“Getting Things Done”: The workflow

Okay. I can write a lot more about the details of each of these things, and I probably will.  But I’m gonna start by summarizing the core workflow of GTD.

When you are confronted with “stuff”, you need to figure out what needs to be done with it.  What is “stuff”? I’ll quote David Allen for this:

“anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined what, exactly, it means to you, with the desired outcome and the next action step.” (Getting Things Done, 2015 ed., p.18)

So: “I want a new dog” is “stuff”, because you haven’t figured out the next step in getting one. “Dave gave me this book of ancient Chinese poetry” is “stuff” until you make some decisions; do you want to keep the book or re-gift it? If you’re keeping it, do you want to read it now or put it away for future reading?  “Buy a cluster of stem tomatoes” is “stuff” until you put it on your grocery list, which implicitly defines the next action as “go to the grocery store”.

The tomatoes example makes an important point: even if you know precisely what is to be done, it’s “stuff” until you have properly written the thing down in some organizational system where it can be properly managed.  If you have an actual grocery list, thinking about the tomatoes isn’t going to keep bothering you, because you know you wrote it down where it belongs.  Your mind stops nagging you “Don’t forget to buy tomatoes!”

So here’s the workflow in summary.  I’ll go into each of these in plenty more detail in later posts.

The initial filtering process

  1. Capture the item. Jot down the thing that needs to be done, or the idea you have; or put the physical objects that need to be dealt with in a single place to be processed, and so forth.
  2. Is the item “trash”? That is, could you just throw this physical object away, or can you just forget about doing the task that has come to your attention?  If so, delete the email, throw the object away, or whatever.  Make the “stuff” go away. Done!
  3. Okay, it’s not trash. Is it reference material? Is it something you want to keep because it’ll be useful in the future but doesn’t require anything to be done about it in itself? If so, file it in a place where you know where it is and it will be easy to find later.
  4. It’s not trash and it’s not reference; it’s something that could or should be done. “Get a new dog.” “Visit Iceland.” “Email Dave about the budget.” “Solve world hunger.”  Do you know that something needs to be done with it, or does it have to “incubate” for a while before you make up your mind?
    If it needs to “incubate”, put it on a “Someday/maybe” list.  You will review this from time to time if you’re practicing the GTD method, so you can be comfortable doing so. Done (for now)!

Note that “This has to sit for a while before I decide whether to do it” is not the same as “I know I need to do this, but it has to sit for a while before I can.”  The former is “Someday/maybe”.  The latter is still something that definitely requires action … you just need to be reminded of it later when you can do something about it.

Okay.  At this point, the “stuff” is in one of four places:

  • the trash, so you can forget it
  • the “someday/maybe” list, and you’ll review that periodically
  • the reference collection, and you know how to find it when you need it
  • the list of things that actually are going to get done: “actionable” things.  Next, we tackle those.

Organizing the actionable things

  1. Is it a project or a single action? See our previous posts and the example of “renovate the kitchen.”  If it’s a project, write it on a “Projects” list.  More on that later, but you’ve finished the initial “clarifying” process.
  2. Okay, it’s a single action. Can you do it, in the situation you’re in right now, in about two minutes or less? If you can, do it. Examples:
    • You’re at your laptop and you need to send someone a short piece of email to ask a question or tell them something.
    • You need to deposit a check.  You have the check with you, it’s already endorsed or you have a pen handy to do so, and either you’re right by an ATM or you have your smartphone and your bank lets you deposit from the phone.
    • You’re in a store.  You can afford the item you want to buy and it’s there on the shelf.
  3. It would take longer than that, or you’re not in a situation that allows you to do it.  Would it be best to hand this off to someone else? If so, then hand it off.  We call this “delegation”, but it doesn’t have to be a subordinate.  It could be referring something to your boss or to a friend or whoever’s right.
    If you need to follow up on to make sure it got done, put it on a “Waiting For” list, with a note of who you’re waiting for it from, and preferably when you asked for it.  Something like “Asked Bob for budget analysis on 18 July.”  Done (for now)! As with your “someday/maybe” list, reviewing your “waiting for” list is part and parcel of the methodology.
  4. It’s not a project, you can’t hand it off, and you can’t just do it right now.  Does it have to be deferred until some specific start date?  If it does, put it on a calendar on the date on which you can start it.  Done (until then)!
  5. Still here? That means it’s a single action that you can’t do right now and you can’t hand off, but it doesn’t have to wait for a particular start date. Put it on a “next actions” list.  There will be a lot more to say about next actions lists later, but once again, the essential thing is, it’s not in your head, it’s on a list.

So in summary, here’s all the possible destinations of a piece of “stuff”:

  1. Trash
  2. Reference Material
  3. Someday/Maybe list
  4. Projects list
  5. Waiting For list
  6. Calendar
  7. Next Actions list
  8. … or else you actually did it.

Congratulations.  The thing in question is now where it needs to be, for the moment.  You captured it, and you clarified what it is and what it means.

This post really should serve as a summary for future reference (heh).  Before you try to really engage the process, you will want some of the details I can give you about each of the steps.  That’ll be in the next post.