The 'Getting Things Done' Approach

Card's author : Hélène Laxenaire
Card's type of licence : Creative Commons BY-SA
Description : The GTD (Getting Things Done) approach was presented by David Allen in his work : ALLEN, David. Getting things done: the art of stress-free productivity. New York : Penguin Books, 2001. ISBN 978-0-14-200028-1.

This method of organizing yourself aims to implement a strong and sound enough system to relieve your mind from things to do and from the guilt of not having done it them, in order to start working calmly. It's the same principle as the Pensieve used by the magician Dumbledore in Harry Potter : a container onto which he offloads his thoughts and memories, knowing he can find them back any moment. See below how I use it but I advise that you read David Allen's work if you wish to implement it.

Make a list of projects and divide them in operational task

When implementing the GTD approach, the first thing to write out an exhaustive list of all your plans, from the most simplistic (make an appointment at the dentist) to the most important (setting up a international collaborative colloquium) and to sort out first those that will be done soon or those which are under way and those which will be fulfilled later, maybe (learn to play the accordion). Once the list is done, you must think of the first smallest operational thing to do to get it started : "Ask Brenda the name of her dentist " or "read the card in the Cooptic e-book on how to organize participative events ". All the tasks in the list of things to do have to be operational and indivisible in smaller tasks. So instead of noting down "Plan the General Assembly ", it's better to note down "make a Doodle to set the date of the General Assembly " or even "Ask Brenda the list of members " (in order to send the Doodle link for setting the date of the General Assembly ". "Plan the General Assembly " is a project, not a task.

Define your priorities according to what you can do

One of the principles of this approach is to sort out and select things to do asking yourself : "Which action can I take here and now? ". Actually for David Allen what directs the choice of a task are its intrinsic conditions for carrying it out, before any idea of a prioripriority. Therefore each task goes along with criteria which allow to choose the one that is going to be done here and now :
1. environment : place (I can do this task only if I am at my office) or person (I can do this task only if I am with Steven) or a tool (I can do this task only if I have a computer connected to the Internet)
2. available time : I need such time to carry out this task
3. available stamina : to carry out this task I must be in tip-top form, or very careful or else I can carry it out even if I can't think properly.
4. priority : priority of the plan or of of the task.
But priority is only taken into account in the end, it does not work out the task but it works out the possible task corresponding to environment, available time and stamina that I will finally.
I decide to carry out a task only if I can really do it.

Implementation of the approach

This said, how does I t work in practical terms ?

The Entry Box

It is the first tool of the GTD approach, an entry box which receives all that arrives : mails to process, the brainwave we had while in the shower, documents, things noted down at the end of a meeting. For the brainwave while in the shower or the thing not to forget and that you remember before going to sleep (and to avoid repeating it constantly hoping you won't forget it by the morning, which is no good for a good night rest), you just have to not it down immediately and drop it as soon as possible in you entry box. This means that you have by your bed (or in the shower !) a small pen and notepad, a smartphone, a dictaphone, whatever the technical mean, but you must always have something by yourself to note down : the thing to do, to buy or the brainwave.
Everything must arrive in the entry box. For my part, I have two : one for paper (a plastic tray) one for e-data (my mailbox). Then one should treat his/her entry box(es) very regularly according to a definite procedure. For my part, I do it once a day.

Treatment of the entry box

In the entry box we pile things as they arrive : brainwave while in the shower, the latest General Assembly's report, restaurant's slip for which we need to be refunded, bills and even batteries which need recharging.
When treating it, each item is taken one by one and goes through successive filters :
Does the item need an operational treatment? ?

Yes : operational action

1. Can I treat in less than two minutes ?
  • if yes : do it (presto, batteries are in the charger).
  • si no :
2. Is it up to me to do it ?
  • if yes : what is the first operational action to carry out to treat it ?
    • I add it to the list of tasks (contextualizing it) : environment, length of time, stamina, priority)
    • if the task involves a special day and hour, I add it in my agenda (for the use of agenda see below)
  • si ifno : I delegate

No : no operational action

1. It's something for a project to come : I add it to my 'one day maybe " list
2. It's a document I will need later
  • It's a reference document I will need, I classify it straight away in my reference files (for example : catalogues, regulations, etc.)
  • It's a support document for an under-way project : I put it in the corresponding folder (for example : application form for a, article for a training session to come). It often comes with a task to carry out. So I note down in my list of tasks "Look for a copy of the association 's registration form for the subsidy request " and I classify the form in my "under-way : subsidy request " folder.
3. It's none of the former item : trash can. It goes for most of the mails and emails we receive ! Watch out not to yield to keeping everything "just in case ", it requires a real good thinking about whether ot or not the item will be needed one day. (When I started the GTD myself, I threw all the electricity bills of my former apartments, some dated from more than 15 years)
Beware : nothing must go back to the entry box, everything must be processed, in the same order as the documents. Otherwise we start again with the circle of guilt with the document that we don't want to treat and which stays in the bottom of the entry box.
When the entry box is empty or when there isn't an email left in the box : Gosh ! What a relief !

The agenda

In the GTD approach; the agenda is sacred and must be used only for what is actually and really happening at a date and a time : a meeting, a train departure. It must not be a secondary list of tasks. Indeed, the decision to start doing a task does not depend upon a chosen moment, planned upstream : "Wednesday, I start to work on the spoken's report " but of the environment. It's a safe bet that the chosen Wednesday, your colleague may be at home with her/his child to look after and that this will mean that you will have to answer the phone all day long. On Wednesday eve, the result will be that instead of enjoying the thrill of a good working day you'll be pesting because "You didn't work on the spoken's report ". That said, nothing prevents you from creating the right environment to carry out priority tasks and to book days when you just refuse all reunions in order to have time to concentrate on tasks which need it.


Both paper or digitalized files are of two kinds, those which refer to under-way projects (meeting reports, etc.) and those which enable to classify reference documents. David Allen proposes to create a folder for each project, as small as it is even if it only counts one sheet of paper rather than having a system of folders and subfolders. All the folders can be prefixed in order to be recognized easily (for my part, all the under-way projects folders start with UW – and all folders with reference documents start with Rdoc - ).


Regularly, the task's list must be checked to see which plans are over but also to see if they are new tasks to carry out. It's an opportunity to tidy up folders of under-way projects which are finished. Operational documents are deleted and some support documents can go into the general references. It's also the time to read again the list of "Maybe one day " projects just to see if the moment has not come !

Crédit Photos : carlescv sur Flickr - CC By-SA