GTD ® at a High Level

How GTD ® works can be explained by working through the diagram step by step. It might look baffling at a first glance. However with a little practice, you’ll see how intuitive the flow actually is. It’s how we naturally plan, after all. All of this is explained in the book Getting Things Done, which changed my career.

The flow

How GTD works - courtesy of
How GTD works – courtesy of

The diagram to the right explains the secret sauce to processing everything. I’ll go more in depth with real examples in another post, but for now just realise this. Everything that comes into your world is subject to the following flow:

Decide whether you need to do something about it

Regardless of whether it’s come into your head, from a conversation with your boss, or an email/slack message the process is exactly the same. You decide whether it’s actionable. If the answer is no, delete it, or store it away. As a common work example, credentials for a server would be something that aren’t actionable by you. However, you will need them at some point to support your overall work, so you store them for reference.

If you do need to something about it, then, you need to refine what that something is.

Work out your next action

So at this point, you have some information that you need to do, but you’re not necessarily going to do it. In fact it it’s over 2 mins, then we’re going to do it later. The point of this is so that we are batching up the collection and planning phases and separating them from the ‘do’ phases for efficiency.

Why 2 mins? The overhead of working out where to store and identify a piece of work for later isn’t worth it for a task that’s under 2 mins.

Multi-step actions are called projects

If the action is more than 2 mins, and part of a larger set of related actions, then it is stored under a project. In the context of GTD, a project is anything that takes more than one step to complete. Even a trip to the dentist could be a project in our world since we have to book an appointment, find someone to look after the kids on the day we go, make sure we have a daily reminder to floss our teeth in the weeks leading up, arrange time off work .. you get the idea.


Assuming that the action is not doable in under 2 mins, you now have a few options.

  • Delegate to someone more appropriate, and track that it will get done by them.
  • Defer it to your list of next actions
  • Defer it to a specific date on the calendar when it makes sense (in the dentist example, there’s no point turning up at the appointment a day early or late)
  • Actually do it, by pulling it off your list of next actions

Wait! This is really complicated!

I wouldn’t blame you for thinking this is really over-engineered and hard work. Can’t we just put things on a list and do them?  Well yes, but the whole point of this is so that you are in control all the time, not just when you realise things are needing to be organised.

Wouldn’t it be better if you could:

  • Map out what you needed to do for your sprint with just enough effort to keep things moving?
  • Be able to remember (ahead of time) about a migration that’s happening next week. You know, before your sprint demo goes wrong?
  • Be able to leave things in the office and not have them swirling around your brain?

Can I see a specific example of GTD at work?

An excellent idea, examples are always easier to grasp. I’ll use an example of some sprint work to show how GTD ® works with a worked example. This example will hopefully give you a reflection of your current commitments at the office.

GTD® and Getting Things Done® are registered trademarks of the David Allen Company.

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