GTD | Back To Basics

I’ve recently been watching a few interviews with David Allen about GTD. I wanted to get back to the basics of GTD and to really understand where it came from and how the whole process developed over the 35 years or so David Allen was formulating it.

As I watched the interviews and listened to what David Allen was saying, I realised that many of us have grasped a lot of wrong ideas about GTD. Many have selected the parts that appealed to them and not taken the time to really think through what GTD is and understand how beautifully elegant and simple it really is. GTD is about not storing stuff in your head, and instead collecting or capturing ideas and commitments in a trusted, external place as soon as they enter your head. The way you store that information, whether it is a task, project support materials or just reference is not important. Everybody has a filing system that is different, one that works for them. Just do a Google search for Evernote organisation and it will return thousands if not hundreds of thousands of different ways to organise your notes. None of these systems are wrong, they work for the person who has set them up. They might not work for you, but that’s okay, they were not designed for you. You need a system that works for you.

GTD has five basic concepts. These are: Capture, clarify, organise, reflect, engage. What these mean are:


Capture and collect everything that comes across your mind. Anything like “oh I must remember to do this” or an idea you have “look in to going to Malta for our summer holidays” / “think about buying some new speakers” — anything that crosses your mind that you cannot do right at that moment. Capture it and write it down somewhere you trust you will look at within the next 24–48 hours. Email you need to reply to, but either don’t have the information to hand or don’t have time to reply to at the moment should be sent to your collection bucket, or inbox.


Clarify means asking the question: “What is it?” Determining what something is is just the first step. Is it a single task that can be done in less than 2 minutes? Then do it now. Is it a multi-step task, i.e is there more than one step involved? If so, it’s a project and you need to ask “what is the next action?” Once you’ve decided what the next action is you need to write that down as a next action (or if it would take less than two minutes do it now)

I know the above appears to be a lot of steps, and written down it does look time consuming. But it isn’t. Asking these questions take a surprisingly short amount of time and once you have built the habit, it becomes a very quick process.


Simply put, organise means putting your tasks, support materials and other materials in the right place. If it is a task, it goes into your task manager. If it is reference or project support materials they go in to your filing system, and if it has no value to you, it goes into the rubbish bin.

The opportunities to complicate this process are vast. This is where I would recommend you keep your task management and filing systems as simple as possible. I’ve seen some incredibly complex Evernote organisational systems that seem to be more about hiding things than making it simple to locate stuff placed there.


This means review your task list. For me, I find a quick daily review where I review what I have done, what I have collected and what I have planned to do tomorrow is perfect. It takes no more than ten to fifteen minutes and I do it at the end of the day. I find I sleep better knowing what I have achieved and what I plan to achieve tomorrow and that nothing has been missed. It also means you do a full review weekly at a time and place that is quiet and relaxing and where you can have around an hour to completely focus on what you have to do, that everything is up to date, has the right labels and is set for the right date. It allows you to get a good sense of where you are and where you want to be.

The review is the essential glue that makes the whole GTD system work. Skip the review and you are missing out the essential point of GTD. Reviewing gives you the stress-free environment that GTD promises. Not reviewing means things will slip through the cracks, you will miss important stuff and your system will fall apart.


Means do. The whole point of GTD is to allow you spend more time doing and less time thinking about what you should be doing. If you have done the previous four steps, then a quick look at your todo list should tell you immediately what needs to be done. The thinking has already been done so you are well on your way to achieving much more than you were achieving before you employed GTD.

There is of course a lot more to GTD than the above, and I recommend you read the book to fully understand the whole concept. But the above is the basics of the system and it really is a system that can and will change your life. Do not be tempted to over complicate the system. The way you collect your thoughts, ideas and commitments needs to be quick, easy and without too many steps. You need to be able to collect and move on. Likewise for clarifying and organising, it needs to be quick and easy and you filing system needs to allow you to retrieve information quickly without the need to think too much. The rest of the time you need to be doing stuff that means something to you.

If you have the system set up correctly, then you will only be spending a few minutes a day in your system. The rest of the time you will be doing stuff that matters to you without any feeling of guilt about the stuff you are not doing and without any of the stress associated with the worry of not knowing what you should be doing.