Getting Things Done: how I’m using it

I put a stake in the ground October 6th and started using Getting Things Done [quick overview of GTD] to manage my activities. I moved things out of my email inbox into the appropriate places (I "processed" my inbox, in GTDspeak).

Having that clean slate is proving tremendously helpful to keeping me focused and motivated. I am much less stressed since the change and finally making headway on a lot of old tasks.

Since I’m a software product manager and the go-to person in the company for my products, I am both working on detail-heavy, rapidly iterating projects and very, very frequently interrupted with questions, some of which need immediate response and some of which are more theoretical "wonder if we could make the software do this?" ones. GTD is proving very helpful for me in keeping these details from being lost, staying focused on what needs to be done now, putting the energy and resources I have to work on the actions which I’m best able to be productive with at the moment, and keeping my sanity.

Here’s how I’m configuring things:

My email inbox in Thunderbird represents incoming information and the tasks I want to work on today:
— I use a red label for URGENT/DO NEXT items. (I assign labels as part of my processing step).
— an orange label is a 10 minute task (should be able to move this task forward or even finish it with a quick burst of action)
— a green label is a 30 minute task (needs a longer chunk of focus)
— an olive label is a project which needs its next 10 or 30 minute action identified (I find these just sit around not moving forward until they get a clear next action that can be done quickly)
— a purple label is waiting for someone (but expecting either that it will come back to me today or that I want to remember to nudge that someone on if I haven’t heard more by end of day)

– I have placed a physical inbox on my desk for incoming papers, in-slips (see below) and physical things to deal with today.

– I also have a dedicated "inbox" pocket in my laptop bag which is used for taking inbox items for work from home and vice versa.

– I have "@waiting on someone" folders in both Thunderbird and on desk for "waiting, not expecting action today"

– I have a tickler folder in Thunderbird containing 43 folders, emptied into the inbox each morning

– I use iCal for "hard landscape" appointments like meetings and conference calls and recurring tasks (e.g. every week send a business development activities update to the person who combines everyone’s into one update for the executives)

– KGTD for management of projects, somedaymaybe, and to some degree a quick way to see the status of things

– folders in Thunderbird for reference (e.g. by customer code, by release & within that line item code, plus some "other people’s products" and "other departments" folders)

– physical folders for reference (these are only made as needed: for each release & within that for each line item we have meetings on or for which I have other physical notes, a handful of non-release-specific projects which have physical notes, and the general year folder. The general year folder receives all other physical notes or event agendas, which are added in in chronological order with the latest in the front. I guess this is Noguchi method without the shuffling based on last use (since I think it’s harder to remember last use date than creation date)).

I have a whole lot of little yellow slips of paper close at hand at all times. In fact, I have a big stack by my inbox, a small stack with a pen right under the front edge of my monitor, some in my wallet and some on the little table next to my couch at home. When something pops into mind "Oh, I should call Hepsibah about the status of the Foo project", I write it down and put it  in my inbox. I don’t do it or add it to KGTD or anything, I just get the idea collected and get on with the action I’m actually trying to do when my brain veered off.

Note that this is for all kinds of ideas from "print the directions to the party" to "write a book about Discardia". It doesn’t matter, just capture the idea – if it’s a lot of stuff, do a quick mind map on a bigger piece of paper – and then I decide what to do about it later when processing the inbox.


I think there’s still some overlap between what gets tracked where; I’m definitely in the stage where this is all shaking down still. I was using iCal to mark out time to do things, but it made me look completely overbooked all the time and meant a lot of scooting things along. Ticklers work better. I’m moving "soft landscape stuff out of iCal and into KGTD as part of my collection process. The next step will be to only use Thunderbird for things where I need the email information as reference or it’s a less than 10 minute task so it isn’t worth logging in KGTD. I’ve just started using the start date in KGTD and will probably give that a tickler role (rather than writing a one sentence email draft and filing it in a tickler folder).

As Merlin said in at least one 43 Folders post, it’s not the details of the system, it’s the act of thinking about what you want to do and then deciding what to do right now. So far this is sure working better for me than anything else I’ve tried. I mean a LOT better.

Mmm, this GTD Koolaid is super tasty.

The Searchable Tickler File

One of the things which is recommended in Getting Things Done is the creation of a “tickler file”. A key GTD principle is having a system you can trust to hold all your loose ends or “open loops”. By putting things into your system, you can let go of holding them in your head (Discardia!) and have more ability to relax and focus. The tickler file is used to remind you of things you need to think about at a certain point in the future.

The tickler file for physical stuff is a set of 43 folders – 01 through 31 and the 12 months of the year (m01 etc) – into which you stick stuff that must be remembered at a certain time in the future but which does not necessarily represent an actual commitment on your calendar. If you’re like me, you don’t actually have a lot of physical papers which need to be tickled, but you may have some email, electronic documents and ideas which do.

Rather than set up the actual 43 folders to take up more space then needed in my office, I tend to write on my electronic calendar (iCal) something like “review notes in the XYZ folder to prepare for meeting in 2 days”. I file the papers in their eventual home and create a pointer for myself to remind me that there’s unfinished business filed away there.

This has been making my calendar a bit busy in layout (since I enter the note as an event, but with 000 at the beginning of the text to flag it as a chunk of time loosely reserved for a task, rather than a specific appointment). Now that isn’t necessarily bad – it does reflect my expected busy-ness for a given day – but it’s inappropriate for tasks that will take less than 30 minutes. I’m going to try listing these shorter tasks in a tickler event that’s just associated with the day and see how that works.

But what about emailed stuff? I could file it and point to it from a note, but that’s really time consuming. Why not make a virtual 43 folders and put them inside a folder called Tickler? When I’m reviewing incoming mail and say “ah, I need to call her and she says she’ll be back in the office on the 18th”, I can just drag it into folder 18 and forget about it until the morning of the 18th when I look at folder 18.

Now here’s where I could get sneaky. This structure means I can email new reminders directly to my tickler file through the clever use of subject headings and filters. Suppose I just thought of something I’m going to need to remember to do Wednesday at work. Rather than have it keep popping into my brain all weekend, I can just send a reminder to myself by emailing it with the subject line “tickle12: call Bob about wigits”. My filter sees the “tickle12:” and puts it in folder 12. On the 12th, I look at folder 12 and there it is.

The beauty of all this is that I don’t have to put the reminder somewhere that I have to think about it or look about it before the time at which I’ll act on it.

[As of early 2006, I am no longer marking flexible events (“work on revised documentation for beta test of foo”) on the calendar except milestones (“started integrated beta test?”). Instead I am using KGTD and at some point I’ll get the prioritized list from there syncing in my iCal to-do list.]

[And as of 2009, I’m keeping my calendar free from non-appointments and instead using OmniFocus to track projects & actions. Getting GTD under your skin is definitely an iterative process, but the cleaner your processes & use of your tools gets, the more useful it becomes.]

[As of mid 2017, I was still mostly using OmniFocus, with some non-appointments noted in calendar (as it does actually make a lot of sense to have things on the day you really ought to do them and then keep the “gosh it’d be nice to get done then” stuff somewhere else). Then I had a bunch of major health news which blew most everything else off my to-do list, so OmniFocus became the repository for mental notes about things I’ll get to when I’m able to work on them. It’s really comforting to be able to park stuff somewhere organized and let your mind let go of it. As I deal with fatigue and other medication side effects and habit-building rather than project-completing became my focus then and continues to 2019, I’ve been enjoying using Habitica, the role-playing game task tracker. — December 25, 2018]

Getting Things Done

I’m just getting into David Allen’s Getting Things Done again and finding this time that I’m really going to be able to implement it. I had adopted some of his approach philosophically on a prior reading, but now I’m ready to put the full process in place. The glory of the clear desk, empty inbox and focused mind await!

In addition to reading the book, I recommend reading Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders website (introduction to his take on GTD, all GTD posts) and Mac users should check out Ethan J. A. Schnoover’s Kinkless KGTD (introduction, endorsement from Merlin).

I’ll be writing more about Getting Things Done in the coming months, I know. I am already feeling the benefits at work.