus time.
We recommend Reflecting twice a day—at the beginning and end of each day. Make Reflecting part of your morning ritual, then triage again at the end of the day so you’re more organized for tomorrow. That way, you approach each day clear-headed, without feeling like you need to check your to-do list and reorganize your daily calendar. Remember: the GTD method is designed to lighten the mental load, so make sure you aren’t Reflecting too often, because that defeats the purpose.
Then, do a more thorough weekly review of the work you completed in the past few days and the tasks that are upcoming next week. Ensure nothing has fallen through the cracks, and clarify priorities if necessary so you start the next week ready to go.
The Engage step is where you get the bulk of your work done within the GTD method. You’ve cleared your mind and organized everything you need to do. Now all that’s left is to, well, get things done.
There are no strict rules or guidelines for what to do when. If you prefer this sort of structure, pair the GTD method with other time management techniques, like the Pomodoro method.
If you aren’t sure where to get started, run through the four Engagement considerations before getting started. Then, select the task that’s most appropriate for your current situation.
Priority: Which tasks are the highest priority? What do you absolutely have to get done today?
Context: Similar to the way our brains can’t multitask, it’s also best to do similar tasks at the same time. This is the methodology behind time blocking. Getting all of your emails done at once—rather than switching between tasks, email, and back—helps you get things done faster, because your brain is already in that context. If you’re thinking about what to do next, try doing all similar work in a time block.
Time available: How much time do you have right now? Ideally, select tasks you can do in the time you have available, so you don’t have to stop halfway through.
Energy available: How are you feeling? It’s important to consider not only your theoretical capacity, but your actual capacity. Maybe you’re really not feeling up to writing that blog you need to do. You could force yourself to do it, but it would take double the time as usual. Instead, see if you can do something else—maybe something slightly lower priority—to get you in the spirit and get your energy up.
The Getting Things Done method is an easy to implement, flexible method that reduces the strain on your brain and helps you get higher-impact work done. Although this method requires up-front effort, it’ll become second nature with time and practice.