The 5 step process of GTD is aimed at forcing you to handle the inputs in your life in a consistent manner according to the Key Principles of GTD so that you keep on top of things at all times. Sure, the occasional genuine emergency will rock your world from time to time but, if you are a GTD practitioner, you will find it a fairly straight forward activity to then get yourself back to a stable state and avoid creating your own ongoing crises.
The easiest way to explain the 5 steps is to use a process flow chart:
You can download an Adobe pdf version of this graphic here.
The 5 Steps detailed above are from the original edition of David Allen’s GTD book and, by way of note, David Allen has updated his terminology slightly in the second edition. The basic principles of the steps remain the same however and so I will make use of the original terminology in this article.
Let’s deal with the 5 Steps one at a time.
- We all have numerous inputs in our lives at any given time. The first step asks you to Collect all of these into as few inboxes as you possibly can.
- Your emails already do this, they self-collect in your email inbox without any further attention being necessary.
- Voicemails also self-collect.
- And no doubt you have an intray on your desk at work that people put envelopes, forms, paper notes etc into on a regular basis.
- But look around you, what else is there?
- Do you have a pile of papers across the office on that one desk? What are they doing there? Is there perhaps something you need to do about them? Perhaps there’s a Project or Next Action that could be associated with them? Are they just reference material? Do they need to be in your face, catching your attention every time you walk past them? If not, file them or, if possible, consider ditching what you can.
- So, go grab that pile of papers and, quite literally, put it into your intray.
- Are there any other loose sheets that are hanging around your office?
- Any sitting in your desk drawers that you are not really dealing with?
- Any in your briefcase or backpack that are being carried around without anything actually happening to them?
- Do you have a few more sitting in your car’s glove box? On the back seat? In the boot / trunk?
- Go get them. Put them all into ‘in’ (your intray).
- Do you have some or other gadget like an old dictaphone lying in your office drawers? Dig it out, put it into ‘in’.
- Do you have a reading stack of books or magazines, journals or photocopies articles? Pick them up and put into ‘in’.
- Run out of space in ‘in’ yet? Probably.
- Keep going until you have ‘Collected’ everything in your life that you have some or other commitment to that is not on cruise control and get it into ‘in’.
- At this stage you are already going to feel like you are making a difference.
- The very act of decluttering our living or workspaces can have a dramatic effect on our sense of control and overwhelm.
- When you first start GTD you will find that the Collect step may take quite a while. You can hit the immediate surrounds of your office quite quickly. But, over the next week or two you will no doubt continue to uncover new piles of paper, new drawers or cabinets you originally didn’t think to look in etc. You will likely be collecting for quite a while!
- And at some point you will need to put an intray at home and start the whole process there too.
- The point of all this is that if you leave things lying around, to which you have some form of commitment to and you don’t decide what they mean and what you need to do about them, then they will remain as open loops in your life. They will stay open and unresolved and at least a small part of your brain will be trying to hold on to them just in case something needs to be done about them.
- Your job when Collecting is to ensure that, over time, you Collect EVERYTHING … and get it at some stage into ‘in’.
- Of course, you have not yet started to Process these items. You are only Collecting for now.
- David Allen uses the word ‘STUFF’ to generically refer to all of your inputs.
- And things remain as ‘Stuff’ in ‘in’ until such time as you decide what to do with them.
- Once you are up and running with GTD you will find that the Collect step is something that happens on an ongoing basis. For instance, you come back from a meeting with a page of hand written notes in a pad of paper. There are actions that need to be generated from those notes. So, when you get to your office, you tear out the sheets for that meeting and pop them into ‘in’. Some time later that day or the next, when you next decide to Process, you will go through those notes and extract any new Projects and Next Actions.
- Or do you perhaps make meeting notes electronically such as in a notes app? As an example, in my case, I use Evernote on an iPad to make notes in meetings. If anything catches my eye during the meeting as requiring action, I will use the ‘checkbox’ feature in Evernote to indicate this. When I did paper notes I used to put an asterisk next to any item requiring action. I then have a Next Action on my GTD list that is set to automatically recur every two days that asks me to go check Evernote for Next Actions. These I then quickly transfer to my GTD list. In this way, I can ensure that my list is up to date with all new actions coming into my life.
- In the early stages of implementing GTD I used a small paper notebook that I always kept handy, it went with me to the office, was back home of an evening. Whenever I remembered some new item of Stuff that needed capturing I would make a note of it on the paper pad. Then, when I got to the office each morning I would pop those pages into my intray for whenever I next did a Process step to decide what they all mean. In this manner I would slowly but surely get everything off my mind and onto my list. You just need to keep with it. Just when you think you think you have 100% of Stuff Collected, you will find a few more items. It goes like this for maybe 2-3 weeks I found then settles down and your brain starts to feel a lot clearer.
Process & Organise
- I will handle steps 2 and 3 together since they are, in essence, interlinked.
- Process is the step in which you take Stuff out of ‘in’, one at a time, look at them, decide what they mean, decide if there is perhaps a Project that has just come into your life and decide what the single Next Action about that item is.
- You then Organise the results of your thinking into your To-Do List system. For now I will assume you will make use of some sort of software package but you can manage a GTD system also with paper. It just scales so much better with software!
- And remember the ‘2 minute rule’ explained under the Key Principles (Principle 3) … there is no need to record a Next Action for an activity that you can carry out in less than two minutes when you first think of it. (Note, you may still need to create a new Project associated with that Next Action or you may need to add a Next Action that allows you to track the response to it.)
- In Processing your Stuff, make sure that you do indeed think it through enough so that it gets off your mind. How much is enough to get it off your mind? Well do the next couple of checks and you should be fine.
- Once you’ve written the ‘Desired Outcome’ down as your Project title, stop for a moment and read it over. Are you happy in your gut that those words correctly capture the Outcome you need to achieve. This is a crucial step. Do not skip it. If you are happy in your logical mind and your instinct-driven gut that those words capture what you need to ultimately achieve, then you will find that your brain will let it go. It will treat it as ‘thinking complete’ and will not try and further process it at 3.00 a.m. tomorrow morning when you’re trying to sleep.
- Then check your Next Action and do a similar check.
- Only if you can honestly say that both your logical mind and your gut are happy with the wording, will your brain let it go and allow you to free up some much needed mental capacity.
- The trick with Processing is to decide how much time you have available and to then spend that time just Processing. So if you sit down first thing each morning to look at your emails, now consider yourself to instead be ‘Processing your emails’. You must work at the Process step until ‘in’ is at zero.
- Obviously when you first start it can be tough to find enough continuous time to Process everything but, over the next few days you will likely manage enough collective time to do just that.
- Some people make a point of coming in on a weekend in order to properly conduct their first Process step but I recall in my own case I managed to just slot it in between everything else over a two week period.
- It’s also important though that, while you catch up with the back log of Stuff in your life that you also make a point of Processing all new inputs as you go. Do not Process all your old Stuff but go back to old habits with your new Stuff.
- What some people do in the implementation phase of GTD is to create a new email folder called ‘Old Emails’ and drag every single one of their emails that arrived up until a couple days ago into that folder.
- They then handle the last couple days of emails, process those to zero, Organise the Projects and Next Actions on their To-Do List and, as time allows, go back to their old emails and Process these too.
- The important point here is that you want to get ‘in’ to zero as soon as you can so you can experience the relief that it brings. I cannot stress enough the importance of getting ‘in’ to zero. It has a value all in itself of telling your mind that you have handled every input. Leave a bunch of emails, even one, in your inbox and your mind doesn’t fully let go.
- And another point, remember you can store emails in folders in your email software. I mentioned this above but repeat it here because, whenever I have explained GTD to people, they often come away with the impression I told them to delete all their emails! This is not the case, store as many as you feel you need to in folders in your email software.
- The review step is when you make your decisions about which Next Actions to get on with next.
- If you are using software to capture your Projects and Next Actions, then hopefully your software allows you to not just enter them but also to produce a filtered list. The one I use most often
is a filter to show me only the Next Actions that I have planned for today. I refer to this as my daily To-Do List. It get’s updated all the time as I add, tick off and move Next Actions around.If I look at my current data file for my To-Do List software I will find a couple hundred Projects on the go and likely a few hundred associated Next Actions. There is simply no way I want to page down the screen trying to find Next Actions with today’s date and so, the ability to create a filtered list is quite important.
- In the discussion that follows, I am working off the assumption that you are looking at a list of only what you need to get done today.
- Now, a lot of this is probably personal preference but there are some tips to making this more effective that you may want to consider.
- In my own system I have a habit of highlighting a Next Action yellow when I first create it if I know that it is what’s called ‘day-specific’. If for instance I have a Next Action to call a friend before he flies off on an overseas trip to wish him good luck, and I know he flies Friday evening, I will create the Next Action in my list, assign it a date for that Friday but highlight it yellow in order to remind me that if I don’t do it on the day I have selected, there is little point doing it the day there after.
- The yellow Next Actions tend to jump out at me when I first look at my list in the morning.
- I also tend to highlight Next Actions yellow when I know they are connected to an imminent fixed deadline. So perhaps I have to get a report finished by Friday and I add a Next Action to develop the broad design of the contents page on Monday. I will still highlight it yellow, even though the deadline is 4 days later. It simply focuses my mind on the task as being something that I really have to get busy with on Monday because the deadline is coming soon.
- All the other tasks though I treat as though they should be done today but, if I can’t get around to them then it’s not going to create a huge problem. If I find a Next Action that will create a problem if not done today, then I simply highlight it yellow on the day.
- As I said, personal preference drives most people’s approach to then tackling their Next Actions but some of the principles to consider include:
- Tackling the day-specific Next Actions first so you are sure they are taken care of.
- Sometimes this is not possible as you can only do the Next Action when you meet someone later that afternoon but, where you can, it makes sense to do the day-specific items first.
- Choose to do something early on that you feel you will enjoy the least. Be careful not to scan your Next Actions for something that is nice to do and then avoid all the important Next Actions that you don’t really look forward to doing. I’ve heard people call this ‘kissing the frog’, get the Next Actions you are least motivated to do out the way as soon as you can!
- If you know you are most creative earlier in the day, pick something requiring original thought and do that first.
- If you have a Next Action that is perhaps much larger than the others, tackle that first as it will take the most out of you energy-wise. So don’t wait until the 3.00 pm afternoon slump to try tackling it, you simply won’t have the energy.
- You also need to consider what David Allen refers to as the ‘Context’ of the Next Action. If you have a Next Action that can only be done in the office, like printing a large document or collecting a set of brochures ahead of a trip, then clearly you can’t do those at 7.30 in the morning when you’re doing some catch up work at home. So the Context often limits the choice of what you can do at any given moment.
- And obviously you need to consider how much time you have available. It may simply not make sense to start a one hour Next Action while you wait for 5 minutes between meetings. But a 3 minute Next Action such as a phone call may make perfect sense to quickly try and do in between the meetings.
- Finally, you need to consider how much energy you actually have available right now. I often try to leave the lowest energy Next Actions on my list for the late afternoon so that when I get to that time, it is possible for me to still be productive.
- Tackling the day-specific Next Actions first so you are sure they are taken care of.
- A tip for you though when reviewing what to do: Just as the advice with Processing your email is to not scan down the list looking for what you should address first (it simply increases stress and makes you inefficient), you should approach your To-Do List for today in the same way. Once you’ve reviewed the whole thing to sort out anything that needs doing first or to trim it to match it to the available time for that day, try to pick the tasks off by just going down the list, not scanning for items. Try both ways and see which works best for you. There is something quite satisfying in terms of how much control you feel you have to going through them in order. ‘Do it’ and you’ll ‘get it’!
- This step is probably the easiest to understand, just get busy with your selected Next Action!
Making the 5 Step Process Part of Your Every Day Workflow Management
- Hopefully the above 5 steps are now clear to you and you can see how conducting them, as explained, will ensure that you are working according to the Key Principles and that this is how you remove the general lack of control and feeling of overwhelm that is such a familiar part of our modern workplace practise. You owe it to yourself to experience the sense of relaxed control that GTD can give you.
- I mentioned in another article that GTD does not require you to do anything majorly different to what you are already doing and, hopefully, you can now see what I meant by that statement.
- Up to now you have probably been opening emails, deciding what they mean, deciding what to do and then carrying out the associated Next Action. i.e you conduct the 5 steps all on one item of Stuff. Then you move to the next item of Stuff and repeat the 5 steps.
- Except, with GTD, you Collect your whole world of Stuff and Process them one by one without necessarily doing any of the Next Actions (2 minute rule aside).
- As long as you do the 5 steps faithfully and don’t return to your old habits of doing all 5 steps on one item of Stuff at a time or scanning your emails instead of just processing them, you will feel the weight of overwhelm lift and you will feel that sense of control that has perhaps long been missing from life.
- In my own experience, I found myself often going back to the old habits in the early days and it probably took me a couple months before I found I was settled in a new set of habits.
- At the time of writing this article, I have been using GTD for just over 5 years and have operated off inbox zero ever since. It seriously does not take me any more time than others spend on their emails etc and I do not experience an overhead associated with running GTD. Sure, it requires discipline of me but the pay back in terms of a settled mind are simply priceless.
- I sometimes battle with the email archiving as I am keen to get things done rather than drag yet another email off to a storage folder but, if I am honest with myself, the benefit of having properly dealt with every new input in this way far outweighs the associated schlepp factor that occasionally creeps in. It will take me time later to store that email so I might as well do it now!
- And finally, any description on the GTD process would not be complete without talking about the ‘Weekly Review’. This is a once a week catch-up that ensures you tidy things up and avoid things slipping through the cracks. My first ever Weekly Review was done after about 4 weeks from having started to implement GTD. It just didn’t make sense to me to do this before hand as I was still busy building up my list and getting things off my mind. It took me about 4 hours and it was unbelievable how much Stuff I continued to uncover. But each week you do it you will find it getting shorter and shorter. I have now settled at about an hour, once a week. I more fully describe the Weekly Review as Principle #7, so please go read it.
- GTD is a workflow management methodology that asks you to conduct a 5 step process that helps you implement the Key Principles of GTD. These help you keep things out of your head, make quick decisions on the front end as you receive new inputs and ensure that you have a current, complete and up to date account of all your commitments in life, personal or professional, big or small. The pay backs in terms of stress relief, low levels of procrastination and high levels of personal productivity are significant and need to be experienced to be fully appreciated.
- I often say to people when I discuss GTD that they should not allow their thought processes to come to a conclusion about the usefulness of the system but to rather experience it before reaching a conclusion. It’s easy to think your way out of doing something, especially when you are already feeling overwhelmed. But GTD is one of those things that needs to be experienced before you really ‘get it’.
- I also strongly advise people not to change the above 5 steps until they have managed to realise the benefits of GTD. Until you achieve the benefits you won’t have a feedback loop in place that tells you you’ve just compromised one of the Key Principles. You will suddenly find the system isn’t working and will blame the system. If you have realised the benefits and want to start tweaking things, you will very quickly realise that you have improved or degraded the process.
- On this note, I saw an interview with David Allen in which he said that over a million people had bought his book but not one person had come back to say anything in the book didn’t work. There were of course people who didn’t get the system implemented but no one was saying the principles didn’t work.
- Note also that to achieve the kind of control I’m talking about needs you to fully populate your system with your commitments and it needs you to regularly visit your system. If you start keeping multiple lists and don’t regularly visit them then your brain will once again become your system. So aim to keep one list (which is why I recommend a software approach) and use it to guide what you do.
- There was a question posed at one point that asked ‘how do you know when you are actually doing GTD?’. The answer was ‘when you don’t know what your Next Action is and you have to consult your system to find out’. When you reach that level of reliance on the system you will have fully handed over your memory function for commitments to an external system and your brain can finally relax.
- From my own experience I found myself approaching 100% inclusion of commitments but then I found a whole new bunch of Stuff. So I fell away from the 100% level several times before, after about 2-3 weeks, I found myself finally realising the full benefit. Once you reach that level there is a serious incentive to maintain things! You will start to lose that relaxed control feeling and your mind will start prompting you all over again for things your system should be handling. Those are the warning signs that you are not externalising your commitments.
- But if you follow the 5 step process above faithfully, you will start to realise feelings of increased control pretty much from the word go. My advice is don’t half do this!
So, there you have it, you should now know enough to get started with GTD. Feel free to explore the web for resources or check the GTD Links article on this site.
I would also strongly advise you to look into some software to manage your Projects and Next Actions, visit this article to look at my choice of software. I include a downloadable document to help you set the software up for GTD.
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