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GTD

October 17, 2022

This guide will show you how to set up Workflowy to run the GTD system. GTD or 'getting things done' is a method developed by business consultant David Allen in 2001.

Background of the GTD method

The gtd method is a system for capturing, organizing, and processing tasks. One of the key ideas promoted by the method is to capture all tasks, pieces of information, and issues as soon as possible to avoid depending on one's memory. A second key idea promoted in GTD is to break down tasks or projects into actionable steps to remove friction when deciding what to do next to advance a goal.

The popularity of the GTD system peaked around 2007 according to google search trends. However, as it was one of the first productivity methods to achieve global fame it has become a mainstay in the productivity space.

How the GTD system works

It's important for us to have a general idea of how the system is supposed to work before we attempt to implement it in Workflowy.

Let's start with a getting things done flowchart that shows the general flow of information through the system.

1. Capturing

Starting from the top of the diagram, you can see that new pieces of information start at the Inbox. Whenever you have an idea, a todo, something you want to remember, or some other piece of information that you want to remember, it goes in the inbox. Don't think about it too much, the whole point is just to capture everything and stop depending on your memory to remind you about it.

2. Clarifying

Now you'll want to review the items in your inbox. You should aim to do this daily so your items don't build up. For each item in your inbox you'll ask yourself a series of questions to help you figure out where it should go in your system.

Is it actionable?

Is it something you can do or is it more or a vague idea or a random piece of information? If it's not actionable, it could go in one of three places.

If it's a piece of information you want to keep for the future, putting it in a 'reference' section is a good idea. If it's a project that could have concrete steps but you're not going to do it anytime soon, put it in a 'Someday' section you can check from time to time. And finally, you can also just trash anything that doesn't belong in your system.

Can you complete it in a single step?

Basically, is it something that's simple enough where it'll only take a single step to complete. If it's going to take multiple steps, we'll consider it a 'Projects'. Projects can be any size not just really complicated multi-step things.

When you've decided something is a project, you'll need to figure out what the next actionable step in that project is and put it in the 'Next', 'Calendar', or 'Delegate' sections. Otherwise you run the risk of leaving it in the 'Projects' section and forgetting about it - so make sure if something is a project, you also figure out the first actionable and put it in the right place.

'Next' is like a todo list where you'll be working from daily. 'Calendar' is where you'll put items that you want to do or need to do at a future date. 'Delegate' is where you'll put things that you need someone else to do.

If you delegate an item, make sure to tag or mark it somehow so you know who is responsible for it and when you delegated it.

Will it take less than two minutes?

If it'll take longer than two minutes, then it will go in 'Next', 'Calendar', or 'Delegate'.

And finally, if you answered 'Yes' to all three questions - it's actionable, it's a single step, and it'll take less than two minutes, you do it now. Don't put if off for later, don't add it to you 'Next' list, just get it over with right now. It's not worth the effort of putting it into your system.

3. Organize

The next step is to organize your tasks. While GTD describes this as a separate activity, you'll likely be doing this at the same time as you clarify.

One thing we can do to further organize the items we've generated from the clarify step is to go through the 'Next' list and either tag items or group them by a specific context.

By that we mean grouping items based on things like when or where you can complete those tasks. For example you could group all your work tasks and your personal tasks. It doesn't make sense to have those mixed together because you won't be completing work tasks when you're at home and you won't be completing personal tasks when you're at work. So to simplify and narrow down your list of next actions, it makes sense to group them so you can complete them one after the other if the context is right.

You could also tag items based on who else needs to be present to complete them if they're part of a project for example or you're working with a client. That way you can filter items tagged with that person's name when you're with them, say in a meeting, and quickly know what to discuss or work on together.

If you put any items into the 'Calendar' or 'Delegate' sections that you didn't either give a date to or haven't figured out who to assign to - this is the time to figure that out.

4. Review

At least once a week, you should review the different sections you have in your gtd system. The point of this is to make sure the system is working correctly, make any adjustments based on your needs or any issues you might be having, and most importantly that you're actually doing the right things. Getting things done is a productivity system, but if you're not doing the right things, it doesn't matter how efficient you are at executing them.

As you review your lists, you'll likely be coming up with a lot of new items that'll go into your inbox. You should go through steps 1 - 3 after you've added all the new items so they're sorted and organized for the coming week.

Next you'll want to review your 'Calendar' for any items that might generate new items for your inbox. Make sure to check both recent past dates and upcoming dates.

You'll also review your 'Next' section to make sure you've removed or crossed off any complete items.

Review any items you've delegated and create new items to follow up with the person, call, email, or schedule a meeting if necessary. Basically, an item to remind you to check in with that person.

Next, take a look at your 'Projects' list and make sure each project you're actively working on has one item in the 'Next' section.

Finally, you'll want to review your 'Someday' section and see if there's anything in there that you want to either turn into a project or maybe get rid of altogether.

5. Engage

This is the step where you're actually completing tasks from your gtd system and what you'll be doing most of the time you're working with the method.

The way you do that is by first checking your 'Calendar' for any time / date-sensitive activities you have to do for the day. Once you're done with that, you'll move on to the 'Next' section, filter by the appropriate context and get down to business.

As you work and new items come in, you'll drop them in your inbox and clarify and organize them later, usually at the end of the day.

How to do GTD in Workflowy

Now that we've gone over how the gtd system works, we'll show you how to implement it in Workflowy. The structure itself is very simple, the most important thing is to understand the process of how items get into the system, how they're organized, and how the different lists interact with each other.

Let's start by creating a bullet to hold our system, and we'll also go ahead and add the main sections we'll need.

Now let's add a couple of items to our 'Inbox' and go through how each one would be organized.

So now we'll go through each one and mentally ask ourselves the three questions from the 'Clarifying' step.
1. Is it actionable?
2. Can you complete it in a single step?
3. Will it take less than two minutes?

We have one item that doesn't pass the first question - we have a url 'https://reallygoodemails.com/'. It is something we want to keep for the future so we'll put in in our 'Reference' section under a new section we'll name 'Useful websites'.

Next, we have a couple of items that are definitely multi-step, so let's add those under the 'Projects' section.

And lastly we have a couple of items that are going to take longer than 2 minutes.

  • Call accountant to discuss deductions
  • Change car oil

Let's put 'Call accountant to discuss deductions' in our calendar and schedule it for Monday. We'll also move 'Change car oil' to the 'Next' section.

Great, that leaves us with only one item that we should do right now and that's taking out the trash. After we've done that let's go back and do a bit of organization.

We have several items that are multi-step so let's see if we can't group those by context and then figure out what the next actions are for each one.

So we've split these projects into 'Personal' and 'Work' to make it easier to focus on the right projects depending on which context we find ourselves in.

We can now put those next actions in our 'Next' section, the 'Calendar', or the 'Delegate' section if necessary. But instead of just copying them, we'll user Workflowy's 'Live copy' feature. That lets us create a copy that will update anywhere we paste it - so we don't have to go back and update it in multiple places.

To create a live copy, you can either use the bullet menu of the item you can't to copy and select 'Mirror (Live copy)'. Now you can paste the copy into the 'Next' section. You'll notice how instead of a bullet icon for the item, we now have a diamond. That lets us know it's a live copy. If you open the bullet menu for a live copy, you'll see an option to view all the copies and where they're located.

Our 'Next' section should now look like this.

As you can see, there are now all kinds of things in our 'Next' section. Some of them are for work, some personal and some we can't really do anywhere but a grocery store or a car shop.

We can again group these by context or with tags if you prefer. An example of what that would look like with tags is this.

And if you prefer to group them, this is how that could look.

We also have one item that we need to delegate, 'Get sales figures from Matt'.  The way our 'Delegate' section work is that an item that needs to be delegated has two parts. We need an item in our 'Next' section for us to actually delegate the task. That might be writing an email, making a call, or sending physically telling someone, but we need to remember to do it.

Next we need a way to track that we've asked someone to do something so we can check up with them periodically until the task is done. So what we'll do for this item is add our task in the 'Next' section, and leave it under 'Delegate'. Once we've actually delegated it and the other person knows it's their responsibility we'll move the item from 'Delegate' and either tag it as '#waiting' or put it under a new section also called 'Waiting'.

The reason we tag or put it under a new section is so we can keep track of this that need to be delegated and those that we've already delegated and are just waiting on someone else to complete.

You should also add the date and the name of the person you delegate items to in order to keep track of when things are overdue and you might need to remind the person.

Some nitty-gritty details

Let's go over some details when using the gtd system in Workflowy.

Completing items

When completing items, you actually have three options - which you use is up to you.

  • Crossing off complete items
  • Tagging complete items, for example with
  • Nesting complete items in an archive

While crossing items off is the most straightforward way to do it, it's not the only way and not everyone likes the visual appearance of crossed of items.

The calendar section

You'll notice in our example of the calendar section, only the item that needed a date tag had one. We didn't have a complete list of all the days for the month. While you can certainly create date tags for each day, it's likely you'll still use another dedicated calendar application to keep track of events. So in this example we opted to keep things as simple as possible.

Instead, what we can do to make our calendar more useful is to create a custom starred search by:
1. Zooming into our 'Calendar' section
2. Performing a search for 'today - 14 days'
3. Starring that search

What we have now is a custom search that will always show us any items with a date tag within the date range starting from the current day and going out 14 days. As long as we're putting items into our calendar with a date tag, our custom search will let us easily stay on top of those items.

Conclusion

Setting up and using the getting things done system is not as complicated as it might first seem. There's definitely a bit of work to be done as you start using the system and getting used to the new process. However, the benefit of clearing out your mind of the million and one things fighting for your attention is well worth the time and effort of maintaining the system.

As long as you get into the habit of following the steps you'll be well on your way to success:

1. Capturing everything
2. Clarifying each item
3. Organizing items into the right section
4. Reviewing the system at least each week
5. Engaging daily

View the template to copy it and get started

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