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How I Manage My Life With The GTD System

John Braat

Jonathan Braat / October 25, 2022 โ‹… 6 min read

I have been mentored by a successful SaaS business owner. Here is where I went wrong and my lessons to keep in mind before taking up someone else's time.

As an ambitious person I tend to take on a fair amount of work and responsibilities.

Currently, I'm working full time as a contractor for an Australian startup, build my own startup on the side, and manage my personal life.

During a normal week I focus on the following:

  • Exercise
  • Tending to relationships with my partner, family and friends
  • Working full time as a contractor
  • Sideprojects after work
  • Reading and other leasure activities

While doing this much on a weekly basis, it's easy for things to fall through the cracks. Last year I have adopted a system that drastically improved my life in this regard.

In this article I will go into how I manage my life with the Getting Things Done (GTD) system.

What is GTD

GTD is a personal productivity methodology that redefines how you approach your life and work.

  • David Allen (GTD author)

The idea behind GTD is moving all items of interest, relevant information, issues, tasks and projects out of your mind and subsequently breaking them down into actionable work items.

With GTD, I keep my mind clear by recording pretty much every thought and idea I have. Every recorded item will be reviewed on a regular basis, which helps me keep on top of things.

GTD works in 5 steps:

  1. Capture: Record everything that has your attention into a collection tool
  2. Clarify: Decide whether the item is actionable and next actions
  3. Organize: Create reminders for actions in appropriate places
  4. Reflect: Update and review all system contents
  5. Engage: Do the work

As a full explanation of the system goes beyond the scope, I recommend reading David Allen's book, watching a YouTube video, or reading a blog article about the system.x

My GTD adaptation

David Allen mentions a "system" in his book and goes through great lengths to describe how this system exactly works.

He includes a detailed description of the ins and outs, as well as tips and tricks how to make it work. His way of doing things includes physical paper notes and filing trays which are used to organize every aspect/task in your life.

However, I'm a computer guy. Also, I like to tavel, and don't really want to carry tons of paper and filing trays with me. This is why I am using an app called Things 3 as my collecton tool (see above).

I'm pretty sure Things was designed with the GTD system in mind, which makes it absolutely perfect for me.

How i use GTD in a typical week

The foundation of GTD is to externalize thoughts and tasks, so your mind can think freely. This will generally yield a boost in focus and subsequently a boost in productivity.

Things 3 has an Inbox as a net for every thing (๐Ÿ˜) that pops into your head. The inbox is the place where everything gets place until you get to the clarifying and organizing steps of the system.

Everytime anything noteworthy pops into my mind, I whip out my phone or the app on my MacBook and write it down. It also works with Siri and the Apple watch AND I have written a small Chrome Extension to save the URL of the current webpage to the Things app with a shortcut key.

GTD areas and projects

When it comes to the clarifying and organizing steps, I have landed on the structure you see in the image above.

Every top level item is an "Area of Focus". An area of focus includes several "Projects" made up of single "Tasks". Tasks must be actionable and result from clarifying the things in the inbox.

I have set up a very vague area for each important aspect of my life and placed projects into these areas, which are stepping stones towards my goals.

Each Sunday I spend roughly 1-2 hours going through my inbox to organize and clarify every item I have recorded during the week. I then measure my project progress in the areas of focus, and decide what I'll be working on in the following week.

A Sunday session generally looks like this:

  1. Clear inbox: Decide whether I need to do something about the item (e.g. create task to read a blog article, book something, work on something, next steps etc.)
  2. Move tasks into Areas/Projects
  3. Review my progress towards goals
  4. Schedule tasks to be worked on during the coming week

What else:

  • Things has a "Someday" feature. I use this for tasks I'm unsure whether I want to do them at all, or don't have the time for at the moment, but don't want to put in the trash (delete) yet. These tasks are hidden from view by default, so I generally check their relevancy on each Sunday review
  • Purge Day: Every few months I purge tasks from Things to remove items I'm not going to work on, to keep my external brain clean
  • I believe in habits, so I have quite a few recurring tasks scheduled (e.g. "Call grandma", which pops up every Friday without the need to schedule it every week). I use this feature a lot with different things such as exercise, reading, spending quality time with my partner etc.
  • Every night I spend roughly 5 minutes to decide what the top priority task for the next day is. This is also a recurring task.

The whole system takes the factor of "what to do next?" out of my head.

Caveat: David Allen suggests a labeling system for each task. For example attach a label "on phone" to each task that is related to calling people. In theory, this should help batch tasks and boost productivity again, because you will do fewer context switches.

I have tried this and tbh, it was too much work. Sunday reviews took around 4 hours instead of 1-2 which was simply too much for me. So, I ended up dropping this practice completely.

Closing thoughts

Since I started using GTD a year ago, I feel I have a much clearer mind and an easier time concentrating on tasks at hand.

My mind is roaming much less during focused work.

I don't anymore have to think "what's next" often during the week. This has shifted to my weekly planning session and my nightly "What is the main priority for the next day".

All in all, I have found adapting GTD yielded a massive improvement in my productivity. I highly recommend everyone reading GTD by David Allen and giving the whole thing a shot.

Keep in mind you don't have to adhere to it to a tee. You can customize it to fit your needs, just as I have.

If you liked this article and know a friend who could benefit from it as well, please consider sharing it ๐Ÿ™ If you want to get news and updates from me, subscribe to the newsletter below ๐Ÿ‘‡ or follow me on Twitter.

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