Getting Things Done is both a book and a productivity system. But GTD, as it is affectionately known by its practitioners, does not prescribe a set of tools. It is really much more simple. It’s really just the Right Way to make and manage lists.
“You have to think about your stuff more than you realize but not as much as you’re afraid you might.” (Page 15.)
The system is quite simple: get your stuff out of your head and into a trusted system that holds everything you need to do at work, at home, and anywhere else. Once you clear your mind by getting your to-do lists out of your head and into your system, you can stop putting out fires and start focusing on doing things, instead of just thinking about doing things all the time.
You may think productivity systems are for gunners, but GTD is for anyone who wants to get more done with less stress. Read: lazy people. GTD works fine for gunners, but it is also a really-effective productivity system for lazy people. Lazy people who still need to get things done, that is. Like me. And probably many of you.
Here is the gist of GTD, and some tips for applying GTD in a law practice. This article is no substitute for actually reading the book and going through the exercises in it, but it will give you the overview, and you can probably get started doing GTD before you even start reading Getting Things Done.
Capture: The Inbox
Inboxes are key to GTD, and to use them properly, you have to shift your thinking just a bit. Inboxes are not places to store the things you have to do. They are places to capture the things you have to do.
A key tenet of GTD is the separation of capturing, processing, and doing. Capturing is just gathering everything you need to work on, in as few places as possible. Hence, the inboxes.
You should have as few inboxes as you can, but as many as you need. Most people will need at least two: an email inbox, and a physical inbox on their desk. You may be tempted to pull things out of your inboxes one at a time to process them, like you always have. Resist this impulse. Instead, set aside time to process your inbox to empty, as often as it needs it. You may need to process your email inbox a few times a day, but your physical inbox may need processing only once a week.
The key is to separate the gathering of information from the processing of the stuff you have gathered, and from the doing the tasks you have put together. Your inboxes are just collection points.
From day to day, write down everything that pops into your head that you need to do. You can carry around a notebook or notecards, or use something like Evernote. Do not do it. Just write it down. Use a separate page or card or note for each thing, and drop these notes into your inbox every chance you get.
Other things that can go into your inbox:
- Dead batteries
- Expired credit cards
And so on. In short, anything and everything you have to do something with. Just don’t worry about what you have to do, yet. That comes next.
Do It, Delegate It, Defer It, Drop it: the Heart of the Getting Things Done System
You should sit down to process your inbox at least once a week. When you do sit down to process your inbox, you will mostly just be sorting things into your system, but anything you can do in two minutes or less, you should just do right away.
In other words, take one thing out of your inbox at a time. Decide what needs to happen to it. If you can do it right now, in two minutes or less, do it. Otherwise, delegate it, defer it, or drop it.
Sort everything into three piles and the trash can. While processing, you may find reference material, too. If you don’t have to do anything with an item, but you want to keep it around, it’s reference material.
The three piles correspond to three lists:
- Do Now. Anything you can do right now.
- Waiting. Anything you have delegated. This list functions as a “tickler” so you can follow up with people you are waiting on.
- Later. Anything you have deferred. It can be helpful to add due dates to the items in this list, or you can use the 43 folders method (see below).
What you put on those lists (or in those folders) should be the “next action” towards the goal.
Most people put goals on their to-do lists. For example, a typical to-do list might include “respond to defendant’s motion for summary judgment” or “plan a trip to Hawaii” or just “SmithCo merger.” But those do not describe what you need to do, they describe what you ultimately want to accomplish.
The things you need to do are next actions. If you need to deposit your client’s advance payment, that’s a next action: “Deposit Smith retainer check at Wells Fargo.” Many tasks are actually composit tasks, though. In GTD, these are projects.
It is natural to think of each client or matter as a project. But in GTD terms, a project is merely anything you need to accomplish that consists of multiple steps. Take that summary judgment response, for example. The next actions might include:
- Add filing deadline to Clio
- Create filing checklist
- Print key cases cited by defendant
- Outline response
- Draft statement of facts
Because projects will consist of next actions across your lists, think of the project as a label or tag that goes with a next action. In Remember the Milk, for example, which is what I use, you would probably just use a tag for each project. On paper, you might keep a separate list for the project, so that you can see all the related next actions at the same time. However you do it, make sure that all your active projects have a next action at all times. When you complete one, add the next one.
You can track things to do later on a list, with due dates. This is especially effective if you use Outlook or Clio or Remember the Milk, so that you get a reminder when things are coming due. But you can also use a low-tech-but-highly-effective method, the 43 folders.
The 43 folders are just that, 43 manila folders. Label 12 with the months, and the other 31 with the numbers 1–31. Put them all in a file cabinet next to your desk. The folder for the current month goes in front, then the numbered folders, then the other months.
When you defer something, put it in the month that it will come due. The last day of each month, take out the next month’s folder and sort anything in it into the numbered folders. (If you’ve got a deadline on the 15th, however, you may want to “tickle” yourself the month before. To do this, just drop a reminder in the previous month, or even a couple of reminders, if you want to keep reminding yourself as the deadline approaches.)
Each morning, take out the folder for that day of the month, pull out anything in it, and add the next action to your Do Now list.
The 43 folders are a simple and effective, paper-based tickler system.
You will also receive reference material. This might be stuff you just want to hold onto, or it may support a project you are working on. A set of alphabetical folders works great for this, and they can be in a physical file cabinet, or on your computer. A personal database like Evernote also works well for reference material.
Using GTD in a Law Practice
GTD is perfect for lawyers. Lawyers are “knowledge workers,” which means they are just the sort of people David Allen had in mind as he was coming up with GTD.
The only difficulty I have had applying GTD in my law practice is figuring out how to fit clients and matters into the system. Because, as I mentioned above, under Projects, the client or the matter is rarely the project. Most of the matters you work on are actually a collection of projects, like opening the file, getting up to speed on the background, creating documents, and so on.
So you will have plenty of projects, but when it comes to your practice you also need to organize projects and next actions under the clients they belong to. My solution was my paper work plan, which helps me organize next actions under the relevant matter. The only downside is that I never figured out an easy way to track projects as part of the work plan. I would generally just use an ad-hoc tag on the list (like “+MSJ”) to help me keep each project moving forward.
Staying on top of deadlines is, obviously, one of a lawyer’s most-important tasks. That’s why a weekly review of your system is so important, so you don’t miss anything. Take the time to sit down and review your work plan or your lists at least once a week. Then make sure you identify what’s coming up, so you can work ahead of schedule, instead of just barely getting everything finished on time.
Don’t Let Getting Things Done Get in the Way of Getting Things Done
Just remember that fiddling with these tools is not the same thing as being productive.
Many people who get into GTD spend a lot of time coming up with their own, personal implementation of GTD. They play with pens and notebooks and apps and templates, and so on. You probably will, too. It can take a little while to figure out just how to get GTD to work in your life. Plus, it’s kind of fun. Just remember that fiddling with these tools is not the same thing as being productive. When you find something that works, stop fiddling and use it.
My GTD Toolbox
Because talking tools is part of the fun, though, here is what I use. I have three inboxes. The first is my email inbox. Then, I have my physical inbox, at my desk. And I use Evernote or whatever is handy to jot down notes on the go, or capture anything that needs capturing, including stuff from other inboxes, like Facebook, text messages, Hangouts, etc. Everything I capture gets dropped in my __Inbox_ notebook in Evernote by default.
Sometimes I carry my own version of the “Hipster PDA,” a bunch of blank index cards in a Levenger Shirt Pocket Briefcase. I prefer writing on paper, even if it is less convenient and means carrying more stuff. I just take notes or write things down, one thing to a card. Then, I drop the cards into my inbox, or else snap a picture of them using Evernote’s document camera.
(As long as you keep your inboxes to a minimum, it doesn’t really matter what you use to capture your thoughts. You could switch it up daily, as long as the things you capture end up in the same place: your inbox.)
I process my email inbox several times a day, and my other two inboxes about once a week. Anything I can’t knock out with the two-minute drill goes into Remember the Milk or Google Calendar.
Because I can do nearly everything on my to-do list from wherever I happen to be, I don’t find contexts particularly useful beyond the basic do now, waiting for, and later, which are my task lists in Remember the Milk. I also have a list for recurring tasks in Remember the Milk. I use tags for projects, which usually get their own tab, but I try to keep tags to a minimum so I can focus on just entering tasks, not tagging them.
My calendar is just a calendar, but I am dedicated to it. If it’s not on my calendar, I’m not doing it.
I use Instapaper for things I want to read later (usually on my iPhone or iPad), and Evernote for my reference file. And I use Delicious for saving links, although I should probably just use Evernote for that, too.
From day to day, I often make a list of most-important tasks, or MITs. These are the two or three tasks that, if I accomplish nothing else, will make for a productive day. When I was practicing law full-time, I used my work plan to keep track of my active cases (you could also track them as projects, but I liked having a dedicated work plan, on paper). Now, I use an editorial worksheet to keep track of deadlines and revisions in progress for Lawyerist.
When I sit down to work, I review my Do Now list and my editorial worksheet, pick a task I’m up for, and get it done. Checking off tasks gives me that little hit of endorphin, and I move on to the next one. This is a whole lot better than putting out fires all the time. Fires break out all the time, of course, but since I know I am in control of my task list, it is easier to process them into my system instead of feeling compelling to put every one of them out, right away.
My GTD-ish system is a bit more complicated than I would like, but it is about as simple as I can make it. And it has stayed pretty much the same for several years, now, which means I don’t waste time fiddling with it. My system is just how I do everything, from little things like scheduling a haircut or washing my daughters’ blankets for daycare to big things like redesigning Lawyerist or planning a vacation. Everything goes into the system.
That means that I really can check out of work on the weekends, or when I go on vacation. Everything I have to do will be waiting for me when I get back, safe in my system, so I don’t need to waste brain power worrying about it.
That’s the real value of GTD, I think. It’s not just that it’s a pretty effective way to get organized. The killer feature is that once you adopt GTD, you can check out completely. And when you check back in, you can be productive immediately.
Get the Book, and Make the Most Of It
Obviously, I think you should read Getting Things Done. It truly is a life-changing productivity system.
But if you do get the book and read it, plan on following the exercises. At one point, for example, Allen will tell you to sit in the center of each room in your office and your home with a stack of paper to capture all the “open loops” in those rooms (watering a plant, fixing the molding). And he will tell you to do the same with your email inbox, and just about anything else. This initial capture is critical. Don’t just read about it, do it.
You will not realize the benefits of GTD until you dive in and do it. And once you do, I’m positive you will be glad you did.
This article was originally published on July 16th, 2009. That’s why there are some really old comments on it. I re-wrote the post entirely and re-published it on December 12, 2013.