David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) philosophy has been helping Information Technology (IT) professionals increase productivity and reduce stress since it debuted in his 2001 book. The time-tested GTD steps (Capture, Clarify, Organize, Reflect and Engage), in Allen’s words, “apply order to chaos.”

Allen published a new edition in 2015, in part to reflect the rise of digital technology and the 24/7 world that has emerged since he first wrote about the art of stress-free productivity. But while Allen acknowledges that leveraging ever-evolving technologies adds significant pressure to establishing workflows, “Getting Things Done deals primarily with the content and meaning of what we need to manage, irrespective of how it shows up or gets organized. Advances in technology are to some degree irrelevant to the essence of the methodology.”

Key Concept: Addressing the Source of Stress

Whether you are new to GTD or already using the system, evaluating what GTD is all about can aid in handling the challenges of being an IT professional.

In the IT industry, interruptions and unexpected demands are inherently part of the job description.  Balancing your demanding IT job with the rest of your life can create anxiety and stress. Have you tried to analyze the source of that anxiety and stress? Most people think it comes from all the things that aren’t done; lack of control, lack of organization and preparation, and inappropriately managed commitments. The results are open loops that are tracked by a less-than-conscious part of you. These open loops run through your mind at inappropriate and inopportune times, namely when you can’t do anything about them. This increases anxiety, stress and produces no benefit whatsoever. Additionally, your mind views these open loops as broken agreements. When you break agreements with yourself and others, it leads to the disintegration of self-trust or trust with others. That is the source of much anxiety and stress.

GTD offers an approach to clarify and organize all the things that command your attention with a high-performance workflow management system that even helps dealing with unexpected events.

Allen uses an analogy of the ‘ready state’ of the martial artist, who must have a clear mind to quickly assess the situation, analyze the opponent for strengths and weaknesses, then respond quickly, fluidly, and with the appropriate force to any action their opponent takes. They must also be programmed for a series of next actions which depend on the context, time available, energy available and priority. Like the martial artist, the IT professional needs a clear mind to analyze often rapidly changing situations in their IT projects, to respond quickly, fluidly, and with the appropriate action and effort warranted by the situation. They need to have their next actions mapped out, so that with a clear mind they may quickly make front-end decisions regarding which actions are ideal given the context, time available, energy available, and priority. With a GTD system in place, the next time that unexpected change in an IT project takes a jab at you, you’ll be in the “ready state” to deal with it.

Key Objectives of the GTD System

A properly implemented GTD system provides IT professionals with a high-performance workflow management which moves the brain towards more elegant and productive activity. The three key objectives of GTD are:

  • Capturing all the things that need to get done or have usefulness to you -- now, later, someday, big, little, or in between -- into a logical and trusted system outside your head and off your mind.
  • Directing yourself to make front-end decisions about all the inputs you let into your life, so that you will always have a plan for “next actions” that you can implement or renegotiate at any moment.
  • Curating and coordinating all that content, utilizing the recognition of multiple levels of commitments you have in play at any given time.

Considering that mismanaged commitments are a major source of anxiety and stress, a major component of GTD is best practices for managing commitments. The general rule is that commitments which lack clarity are being mismanaged. In other words, if it’s on your mind, it isn’t clear. Here is some guidance for managing commitments:

  • Anything unfinished must be captured, trusted, and reviewed. 
  • Clarify exactly what your commitment is.
  • Decide what you must do, if anything, to make progress in completing it. 
  • Keep reminders of your commitments organized in a system you review regularly.
  • Avoid broken agreements, by:
    • Not making the agreement in the first place
    • Completing the agreement
    • Renegotiating the agreement

Implementing the Methods of ‘Getting Things Done’

At the core of the GTD process are five stages of mastering workflow, which are quite practical and loaded with common sense. Allen notes in the book that most people will have to modify some major habits to fully enjoy the benefits of the system, but he indicates the results are quite often “transformational”. While we certainly recommend reading the book, attending seminars, reaching out to others who practice GTD and more, below is a brief overview of this process.

Capture: Collect what has your attention

Is something on your mind troubling you? Get it out of your head! There is a peace once you are confident you have collected everything and it is accounted for.  Anything incomplete that is a “should,” “need to,” or “ought to” becomes an open loop. Get it out of your head and into a logical, trusted system outside of your mind. Allen suggests using an in-basket, notepad or voice recorder to capture 100 percent of everything that has your attention. That includes little, big, personal and professional.

Clarify: Process what it means

Take everything captured and use a processing mechanism in place to easily determine what each piece of “stuff” is and what to do about it. A basic bullet diagram of the process looks something like this:

  • What is it?
  • Is it Actionable?
    • If NO
      • Trash it
      • Incubate it for possible action later
      • Reference it: File it in an organized manner so you can get to it in less than one minute
    • If YES
      • If it takes less than two minutes: DO IT
      • If it needs to be delegated: DELEGATE IT
      • If it needs to be done later: DEFER IT
        • Sort reminders for deferred actions
        • Identify projects and the associated actions which need to be done

Organize: Put it where it belongs

Processing all of life’s random inputs won’t result in much benefit at all without setting up the right buckets. Examples of some of the more common useful buckets are:

  • List of projects – A desired result with more than 1 action step.
  • Project support material – Storage for project plans and materials.
  • Calendar actions and information.
  • Meetings and day-specific actions. You don’t want your calendar cluttered with items from your someday/maybe list for example, as this makes your calendar less meaningful.
  • Next Actions list – Lists of reminders for next actions is the heart of the process.  These should be organized by project, context, time available, energy available, priority, or any other subdivision which makes sense.
  • A Waiting For list – List of reminders that you are waiting for.
  • Reference material.
  • A Someday/Maybe list – Bucket for those things we incubated for possible later action.

Reflect: Review the results frequently

The lists should be reviewed as often as necessary to determine what to do next. The purpose of reviewing is to enable your brain to move towards more elegant and productive activity. Achieving this requires consistent engagement with commitments and activities. You must keep your lists totally current to establish the trust essential for the GTD system to succeed. If you do not trust the system you have put in place to keep things off your mind, your stuff will be back on your mind.

A weekly update is suggested to clean up, update lists and clear your mind. Look over all projects, open loops, next action lists, waiting for lists, and any other buckets you’ve established. Obviously, there are things like your calendar which you will be reviewing daily. You should also be engaging in periodic big picture reviews, which clarify larger outcomes, long term goals, visions and principles which drive and test your decisions. Like everything in GTD, the general rule of thumb is that you should be doing it often enough to keep it off your mind.

Engage: Simply Do

Once you have built your logical and trusted system, it’s time to get things done and take appropriate action with confidence. Trust is a critical part of GTD. Not just trust in the accuracy of your logical system, but trust in your own ability to select the correct next actions at the right time. When doing things, you must trust yourself and the source of your intelligence to attain maximum freedom and productivity. GTD introduces the four criteria model for choosing actions in the moment:

  • Context: Where are you? Certain tasks should be done at home, at work, while commuting, at your desk, and so forth. The tools available also create context. Are you at a computer? Are you on the phone? You can also have context lists for things like specific people, groups and meetings.
  • Time Available: How much time you have available obviously restricts the things you can do at that time. Having lists of tasks by estimated time of completion helps you make the best use of your available time slots.
  • Energy Available: Of course, certain tasks require more energy and focus than others. Organizing actions by energy requirements allows you to stay productive whether you’re in a state of energy abundance or deficit.
  • Priority: Given the context, time and energy available, you want to be doing the most important tasks first.

Access the wealth of GTD related information

The above overview should give you a good idea of what GTD is all about. It may even allow you to start a limited implementation of GTD. However, there is quite a wealth of information available to you that will increase your odds of success. First and foremost, pick up the book that started it all: Getting Things Done by David Allen. You may also visit Allen’s website at www.gettingthingsdone.com, email him at general@davidco.com, follow him on twitter @gtdguy, check out his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/gettingthingsdone, or just google “GTD” or “Getting Things Done”.

There are also hundreds of tools out there to aid in your GTD implementation, from software to charts to more traditional office supplies. For beginners and veterans alike, software is arguably the most efficient way to implement GTD. For some options check out the following:

Finally, try seeking out those who have successfully implemented GTD in their own lives. GTD has become so popular in the IT industry simply because it works. Find an IT professional who is making it work for them.

Situation assessment – Through business vision and IT experience.