A road to stress-free productivity - Introduction to "Getting Things Done"

What is this about? Do you want to be more productive and have much less stress? Here I give an introduction to Getting Things Done (by David Allen), which can make you remarkably productive with being much more relaxed at the same time.

What is Getting Things Done (GTD)?

Getting Things Done (GTD) is a time management system developed by David Allen (see Wikipedia). It is a very powerful systematic approach that helps you to deal with any incoming requests (like emails, your own nagging thoughts, your ideas for new projects, phone calls, meeting notes, etc.) and to process them in an appropriate and efficient way.

GTD will enable you to do much more in higher quality and with less stress – GTD will make you remarkably productive and creative, while being much more relaxed at the same time.

The basic idea is to have a controlled way to deal with anything that is thrown at you, to process it appropriately and to store it in a reliable system that helps you to decide when you have to do what. The underlying processes are rather simple and are based on things that you might already do, like writing to-do lists, to plan, to make decisions on what has to be done next, or to file reference material. GTD is not so much about learning new skills, but rather about gaining control through establishing new habits.

The power of GTD is its systematic and very generic approach. It is scalable and works for all walks of life.

GTD helps you to engage with your work such that you are highly focused, or what people call "you are in the flow" or "in the zone." You know this feeling, when you are so engrossed, so concentrated on one single task that you don't think about anything else. It is a feeling that you deeply enjoy. The work is done with ease, with no resistance. Wouldn't it be great to get into this state of mind as often as possible? Well, GTD can help you with that.

The power of GTD is that it provides a systematic approach to get you more organized and as a results enables you to get more often into the flow. However, it can do more. To give you a feeling of what GTD is capable of, here is a list of what it does for me. It helps me ...

  • to be much more relaxed and less stressed
  • to be highly focused
  • to free up mental space for creativity and to enable a constant flow of ideas
  • to worry less and sleep better
  • to plan my day, week and my entire life with an ease
  • to push projects forward that otherwise would have been stuck or even lost
  • to avoid things to be done falling through the cracks
  • to avoid to miss any deadlines
  • to avoid missing important details
  • to avoid overcommitment
  • to handle successfully multiple projects simultaneously
  • to achieve my goals and to be effective
  • to decide which tasks are important and which are not
  • to stay more often and longer in the "flow"

Does that sound to good to be true? Well, of course this does not come for free. You have to get organized and build up the right habits. This means you will have to change and this is never easy. It takes some courage, but the beauty is that it pays off immediately, even if you just have started to implement GTD.

Are you ready to change and be more productive and less stressed? Then let's do it!

Basic idea of GTD

The underlying idea is that the brain is not a good place to store a list of things to do. The problem is all open loops in your subconscious mind will try to grab your attention. These manifest as the nagging thoughts that don't let you fall asleep at night. These are the "Ah, I should not forget to do A" that keep you pulling out of you flow. You loose your focus, you increase the level of stress, and you are constantly worrying even without knowing about what.


You have to collect any of these thoughts, any ideas that pop up, as well any to-dos in addition to any other input or request thrown at you. For example, this includes

  • any email you receive
  • any request (Can you please send me the draft for the proposal ASAP?)
  • any promise you made (I will send you the paper I mentioned during our discussion)
  • any idea you have (This would be a great research project)
  • waiting for somebody/something (I am waiting for the feeback from Jim before I can submit the paper)
  • phone calls (The newspapers "Daily Science" just called to ask for an interview)
  • any open loops you have (I should do something about this upcoming deadline)
  • etc.

The idea is to get everything out of your mind into some defined buckets (often referred to as inboxes). While, for example, email will be collected automatically into a bucket (your email inbox), for other inputs you have to make sure that you have a bucket to collect them. For example, it it is very important that you get everything out of your head into such a bucket. This could be a handwritten to-do list on paper, a simple list on your smart phone, or some sophisticated software.

If you want to see how this collecting works try the following:

Try this out: Sit down for 10 minutes and write down everything that comes to your mind. Stuff that you should do (call Jen about collaboration, come back to Bob about X, draft proposal, prepare talk, etc.), but also any ideas for a research project, a paper or proposal. Don't worry if its work-related or if it is private. Write everything down.

Congratulations! You did your (maybe first) brain-dump. Try this for 30 minutes and you will be surprised how many open loops are on your mind. I suggest that you do that on a regular basis (e.g., once a week). However, the most powerful way to use that is to make a general habit out of it: Jot down everything as soons as it pops into your mind.

Keep your mind clear from any nagging thoughts. This opens space to focus and to be highly creative!

I will talk about how I collect my "stuff" in a future blog post. I will also share a number of tips and tricks, and some traps you should avoid.

Collecting everything gives you a peace of mind. However, that is not enough. The next very important part is to go through every item in every bucket (email inbox, your brain-dump list, etc.) and decide what it means. Is there a goal? How do I get there? Is it worth my time? Is it even aligned with my bigger goals? How could you measure the outcome? What is the next step?

For every single item that you have collected you have to decide what it means and what is the best next action step for it!

The main point here is to break down complex projects into simple actionable steps. So, when you start to work (which is the last point of GTD) you simple do stuff. You should not have to think about what has to be done, since by then you have had thought about that already in this step.

When you have decided what to do, you will have to add it to your organizational system of choice. GTD provides a number of great tricks how you can build such a system. I use a an incredible software called Omnifocus, but you can use any tool that is useful for you. You can also use paper and pencil – whatever floats your boat. GTD is, as David Allen calls it, tool-agnostic. It doesn't not depend on its implementation. I will talk about different possibilities and my personal setup in one of the following blog posts.

Again, it is crucial to build up a habit to empty your buckets/inboxes on a regular basis. Otherwise, you will not trust your system and it will not work for you. From my experience, if you stop doing it, you will start again to keep your to-do lists in your mind and you will get restless and anxious. However, look at it from the bright side: This is a great indicator that you fell off the bandwagon. When this happens to me, I know I have to make a braindump, go through my inboxes, and review my system to bring it up to date. Over time you will build up a habit and you will stay longer at your sweet spot as you experience the huge advantages you get by following GTD.

Next to collecting and processing it is also very important to keep your system up to date. This is a crucial factor in order to be able to trust your system. However, it also allows you to keep an overview on what is on your plate and, therefore, helps you to avoid overcommitment and to be able to say no, when it is necessary. In addition, a regular review of your ongoing projects helps you to see if a project is stuck, if there are any upcoming deadlines, and it even allows you to connect dots and come up with new ideas.

Your system of GTD is a tool like a knife that needs to be sharp to be useful. Over time when you use a knife it gets worthless, if you don't hone it regularly. The same is true with a GTD system. In an upcoming blog post I will show you how I do it and how this helps me to be able to successfully carried out dozens of projects at the same time withouth missing deadlines and producing high quality output.

After all this organizational steps, finally, your simply have to do stuff. The important word here is "simply." If you have done all your work before then, now

  • you can make the right choice of which project you should work on (your review provides you with an overview)
  • and you can work highly focussed on the task at hand (you have collected everything → your mind is clear and you have processed everything → nothing will explode in the meantime)

You can now be completely in the flow without being interrupted all the time by your own thoughts or worrying. If something pops up in your mind, you simply collect it and process it later.


GTD consists of 5 simple steps:

  • Collecting: Capture everything and everytime in predefined inboxes.
  • Processing: Go through your inbox regularly and decide what is the next step.
  • Organizing: Organize this list of next actions, such that you can easily decide what to do when.
  • Reflecting: Revise your system regularly such that you can trust it completely
  • Doing: Just do the next best action!

Every step of them is important. If you stop doing one of them, you will see that your system will start to fall apart. Luckily, you will notice that immediately. When you have fallen from the bandwagon you can jump on it again easily. The beauty of GTD is that it can be applied to all walks of life and it is highly scalable. Furthermore, it is very generic and you can use any kind of tools that help you to implement and facilitate the basic steps.

Isn't that too much work?

Maybe one last word regarding overhead.

You might have had the thought, "Mhh, that looks like a lot of work. Isn't that just producing more work instead of helping me to getting my things done?"

Of course, there is work involved, but the benefits are much, much bigger. I myself don't see me as a very organized person and I am far from being anal about anything. I always have considered myself, and I am still doing, as being very creative, almost chaotic. However, I have learned that a certain level of organization is extremely beneficial. It open space for me to be more creative, to let my ideas flow and to work on the really important stuff, while being highly focused. You should give it a try!

What are the next steps?

In future blog posts I will go deeper into the individual steps of GTD. I will show you my setup, which hopefully helps you to set up your own.

You can also read David Allen's book "Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity". However, please keep in mind David Allen is mostly working with clients from private companies and some of his tools and examples might not apply for your situation. This is also one of the reasons why I decided to write this series of blog posts on GTD.

If you prefer watching talks, here are two by David Allen:

If you want to learn more about GTD by listing to podcasts, here are two great ones:

  • "Mac Power Users" hosted by David Sparks and Kathie Floyd Episode 219
  • "Beyond the To-Do List" hosted by Erik Fisher - Episode 16

Here is another gem "How To Hack Your To-Do List". This is a short video (2:22 mins) that explains visually the five steps of GTD using chunks from a David Allen interview.

Note that you can get a substantial discount for Omnifocus, if you are a student or educator → link.

Work smart, be remarkable, and have a great day!