The Author, with his copy of Getting Things Done.

It is rare that I read or hear something that truly changes the way I think and approach my life, but Getting Things Done (GTD) is one of them.  Written by David Allen (@GTDGuy), GTD has been a staple on the bookshelf of many busy, productive people: there are GTD groupies all over the world. I am one of them, and I know some other graduate students who find it helpful, as well. Developing a productivity strategy is one of the more important parts about graduate school: I consider my time in school to not only be a process of learning how to do my research, but also in learning how I best do my work. Finding a system to organize what has to be done is part of that, and GTD has played a big role in figuring that out.  GTD  focuses on a number of things, but one of the most important for me is this: you must capture “all the things you need to get done – now, later, someday, big, little, or in between – into a logical and trusted system outside of your head and off your mind”. I’m going to walk through a couple of Allen’s primary tips to give you an idea about what this means…and then encourage you to go buy this book and read it all the way through. He does a better job than I.


Capture is really critical, since the primary idea of GTD is to clear your mind of any and all the things you feel like you have to do. Allen rightly notes that most of us waste a lot of brain power thinking about what we have to do now, and what we have to do next, and what we’d really like to do in the future. Capturing these things into an organized system removes them from your brain, and puts them in a place where you can deal with them when the time is right. Allen suggests creating an Inbox: this is where you empty your head of any and every thing you have to do or want to get done. At first, this will become a long list. As you get in the GTD groove, however, you use different tools to capture these items as you go about your day. I use a number of tools to add things to my “inbox”. Evernote is used to capture ideas as they happen (typically at moments when I can’t do anything about them). I also use OmniFocus, an application for mac, iPhone, and iPad, that was developed for GTD, to capture to do items. I also have a physical Inbox for the non-digital items that need to get done, such as bills or things that need to be filed, or paper notes I jot down. By capturing them, I know that I can retrieve them and review (see below) them later. I haven’t lost them, but I don’t have to deal with them now. Once a week, I sit down and go through my Inbox, and begin the next step of Allen’s process:

Do It, Defer It, Delegate It, Drop It

This is pretty straightforward: for each thing that you capture, those things you “have to do”, you need to make a decision about what your actual commitment is to that project. Is it something small and quick you can do right now that will take less than 2 minutes? Then Do It NOW. Is it something that you can’t do right now, because it might take more time or your in the wrong place to do it? Then create a project folder for it, and establish what the next actionable step is that you need to do for that project, and file it away. Is it something that you can delegate to someone else? Then establish who that person is and what the next action is to make sure they do it (set up a meeting, send an email, etc). Is it something that really isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things? Then drop it.  Don’t do it. Forget about it. Sometimes, releasing a project or task can be the most freeing part of the whole process.


One thing Allen points out that also helps to free your mind is the idea of context: there are some tasks you can’t complete because of the environment you happen to be occupying at that exact moment. Are you at the grocery store? Then you can’t work on your dissertation. You can, however, stop by the dry cleaners on the way home and pick up those items that have been there for two weeks. Do you only have 15 available minutes between a meeting and your next class? Probably not a good time to try to pound out that theory chapter. But it probably is a good time to send that email to your colleague, or call your doctor to make an appointment. Context helps us free space in our minds because it makes us realize that we can’t always work on something all the time: the environment we’re currently in might not allow it. This helps reduce the stress significantly.

Projects and Next Actions

Identifying what is a project and what is an action is a critical part of the GTD system. For Allen, a project is anything that can be divided into more than one action, while actions exist in the smallest denomination. So, “Write Dissertation” is a project. “read journal article” is an action (unless you don’t currently have that article, in which case it might be a project that includes the steps “go to library” or “look up article on JSTOR”). A project, therefore, is made up of a number of actions. So, when I’m organizing my list of things I have to do, I organize them into projects (“Make Dinner”) and the actions that go in it (“find recipe”, “acquire ingredients”, “make shopping list”, “go to store”, etc). Then, I decide what the next action I need to take is in order to get this project done. Allen says that this last part is one of the most important steps: most things don’t get done because no one has established what the next thing to do is going to be. Think about your dissertation. What’s the next thing you have to do to get done? If you answered, “write chapter 3”, think again: that’s not a next action. That’s a project.


Review is probably the most often overlooked but most helpful part of GTD. You can do this once a week, once a day, twice a day, whatever works best. Once a year, however, is not good enough: things change to quickly. My review day is Sunday. I set a couple of hours aside to make sure I go through every single project and subject it to the “Do It, Defer It, Delegate It, Drop It” test. I check off actions that I have completed. I go through my inbox, set up new projects, and get rid of completed ones. I organize my coming week based on what I want to accomplish each day of the following week. Review is critical because the fact is you may have outlined a series of actions for a project, but that project doesn’t go as planned. Something happened. Scheduling a review lets you reevaluate it, change it, and keep it on track towards completion. Towards being Done. Doing it every week ensures that you are keeping your Inbox clean and checking on all of your projects. That way, nothing slips through the cracks.

This is just a basic overview of GTD. There are a number of other concepts that he discusses that are also helpful, such as the Tickler file and Horizons, that will help you put GTD into action. There are also some great super users online, the most well known being Merlin Mann of  From my end, I can’t recommend it enough: it has helped me look at my work in a number of different ways, some of which I am sure I’ll share down the line. In the meantime, be sure to invest in this great book, and start Getting Things Done.

[Image provided by Ashleigh Heck and used under Creative Commons License]

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