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 much more simple. It’s really just the Right Way to make and manage lists so you can focus on doing things instead of thinking about what you have to do.
The idea is 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 and procrastinators. GTD works fine for gunners, but it is also a really effective productivity system for lazy people and procrastinators who still need to get things done.
In this post, I will cover the essentials of GTD, plus some tips for applying GTD in a law practice. You should still read the book and go through the exercises in it, but this will give you the essence so you can get started with Getting Things Done even before you start reading Getting Things Done.
Getting Things Done: the Essentials
If you are intimidated by Getting Things Done, these are the three most essential concepts that you can start applying without reading the book or trying to implement full-on GTD, and you’ll still be more productive if you do.
Capture: the Inbox
Inboxes—collection points—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 look at them or deal with them. Resist this impulse. Instead, set aside time to process your inbox to empty, as often as necessary to keep it manageable. You may need to process your email inbox a few times a day, but your physical inbox may require 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 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. Not yet. Just write it down. It helps to use a separate page or card or note for each thing and to drop these notes into your inbox every chance you get.
Other things that can go into your inbox:
- Dead batteries
- Expired credit cards
- A box of evidence you need to return to your client
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. The key to inboxes is to use them only to collect stuff. Once you take something out of the inbox, it never goes back. So what do you do with it? 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 inboxes 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. Sort everything you can’t do in two minutes into three piles and the trash can. 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 a goal.
While processing, you may find reference material. If you don’t have to do anything with an item, but you want to keep it around, it’s reference material.
Most people put goals on their to-do lists. For example, a typical to-do list might include “Respond to the 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. A goal.
The things you need to do are next actions. They have a verb, a completion state, and are one discrete task. It helps to use complete, descriptive sentences. 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 composite 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 your law practice management software.
- Create a filing checklist.
- Print the key cases cited in the defendant’s brief.
- Outline response.
- Draft the 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. 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 law practice management software, task management software, or Outlook, 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.
However, clients and matters don’t fit neatly into the GTD system because projects in Getting Things Done are smaller than legal matters. Most of the matters you work on are actually a collection of projects in GTD terms, 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 or matters they belong to. The best solution we have come up with is our Lawyerist Productivity Journal.
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
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 just use it.
Watch the Video, Get the Book, and Make the Most Of It
You should definitely read Getting Things Done if you haven’t already. It truly is a life-changing productivity system.
But if you do get the book and read it, plan to follow 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.
Just search “my GTD system” to see how flexible it is. People have implemented GTD using everything from Outlook to index cards. Once you work GTD into your workflow, you will be able to leave your office every day (or for a vacation) without worrying about what you have to do next, since your to-dos will be stored in your trusted system.
Originally published 2019-01-11. Republished 2019-10-21.
Last updated September 7th, 2022