A Beginners Guide to GTD Step by Step

Getting Things Done as mentioned before has had a huge impact on this website and is the book that showed me how reading can change your life. GTD can be an intimidating system, but you can alter it to your needs. You can make it super complex and detailed, or you can take a more laid back approach. As long as you review the system and trust it, it will work for you. Using Getting Things Done can improve all aspects of your life especially your time management and to not miss important financial reminders or goals. There are 5 steps of GTD and they are listed below

  1. Capture
  2. Clarify
  3. Organize
  4. Reflect
  5. Engage

Here is a link that goes into more detail on all of the steps on the Getting Things Done website. We will cover each stage each stage in this article, but let’s start with the first, most life changing stage, capture.

STEP NUMBER 1- CAPTURE

Capture…everything!

The one thing about capturing is that anyone can do it. There is no barrier to entry. You don’t have to learn a new skill or buy an expensive tool or system. If you have a pen and paper, you are good to go! Your tool might be different than ours or someone else’s, but as long as you can do it quickly and know that you can go back to it, that is pretty much the extent of the capture phase.

One of the best benefits of capturing is that it frees your mind up from remembering all of the ideas and loose ends that it has. Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them as David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done always says.  If you have a thought twice, you’re wasting time and mental energy that could be used on better things or improving your creativity. Your mind does not do a good job remembering things even if you think it does. It causes you more stress and blocks your brain from being free to think of new, different, and creative ideas.

David Allen talks about a “Mind Like Water” state. When you trust in your system, waves and ripples will come through (distractions and obstacles), but your system will get you back to a calm, still, peaceful state. Capturing is the foundation that builds trust in your system.

So how do you capture? Or a better question is how do you start the habit of capturing? For me, this used to be a struggle. I did not want to write things down, because that meant I had more things to do! If I kept it in my head, surely I would remember exactly what I was thinking at that moment hours later. Obviously that was the not the case. I had phases were I was really good with writing down everything on my mind to be reviewed later, but then I would fall back into only capturing the “important” items I did not want to forget. I always felt better when I captured everything and for me preferred using digital tools instead of traditional pen and paper.

I used to use an app called DGT GTD for Android that allowed me to make a shortcut straight to my inbox so it was very easy to add and review tasks I wrote down. I have since switched to Informant which is available for both IOS and Android because I liked the calendar and task integration it has. On my Android and IOS devices, I have Informant front and center so it is the first thing I see when I open my devices. This helps distractions from popping up, because as we all have experienced before, you unlock your phone and know what you want to do, but then something pops up or you remember something else you need to do, and then all of sudden you don’t know why you went on your phone in the first place.

Another great idea even if you are efficient in capturing is do a brain dump every now and then. Basically you sit down with a pen and paper or your digital tool and give yourself let’s say 10-15 minutes and you write down everything that is on your mind. Any tasks you need or want to do, any open items you need to finish or find a next action, random thoughts, all of that gets written down. You will be shocked at how much your mind is actually trying to remember and even if you do not act on everything you write down, you will have a much clearer mind. This is the supercharged way to capture!

Free up your mind to focus on what is most important to you.

Hopefully this gave you some good reasons and ideas to start capturing and writing everything down. Don’t let your mind be your notebook. As we learned above that is not what it is for nor what it is good at. The 2 biggest reasons to start capturing today is to have a clearer mind so you can focus on more important, high level tasks instead of the mundane day to day tasks. Lastly, and maybe the most important reason is so that you are less stressed. Instead of trying to constantly remember the same thing, writing things down gives you the peace of mind that you can come back and review whatever your thought was before at a time when it is convenient for you.

STEP NUMBER 2- CLARIFY

We learned that the first step of GTD is to collect all of the thoughts you have in your mind. We do this to free up our mental energy to boost our creativity and focus on higher level tasks. What do you do with all of your thoughts now that they are written down? This is where step 2 of the GTD system comes in. We need to clarify what we captured and decide what we are going to do now with those items.

The next step is to untangle and make sense of all your thoughts you have written down.

Next Actions and Projects-

Top users of GTD know that the key to any successful GTD system is that you trust your system. You might not follow it exactly the way David Allen suggests, or the way we suggest, but that doesn’t matter as long as you know how your system works and that if you put something in it, you will be able to act on it and locate it later on. When we make a to do list, one of the problems is what we capture is vague. You might capture- organize email, buy new cell phone, learn new language, or change oil in car. These are all to dos that need more clarity. In their current state they are not clear or defined which can lead to resistance doing them. They need a next action. When you start to understand just how powerful next actions are, you will wonder how you got anything done before! A next action sounds exactly like what it is. It is the thing you need to do get the project moving forward. A project is anything that requires more than one step. If you only have one step than guess what? That is a next action!

Let’s look at our some of our examples above.

Organize email- Doesn’t everyone want to do this? You have 100s (hopefully not thousands!) of emails in your inbox. How do you want to organize your email though? Do you just want to clear out some of your inbox? Do you want to make new folders? Do you want to change or delete your folders? Do you want to unsubscribe to some emails? You get the point. There a lot of different ways to organize your email. Maybe you want to do all of those things. If that’s the case you might want to make sure your folders are set up properly so you can then process your inbox.

Buying a new cell phone- You may want to switch to a different carrier, maybe a different operating system, or maybe you want to go to a bigger or smaller size phone. There is a lot to possibly consider. Even if you are not making any major changes and you are just upgrading, there are still things you need to do to make buying the cell phone actually happen. You might want to research new features, call the store to get your pre-order in, or look online for a good used phone.

Learn a New Language-  This seems to be a passing goal for most people that they never do. Why? Because there is no clear starting point to it! It seems like a daunting, huge task when it is phrased like that. If it were broken down into clear next actions, we might have more people speaking duel languages. A simple next action might be look online for different courses and pick 3 to try.

Change Oil in Car- This one could be pretty straightforward, but a next action could be- get number to call and set up an appointment. Or if you do it yourself- look at calendar and schedule time to change the oil.

This is a great visual chart that walks you through the GTD workflow. Your “stuff” is all of the ideas and thoughts you have written down already.

I will personally admit that I am not the best with projects and adding next actions. I still keep thoughts in my head when I really should write it down and turn it into a project. I am lazy though and will make a task and then add notes in the tasks as my next actions. I can do better, but this works for me and I trust my system. If I have something on my tasks lists for a few weeks and it is not moving forward, I have to ask myself, what do I need to do to move this forward? If I can’t think of anything or I keep putting it off, maybe it isn’t a priority right now and I would want to put it on a someday/maybe list.

Don’t feel like you have to do everything on your list. Focus on what is most important and what will make the most difference. Ideally you should enjoy it as well. You will accomplish more on your adventure if you do.

Just like with setting goals, your tasks need to have a clear plan to get them completed. Finding out what the next actions are for your projects will help you not get stuck in endless list making. Using step 1 you have captured everything. In step 2 we have clarified if something is a project and what the next actions are to move it forward. In step 3 we are actually going to organize these tasks and projects.

STEP NUMBER 3- ORGANIZE

You captured all of your loose thoughts and actions and wrote them down, you organized them and defined what to do next, now we will look at how to organize all of those items into a trusted system that you can take action on! This is a key part of the GTD process and really is the turning point for fully buying into the GTD system. You aren’t just writing things done and deciding what to do next now, you are building a system that you will use for the rest of your life… no pressure.

Pick a system–This honestly might be the hardest part of the whole GTD process for two reasons. One, you might not fully know what “trust” looks like yet especially if you haven’t been good with managing lists before. Secondly, it’s really hard to pick a good system when there are so many great options out there. It’s easy to get distracted by wanting to try out a new one versus sticking with the one you currently have. There is nothing wrong with trying a few different systems (especially in the beginning), but you need to have some clear definitions of what you want the system to do for you. For us, Informant fits that bill and here is why. This is just speaking for our needs and what trust looked like for us.

The Matrix is a complicated system, make sure yours makes sense for you.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
  1. Calendar/tasks view- This was critical as it was great to see everything that was needed to be done in a day or upcoming days. Your tasks lists and calendar are basically the two main tools for a successful GTD system. While any calendar should really function and serve its purpose (as long as you can see different views and stick to the rule that when you put something on the calendar it gets done no matter what), the task manager is where tweaking can come in. Informant still fit the bill for us which leads us into point two.
  2. The task manager is very powerful- Initially we synced with Toodledo which is another great website/app that is very GTD friendly and has many good features. Even though you may have a main to do list, part of using GTD is to have many lists based on different contexts, actions, energy levels, etc. Informant allowed us to do this and then some by making “smart lists” with even more criteria. For example we could make a list that was personal (not work related) with a context of being home. Other apps can do this too, but Informant was very easy to set up and is multi-platform as well. Even though the IOS versions are significantly more updated than the Android app, the Android app still functions well enough and updates to it are in the works.

Those were the two big reasons for us choosing our system and hopefully you can see that getting to trust your system might mean something different for you. Maybe you want a powerful calendar app and don’t mind having a separate task manager app. Maybe it’s the opposite. Our biggest advice is to not feel stuck using an app that you don’t enjoy using or does not make it easy to complete/view your tasks. At the same time we do not recommend constantly trying out new apps just to improve on one or two features unless the one you are using is very much lacking and that is a main strength of the new service. The reason we say this is because with many things in life, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Constantly switching apps can also stop you from actually getting work done. It takes time to move your tasks over, learn a new system, and get into a new flow. If your app/service is mostly working good, but is getting stale, look at some ways you can make it feel like new again or change some settings to see if it will work better for you.


Photo by Omid Kashmari on Unsplash

Contexts, folders, and action lists- Picking the right system/app/service/paper method is crucial to keeping you from falling off the wagon. The next step is how you organize your tasks and follow GTD principles. To start you should have contexts, folders, and action lists. Let’s take a closer look at each one.

Contexts- This was a game changer for us thinking about our tasks and when we can actually do them. If you have to fix something at home, but you are away on a business trip, well there is no point really looking at that task since you are not at home to do it. If you have to do some research or reading though, then a business trip might be the perfect time to do that. Contexts allow you to quickly see what you can do given where you are. While the internet has eliminated some contexts, there are many relevant ones that you can still use.

Folders- I don’t want to start a debate here, but some people despise folders. Other people swear by them. Tags have become all the rage and folders are outdated. Whatever your stance might be, use one or both, but have a plan! We personally use both. We use folders to separate work and personal. We use tags to identify our areas of focus. If the task takes a lot of willpower or low willpower, add a few other miscellaneous tags to help categorize. We don’t care how you set up your system, but part of the GTD system is being able to pull up your different lists quickly and efficiently. As long as you can do that then you are good to go!

Photo by STIL on Unsplash

Photo by STIL on Unsplash

Writing and capturing everything in your head might be a hard habit to change, but is actually very simple to do. Deciding what to do next with a task and creating next actions can be tricky at first, but once you get into a rhythm and really get good at asking yourself “what is the next thing I need to do to move this forward”, this part of the process becomes easier too. We don’t want to say organizing is the hardest part of the process, but it definitely is the one where you can get the most lost and waste time. You can spend a lot of time organizing and not actually doing. Don’t be embarrassed or ashamed if you don’t get it right away. Heck it took us years of tweaking (and still tweaking) to get our systems where we wanted it to be. You can always do better, but sometimes good is good enough. Your tasks lists should attract you not repel you. If you can get to that point, missing features and all, than you are on the right track!

STEP NUMBER 4- REVIEW

Capturing is a fun step of Getting Things Done. The next two steps, clarifying and organizing can be stressful because they force you to make decisions and determine next actions. Step 4 which is reviewing, can go either way. The fun part of it is when you are done, it really is freeing knowing your system is clean and current. It’s like how your body feels after a workout, tired, but with an energy boost and a feeling of accomplishment. To take the workout analogy further, doing a review is also like the resistance you feel going to work out. It’s very easy to not do it even though you know it is the right thing to do. This is easily the step that most people either stop doing the GTD system entirely or even seasoned GTDers will skip. Just like working out when you do not want to though, doing the review (preferably weekly) will reap you a peace of mind and clarity you might have ever experienced.

What is the Weekly Review?- This is the oil that keeps the engine running for a GTD system. If you take away this part, you will have huge lists with no direction or update to see what is the most important thing to be working on and also what your high level tasks/goals are. Consistently doing the review process (again weekly is best and most recommended, but as needed is okay as well) will make sure that your tasks and lists are ready to take action on. When you have 15 minutes before you go somewhere and want to get something done quick, having your system ready to be able to give you something productive to do in that 15 minutes is priceless. The review process is basically looking at your inbox, lists, tasks, next actions, someday/maybe lists, goals, calendar, and overall system. You may not get to everything every review, but as long as you keep your inbox clean, know what is coming on your calendar, and have your next action list updated, you will be off to a great start.


Photo by David Travis on Unsplash

How to Overcome Resistance- Doing the weekly review is tough. It is a lifelong habit that needs to be built that completely changes the way you process and view your time and attention. To find the time and energy to do it can be tricky. It is mentally exhausting to go through all of the things you wrote down, decide on what needs to be done, and plan out your next week/month. Below are some suggestions to build a successful weekly review habit.

  1. Make sure that you will not be interrupted or be interrupted as little as possible. This is something that needs your full attention to process everything and be effective.
  2. Pick a time/day each week and stick to it. Some like to do it Sunday to start the week. Others like to do it Friday to review and end the week. Either way is fine just as long as you feel comfortable doing it and are actually doing it!
  3. Try to prepare ahead of time- You don’t necessarily need to start having two weekly review sessions, but maybe have your main review and a secondary mini review another day of the week. You could go through your inbox or glance at your system to see if there is anything you can do ahead of time to process or complete.
  4. Make it fun!- Now this is a straight habit trick, but treat yourself to something or go out to eat, whatever you enjoy to make the weekly review something to look forward to. This way instead of dread and resistance showing up, you will actually want to do the weekly review because you are getting something tangible and rewarding back.

Mental Benefits- When you captured everything you probably felt in your head a clarity you might not have felt before. The weekly review helps bring even greater mental clarity. If we were to sum up why the weekly review is so important, we would say that it gives you a peace and calm knowing that everything in your life is accounted for and creates the space to think big and long term. When you only deal with “runway” tasks or fire drills, your brain never has a chance to breathe and relax. It is always going onto the next task.

Everyone’s review will look different. The time, the day, how long it takes, how in depth you go just to name a few. The three things that everyone should do in a weekly review though is

  1. Clear your inboxes.
  2. Review your upcoming calendar for the week/month and longer if needed.
  3. Review your next actions and other important lists. If you are using a task management system, this might look like your folders/tags/contexts.

This is one of the most rewarding steps of doing GTD, but it is also the hardest to keep up. If you can build this consistent  habit though, you will reap the benefits of a clear mind and a smooth running GTD system.

STEP NUMBER 5- DO

This is the most rewarding, fun, awesome, exciting, scary, procrastinated, life changing step of the GTD process. How can it be so many things all wrapped up into one? This is where all your pre-work comes into action. You actually have to DO what you captured, organized, and clarified. It should be very easy since everything is clear now, but, and this is a big but, you will actively resist doing your lists. Why is this? Let’s look at some reasons.

You are Scared of Success- Wait what?! You might be thinking that makes no sense, but we would venture to say that success is scary because you start asking yourself what if questions and think of what if scenarios. What if this works like I intended? What if this creates more work? What if I have to do something now I don’t want to do? What if I have do something I have never done before? What if completing this one next action leads to many more next actions? Sorry for all of the examples, but when you start to really look at the reasons you don’t take action, it might be because you are afraid of what might happen next. Let’s say you have a big project or opportunity that you know if you complete will bring you recognition and help your company out. You are familiar with the project and what is required of it, but maybe there are a few things that you are not experienced in. Will you let those few things hold you back? You know if you do this project great things will come out of it, but even though you have next actions and a deadline defined, you still resist doing the work.

Photo by Tertia van Rensburg on Unsplash

Resistance- This goes hand in hand with the above point, but there is something that is always trying to pull you away from what is the most important thing to be doing. One of the most rewarding parts of the GTD system is that you are basically trying to fight off resistance as much as you can. When you eliminate distractions and start utilizing your pockets of time and contexts better, things should be easier for you to get started on. Resistance tells you if it is not perfect there is no way you can ship something or move a project forward. What your mindset should be is, here is what I need/want to do, am I making forward progress? Any progress forward is positive.

What Does Doing Look Like in GTD? This probably has a different meaning for different individuals, but we would say reviewing your next action lists, contexts, and folders (work & personal for example) is the best start. You created this whole system, why not put it to good use? A lot of times if you are stressed or keep putting off a project/task, it probably means your next action is not properly defined. For instance “Plan Trip” is not a good next action. What does it mean? What do you actually need to do? Here are some sample next actions to help you get started doing.

  • Look at schedule for available dates 
  • Contact family to see if those dates work with them
  • Build draft budget for trip to manage expenses
  • Research online for airfare rates
  • Research online for hotel rates

These are just some ideas to get your mind going. If it isn’t clear, you will resist and not want to do your task.

Doing Will Change Your Life- Too often we stay stagnant and are afraid of change. When you have everything set in a GTD system you can be sure of two things. 1, you will probably be doing things you have never done before because all of the easy tasks will get done and 2, you will always know that there is something for you to do. This can be scary and stressful because the easy wins/projects you had before may be gone in a few months or year of using GTD which means you will now be working on things that are not urgent and don’t feel as important as before, but are probably even more important. Having the feeling of always knowing there is something to be done in an organized way, not a fire to put out, is a different kind of feeling. The way most people operate is they wait until something external forces them to take action and then they get “focused” and complete the task. This is great for short term gain and excitement, but terrible for long term success. This approach to working mostly focuses on shallow tasks. It doesn’t maximize your time and resources. When you have done the first 4 steps of GTD and you make it here, after awhile, you have the time and knowledge you need to work on bigger tasks that might be off in your future, but you now are thinking of them. Where do I want to be in 5 years? How I am spending my time? Can I start saving for retirement? We could give countless examples.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Once you really “get” GTD and your system is up and running, after awhile those fire drill tasks go away. After awhile you start to think long term vs short term. After awhile you may look at your list with low energy, but still move a project forward because there is something easy for you to do. That is the true power of GTD. It is forcing you to think big and plan ahead. To not let anything fall through the cracks. To be on top of everything going on in your life. You will make mistakes. You will fall off of the wagon, but it is a journey of continuous learning and improvement. It makes change easier because you can plan and prepare for it. GTD has changed our lives over here because we learned what is important. We received piece of mind from taking our mind out of remembering tasks so it could focus and process bigger ideas/concepts. We hope it will do the same for you!

One comment

  1. I really liked this summary overview. I have been using the GTD principles for a while and this was a good review for me. I will go back and tweak a couple of things.

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