How to Really Get Things Done and Off Your Mind

Have you ever heard of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (GTD) book and system? Some people swear by it, but others think it’s too complicated. It’s actually quite simple, but for best results, it takes an investment of time to get started.

The idea is to compile every single thing in your life that requires some kind of action or reflection, from changing a light bulb to calling your mom to redesigning your website. Trying to remember everything you have to do, want to do and ought to do is a huge drain of energy. Your brain power would be better served focusing on a task or being creative. GTD lets you get all these random tasks out of your head and into one place (physical, digital or a mix of the two), where you can decide the next best action to take based on where you are and how much time and energy you have. You never have to worry that your forgot something, because it all goes into the system as soon as you think of it.

I have several organization systems set up, some of which work really well, but GTD took it to a whole other level. Now, everything is together, where I can see it and use it when I need it.

You can start by just noting the things rambling around in your brain. The next step could be processing your office: your computer, all papers lying around, etc. And the optimal step would be processing your whole house. You can do this room by room, whenever you have time.

Since I don’t do things by halves and I relish a challenge, I decided to use a few vacation days to go through my home office as well as every closet and drawer in the house. You know how closets are… There’s always stuff that should be thrown away, donated, better organized or requires some type of action (repair this, sow that, see if I can order a missing part, etc.). I wrote every action down. It was a LOT of work and took three full days (two for the house, one for the office), but once everything was organized and sorted, (I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I hadn’t done all the tasks (only processed them, see below), but they were all in the system, where I couldn’t forget them and could get to them when time and energy allowed. And from then on, anything new went right into the system.

Crash course:

1) Get some paper and write down everything that’s rolling around in your head. Put it in action form (not “Mom”, but “Call mom to catch up” or “Call mom to ask for her chicken pot pie recipe”). Think about every area of your life (relationships, work, personal goals, house maintenance, errands, etc.), everything you want to do, should do or need to do. That’s step one.

2) Go through your computer and all papers hanging around your office. For top results, go through every drawer, closet, stack of papers, etc. You don’t have to do the tasks, just write down every thing that comes to mind about it (clean the closet, try on clothes to see what no longer fits, etc.). For piles of paper or magazines, sort into piles (to keep for reference, to look through when I have time, to recycle).

Important: Make a decision about each thing. Decide to throw away that broken racket or bring it to get fixed. Don’t put it back, thinking you will decide later. For the system to work, you have to process everything even if you don’t do it yet. Strangely, just making the decision will make you feel lighter.

  • Next, sort all the tasks
    • Calendar: Enter anything that has to be done on a certain day or has a deadline. I like to use reminders a few days before as well as the day of.
    • Projects (Everything that has more than one action, from organizing a dinner to redesigning your website)
    • To contact (Anyone you need to call, email, text, meet with, etc.)
    • Waiting on (Things you are waiting for: a friend to call back, to receive information from someone, etc.). It might seem insignificant, but having to remember that someone needs to get back to you also takes brain power.
    • Incubation (Stuff you haven’t made a final decision on, like a gift idea).
    • Someday/Maybe (Things you might like to do, but not right now. This could include books to read, renovations/improvements, travel destination, bucket lists, etc.)
    • Reference (Information that might be useful, but does not require any action).
  • Once everything has been processed, add any new things to the system and review it at least once a week (to see what your next actions should be, to reorganize priorities, etc.).

After I did this huge cleanup, I felt that, for once in my life, nothing was nagging at me. That’s a great feeling. I’ve done deep cleaning before, and that feels great as well, but this had an added component.

You can use pretty much any tool to keep track of your tasks. A notebook, index cards, a Word document, Evernote, Wunderlist, etc. I have been using Todoist to input all tasks. I  also have a physical in-tray. If I think of something, I either add it directly to Todoist if I am at the computer, or write it on a piece of notepaper and throw it in the tray. When I have a little time, I process everything in the tray. If it’s something I can do in 2 minutes, I just do it. Otherwise, I add it to the system.

I highly recommend GTD, even if you only apply it to certain areas of your life. It really makes things easier. Tweak it so it works for you.

Good luck!

If you want to know more, here’s a good Lifehacker article. I also recommend reading the book itself.