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Simply Getting Things Done

Getting Things Done(GTD) is a very popular method of task management that has revolutionized the working lives of many. And now, I will unceremoniously strip it down to the basics, do a Macgyver on the leftovers and serve up this productivity haute cuisine for uber-busy professionals such as your fine self in a Simple Getting Things Done format.

Let’s begin with what can be removed and streamlined in GTD.

What I do not use in Getting Things Done (GTD)

For my work I use several elements of the GTD system but there are a few that I find are not needed.  These include,

  1. Inbox List. The system I present is so simple the processing can be done at the point of task receipt.
  2. Reference List. When I reference something it is normally in the same ecosystem as the information. For example, I archive emails in my email program. So, I won’t take them out of there to put in a reference list.
  3. Projects. Defined in GTD as a task requiring more than 1 step to complete it. I don’t need a separate list for this.  Should a task require more than one step I chunk it into subtasks in whichever list it resides.
  4. Delegate list. Any tasks that are delegated reside within the existing lists. I simply have a column indicating the person responsible. Having that column eliminates the Delegate list.
  5. Methods for selecting which task to do next.
  6. Any paper filing or tickler files. Everything I deal with is electronic.
  7. Weekly review. Many of the items David covers in this review I find are covered during normal task entry, task selection and completion.


The Simple Getting Things Done approach

Now that the extraneous elements have been identified we can now consider what a simpler approach could be. I break this section into three parts to make it a little more digestible.

  • Entering Tasks
  • Doing Tasks
  • An example Implementation

Entering tasks

First a disclaimer: The tasks that are to be entered have already gone through the basic sanity check of they are important enough that they need to be done and they actually require some action as opposed to merely informative material. So, only useful work that must be done need pass this point!

As per GTD I present the approach in the form of a flow diagram. For each stage of the flow diagram there is only one question that needs to be asked, when do I intend to do this work? The answer to this question will be one of three answers,

Answer 1: After three months. In which case, the task will go into the someday list.

Answer 2: This week. In this case the task will go into the ASAP list.

Answer 3: Not this week, but sooner than 3 months. In this case we schedule a date.

The flow diagram below is a mere representation of answering those questions and putting the task in the appropriate list, categorised by when the task is needed. Also note what we have just done. Answer 1 and Answer3 pretty much requires no detailed scheduling, no conscious prioritisation it is just a very quick relative guess of when the work will be done. That means no brainpower needed and no time spent considering these details.

Only Answer 3 requires a bit more thought to determine when the task should start or finish. Finally, for each entry in either the ASAP list or Scheduled list a name should be assigned. In many cases that may be yours but it may also be other people. Doing this fulfills the role of delegate in GTD.



Having entered the tasks into the appropriate list, it may be required to chunk them or make them into a “project”. Both mean to divide a larger task into a number of smaller actionable tasks. This can be done either at the point of entering the task, after you enter the task or later when you come to execute the task. Your choice. The subtasks will inherit the task start/due dates but if subtask dependency is needed then the dates of the subtasks can be altered to reflect this.

That covers receiving tasks, processing tasks into lists and creating actionable subtasks. Next up, doing it!


Doing Tasks in Simple Getting Things Done

In this section we deal with the selection of what tasks to do on any given day. Traditionally other systems would present various ways to do this such as,

  • Setting priorities for each task
  • Setting dates/times
  • Selection based on
    • Context – what environment, situation suits the task such as at computer, on phone, in the car etc.
    • The time you have available. For example picking a task that lasts 30min for the ride home on the bus.
    • Energy or focus at your disposal at that time.

What I propose is governed by one simple question, what is needed now? The following flowchart illustrates how we get to a daily hit list from an extended task list.

So, let’s say we come in first thing in the morning at the crack of 9. First up, cup of coffee. The next three steps are the infamous 3 Fs, which get us from a fairly long task list to a daily hit list within seconds.

  1. Filter your task list by date to show only those starting today/this week. This will dramatically shorted the Scheduled task list so you are left with a small subset of scheduled tasks and the ASAP list of tasks which are due this week. This not only identifies the tasks you need to be working on now but it also serves a second role – what are the other tasks that other people need to start/deliver. This is the SGTD equivalent of reviewing your delegation list in Getting Things Done.
  2. Flag the tasks from this shortened list to identify those to be targeted today – your daily hitlist.
  3. Filter again, this time by Flag. So, after this step we will only list the tasks that

Doing GTD Lite


Example Implementation for Simply Getting Things Done (GTD)

Now that we have outlined how to put tasks into the system and then to select them for execution let me show how a possible implementation could look like. In this case I use Abstractspoon todolist {LINK] but you can use any other task management software that allows task hierarchies, dates and selection.

Putting tasks in:

So, to enter tasks we simply to dot he following. We have a bunch of tasks that need to be done. Like our little tortoise buddy, simply consider when they need to be done in relative terms.

< 1 week – straight into the ASAP list

>3 months – into the someday list

Inbetween the categories above – Into the scheduled list

Sorting tasks with SGTD

After quickly entering them into the lists, we now need only add the person responsible and for the scheduled list when the task should be done. Now, one important point. For tasks entered, you should have a default setting of entering the start date as the current date. This not only saves time to enter that info for the ASAP list but also makes subsequent filtering easy. This setting is possible with Abstractspoon todolist.

Enter Dates Responsibilities SGTD

That’s it. As you can see the actual execution is very simple and quick despite by incessant blithering about how it should be done earlier in this post.


Selecting tasks for execution in Simple Getting Things Done

So, now we have the tasks in our system with responsibilities we need to get down to getting something done. So, let’s now apply the 3F’s to this list.

First, filter for tasks starting by today. This will cut down very long lists to activities that you need to focus on in the here and now. Not only tasks that you are responsible for but any other delegated tasks for others.

Filter by today

After getting a subset of tasks which are to be started imminently, we now flag those that we intend to target today. The big frogs if you will and perhaps a few tadpoles to fill time between meetings.

Flag tasks with SGTD

After Flagging those targeted for today we do a final filter for Flagged tasks. This is very important. If you don’t do this your eyes tend to roam around other tasks on the list that are not the focus for today which causes distraction from the task in hand.

Filter by flag

So, now we have a clean view of the tasks we need to do today. Now, time to actually do them!


The role of reviews in Simple Getting Things Done

There is only two reviews advocated in this approach,

  • The daily morning review to identify the tasks for the day
  • A quarterly review every 3 months of the someday list

That’s it. One tip I would give though is to do the daily review at the end of a workday so coming in the next morning your tasks for the day have been identified and you can begin immediately.


Simply Getting Things Done FAQ

No doubt some questions will come up about this so I thought I would deal with them in an FAQ section. Seems to be the most direct way to give an answer instead of blethering all day in an elongated description of all possible scenarios.

Q. How does it interact with email?

A. Not directly. For me, if an email results in an actionable task that requires some effort I sometimes move it across to this system especially where the task could comprise of several subtasks.


Q. What about calendar entries/meetings?

A. They take time but they are not actionable tasks. If actionable tasks emerge from those meetings then they go into the system. In general, I review my calendar in the morning to see what time has been allocated for such meetings and then plan my actionable tasks in between those.


Q. How to use with large projects

A. What I have outlined involves creating “projects”, by breaking a task down into several actionable tasks. This is worlds away from using it with long term project plans. However, it is possible to integrate it with such project plans without changing the structure and how it is used, I explain this in another post in how to go from big picture planning to a daily todo list.


Q. Which software can be used?

A. My preference is Abstractspoon ToDoList. However, any task management software that allows the creation of subtasks, flagging, entering dates etc. could be utilised for this.


Q. Which maintenance does the system need?

A. In terms of what changes could happen, a couple of scenarios are possible but none that lead to wholesale review or maintenance of what is in the lists.

Moving a task from ASAP list to the Scheduled list if it is clear it will not be done that week

Modification of dates in the Scheduled list should it not be realisable when it turns up in your daily hit list.


Simple Getting Things Done Wrap up

Congratulations for making it this far and I also deserve a pat on the back for getting this beast of a post out the door. So, praise all around I think. I hope reading this has been a productive use of your time and will help in day to day activities.

Ready for an alternative, quantum leap forward for productivity?  Try Productivity the Gemba way.

Brendan Toner

Let me welcome you to this alcove of the internet. In this little productivity blog, I detail the trials and tribulations of trying to use my time more effectively utilising the latest productivity tools and techniques. I hope you enjoy the articles, cheers! Brendan Toner, author of Done Before Brekky

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10 Responses

  1. I like the way you have simplified GTD. I’ve made my own changes over the many years of using GTD and I think most people do make some changes to fit their own needs. It’s one of the reasons we made GTDNext flexible in how it implements GTD. With the idea that people could make the system “there own”.

    • Done Before Brekky says:

      Thanks James. I had a quick look at GTDNext. It looks pretty good. I like the quick manipulation of tasks in the overview and all functions being readily available. I will review it in more detail in the next few days.

  2. R.P. says:

    Thanks for sharing your ideas.
    GTD has always been a methodology rather than a (fixed) system. Adaption to your own needs and circumstances is implied/ encouraged/ necessary while you implement and use it.
    I wonder however to what extent you made yourself familiar with the GTD methodology. I see a few statements here that let me have my doubts. For example, in David’s implementation suggestions there has never been the talk about an Inbox List or a Reference List! And to chuck out the weekly review is not only a bold move.
    In saying all that, if your system works for you then by all means, congrats and have fun & success using it. Just a heads up for unfamiliar readers that this approach is a bit further away from the GTD methodology than it sounds 🙂

    PS: I have no affiliation with David or his company.

    • Done Before Brekky says:

      Hi RP, thanks for dropping by and sharing your comment. A quick reply to the points you raise. I guess originally the Inbox was intended as a repository for the brain dump until you get around to processing it. It could have taken many forms with many different materials, notes, memos, physical items etc. In my case though and many others it is simply manifested as an unsorted list as most of my materials are electronic. For the reference list, yes, perhaps you are right. List is maybe not the best word. Filing system perhaps.
      For the weekly review. It made me think again why I don’t really apply this. I guess a couple of reasons. First the ASAP list has items of immediate concern(<1 week) which are visible daily. The scheduled items I tend to plan in detail and normally don't fiddle with too much. The someday already has an allotted time frame for review.
      In terms if this is far from GTD. Understandable comment and I have also heard it is more influenced by GTD than following it. To be honest I don't mind the category but I have to give credit to David Allen for the basis or starting point. I should say also, that for me it is part of a bigger puzzle, which I have explained here ( Also a mixture of different ideas!

  3. R.P. says:

    Thanks for your insightful reply!
    To describe your system as “more influenced by GTD than following it” makes a lot of sense and describes it in a much better way. And you still give credit to David 🙂
    I had a look at the linked article. WOW, that is impressive in many ways. Thank you for sharing this in such detail.
    A few comments to the GTD related topics.
    The inbox is not (only) intended as a repository of the brain dump. It is – most often they are – a dedicated space where anything lands that comes into your life on an ongoing base. These are just collection buckets to make sure two things. First, you don’t (try to) keep it on your mind. Second, you don’t necessarily need to stop whatever you are currently doing and switch over into processing mode as it serves you as a trusted system/place you will get back to. Beside avoiding a profound interruption, there is also a huge difference between collecting and processing! You have inboxes whether you want respectively have set them up or not. 🙂
    The weekly review is meant as time to step back and have a look from some distance at everything that is going on. So in your case it would be looking at ASAP list, scheduled items and someday as a whole. Of course beside other very important items and aspects. You could also call it a time to reflect on your work and life in general away from the daily grind.
    I do appreciate your open mind and wish you all the best.

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