How I Stay Organized and Implement GTD

Getting Things Done (GTD for short) is a productivity and organizational system developed by David Allen. I’m not going to go all into what it involves in a lot of detail, but here is the Wikipedia entry for it. I’m going to share here how I implement GTD and what I do that doesn’t necessarily fall into the traditional GTD structure. This is going to include details about how I handle every aspect of my life, so this could end up being pretty long. Bear with me.

Table of Contents

  1. Software and Tools
  2. How I Manage the Basics of GTD
  3. Next Actions and My Daily Schedule
  4. The Morning Routine
  5. Distractions and Resistance
  6. Wrapping Up

1. Software and Tools

I’m going to start by listing out the software and tools that I use so that I can just refer to them as I want and you know what I’m talking about.

First off, I use two free programs that I’m going to refer to here. The first is the free version of todoist, and the second is the free version of Microsoft OneNote.

Todoist is a sort of nested to-do list where you can sort things into projects, have recurring to-do items based on schedules you determine, etc., that I use for my scheduling and maintaining the list of [largely automated] things I need to do each day.

OneNote is an organizational program that I use for reference purposes and keeping up with everything I want to keep up with all in one organized and easy-to-use place. Both of these have iPhone apps, though I never really use the OneNote app, and I often use the Todoist app.

One other tool I use is IFTTT (If This Then That), and while it does a lot of cool stuff, I really only use it for two things. First, I have it send me a text message with the weather first thing each morning so that I can just glance at it and know what the weather should be like while I’m half-asleep in the bathroom as soon as I get up. Second, I have it set up so that when I send the IFTTT number a text message, it’s automatically added to my inbox (note: this is what I use for ubiquitous capture purposes ala GTD).

2. How I Manage the Basics of GTD

There are a few basics of GTD that I manage with these tools. I use OneNote to hold all of my projects and general lists in different sections, and I use the combination of IFTTT with the Todoist inbox to handle ubiquitous capture. Every day, I’m sending myself a number of different reminders, quotes from things I’m reading that I want to save for later (in a “motivational quotes” list in OneNote, for example), pictures of things I want to build later, or just anything that I want to file away. These are always processed daily through an item on my to-do list, which I’ll talk about in a later section.

I also have list of songs to download, movies/television shows to watch, books to download, games to try, ideas for future furniture projects, ideas for trips to take in the future, my “on hold” list of projects and ideas, etc. in OneNote. It’s what I use for reference organization in general as regards GTD.

There’s one exception to keeping all of my lists in OneNote: I keep my shopping list in a separate project in Todoist. The reason for this is that the Todoist format is much easier to work with since I can just swipe to eliminate items off of the list.

One of the parts of GTD that gets a lot of emphasis is minimizing the number of “inboxes” you have. I maintain three inboxes that I “zero” every single day. The first is my Todoist inbox, which I addressed above. The second is my email inbox (or series of inboxes), and I use the free Thunderbird mail client to keep up with my multiple email addresses (personal email, business email, etc.) The third is a small notebook on my desk that stays with my laptop at all times. The point of this notebook is to take down reminders and notes when I’m working. I can’t use my phone when I’m working because I intentionally keep it in the other room (which I’ll discuss below).

3. Next Actions and My Daily Schedule

GTD uses this idea of “next actions,” and when you review your projects each week, you make a list of the next actions that should be taken towards each of them. I don’t use a single, linear series of “next actions.” Instead, I have four sets of “next actions” that I keep organized in Todoist: daily, weekly, monthly and one-off actions. With that having been said, they’re really all handled the same way, and I’ll explain what I mean by this with an example.

Before I jump into the example, I want to point out that Todoist handles all of the scheduling for me once I set a task. If I make a task daily, if I complete it for today, it’s automatically added to tomorrow’s to-do list, so I only have to set something once.

Alright so here’s the example: For my work, I have a project in Todoist that maintains all of the tasks that I need to do on a daily, weekly, monthly and one-off basis. My daily tasks tend to revolve around my morning schedule. I get up at a certain time every day, and I have a routine that looks a lot like this:

  • 6:20 thru 7:00 – Shower, get dressed, put my phone in the other room
  • 7:00 thru 8:00 – First writing session
  • 8:00 thru 8:30 – Take a break, usually reading something in a different room
  • 8:30 thru 9:30 – Second writing session
  • 9:30 thru 10:30 – Eat breakfast, see the female delegation off to school/work/gym, read some more
  • 10:30 thru 11:30 – Third and final writing session
  • 11:30 thru 12:30 – Play video games, take a nap
  • 12:30 thru ???? – Finish up the rest of my daily to-do items in whatever order makes sense

The rest of my daily to-do items revolve around submitting any work to clients that I need to, doing accounting tasks, sending invoices if needed, etc. I also prepare my exact schedule for the next day, prepare my clothes for the next day (see the morning routine section below), get my computer ready to start right away the next day, etc. This is just a list of things I need to do daily.

It’s worth noting that there are two important items that also make their way into my daily to-dos: zero my email inbox and zero my reminders (both my small notebook and my Todoist inbox at the same time together).

There are also things I need to do on a weekly basis. Getting away from the work-specific example, I take the trash and recycling off every Friday (we don’t have trash collection here). I submit invoices to a specific set of clients every Saturday. I review my previous week of work every Sunday to make sure everything is going like it’s supposed to. I work on blog posts like this one every Monday and Thursday.

Now add to that the monthly items. I have every bill I need to pay in its own project with its own due dates so that I never forget any of them. I have a sort of “state of the household” address I give near the end of each month. I also have certain clients that I invoice monthly, and those are on there.

Finally there are one-off tasks that I add where appropriate. For example, I might need to remember that I have a Skype call on a certain day at a certain time, so I’ll set a reminder the day before (so I can include it in my written schedule that I make for myself each day to be prepared for the next day) and the day of (so I can mark it off when it’s finished). I might also have an item in my to-do list (ala GTD “next actions”) to look into something I had a reminder about that I didn’t have time to look up when I originally thought about it.

4. The Morning Routine

Every morning, I have the same exact routine that has been crafted to maximize the chances that I don’t say to hell with all of it and crawl back in bed and maximize the chance that I get as much work done in as little time as possible before lunch.

I wake up at 6:20 when my alarm goes off. My alarm is my phone, which is plugged up charging for the night on the other side of my bedroom where I can’t reach it from the bed. This forces me to get out of bed. It’s also sitting on a towel that I prepared the night before so that I can pick both up and head straight to the bathroom. I let the shower warm up while I use the bathroom and wake up a minute, and I check the weather on my phone (thanks IFTTT) along with my bank account balances to do a quick ten-second review to see if any charges stand out as being out of place. If there is something out of place, I’ll give myself a reminder via text message (ala IFTTT) that goes straight to my Todoist inbox, like I described before.

When I get out of the shower, I brush my teeth, dry off and proceed to my office area. My deodorant and smell-good-spray-stuff are both together waiting on me in a cabinet. My clothes are waiting for me on my desk, where I prepared them the day before (there’s an item on my daily to-do list for it). I get dressed, pour myself something to drink and jump right into my work because it’s sitting there waiting for me.

I’m pointing out the nuances of my morning routine not for people to try to copy it. Instead, it’s to see how I engineer things to maximize the chances that I do the things that I need to get done and minimize the chances that I end up screwing around on the Internet or going back to bed instead. I discuss the general theory surrounding this in the next section.

5. Distractions and Resistance

At this point, I want to point out that every part of this has been designed to minimize distractions and to minimize the effort that it takes to go through every individual thing that I need to do. My clothes and deodorant and everything are all in place within three feet of my computer desk. One thing blends directly into the next, and it takes virtually no willpower to go through this habit. This is by design.

The idea is that there are things that provide “resistance” for getting work done, and there are things that provide “resistance” for following distractions. I want to maximize the resistance to distractions while minimizing the resistance of getting the things done that I want to get done. The management of resistance, in this sense, is something I think is sorely missing from GTD, especially since our environment today is jam-packed full of distractions.

When I sit down to work, my computer has been loaded in an Ubuntu installation (though I’m using Windows 7 to type this at the moment) because I have a dual-OS situation set up on my laptop. The reason for this is simple: There are fewer distractions in Ubuntu. All of the games have been uninstalled, and all that I have in the OS is what I need to do my work. There’s a timer, access to my work tracking spreadsheet, access to my files I need, my word processor, and access to my notes.

Note: I use Zim for my work notes. It works in both Windows and Ubuntu, and it’s like a stripped down, largely text-only OneNote/EverNote kind of thing.

I always make sure the work in my first session can be done in the Ubuntu installation so that this allows me to get a strong start. My second and/or third sessions might have to happen in Windows depending on what I need access to because some of the things I need to do my job can’t be accessed in Ubuntu.

When I go to work in Windows, there are more openings for distractions. I maximize my resistance to those distractions by using Google Chrome extension and other methods. The main extension I uses blocks a list of certain websites from 6 am until noon daily. Sometimes I’ll go to type a URL for a forum or Reddit in the address bar by habit, and this little “nudge” that I get from the browser telling me to knock it off is almost always enough for me to catch myself and not get drawn into wasting a few hours.

It’s worth pointing out that I also keep my phone in the other room as a matter of habit and as an important item as soon as I get out of the shower. Again, it’s about minimizing the chances of distraction (and disrupting my work) and maximizing the chances that I get as much done in as little time as possible.

6. Wrapping Up

This is all the time I have for working on this blog post for today. I’ll get some opinions about it and possibly do a second part later.