Aug 10, 2016

4 min read

Getting Things Done: Core Principles

I’m using GTD for over 10 years now. My personal system evolved gradually. I defined clear borders between the different types of information, tried different ways of structuring and processing my next actions, and constantly try to put together goals and projects.

This post is a reflection on what I see as the core principles of GTD. I briefly explain each concept, and then give a personal perspective.

Collect all Open Loops

Put every item that is on your mind into a list. Think of all stuff that needs to be processed, of things at home and work you need to fix, of unfinished projects, of commitments and of your different life areas. Write it down, get it of your mind, and put it into a trustworthy system where you can access it every time you want.

This principle may feel overwhelming at first. It can make you sleepless for some time when you constantly try to find new things that you want to capture. But endure these moments. When you are out of this, you will have a great sense of perspective on your life. You can trust to have a reminder of everything that you need, should or want to do. And from this comes the power of choice: You are becoming a captain of your life, deciding where you want to go.

Define Clear Borders

For each information item, define one exact place. Put all information in this place.

Do not see your system as a stiff definition, but as an evolving organism. Adapt, add, remove, switch if you are not satisfied. But keep the definition of “one information, one place” in mind.

In a long term view, this habit also helps you to stay on top. I’m amazed at which ridiculous times I come to great ideas. I immediately put them in my inbox and am happy with how they turn out.

This principle enables you of focused attention, seeing all things in place that you need to see, and when you need to see them.

Process your Inbox

Regularly process all items in your inbox, touching them only once and asking yourself two questions:

1. Is it actionable?

2. Can I do it in 2 minutes?

The question “is it actionable” defines the fate of the item: Do you put it into a next action list, store it in a someday list, of delete it. To be truly effective with this step, you need to have a clear system with clear boundaries. It’s this simple. Several people are stuck if they do not have a system with clear boundaries for putting projects, references, somedays, and next actions together. Define this first, its essential. Once you have it, just rely on your gut feeling and go through this list. Try to do it every day, and you will feel very relaxed.

The question “Can I do it in 2 minutes?” gives you a sense of how less (or how much) effort the tasks in your inbox takes. Every time I’m going through my inbox, I pick about 5 items that I know will be done in this time. All other items are put at their appropriate place. You should ask this question when you work in one of your next action lists. Increase the time span to 5 minutes. And start to work on this list, 5 minutes for each item. You can get 12 things done in one hour of concentrated work. Try it, it’s a real motivational boost.

Define Next Actions

Find the next single action that you can do to move forward in completing a commitment, project or goal. Put this item into your next action lists. Define the context of the next action, which is a place, a certain equipment, or even a state of mind.

You cannot get productive if you do not know what to do. The skill to define the very next thing and identify the appropriate context, is at the core of GTD. I like to see each carefully designed next action as a small commitment to yourself. A commitment to do one step moving forward. A small thing that can be done and gives you the feeling of achieving.

Weekly Review

Once in a week, do a complete review of you GTD system. Browse through all lists: Next actions, projects, goals, somedays. Sort and put order to things, give each information the correct place. Clean up, delete, strike though what you did or do not want to do anymore. Get Clear on everything that is on your plate.

An effective weekly review is the “survivalist aspect” of GTD. Your system can only stay good and ordered if you regularly review it. I struggled with the weekly review for quite some time, simply because my system had no clear boundaries and I was too lazy to process my inbox regularly — I simply needed to much time to get the things done.


What is your favorite principle? Vote here.

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