Five Tips for the GTD Beginner

Today’s guest post is from Al at 7P Productions.

It has been a few weeks that I have been using David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. My first impression was that a lot of the steps seem obvious and that I was already partially doing it, but I am finding out that implementing the whole system has given me a lot more control over all the things I need to get done. My effectiveness is not just incremental; it’s increased to a new level.

For those who want to get started in GTD, the first thing I recommend is going straight to David Allen’s book. Don’t read a Wikipedia article to get a summary. Don’t read other people’s interpretation of GTD (yet). Instead, read the original source. After reading the book for yourself, then it makes sense to see how others implement GTD. A popular link is the Getting Started in GTD post at 43 Folders. There is also a GTD blog network, and two that I particularly follow include this blog and Organize IT (and I also cover GTD in my personal blog as well). It can be helpful to compare how others are using GTD.

As you get started with GTD, here are five tips to remember:

  1. Trust the system: A key benefit is that GTD helps to relieve stress by having reminders and action items that you normally keep in your head and off-load them to the GTD system. This is key, because if you don’t trust the system, then you won’t consistently use it, and your GTD system will not have complete information of the actions you need to do. GTD will not be reliable if you don’t use it consistently.
  2. Get all the tools you need: Do not skimp with the tools you need. If you need 43 folders, buy 430 folders. If you need a new filing cabinet, buy one that will last 20 years. If you need a PDA, get one that received excellent customer reviews and make sure it has a wi-fi connection. Buy Post-it notes (a lot of them), and not the cheap store-brand stickies. If you are serious about getting things done, you need to show your commitment by making sure you have the proper tools.
  3. Break everything down into actions: As David Allen said in his book, you do not do projects, but you do actions. Especially when you are faced with a task or project that is big and complex, remember to break it down to granular, specific actions.
  4. Follow through with scheduled actions: A bad habit that is common is taking the action items from one day and letting it carry over to the next day, then to the next day after, etc… In GTD, you must not do that. A scheduled action is a vow that you must keep. If scheduled actions can keep drifting from one day to the next, then the GTD system will have no integrity.
  5. Continually refine your GTD system: Especially for beginners, figure out what works and what doesn’t. I do not follow David Allen’s book by the letter, but adopted it for my own style. For example, I do not use real folders, but virtual folders that I store electronically in my PDA. I am in the minority however, because most people use physical folders. See how others are using GTD to find useful tools and techniques you can use to improve your own GTD system.

The weekly review is something that David Allen recommends. Even for the long-time GTD user, it can be a good exercise to evaluate your GTD system through the eyes of a beginner to remind yourself of the purpose of your specific procedures and to keep things fresh and new.

UPDATE: Welcome Lifehack readers! Thanks for coming by. To get a guided tour of this site, Click here for a welcome and brief introduction. Click the following link to visit one of the most popular posts, How I Built my DIY Planner. Be sure to subscribe via e-mail (see the sidebar) and you can get a link to a free sample of my DIY GTD calendar pages. [Stephen]

6 thoughts on “Five Tips for the GTD Beginner

  1. Pingback: Lifehack Digest for November 12th -

  2. You will only appreciate the quality of 3M post-its after buying sucky office stickies :p

    But 430 folders? You sure that’s not a typo? I would have gone for just 50.

    Good tips though!

  3. Hi chat – agreed about the sucky office stickies… they are just horrible.

    The 430 folders was a bit of an exaggeration, but there is some truth to it as well. If one follows David Allen’s recommendations literally, every project – big and small – would have its own folder. One can go through a ton of folders in no time.

    I think the GTD should not break down because of lack of folders or lack of proper stickies, but I think you understood my point :)

  4. I’ll disagree with point 2. Finding the right system and tools takes time. I’ve wasted money on things that after I bought I realized wouldn’t work out for me. Why spend $17 on that Moleskin only to find out that you want to go all digital, or that a standard Moleskin is too small? Or why buy a $300 palm only to realize that you’d just rather go analog? Or even why would a $300 palm work better than a $100 palm?

    I believe David Allen himself preaches a little simplicity. From what I recall he simply uses the memo feature of a standard palm. He’s even mentioned a cheap binder you can put together for an analog system.

  5. >Aaron: You are correct in that it takes time to find what works for you. I bought a Palm for work a few years ago, went all digital, and everything was awesome. Then my company upgraded the computers and the version of Outlook – it would no longer sync with my Palm. What a disaster! Now I have gone back to mostly paper and it’s working well. See the system I use here.

  6. Hi Aaron,

    You’re absolutely correct about not investing too early in tools that are not important for your GTD system.

    Keep in mind that these tips were meant for someone after starting the GTD system. This means first reading the book, then doing the initial setup of setting aside a day or two and clearing all your inboxes.

    The tip for #2 is analogous to a carpenter and his tools. They buy the quality brand tools that’s built to last, but they don’t do this though until they know what tools they rely on the most. Same thing with GTD… the advice for #2 is meant to ensure that you have the proper tools, but you can’t do that until you know what tools you’ll rely on the most.

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