The Working With... Podcast | Episode 13 | Explaining Getting Things Done


In this week’s episode of The Working With Podcast, I answer a question about managing a pure Getting Things Done system.

Hello and welcome to episode 13 of my Working With Podcast. A podcast created to answer all your questions about productivity, GTD, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show. 

In this week’s episode, I answer a question about managing a pure GTD system (that’s Getting Things Done by David Allen) when you don’t use dates as reminders to do your tasks.

Now, I should tell you the truth, when I first began using the GTD system, this was one of the hardest things for me to get my head around. I, like most people, had grown up using due dates to remind me to do things. The GTD methodology takes that away and focuses on contexts to tell you what work to get done. 

Anyway, before I answer the question, let me hand you over to the mystery podcast voice for this week’s question. 

This week’s question comes from YouTube user Gilco. Gilco asks: 

Without any scheduled dates how can one get things really done and don't lose the overview of all the things that have to be done? In the end, I have a great bunch of lists with many many points to go through and schedule. 

How can I then be reassured that I will not forget any point that has a specific due date...?

Okay, let's start with the basic idea behind GTD. GTD works on the idea that in order for you to complete a task, you are going to need a tool—a phone, a computer or a machine, a place— your office your home or the local hardware store, or a person—your boss, partner or a friend etc. No matter how urgent or how much you must complete that task today, if you do not have the right tool, are in the right place or with the right person you cannot do the task. 

A good example is if you need to reply to an email today, but you are on a 14-hour flight to Asia, and there is no internet available on the plane, no matter how urgent your reply is, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. You could, of course, write the email and save it in your outbox ready for when you next have an internet connection, but the bottom line is for the next 14 hours, there is nothing you can do about sending the mail. You are not in the right place (a place with internet access) 

With GTD, when you sit down to do some work, you open the lists that you can complete tasks from. For example, I have a list in Todoist I call my “office list” that shows all the things I need to do on my computer or phone. That is because when I am in my home office I have my phone and my computer right in front of me. Those are the tasks I can do right now, so that is the only list that matters. My list of things I need to talk to my wife about is not relevant. She is not there, so I cannot talk to her. 

Of course, if my wife comes home, I can quickly check that list to see if there is anything I need to talk to her about that needs talking about today. 

the same way if I take a call from my colleague. I can bring up the list for my colleague and check to see if there is anything I need to talk to her about. Once I have talked to her about everything that needs talking about I can check those tasks off. 

Now imagine if I go out in the car and I pass the hardware store. I can pull over and check to see what is on my hardware store list. If there is anything I need, I can go into the store and purchase it. While I am sat in my office doing work, there is no point in looking at my hardware store list because I am not there. If I know I will be going past the store later that day, then, of course, I can take a look to see if I need to call in when I pass. 

Okay, so hopefully that explains the basic idea behind GTD. 

Now, what about things that absolutely must be done today. These would be put on your calendar. Your calendar is your radar that tells you what needs to happen on specific days. Most of us are already using our calendar for date specific appointments, well for GTD users, also included on our calendars are all the tasks that must be done on a specific day. For example, if you need to send that email today, and you are flying out to Asia in the afternoon, you would put “send email to Sarah before flying to Asia” on your calendar. You do not necessarily have to allocate it a time, but as it MUST go today before you fly, then it would be on your calendar. 

If you need to finish a poster design for approval by Friday afternoon, then you would use your calendar to allocate a day when you would finish the design. Again, the choice is yours whether you allocate a time to do this or not. The important thing is that it is on your calendar on the day you need to do it. 

For example, I need to write my weekly blog post on Monday morning. This allows me time to write, and edit the post before it gets published on Wednesday. I actually allocate Monday morning 8:30am to 10:30am to write the post. If I am on fire and get the draft written by 9:30am, then I would open my calendar and see what else needs doing that day. If there is nothing else allocated, I would then open my @office list and begin working my way down that list until I have to leave to teach my class at lunchtime. 

So the morning workflow would be - open calendar check what needs doing today, once those tasks are completed, I then move over to my @office list and begin working my way down that list. 

If my context changes, from @office to @coffee shop, for example, which it sometimes does in the afternoons, then I open my @mobile list and continue working my way down that list. My @mobile list includes all the tasks I can complete using my phone or iPad. 

Over the years my workflow has changed a little. I find I prepare better if I check my calendar the night before. This way I am ready to get started on whatever work needs doing the moment I have my coffee made. When you check your calendar doesn’t really matter. Just go with whatever way works best for you. 

As I mentioned at the beginning, when you move from being date orientated to being context orientated productivity it can be difficult at first. But the beauty of the GTD system is in its simplicity and it’s logical workflow. 

Now, what about knowing what needs to be done and when. Well, this where the weekly review pulls it all together. When you do the weekly review you go through all your current projects task by task and make sure they are still relevant. Anything that needs to be done on a specific day, is moved on to your calendar and the rest stays on your to-do list— making sure you have the right context assigned to it. 

During particularly busy periods, you may find you have to do a weekly review more often, I have done mini-weekly reviews two or three times in a week in the past because I knew I had a lot of deadlines coming up all at once. 

When you go all in with GTD you soon find that the weekly review is essential if you want your system to work seamlessly. 

Is GTD all that it is cracked up to be? I would say an emphatic YES! After switching and enduring the growing pains related to moving from being date orientated to context orientated my productivity sky-rocketed. I very rarely miss any deadlines and often find I have completed a project well within the time frame given to me. My stress levels reduced dramatically because I was always getting the important things done first and then making a dent on all the other work that needed doing. I never had to think about what to do next, because just looking at the right list told me. Those decisions were made when I did my weekly review. 

The feeling of control and freedom GTD gave me, meant I could take more time off to sit back simply enjoy life again. Something I found difficult to do when I was date orientated. 

As I got better at GTD I did modify the system a little. I like to separate out my routine tasks from my project tasks. to me, routines just have to be done and do not take my life any further forward. It is project tasks that improve my life and improve me as a person. So I want to be more focused on these. That little modification really got me focused on the important things in my life and boosted my productivity even further. 

So there you have it. That’s how GTD works and how it can really transform your productivity. If you haven’t already, I strongly recommend you read the book. The book will give you everything you need to set up your own GTD system. I will put a link to the English version in the show notes for this episode. 

For you Todoist users, I also have a mini-series of videos showing you how to set up a GTD system in Todoist and I also have a video showing an alternative way to set up GTD that I recently discovered when the Getting Things Done company released a setup guide for Todoist. All the links to these are in the show notes. 

Thank you very much for listening to this podcast. Don’t forget, if you have a question you would like me to answer, you can email me—, DM me on Twitter or Facebook and I will be happy to add your question to the list. 

It just remains for me now to wish you all a very very productive week.