Getting Things Done for Dummies (like me)

So that “Getting Things Done” system I’ve been harping on? I’ve finally done it. I just blazed through four chapters of the book and took two and a half days to put everything into place.

My final result:

A clear head and a sense of control. I’m continually free to have ideas instead of hold them: my brain is free to creatively develop projects instead of continually remind me that they exist.

Sounds nice, yeah? Well, at the risk of sounding like an infomercial salesguy (and I’m a terrible salesman), here’s how you too can revamp your to-do list and gain control over every single thing you have to do, from the right-nows to the someday-maybes to the total surprises:

First–quick review

“Work” is anything you’d like to be different than it currently is, whether that’s preparing a report for your client, cleaning the mold out of your fridge, or writing your novel. Getting Things Done is a system aimed at making you efficient at dealing with anything and everything in your life that could be considered “work” by this definition.

The Collection

This involved taking everything in my room (also my workspace) and in my head and putting it all together into one physical box (an old magazine basket with a bent frame). Anything that was not exactly where it was supposed to be, forever–anything that I might possibly need to do anything about or with at any point–was gathered.

Intangibles, ideas, and things too big to fit in the basket–whether my massive pile of school notes or that book I want to write–were each written down, not on a list, but on their own sheet of paper, which then went in the stack.

The basic ideas here is “making sure that everything you need is collected somewhere other than your head” (Getting Things Done, 27). If it’s in your head, it’s got your attention, and it’s going to keep resurfacing and making it hard for you to concentrate, like those two-year olds.

The collection is not a one-time thing. Your inbox stays around, keeps getting filled up, and needs to be emptied regularly.


This is going through everything in the stack on deciding on two things.

Question #1: What is it?

This isn’t a dumb question. Is it a project that you can and should be working on now? Something that you’d like to maybe do someday? Some information that you might need handy later?

Now, from here on out is where the system starts branching out into all the final categories that stuff will go into. For a visual, check out this handy diagram.

Question #2: Can you do anything about it?

No? Then it goes in Trash, Someday/Maybe, or General Reference (see below).

Yes? Then it goes into Projects or one of your action lists.

Note: nothing goes back into the box ever. No matter how difficult it might be to decide exactly what it is and what you need to do about it, the purpose of your inbox is defeated if anything goes back in it. A key element of this whole system is that you need to intuitively trust it–and if part of you knows that stuff can stay in the inbox, you won’t trust the system.


There are ten basic categories that “stuff” will end up in once it’s been processed.

1. Trash

Obviously, if it’s something you no longer or never will need, you can toss it.

2. Someday/Maybe

Things that you can’t or won’t act on now (due to lack of priority, resources, or knowledge), but might want to someday. For me, things like learning piano, getting a master’s degree, and writing a manual on defending the resurrection of Christ fall under this category.

3. General Reference

Information and documents that might be needed or useful in the future. This is best sorted alphabetically by topic.

4. Projects

Anything you can act on that will take more than one step. For these, you’ll determine A) what you want to accomplish and why, and B) what’s the next visible, concrete action you can take towards it — then that goes on your calendar or action list!

5. Project support

Materials, info, and such that aren’t directly related to taking any action, but are needed for a current project (and therefore not suited to General Reference).

6. Do it now

–if it will take less than two minutes. That time guideline could be less (say, 30 seconds) if you’re incredibly busy, or more (maybe five minutes) if you’ve got a lot of free time.

7. Do it at X time

Your list of things to do at a certain time and/or on a certain day — also known as your calendar!

8. Do it when you can

–it if will take more than two minutes, it goes on your list of things to do when convenient. This is best arranged by context. For example, having separate lists of one-step actions you can do while:

  • At home
  • At your computer
  • On the phone
  • Out and about
  • With Eric

Instead of having one to-do list, where you have to continually re-sort through what you can and can’t do right now, you have separate lists of what you can do in your current time and place.

9. Read/review file

Actually an extension of your “do it when you can” list: a physical and/or digital file of magazines, journals, memos, articles–any written material that’ll take longer than two minutes to get through.

10. Waiting for someone else to do something

If you need someone else to make a move before you can, that goes on its own list (after you’ve made sure they know what you expect!)


Once you’ve got everything organized, you need to review it regularly to make sure you’re doing what you most need and want to be doing — and, just as importantly, that what you’re not doing is okay not getting done. Just for example, here’s my schedule of what to review and when:

Every day: Action lists (by location/context)

Monday/Wednesday/Friday: all projects, to make sure the ones that need to get done are on track.

Every Tuesday: Someday/Maybe list, to remind myself of my most creative ambitions and see if I start working on any of them now! This is positioned after Monday (when I’ll be processing everything from the weekend), but still early in the week, so I can plan to act on any someday/maybes that become current projects.

Every other Friday: 12-to-18 month goals and 10-year goals, to make sure that my life is on track towards the bigger picture.

Last Friday each month: review my responsibilities and roles, to remind myself what I’m committed to and take a look at whether I need to cut anything out.

By regularly reviewing all these things, I’m making sure that my life is staying on track for the next five hours and the next five years.


Everything in my workspace, personal space, and mind–basically everything in my life–is right where it should be. I know I’m doing what I need to be doing. I know that I don’t need to be doing what I’m not doing. No more “Oh, I need to do this!” or “Oh, I forgot to do that” or “Oh, I need to call Mike about Friday!” My calendar knows I need to call Mike, and it’ll remind me; my next actions list knows I need to do this or that, and I’ll see it in my daily review.

I’m still not finished with the book, and there’s still more to this method to learn and master, but I’ve got the basics down!

[Disclaimer: I am not being paid, rewarded, or otherwise compensated by anyone in any way for writing this blog post. The book Getting Things Done was given to me by a mentor (who is also a friend of Mr. Allen), and I’m writing this because I think it’s worth sharing.]

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