Productivity Vanguards: David Allen, Creator of the GTD System

David Allen David Allen is an author and productivity consultant who founded the Getting Things Done method of time management, commonly shortened to GTD. His Wikipedia page mentions Allen's claim that he had 35 professions before age 35, and like me, one of his many former jobs was in the restaurant business. GTD is one of the most famous productivity systems in the corporate world, and has inspired several apps that enable users to put its principles into place.

Getting Things Done

The GTD methodology was first introduced in David Allen's book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. It centers on a reliable workflow with five stages: collect, process, organize, review and do.

In the Collect stage, you'd list all of the things you're thinking about. In the Process stage, you'd audit that list by separating it into tasks you can outsource to someone else, tasks that don't need your attention right away, tasks that must get done now, and tasks that take 2 minutes or less to do. Then, you'd complete all the 2-minute tasks and delegate the tasks that you can outsource to someone else accordingly.

In the Organize stage, you'd handle the tasks that remain and decide whether they require your action. If they do, file them in a project folder, determine specific next steps and schedule these steps in your calendar accordingly. If they don't, delete the tasks or file them as either reference material or an idea.

In the Review stage, you'd conduct regular audits of your project, reference and idea folders, looking for specific tasks you can schedule as action items. And in the Do stage, you'd power through the specific tasks you've just created.

GTD Example for Bloggers

Still with me? Here's a hypothetical breakdown of David Allen's GTD system as a blogger might implement it:

  • Collect: For this example, a list of thoughts and ideas might include evergreen ideas for roundup posts, ideas for posts you want to write today, an article from a magazine that you want to share with readers, an email you have to send to a guest blogger, a reminder to file self-employment taxes in a month, and a project to select and roll out new fonts on your blog.
  • Process: "Actionize" the list. Identify 2-minute tasks (create reminder for self-employment taxes, write email to guest blogger), tasks for later on (roundup posts that aren't time sensitive, the font project) and tasks that must be done right away (today's posts). Next, take a quick break to do the 2-minute tasks.
  • Organize: Create a project folder for the blog fonts and determine next logical steps ("research where you'll find the fonts," "learn how to put the fonts on your blog," "pick a font" are a few sample steps). File the magazine article (or a link to it) in a reference folder. File the evergreen roundup ideas in an idea folder. On most days, the next step is the Do step.
  • Review: In a week, review the project list. Are there any items to actionize, a la the Process stage?
  • Do: Crank out the list of specific tasks, which in this example are the ideas for posts you want to write for your blog today.

This approach sounds intense, but after the initial sorting period, it's just a matter of filing a single task or to-do in its appropriate spot using that workflow.

Pros and Cons of GTD

GTD was one of the first time management systems I tried when I embarked on my personal productivity journey. In particular, I loved David Allen's focus on "stuff," which he defines as "anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn't belong where it is, but for which you haven't yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step." I also liked Allen's 2-minute rule -- if the task would take 2 minutes or less to complete, do it right away.

What I didn't love about the system, though, were all the steps and decisions. Since I'm a freelancer, not a corporate manager leading a team, I have far fewer "buckets" in which to place my to-dos. And since many of my to-dos are 2-minute items, it's just a matter of putting them in the same place reliably and adding a due date accordingly.

Do you use David Allen's GTD system? What do you think of it?