My Getting Things Done System

by Cameron Brain


Happy New Year!

It's that time of year again! Time for personal reflection, review, resolutions, planning, and maybe even some organization. For me, that means deciding what objectives I’m going to focus on over the next year, putting together high-level plans around those objectives, and developing/reviewing my system and routine for how I’m going to do the work.

For the last couple years I’ve employed David Allen’s Getting Things Done system for tracking and prioritizing all the stuff I need to do. Perhaps like you, I've always been suspect of "systems" – more than anything, they're usually unactionable. That said, I've found the GTD system to be fantastic. It's simple, didn't take more than a couple days to learn and implement, and it's genuinely helped me become better organized, less stressed, more creative, and more efficient at my work. 

I'd like to share my current GTD system with you: the tools I use, my daily and weekly routines, and the general organization framework I employ. I especially recommend this post for anyone who uses or is thinking about using the Things app (a productivity app for Mac, iPhone, and iPad). Employing GTD and Things as the primary organizational system and solution in my life produced the single biggest productivity gain I've had in the last couple years. 

GTD – A Quick Review

As a quick refresher, the Getting Things Done system is about two objectives: 1) helping you capture everything you need to get done – now, later, someday, big, little, or in between – into a logical and trusted system outside your head and off your mind and 2) disciplining 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 action” that you can do or renegotiate at any moment.

If you’d like to learn more about the GTD system, I recommend buying David’s book (it’s a quick read, couple days tops) and checking out his site, davidco.com.  From here on out, I’m assuming you have at least a basic knowledge of GTD, its principals, and implementation practices.

Showing how "stuff" (anything you need to do) get's filed within the GTD system. Pulled from the GTD book. 

The Tools – Few And Simple

Things for Mac, iPhone, iPad – My master filing system. Things for Mac, iPhone, and iPad is the GTD app. It’s elegant, simple, and can be configured to support any GTD implementation you can come up with. Further, it's available for Mac, iPhone, and iPad, and will automatically sync your data across multiple installs. In short, it is hands-down the best solution out there to serve as the centerpiece of your GTD implementation.

Notebook and notecards – For when I’m not in front of a Mac, iPhone, or iPad. There are times when I don’t have any of these devices with me or when I just prefer to use pen and paper. I always carry a small notebook and a number of blank 3x5 index cards with me wherever I go, for whenever an idea hits me).

Filing box – For mail, bills, and other papers. I would really prefer not to get any mail, but as Kramer found out, that’s impossible. For physical items (bills, mail, letters, tickets, records, clippings, etc.) I use a small, portable filing box. Every piece of paper I accumulate goes into an inbox folder placed at the front of the box, which I go through during my weekly review (more on this below).

File System – Projects and Areas

Projects Groups of tasks. A project is a container for a set of tasks; a chain of stuff that needs to be performed to get to the end goal. Just as I create tasks for anything I need to do, I also create projects for anything I'd like/need to do. Sometimes I create a project because I know I want to do something, but I don't yet know what the tasks will be. Other times I'll create a project while doing my daily or weekly review because I realize a bunch of tasks should/could be grouped together. Here are my basic rules with projects:

  • Project list should include all projects you want/need to do
  • Keep the project list ordered based on priority
  • Any project that's not due this week is marked as inactive
  • Sacred calendar rule applies to project due dates (i.e., don't assign a date unless it has to be done by then)
  • Review project list (inactive and active) during the weekly review

AreasDistinct tasks. During my daily review (detailed below), everything starts out in the inbox, then gets filed into a project or  area. Next, when I'm reviewing each area, I'll decide if each task should be trashed, scheduled, someday'd, today'd, delegated, or left to be dealt with next. From a filing system standpoint, my goal from the beginning has been to try and have as few areas as possible. As you'll see below, with the exception of For Blog, the areas I'm using are the basic set prescribed in the GTD book:

  • Read/Review
  • Agendas
  • At Home
  • At Office
  • At Computer
  • Errands
  • Calls
  • For Blog

Daily Process – First Thing Each Morning

Recording my tasksAll day, every day. Everything (as in 100%) goes into my Things inbox. I may enter a task from my phone, or when I’m at my computer, or in my notebook; no matter where/when I’m entering a task, it will eventually (by end of day) end up in the Inbox folder of my Things app.

Review the InboxEach morning, ~5min. Each morning, after making my first cup of coffee but before doing anything else, I review my inbox. The goal of this review is to get the inbox to zero – to have all the tasks filed into the appropriate project or area. That’s it.

Review Projects and AreasEach morning, ~10min. After getting my inbox to zero, I turn my attention to projects and areas. The goal here is to review everything marked as next (I ignore stuff already filed as someday or scheduled during my daily review) and determine if it should be left as next, filed as a someday, scheduled, or trashed. Once that’s done, I like to do a final sweep and prioritize the items still marked as next based on the order in which they need to be done (just a simple stack rank).

Prioritize TodayEach morning, ~5min. The final step in my morning routine is to prioritize what I’m going to be working on that day. Since I’ve already defined the next steps for everything I’m working on, choosing what gets done today is more a matter of deciding how much I think I’ll be able to handle that day (also taking into account hard tasks such as scheduled events, deadlines, etc.).

In terms of prioritization and assuming my morning isn’t filled with meetings or deadlines, I like to put the biggest items on the list at the top (the tasks that require the most thought and time). The morning is when I’m fresh, have energy, and can generally avoid distractions. The afternoon – when I'm tired and looking to be done – is when I’ll hit the smaller, easier items.

Weekly Process – Every Sunday Morning

Defining my weekly OKRs Sunday morning, ~30min. Sunday mornings are when I go through everything. For me, this process starts with defining my weekly Objectives and Key Results. Generally speaking, I’ll end up with upwards of 18 key results from my OKRs, each of which I’ll turn into a project in Things. I’ll then spend a minute or two brainstorming tasks into each of these projects (what's the chain of stuff I need to do to achieve the key result).

This portion of my Sunday routine is really the only time of the week when I’m thinking about my larger objectives – things I or my teams are trying to complete over the month, quarter, or year. Combining my OKRs with GTD during this review ensures I’ll have defined the next steps I need to hit on any day of the upcoming week, regardless how crazy things get.

Reviewing everything else Sunday morning, ~30min. Aside from putting down my OKRs and creating projects for the key results, I also do a complete review of my GTD system. This weekly review follows the same flow as my morning routine with a couple of exceptions:

  • I review all my tasks, including those marked as someday or scheduled
  • I review all my active and inactive projects
  • I review the physical items in my filing box inbox and either create tasks for them or trash them

As espoused in the GTD book, one of the important factors in successfully implementing GTD is a regular, complete review. By the time I’m done with my Sunday review I've checked up on everything. If I don’t get that holistic picture, my stress will increase and I’ll lose confidence in the system.

Things That Keep Me Going

Staying focused on the next step. If there’s one thing I want to be able to do better in my life, it's to realize more of my ideas. This has always been the case for me and it’s probably the case for you, too. There's so much stuff I want to do! I want to start a pickle company, I want to write a sci-fi/fantasy novel, I’d like to start a school. Same thing goes for my personal life. I’d like to live in another big city, I’d like to have a family, I’d like to sail around the world, I'd like to become more involved with my community.

“There are only two problems in life: (1) you know what you want, and you don’t know how to get it; and/or (2) you don’t know what you want.” –Steven Snyder

From what I’ve experienced, the problem isn’t that there’s never enough time, or that I’ve got too many projects on my list. The failing point is almost always that each of these goals require lots and lots of steps from start to finish, and the second I start losing track of what the next step should be, things fall apart. I become overwhelmed and no progress is made. Remembering that no matter how large or complex a project is, that it's only ever about that next step is critical to keeping me motivated and focused.

Being OK with saying NO. I over commit all the time and I don’t even think of myself as someone who does that. I’m not that kind of guy! Regardless, I still do it. As I’ve looked back over the past year, over committing myself to too many things was one of the main reasons why I didn't make the progress I wanted to on a number of key projects.

The other thing I’ve learned is that saying no is very much about personal standards and principles. Do I want to do more, mediocre work, or less, quality work? Am I willing to let people down because I couldn't give them or their projects the attention they needed, or do I value being able to deliver on the promised date?

Startups are notorious for being environments in which people say yes far more than they should. A number of years ago, Fred Wilson over at Union Square wrote a great piece on saying no, everyday. In a startup, everything needs to be done, and it needed to be done yesterday, and tomorrow there’s going to be more, everyone is freaking out, and no one is thinking. Been there many a time. I for one am going to be saying no a lot more this upcoming year, to the benefit of my companies, my teams, and everyone else involved with something I'm doing.

Keeping up with the regimen. It’s so easy not to do something. Unfortunately, when it comes to stuff you’re responsible for, little to nothing good happens when you do nothing. In my opinion, there are two keys to successfully GTD’ing your life: 1) defining what your system is going to be (your organizational structure, your review cycles, etc.) and 2) sticking to it day in and day out.

While and important step, defining the system is relatively easy. The GTD book outlines the basic framework and you fill in the blanks. Sticking to your system all day every day is where the rubber hits the road. I think the value of GTD becomes self-evident after a week or two, however I think in order to really embed it in your life, you need to fully commit to it for a year and review your entire system (the methodology, schedule, etc.) on a quarterly or yearly basis.