Getting Things Done - GTD

Quick Start Guide: How to Start Implementing GTD Successfully

AUTHOR: Francisco Sáez
tags Practical GTD Self-Improvement Stress-Free Habits Work-flow

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Quick Start Guide: How to Start Implementing GTD Successfully

If you’ve ever thought about improving your personal productivity, being more efficient in organizing your work, getting your personal and professional life under control, or living with less stress, you’ve probably heard or read somewhere about the Getting Things Done (GTD) personal management methodology.

Although this methodology is easy to understand and use, many people find it difficult to start implementing it. The reason is that, for GTD to work, it’s necessary to unlearn some bad habits that you have developed so far.

In other words, starting to implement GTD involves change, and that’s not easy. It’s estimated that the average time to correctly establish the necessary habits to develop a highly effective personal management is about two years. It may seem like a long time, but we are talking about reaching perfection; in reality, the benefits are noticeable from the beginning.

If you want to make this adaptation easier, you shouldn’t try to take in everything the methodology has to offer from the beginning. If you try to do it all at once, you will probably overwhelm yourself at a time when your personal organization mainly needs to establish a good foundation that will allow you to grow and improve later on.

In the first few months you should focus on establishing one effective work habit, which will help you eliminate stress and enjoy what you do more. You should focus on the five-step GTD workflow, and keep it as simple as you can.


“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” ~ David Allen.

You must get used to capturing stuff without committing yourself in any way. Any idea that comes into your head should be captured without thinking. You will think about it some other time (specifically, in the Clarify step).

When you make capturing things immediately an automatic process, you will have mastered this step.

As you can see, it’s easy to understand, but not so easy to do. It’s a matter of re-educating your attention so that distractions don’t win the game.

If you don’t yet have a complete inventory of actions, do a physical, digital and mental sweep to collect all the things in your life that need some kind of action. You can use this technique from time to time, to keep your inventory up to date, until the habit of capturing is mastered.


“It does not take much strength to do things, but it requires a great deal of strength to decide what to do.” ~ Elbert Hubbard.

This is a new process for anyone who hasn’t practiced GTD. It involves clarifying and properly organizing the captures made. At the end of the process the inboxes should be empty.

To master this step you have to ask yourself a series of questions for each of the items you have captured. At first you must force yourself to do it step by step, until you take over the process. The questions are:

  1. What is this? You must express what that capture means to you.
  2. Is it actionable? It’s actionable if you can do something about it and you want to.
  3. If it’s not actionable, what are you going to do? You can do three things with the capture:
    - Delete it.
    - Archive it, if it’s information you’re interested in keeping.
    - Incubate it, to decide at another time if you are going to do something with it.
  4. If it is actionable, what’s the next action and what are you going to do with it? The next action is the next physical and visible step that moves something forward or completes it, a unit of work that is done all at once. Once you have determined what the next action is, you can do three things:
    - Do it, if it’s something you must do and it takes less than two minutes.
    - Delegate it, if you are not the right person to do it.
    - Defer it, which consists of setting a reminder to do it as soon as possible.
  5. Can I consider the capture completed? If the defined action fulfills the desired outcome, you are done. If not, you must define the desired outcome and add it to your Project List.

In the case of having to define a new project, you should not fall into the over-planning trap, i.e. start developing the project, adding a lot of possible future actions. This is something we are all too used to. You only need to be sure of the next action to move the project forward.

Clarifying is all about thinking and deciding. You will master this step when you do just that, regularly enough so that your inboxes are emptied daily.


“You must use your mind to get things off your mind.” ~ David Allen.

Organizing is simply about putting everything in its place. Our brains are good at relating places and meanings, so we just need some containers with a clear meaning to be more effective.

A GTD system is nothing more than a set of reminders organized in lists:

  1. Next Actions: List of actions to be done by you, as soon as possible.
  2. Calendar: Actions you need to do (or information you need to be aware of) by a specific date and/or time.
  3. Agendas: These are “next actions” where you need to meet with someone in order to complete them.
  4. Waiting For: These are “next actions” that need to be done by other people. You should include the name of the person responsible and the date you delegated each action.
  5. Projects: List of outcomes that are pending.
  6. Someday/Maybe: These are “captures” that you have decided to evaluate at a later date.
  7. Archive: Where you keep reference material.
  8. Trash: Where you throw away what you don’t need or has no value.

Write your actions so that they can be executed without any obstacles, using specific action verbs that clearly indicate what needs to be done, without ambiguity.


“Think like a man of action, act like a man of thought.” ~ Henri Bergson.

This is the most important step of the methodology, as it helps to maintain a usable and completely reliable system. Basically, it consists of doing a Weekly Review of your entire system. It’s just a review; you shouldn’t do what you haven’t been able to do during the week.

The Weekly Review allows you to:

  1. Gain clarity: Empty all of your inboxes.
  2. Get up to date: Review your lists, eliminating what is already done or no longer needed, and adding missing information. It includes:
    - Reviewing your past calendar (since your last weekly review) for anything that still needs to be done with tasks that have been completed.
    - Reviewing your future calendar (4 to 5 weeks ahead) to avoid surprises with short reaction time.
    - Reviewing your Next Actions and Agendas.
    - Actively reviewing your Waiting For list, asking for what you need or adding reminders to act on later.
    - Reviewing your Project List, to reactivate projects without defined next actions and revisit your support material.
  3. Get creative: Now that you have a complete and up-to-date system, you are at a point where you have a high degree of perspective that you can use creatively. Re-evaluate the contents of the Someday/Maybe list and think about what new projects you can undertake.

Do not skip this step if you want to implement GTD successfully. If you can’t do a complete review, do part of it. Any kind of review is better than none.


“You can do anything, but not everything.” ~ David Allen.

Defining your work is part of your job and, thanks to all of the above, now you can filter the work already defined to choose the best option and feel good about what you are doing.

To choose the best next action you should use the following limiting criteria:

  1. Context. What actions can you do in the place you are in, with the tools you have, with the people you are with?
  2. Time. What actions can you do in the time you have available?
  3. Energy. What actions are in line with your current energy level?
  4. Of all the actions filtered by the above criteria, which one makes the most sense to do now?

To engage properly, you have to develop the habit of going over your lists to choose the next action you’re going to do. If you don’t, the tendency will be to do whatever comes up, and that will ruin all the work you’ve done.


“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” ~ Mark Twain.

First of all, you need to have a first inventory of incomplete elements in your personal and professional life. Do a mental sweep following this list of possibilities: Incompletion Trigger List.

Define the right contexts for your specific situation, which will help you have situation-specific Next Actions lists: @calls, @computer, @office, @home, @errands, @Evernote, @Mary, etc.

Once that first big catch has been made, clarify each of the items and organize them, putting reminders in the appropriate lists.

Now you can start carrying out the workflow explained above. You will probably be eager to look for the best tools to do this, but you should not worry about this for the moment. In the beginning you should focus on habits, not tools:

  1. Capture everything that comes into your mind.
  2. Clarify the captures with some regularity (once a day may be enough).
  3. Use the 4 limiting criteria to choose the next action to engage with.
  4. Don’t skip the Weekly Review!

If you manage to do this reasonably well for about three months, you will start to see the benefits of the methodology. After that, you’ll want to improve other aspects of the methodology (project management, vertical perspective, etc.), but it’s not worth messing with them until you have a minimally functional system.

Now you are well on your way to a productive, calm and meaningful life — keep up the good work!

Francisco Sáez

Francisco is the founder and CEO of FacileThings. He is also a Software Engineer who is passionate about personal productivity and the GTD philosophy as a means to a better life.

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