You probably don’t realize how many tasks you handle in a week. Work, school, home, social obligations. Shop for a present, respond to an email, send those photos to your family, change the doctor appointment so you can go to your child’s parent-teacher conference. It’s stressful, especially when you get to the end of each day feeling like you didn’t get anything done.
There’s a solution, and it’s called GTD.
What is GTD?
GTD stands for Getting Things Done. It’s a time management system created by productivity guru David Allen, and for many, it’s a life-changing experience.
The concept revolves around the idea that the act of remembering is stressful and counterproductive. So in order to get things done, you must first free your mind of the minutiae by writing everything down. And when they say everything, they mean everything. Every errand, commitment, phone call, email, or project, personal or work-related — it all goes on the list.
Once you’ve written everything down, either on paper or electronically, you tell your brain to let it go. Once it’s gone, you’ve freed up the mental space needed to get creative and actually get things done. It’s like cleaning the old files off of your hard drive. Get rid of the junk, and the computer runs faster and more efficiently. Get rid of the junk in your head and your brain does the same.
The backbone of the list
At the center of GTD is the almighty list. The GTD Company Store sells custom-made notebooks and calendars for those who wish to fully immerse themselves in the lifestyle, but a regular pad and pencil will do.
The first step in the process is called capturing. This is where you go through all of your email, calendars, cell phone reminders, and papers on your desk, ferreting out tasks that need to be done. The first time out, it’s a daunting process, and you’ll be tempted to skip over tasks that you do routinely and aren’t likely to forget. Don’t. Write those down, too.
The second step is defining actions. Dad’s birthday party isn’t an action; it’s an end result. To get there, you need to make a guest list, send out invitations, hire a caterer, and buy a gift. Each step is actionable — and broken down this way, not so overwhelming.
Next, organize those actions into like groupings. Put all your phone calls, errands, and internet research together in their own groups. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s designed to help you make the most of your time by putting all of your actions into a specific context.
Now, when you’re waiting to pick your child up at school, you can go to the phone call section of your list and knock out three calls in 10 minutes. When you’re at work, deal only with the work actions on your list, and when you’re out jogging, forget the list altogether. With GTD, your to-do list no longer sits there mocking you; it helps you prioritize and focus. It helps you get things done.
Where are your priorities?
Most to-do list programs ask you to rank tasks by importance. GTD tells you not to. Why? Because working on the most important thing on your list right now isn’t always the most productive use of your time.
If you’re not a morning person, then don’t even think about working on your taxes first thing. Instead, knock out a few routine phone calls and emails. You’ll feel accomplished and be in a better position to focus on the more difficult task. GTD tells you to look at your energy level, the time available, and the context (where you are right now) before deciding on your priorities. This way, everything gets done, not just the top thing on the list.
Making it work
The concept behind GTD is simple, but putting it into practice can be very complex, especially if you have a heavy workload. What we’ve outlined here are just the basics. The full program involves tickler files and a label maker, workflow maps, and add-on software. For beginners, a digital to-do list — preferably one you can sync across your computer, phone and tablet — is all you really need. Here are a couple of the best:
Price: $19.99 ($39.99 for supporting OmniFocus program)
Download: OmniFocus for iPhone and iPad
OmniFocus is the program the official GTD blog recommends for those who work on a Mac. It’s designed to help you capture and organize your tasks easily. More importantly, it helps you process your tasks by presenting them in a variety of formats. The calendar mode is like any other, but the context mode groups your tasks by location then maps them for you. Going to the grocery store? OmniFocus lets you know what other errands you can complete while you’re in the area.
The computer program, which sells for $39.99, syncs with both an iPhone and an iPad app, which are sold separately. The Capture feature lets you quickly jot down whatever is on your mind, and it even integrates with Siri for faster note taking. The downsides are a hefty price tag and no desktop option if you’re on a PC.
Download: Toodledo for iPhone and iPad
Toodledo is a basic to-do list program that can be customized to fit the GTD system. Tasks can be organized by context. Large projects can be broken into sub-tasks, and the full list can be filtered so you only see the relevant tasks at the right time.
The online version of Toodledo is free, and it syncs automatically with the mobile apps. You can also share your task folders with family members or coworkers, so they can help you get things done.
Download: Astrid for iPhone or Android
Astrid is the to-do list with personality. The pages are filled with brightly colored boxes, backgrounds, and cute images of Astrid the Octopus. Adding tasks is easy, and you can categorize them by context simply by creating your own sort labels.
Where Astrid really shines is as a family organization tool. Tasks can be shared and assigned to other users, and everyone can leave their comments as part of a running list. Send the kids homework reminders, have your spouse pick up milk, and teach the kids to send you tasks when they need supplies for school.
Nailing down the best app for you
If you look around any app store, you’ll find hundreds of productivity apps, from simple list makers to complex calendars. The best app is the one you’ll use. For GTD to work, you need to continually capture and categorize a never-ending stream of actions, so it’s important that you find an app that suits your style. Do you like color? Stripped-down graphics? Options for collaboration or the ability to customize every column?
But let’s put first things first. Take out a pen and paper and write this down: Try out a free to-do list app today, because this is the day you’re going to start getting things done.
[Image credit: Mattox]
This article was written by Cynthia Boris and originally appeared on Tecca