Three from GTD

I was going to write about how Getting Things Done and Save the Cat have worked together in my brain for the past few weeks. But then I realized I needed to explain a little about about GTD.

The problem is, I never have spoken a lot about the specifics of GTD or STC because I figured it might not be cool to talk about specifics, when I’m sure both Blake Snyder and David Allen would prefer you to buy their books and not pick up their systems off a blog.

Then I realized, the few tidbits I spill here would only convince you that you do need to buy their books.

So here I am, about to give you three basic ideas from GTD, for starters.

First, what is GTD all about? It’s about reducing stress, possibly even eliminating most of your stress. How? Well, how much of the stress that is tightening the cords in your neck right now from things hanging over your head that you ought to do, or need to do, or just think you probably should do, but can’t do anything about right this second, anyway?


David Allen proposes that your brain keeps working and worrying ideas repetitively — when you can’t do a damn thing about the idea at that moment — unless you have a trusted system where you can store the idea until it’s time to think about it. Maybe you’re simply reminding yourself, “Oh wait — my mom’s birthday is tomorrow, I have to remember to send flowers and call her,” when you’re in a place where you can do neither, so you keep reminding yourself, hoping you’ll actually remember to do it when you get back to a phone (send flowers) and tomorrow (call her). Or maybe it’s a huge work project. Something tiny or something huge, your brain can’t file it away until the right time, so instead it keeps dumping it all in your lap at the same time.


As soon as “I ought to” or “I need to” or “I want to” enters your head, it becomes an incomplete task and your brain starts dealing with it, unless you relieve your brain of its responsibility.

So, first, learn to write everything down.

This isn’t exactly a new idea. People have been doing it for centuries. And it’s what the idea of planners (my fave, the Franklin Planner, especially) were built on. If you trained yourself to turn the page of your planner every single day you would see the reminder to ORDER FLOWERS the day before your mom’s birthday, and then you could forget about it again until the next day, when you turned the page and saw CALL MOM – HAPPY BIRTHDAY waiting for you. And once you realized that this was safe, you’d learn to open your planner the day you got it, go through and put in those birthday reminders, and forget about birthdays until the time came that you needed to do something about them. You’d learn to write down your ideas as soon as they popped in your head, and to cross-reference back to them or forward to when you’d need them again. You’d get all this “stuff” out of your head and feel a whole lot better because you weren’t worried about losing details and forgetting important things.

David Allen has taken this farther. He’s given a few basic principles that handle all your “stuff.” Not just appointments and ideas and to-do lists, but even how you handle all the “stuff” that passes through your hands. (And he leaves the details up to you — whether you want to use a PDA, computer, paper, or any combination. It’s about what makes you most comfortable and productive.)

Here’s an example. The stuff on your desk and in your office. The first thing he has you do is gather everything that doesn’t belong where it is, the way it is, permanently into one (probably huge) “in basket” (which in my case was a humongous pile of stuff in the middle of the living room floor – gack!), leaving your office/desk/surfaces all cleared. (Hey, maybe you won’t even have to dust, because there hasn’t been a bare surface for dust to gather on … I mean, it could happen. Not that I’m saying it happened to me or anything.)

Then when you’ve cleared all that stuff out (leaving behind supplies, reference materials, equipment/furniture, and decorations that you still like) you process through it piece by piece until the mountain — I mean pile — I mean in basket is gone.

And when you finish, everything is where it is supposed to be, the way it’s supposed to be. Or it’s gone. And all those projects waiting to be done? Are in “mute” mode, not “drive you crazy running a hamster wheel in your brain” mode.

Wow. What a concept.

Now he gives you all sorts of mental tools to accomplish this, and urges you to get the physical tools you need, too. So if you’re really ready to tackle this, I suggest you buy his book.

But here are three mental tools that rocked my world.

ONE: Pick up the thing on top. Process it. (Again, read his book.) Then move to the next. Do NOT pick up the easy thing underneath it. Because you will end up having handled all the easy things, and still have a pile of things that are harder to process. Take them in order, and don’t let yourself put stuff off, because putting it off only makes it get harder to think about, because now you know it’s there waiting for you and that will just make those cords in your neck knot up again, dummy. Deal off the top, first things first, and then move on.

This counts whether you’re excavating a mountain or just emptying your real in basket, or even reading email. Just deal with it and move on, don’t let it pile up while you handle easy stuff and know that the tough stuff is still swimming around the periphery of your mind, with an occasional flash of dorsal fin to fill you with dread….

TWO: Anything that can be done in two minutes or less?


So here I picked up an ice scraper off the mountain and thought, “This goes in the car,” and started to put it aside, you know, until I had more things to take to the car. Because that’s what we’ve been told is productive, right? Put everything that’s going to the car in one stack and take it all at once.

But that’s stupid. All you’d be doing is rearranging the mess. So I just dashed out to the car and put it up. Came back in, twenty minutes later I dashed out to the car again to take something else. But in that twenty minutes I was visibly seeing the mountain shrink — well I could tell it was smaller whether anybody else could or not.

The thing is, putting it aside to handle later is what caused this mess to accumulate to begin with. So if it’s two minutes or less, do it now. (And let me tell you, that counts for just about anything. It’s amazing how much difference it makes to just adapt that little rule. For example, the funeral flowers I was supposed to order last week that wouldn’t have taken two minutes if I’d ever done it, but I kept thinking I’d do “later…” Sigh.)

THREE: This one is so powerful, I tremble to think of it. And so easy. (That’s the thing about David Allen — his entire system is based on the idea that if it’s not easy, you won’t do it. Nothing complex here. It’s all easy.)

You know why you have a pile of stuff on your desk, right? Because you aren’t one of those “born organized” people who automatically know what to do with it. There’s some stuff that’s so important, you knew immediately what to do, where to put it, how to process it. There’s other stuff that went straight into the trashcan.

Now you’ve got the stuff that lies somewhere in between, because you weren’t sure what to do with it, maybe you didn’t want to think about it “right now,” and now it covers your world.

David Allen gives you a filing system so simple it’s ingenious, and suddenly you have a place to put all those little bits of info that you want to hold onto but aren’t sure what to do with them — just file everything, even if it’s only one sheet of paper. It’s part of your “trusted system” that relieves your stress because now, not only do you know you still have it, but you know where.

Wow, what a concept. (I know there are born organized people who are either laughing their asses off at me, or scratching their heads in utter amazement that anybody has to be told these things. Just shut up.)

But then there’s stuff that you aren’t sure whether you’ll ever need it again or not. Again, this is why it’s on your desk/kitchen counter/coffee table. Because you haven’t made up your mind yet what to do with it, and don’t want to think about it right now.

Well, right now is when to think about it, and then never think about it again, ever.

The answer is simple.






It makes no difference.

Wait; let that sink in a minute.


Simply figure out which answer relieves your stress. The idea of going ahead and filing everything so you know someday it will be there when you need it? Or the idea of tossing it, getting rid of it, knowing that if it’s really important it will crop up again. “Hmm, this looks like a kind of cool photography course, I’ve always wanted to take a photography course, but I don’t have time right now, maybe I should file it for future reference — except by the time I ever think of it again this info will be so out of date it will be worthless — but it looks like a good course maybe I should file it and at least know the instructor’s name if I decide to look it up later…” My ultimate answer was “Trash it. If I ever decide to take a photography course I’ll research it then.”

It really does make no difference. It’s just what makes you (or me) more relaxed. And in my case, the more stuff that ended up getting trashed, the better I felt.

And here is the magic.

Once you make that decision — trash or file?

You never make it again.

Let that sink in.

You make that decision once, and never again. From that point forward, you know automatically what to do with those things. You’re either going to file them or trash them. Because you know which makes you feel better.

So that’s it. Handle what’s on top and work your way down. If it can be done in two minutes or less, do it now. And decide once — right now — whether you’d rather have everything “just in case” or trash stuff you’re not sure of. Decide now, then never have to think about it again.

(I think I’m going to GTD the kitchen next. Don’t tell Sam. I think it’s better to spring the next mountain on him by surprise, rather than have him stressed anticipating it. Heh.)



Filed under Getting Things Done

16 responses to “Three from GTD

  1. Damn. How could I turn three simple things into such a long post? Maybe I should edit it down. Maybe I will. Later. Ahem.

  2. Nice post. OK, since I’m wallowing in clutter AND am stressed out–maybe there’s a connection–I’m going to get this book. But it has to be kept secret from my wife because…if she finds it she’ll hit me over the head with it. (Hope it doesn’t weigh too much). Thanks for the tip. Of course, the real test is: are you still doing this a year from now?

  3. My desk is still clean, does that count? I’m still working on using the entire system more effectively, which is one reason why I comb the web, looking for blogs and sites where people are talking about it. But it’s a solid system and the stuff I’m doing has made a huge difference.

  4. Great post pooks – I like how you boil it down to three simple ideas and yet make the reading fun 🙂

  5. Thanks, Wannabe! It’s all a matter of ignoring punctuation and grammar, oops.

  6. Nah, don’t edit or distill it. This summary is PERFECT. Not too long to get boring, and not too short to be trite. And it really spells it out so clearly. I am sending this to people who are on the fence about GTD and also as an introduction to it.

  7. Thanks a lot, kenzi — I’m glad it didn’t confuse or bore you.

    If you go to the main page of the blog, there are other GTD entries, too.

  8. pooks,

    I really enjoyed reading your post. It was engaging, witty and motivating, and like a good film critic you provided just enough to whet the appetite of people who want to learn more about GTD without giving away too much!

  9. Pooks,

    This was a fantastic write up. An absolute joy to read and quite motivational too. Your posts in the GTD Yahoo Group are good too. I have read the book but I am having a lot of trouble sticking with things. I have partially implemented his system but I still get off-track way to easily. Hopefully, by reading this I can get my act together. BTW, I love your nickname.


  10. Thank you, speaker and Ankit. (I like my nickname, too!)

  11. Bill

    The concepts in Getting Things Done are absolutely invaluable and will improve your productivity right away. I tried several times to implement the system with different software products but was unable to do so.

    Finally, I went back to a paper system called The Bubble Planner and have been able to stick with the system for several months now. My productivity has skyrocketed as well as my creativity.

  12. Great summary, pooks. But your a writer, so of course it is great! The 3 points is a brilliant precis of the material.

  13. I don’t know about brilliant — they just were the kinds of “tricks of the trade” that jumped off the page for me. But thanks for the compliments!

  14. I’m glad you brought this thing up again. I hadn’t read this post and I need it today. Thanks.

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