GTD for beginners, part 1

Book cover: Superwoman by Shirley ConranOne of the things you get asked a lot, as a writer (after “Where do you get your ideas from?”) is “How do you find time to write?”. The simplest answer is that you have to give up other time-consuming activities: watching TV, playing video games, even—to some extent—reading. But even that will only get you so far if, like me, you are juggling other responsibilities, such as a day job or family. And you still need some time for yourself to recharge your creative batteries, or you’ll burn out.

The big influence on my early adulthood was Shirley Conran’s “Superwoman” (a gift from my mum), which aimed to help the working women of the 1970s keep their lives in balance. As well as specific advice, she had one guiding principle: if you’re going to be lazy, you have to be organised. And being an inherently lazy person, I decided that organisation was my best bet 🙂

Book cover: Getting Things DoneI’ve tried a few other systems over the years, but the first one that has really worked for me is Getting Things Done (or GTD for short), first described by David Allen in the book of the same name. Being a long-time fan of organisation, I found it easy to implement, but I know (from comments on my blogs) that some people find it daunting – perhaps especially the creative, right-brained people amongst you! So, I thought I’d give my own perspective on GTD, and maybe inspire you to give it a go.

There are really only 3 basic tenets to GTD:

1. Make lists of everything you have to do, ought to do, or might want to do (at some nebulous time in the future).

2. Keep these lists scrupulously up-to-date and complete. If you don’t track these things, they will lurk in the back of your mind, causing you niggling stress.

3. Maintain a strict separation between the tasks that actually need doing, and the material you might need to refer to at some point in the future.

Given these basic principles, the trick to successful GTD is to develop a system that works for you. You’ll find lots of suggestions, in the GTD book and online, of methods you could use, but ultimately it doesn’t matter as long as your system allows you to follow the GTD basics.

Whilst keeping lists is important, the maintenance of them is vital to good GTD, so I’ll address this point first.


The crucial first step in GTD is capturing all incoming tasks and information in an efficient way. Allen calls the tools you use to do this “buckets”, as they are intended to be simple, temporary containers.

Big pile of notebooks
One notebook is enough! (Photo: Mhairi Simpson)

At a bare minimum you will need two buckets: a physical inbox for collecting snail-mail and other small objects that need your attention, and some kind of notepad (paper or electronic) in which to jot down all the to-dos and ideas that cross your mind. The physical inbox is naturally going to be confined to a single location (perhaps near the front door, though I keep mine in my home office), and the “notepad” should ideally be something small that you can keep with you at all times (e.g. a smartphone, or a small notebook and pen). Armed with the latter, you can soon get into the habit of recording thoughts as soon as they cross your mind, instead of having to carry them around until you get back to your desk. Hence it’s important to choose a method that doesn’t discourage you from doing so. If you tend to lose pens, maybe a smartphone is the best choice of bucket; if you find technology fiddly, don’t be ashamed to resort to paper and pen! Make it easy and fun, by choosing a stylish notepad or a cool new app – whatever increases the chance of you actually using it.

I prefer to have a combination of the two: a small spiral-bound notebook for shopping lists, and a notepad app on my iPhone for everything else. The reason for this is simple: I once dropped my Palm organiser in the supermarket and shattered the screen! Also, if my husband volunteers to go to the supermarket alone so that I can get on with my writing (he’s such a dear!), I can tear out a grocery list and give it to him. OK, so many apps allow you to email a note to someone, but unless your other half is also a GTD addict, it can get a little fiddly at that point.

On the iPhone I put new items straight into a GTD-friendly organisation app (of which more later), but for now you can just use your smartphone’s built-in ToDo list. Remember, keep it simple!

Making it happen

Your task this week is to set up your buckets.

1. If you already have an in-tray, empty its contents into a box, carrier bag or whatever – we’ll deal with that stuff next time. If you don’t have an in-tray, find or buy something suitable. It doesn’t have to be a formal office in-tray – any box or basket will do, as long as it’s big enough to hold about a week’s snail mail. Either way, all new mail and small items that need dealing with should go straight into it, the moment they cross your desk or drop through your letter-box.

2. Decide what kind of note-taking bucket suits you best – electronic or paper. If paper, buy a notebook and pen small enough to carry around with you everywhere. If electronic, either install a new notepad app on your device or, if you already have a favourite, back up its contents, delete them from the app and start using it only for GTD. (Or use both – but only if, like me, you have a clear separation of purpose.)

3. Get into the habit of jotting down every reminder that crosses your mind, the moment it does so (or as soon as you can). If you record it straight away, that’s the first step in ensuring it gets done.

Next week we’ll look at how to organise this amorphous mass of ToDos into a neat structure so that you don’t feel overwhelmed.

Happy organising!