Elaheh Nazari

September 23, 2022

Or how David Allen’s Getting Things Done works.

I was interviewing Dan, one of our Clojure developers, and he told me about Getting Things Done, the method by which he plans his daily activities. Normally when I learn about theoretical methods I just read about them and pass, but when someone makes it practical others can too. Let’s learn how you can manage your life tasks easier.

How it looks like in normal life

Imagine you happily passed your great working day. On your way back home, you remember it’s your friend’s birthday and you think you will call him when you reach home, but when you arrive, you have to run your home errands like cooking, cleaning, and taking care of your pet. The next day, you feel awful and wonder how you can forget such an important thing.

Here is the reason. Your brain is for creating ideas, NOT for holding them. A stream of demands takes your attention anywhere you are so that things will slip out of your mind.

Only when your thoughts are organized, you can achieve effective results.

Getting Things Done

Getting Things Done (GTD) is a framework designed to help you with keeping track of different tasks, ideas, and projects. GTD system is made of 5 simple steps:

Capture, Process, Organize, Review, Engage

Everything starts with capturing all ideas, projects, to-do items, and any other random information that come your way every single day. Emails, calls, action items, talking to other people, ideas, and tasks born from your creativity are some examples. Wherever that information comes from, you need to capture it or externalize it so you won’t need to keep it in your mind.

Now that you have captured all information, you can make sense of it so you can move forward with your goals, instead of wanting to pull your heart out from all the information overload. For every item in your capture box ask yourself: “is it actionable?” There is only 1 answer, Yes or No!

If it is actionable, like an email from a colleague asking you about an update on the project you are both working on, ask yourself a follow-up question “Would it take 2 minutes or less to complete?” If the answer is “yes”, do it right away. If the answer is “no”, you should put this action off for later by adding it to an action list.

If there is a quick answer just do it and move on to the next, but if you want to discuss the topic, scheduling a meeting in the future can be the best option.

If the item you are processing is not actionable, like a confirmation of a payment you made for your monthly rent, you have 2 choices; discard it or keep it as a reference in case you need that information in the future.

Repeat the same process for every item. 

You’ve processed all the information, things are already looking up for you, now you need to organize it. 

You have an action list of all the doable items that you did not already do in the last step. Now you need to organize and prioritize them based on the following 3 criteria:  

By Project
By Time
By Context

Actions related to a certain project like creating slides for your monthly report or organizing a surprise party for your spouse can be grouped together. 

Actions with some sort of a deadline, or a time specific like a tradeshow should go on your calendar so you can deal with them when the time is right.

You can also group actions by context, like phone calls you need to make or groceries you should buy from the store.

You can also mix and match and put things in more than one category, like designing a booth you should design as an exhibitor that is held on Sunday, the 18th.

This is where you need to adjust and personalize GTD to fit your needs. You know best how to group and prioritize your items, and no one else can do this for you. You should be a little creative.

One thing to always remember is “What is the next possible action?”
If you sit down to call your friend for his birthday but don’t have his number you aren’t very efficient. 
The next action should’ve been “find his number” not “call him”.

Asking yourself questions will help you arrange things better. What is the next possible action that will help you arrange things much better than it’s going to be much more productive?

Now, that you’ve organized your action items, there is a brighter sunshine and a happier world. But what should you do about the non-actionable items?

So easy! They can be either kept for reference – like the warranty card of your laptop that you don’t really need until one of the keyboard is not working properly and your need to send it for a replacement.

Or they can be deferred for later – like that idea for your one-month travel that you would like to experience and still not sure about the country and when to start it, but you might prepare for it in 6 months -add it to a “someday maybe” list and create an action item to review this list in 6 months.


All the random information is now organized and you are ready to take over the world.

The next step is Review.

With so many things demanding your attention, things are bound to go out of place. This is where you have to review them. 

Every week, review your items and make any customization if needed. Is everything where it is supposed to be? Is there a stack of information somewhere in your flat or office that you need to process? A weekly review is essential to keeping everything running smoothly. Every month, take some time to review your short-term goals. Are your action items moving you towards your goals, or are you just keeping yourself busy? Are you saving for that matter? Are you learning the new sport you want or are you just in reaction mode? 

Schedule these regular reviews and reflection periods so you can ensure your life is moving on the right track.

The last step in GTD is called Engage.

This is where you actually act. Your calendar should contain all the tasks that you need to do today. Your project list tells you what you need to do to move a project forward. Your contexts will help you arrange things together. As you move in your day, crossing off all action items, new information will come your way. 

Now you know exactly what to do with it – capture it, decide if it is actionable if the answer is yes and you can get it done in 2 minutes or less, do it, if not put it on the appropriate action list. If the information is not actionable, it gets stored or ends up in the trash. 

Now you are as cool, calm, and collected as a yogi deep in meditation. Now your friend never has to spend another birthday without wishes from his best friend.