Getting Things Done (GTD)

“Effectively doing while you are delightfully being” 

David Allen

This GTD approach will free your mind to be creative. At the very same time it will also help you to do the things that must be done to become a Free Creative.

This approach will marry your vision of what you want to achieve with actions in your day-to-day life. And energize you to break through the barriers along the way towards making your dream a reality.

Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

The following lesson is based upon the book: “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity” by David Allen, Penguin, 2015. [To purchase the book].


Needed for this lesson: 60 minutes; notebook; pencil; eraser; calendar; an in-tray; Trello (optional) [To download Trello].

This lesson will include 6 short exercises and 1 short break to move the body and rest the mind.


Setting up Trello

Exercise 1: Will take 5 minutes

Trello is an excellent organisational tool that is free to use. It gives you information at a glance, where you can drop and drag items as you work through your to do list.

You don’t have to use Trello if you don’t want to. You can do the rest of the lesson without it—using your own productivity system.

Set up a board in Trello called “Freedom”. Then build the following lists:

  • In Tray: To capture things as they come to mind
  • Next Actions: The things you will work on next
  • Waiting For: For things that you are waiting for others to proceed
  • Someday Maybe: For things that you would love to do but not yet
  • Reference: For things that you want to remember, but are not actionable
  • Done: For things that you have completed

Mind Sweep

Exercise 2: Will take 5 minutes

Put a stop watch on and spend 5 minutes dumping every single thing that is on your mind at the moment into your notebook.

You can use a MIND MAP if that helps but the important thing is to be fast. Don’t worry about making connections between things just list them. If you run out of space turn to another page and continue. Get it all out.

What is Your Dearest Dream?

What is your heart’s desire in life? What would life look like if you achieved it? Let’s get that down quickly. Off the top of your head. Write it in your notebook.

Processing Items on the Mind Sweep

Exercise 3: Will take 5 minutes

Download: GTD Workflow Diagram
[You can purchase a really cool version from the GTD website.]

Let’s pick things from the Mind Sweep list to process using the GTD workflow Diagram.

For each item ask What is it?

Is it actionable? (something you can do something about, as opposed to something that is just occupying your mind, etc). If it is actionable, add it to your In Tray. [If you are using Trello, make a card for each item in the Trello In Tray list.]

If it is not actionable, but you would like to remember it—put it in your Reference list. Anything else can be literally torn up and thrown in the bin. Get’s it off your mind.

If you haven’t processed the whole Mind Sweep list by the end of 5 minutes, come back and continue later till you are done—which is a very cathartic experience.

Processing Items in Your In Tray

Exercise 4: Will take 5 minutes

Now it is time to decide what is the next action for items in your In Tray.

Start by selecting things that are most important to you. By asking: “How does this relate to my Dearest Dream?”

If it is not important or related to your Dearest Dream, set it aside for later. [In Trello, move it to your Someday Maybe list].

What is the Next Action?

This is the most critical question in the entire GTD process.

If you answer this question appropriately you’ll have the key substantive thing to organize.

The “next action” is the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the current reality of this thing towards completion.

Here we want to turn undefined, vague words into clear action statements. What we would see you doing as you work on and complete this action.

For example: A vague word like “de-clutter” becomes “empty my sock drawer of old socks.”

The action statement must be specific, concise and doable.

The Next Action Decision Standard is a process of working backwards to find the absolute next action and forwards to connect this with your Dearest Dream. Back and forth between the two until you have a precise next action statement.

Thinking backwards: Often people start further down the track when they identify an action to start with. It often helps to ask yourself “is there anything else, no matter how trivial, that must occur before I can do this action?”

It also helps to ask: “what am I trying to achieve by getting this action done?” This is a big picture question. A high level, quality of life question.

Thinking forwards, make sure that getting this thing done is going to be worth the effort it will take and result in moving you closer to realizing your Dearest Dream. 

What does done look like?

Lastly, as you drag this item into your Next Action list, you have to consider what getting it done looks like. How will you know if it is done? What will be produced? How will you feel? You can describe this outcome in the description section of a Trello card, if it helps keep your on track.

Waiting For…

Sometimes you start an action, then have to wait for someone else to complete their part before you can get it completely don. We park these items in the Waiting For list. It is important to check up on these regularly so they don’t slip off your radar.

Short Break

Get up, stretch, walk around the room, get a drink, go to the loo, come back in 3 minutes.

Projects

Exercise 5: Will take 5 minutes

A project is any action or series of actions that will take more than 2 minutes and no longer than 1 year to perform. 

Best practice: Knock off the stuff that takes 2 minutes or less while you are processing your In Tray.

For any action that will take more than two minutes to complete; you may have to break it down into doable chunks. If you are finding that you Next Actions list is too long, you can start creating lists that group related actions under a project name.

For example: “Prepare to move house” Is a project that may take weeks to complete. You would create a list with this heading and start to identify doable chunks of work such as “Empty sock drawer of old socks“.

Go through your Next Action list and arranged your items into appropriate project listings.

Remember:

  • Projects should tie directly into your Dearest Dream: especially how they help to make you a Free Creative.
  • Project list headings can describe what done looks like. For example: a vague word like “new house” becomes “Set up in new house.”
  • Organize projects in order of priority:
    • Park a project into Someday Maybe if it is not of the highest priority and you have high priority things to get on with.
    • Always be willing to cancel projects and actions. Just because you thought of them and wrote them down does not mean you have to do them, right?
    • Only move an action item from Projects into Next Actions when you are imminently ready to work on it to get it done.
  • Don’t spend time thinking too far ahead listing potential actions for a project, this just clutters up your lists.

Add action items when they come to mind—via the In Tray.

Outcome Focus

Exercise 6: Will take 5 minutes

In the Getting Things Done universe there is a concept called Horizon Scanning. The idea is to set your big picture visions and dreams, then work backwards from that distant horizon, through five closer horizons, to arrive at the current actions that need to be taken to progress your dream.

Five horizons to scan when making your plans

We suggest you spend a few minutes considering your big picture. As someone on the path to creative freedom, your scan might look like this, (working backwards from your higher purpose):

  • Horizon 5: Purpose and principles: Be a Free Creative (Dearest Dream).
  • Horizon 4: Longer term vision (3-5 years): Become a master of my art.
  • Horizon 3: Goals (next 1 to 2 years): Have an exhibition of my work.
  • Horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountability: Paint 50 pictures for my exhibition.
  • Horizon 1: Current projects: Working on my latest painting.
  • Ground: Current actions: Block in the under-painting for my latest painting.

Putting GTD into practice

From now on everything that occupies your attention should be put into this GTD system. Straight into the In Tray, then processed on a daily basis.

Daily Practice:

You will need to set aside time each day to get your Next Actions done.

If they cannot be done quickly, move them back into Projects or Someday Maybe.

Weekly Review:

Once a week you will need to set aside time to:

  • Get your In Tray to empty (another cathartic experience)
  • Review the Next Action list: mark things as done (the fun part)
  • Review your Calendar: add items that popped up here to your In Tray
  • Review the Waiting For list: check if you can progress these items
  • Review Projects: move items to Next Actions for the upcoming week

In a crisis use the Weekly Review to get back under control. Whenever you fall off the GTD wagon, it is easy to get back on—just perform another Mind Sweep and add it all to Trello.

Quarterly Planning Session:

Take the time once every 12 weeks to think about how you are progressing. Perform an in depth Horizon Scanning exercise. Look at your Projects—what is taking too long? Can you hurry it up?

Look at Some Day Maybe—what’s been sitting in there for too long. Shall we just cancel it now? Can we just tear it up and throw it in the bin. Get it off your mind?

Ultimately GTD is about writing your dreams down, defining real projects, then ensuring that next actions are decided on—until the finish line is crossed.

It takes about 6 months to form the habit and 2 years to master GTD.

Good luck. Enjoy.

A Day in the Life: Of a Free Creative

What will we be doing in 2050?

Bill Gates predicted the following things for the year 2050:

  • Fewer humans (because of bio-terrorism and pandemic)
  • Most jobs lost to automation
  • Africa self sufficient in food
  • Poverty and Polio beaten
  • Clean energy powering the world

And mobile banking will transform our lives.

En plein air painting location

So now I am going to imagine a day in my life 30 years from now:

I will paint; travel the world to relevant and interesting locations; weave a story around my paintings; make videos; put these up online; write articles. I will become a master of my art; polish off lessons; go into my online course to talk to my peers and students; and have no fear that it will all end soon and I’ll have to go back to a job.

On this perfect day there will be no other list of things to do. No more things to get done to make this day possible. No more saving up or working towards this day. No more investing in the future so that I can have this day, or delaying gratification until this day arrives. This day will finally become the first day of the rest of my life. The life I really want to live.

Then I wondered—how quickly can I make this day happen? I don’t want to wait 33 years. I may not be alive in 33 years. But looking at my current to do list, it might take me forever, because my to do list is always full; and mainly of stuff I really do not want to do. 

Bill Gates said “most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”

So I wondered—what would happen if I just started living my perfect day—today? If I scrapped my to do list and just started painting and writing? 

I realized that I would stop getting paid. And then how would I afford to live?

This got me thinking seriously, for the first time in my life, about the way I live, the cost of my lifestyle and the many possible ways I might be able to fund my perfect life without having to ever go to a job again.

It all came down to: I could live my perfect life now if I owned my own house and could get a small annual income from investments.

Climbing out of the hole (Physical Freedom)

I couldn’t just make this happen instantly, but I began to see ways to work rapidly towards it. When I brainstormed ways, dozens of great ideas came to mind. [I could sell my house, pay off my mortgage, buy something smaller, then invest the remaining in an index fund. Or I could rent my house out, move to a smaller house and pay a lot less in rent to quickly pay off my mortgage. Or I could tighten the belt completely, take on extra contracts and put all my money into paying off my mortgage.] 

So many options started to occur to me.

And it began to look like I actually could make my dream happen in less than 10 years, possibly even as soon as 1 year.

Just the possibility of being free like this energized me. I started seeing myself climbing out of a hole.

Putting my art practice first (Mental Freedom)

But I did not want to put my artistic practice on hold. So I knew, whatever effort I made to become free now would also have to include becoming a master at my art. In fact from this point onwards, I committed to putting my art practice first. Literally.

First principle: I get my art done each day and worry about everything else after that. Even if it means I have to get up at 5 am and spend the first two hours painting, drawing, writing, creating.

This commitment solved the dilemma of delayed gratification. And as soon as I put it into practice I felt happier about getting on with the paid work. That sense of being trapped in a job that was taking me away from my art disappeared.

As a contractor I started to pick up work because it paid well, not because it might be “satisfying”. I was getting enough satisfaction from my daily artistic endeavours. My preference now is for short term, highly paid gigs. In and out. Rather than full time permanent positions. In my field (design) there is plenty of work like this. The shorter the contract the higher the pay, as a rule. 

Hitting the ground running (Economic Practice)

This was going against the mainstream, because most people want permanency. And hitting the ground running is a specialized skill that most people don’t have because it takes practice.

In and out. You can put up with a lot when you know you are not hanging around. For example, you are not affected by workplace politics or the stressful undercurrents caused by restructures. You are either working in an environment where contractors are needed to fill vacancies during a restructure or because this is the way everyone works in that place. So people are nice to you because they know you are not competing with them for their jobs. Your work is usually well organised, because a business case was required to afford to bring you in. And you are generally performing an urgent and important function, otherwise why have you there on a short contract?

As an artist, I enjoy finding creative ways to hit the ground running. I have designed first day practices to get to know the lay of the land. I like meeting new people, finding new cafes, travelling to new, interesting locations. All of this even inspires my creative projects. I feel like I am moving around and getting new experiences; in my hometown. Which is good practice for when I am actually travelling around the world later.

I have also enjoyed finding creative ways to save money. Although I am earning more now than ever before, I do not want to delay my dream so I have designed clever but cheap workwear, commuting hacks, bringing my own meals, my little tea cup ceremony, mindfulness meditations interspersed everywhere and walking as a fitness treat. 

I am pouring all my money into my portfolio (that is how I view my possessions, investments, assets and education) now with a sense of achievement rather than denial. And I can see the top of the hole. I have a very definite dollar figure for what it will take to be completely out of that hole. To pay off my mortgage and have an investment to fund my much reduced cost of living. 

But the interesting thing is, I don’t feel as vehement about escaping from the workforce. I feel like I already have. Don’t get me wrong, I now have concrete and realistic plans to move to live in Europe in two years from now, so I am not going to be hanging around. If you had asked me one year ago if any of this was on my horizon I would have said “sure, in my long term dreams”.

How to devise a daily routine

Use the Creative Freedom Model to consider potential artistic, economic and strategic practices you could put into place. What can be done on a daily basis?

Incorporating all three practices into each day leads to mastery.

The most effective daily routine would look like the diagram below. Your artistic practices (A) are supported by your economic (E) and strategic practices (S). And there is a synergy between the three.

Daily practice synergy

In my case my daily routine includes:

  • Artistic: painting, drawing, writing
  • Economic: living frugally and investing
  • Strategic: sharpening the saw: learning, thinking, reflecting. 

The real challenge is to keep these three sets of practices in balance. Not to let one completely take over and dominate. I do this by continually asking: 

  • What should be in and what should be out?
  • What practices are not helping me to become and stay a free creative?

At first it may feel like you are spending a lot of time on strategic and economic practices. But then they become second nature and the amount of time and energy you get to spend on your art increases.

The freedom not to create

Finally, let’s allow ourselves some down time. When we do not have to be creative. When we are free to just BE. In building our perfect practices we do not want to create a new master. There is a tyranny in self-discipline. There will be days when you just need a rest. A break from all this thinking and effort. On a day like that, let yourself switch off. Be gentle on yourself. Be free to be free.