- Never forget a to-do task (incl. reminding other people if necessary).
- Never forget an idea (like gift ideas!).
- Get stuff done reliably.
- Keep your mind free for things that matter.
I have been using this system for over a year now and love it. The key components of GTD are a) a method to capture ideas and to-dos with as little overhead as possible (“inbox” concept) and b) a structure that allows you to efficiently retrieve only(!) the relevant items in a given context.
“Getting Things Done” (GTD) was introduced to me more than a year ago by my friend Joey. It is a quite well-known productivity technique, and besides the original book, there are plenty of resources out there that will summarize it for you (like the Wikipedia article). However, I have never been 100% satisfied with pointing people to a proper user guide/motivator. I’ve gotten to know GTD and developed my spin on it over the last months, so here is my attempt to “sell” it.
Not forgetting tasks and ideas not only benefits you but also the people around you! Now that I’ve written this, I’m pretty sure I’ll “strongly suggest” it to my future students/mentees 😁.
Note: I might not be sticking to the original GTD formulation. This is my spin on it. They say the nice thing about GTD is that it is technology-agnostic (it can even be done with pen and paper). So I will start agnostic as well, but also show how I put it into practice with Todoist, my go-to app for implementing this (I tried Trello, Google Keep, and Microsoft To Do in the past. Without going into too much detail, I currently prefer Todoist).
1. The inbox: capture to-dos and ideas with minimal effort
One of the goals of GTD is to keep your mind clear. For example, you might have an idea that you don’t want to forget (like I often have, annoyingly enough, when trying to go to sleep). Or, a to-do task that comes to mind all of a sudden or that pops up during a meeting. You should be able to feed it to your system quickly so that your mind isn’t burdened with the worry of forgetting it again (or, if you’re not that conscientious, so that you might get a little more reliable 😉). The explicit focus here is to make it easy: For starters, you will write down only the idea/task and put it into an inbox.
2. Get only relevant stuff when querying the system
One of the main shortcomings of a naive to-do-list implementation is that, unless you structure it properly, you will quickly end up with long, unorganized to-do lists that are just tedious to go through. The thing that happens next is that you stop using them, and, frustrated, revert back to your before-to-do-list mode. Yuck.
With GTD, we’ll make sure that whenever you query the system, you get shown the relevant stuff quickly, and only the relevant stuff!
I see three main retrieval modes:
- Time: I want to know what I need to get done today. Also: Some tasks only become relevant in a couple of months (e.g. preparing for a planned event, canceling subscriptions), so I don’t need to see them until then.
- Project: When I’m working on a project (e.g. my latest research project at work), I want to see only to-dos/ideas that are relevant to that project.
- Context: When I’m shopping, I want to see my shopping list. When I’m talking to somebody, I want to see collected thoughts/questions that I want to share with them. When somebody invites me to their birthday party, I want to check out my (personalized) gift ideas.
Projects and contexts are quite similar and are “implemented” in the same way.
3. Maintain efficiently
Unfortunately, quickly captured tasks don’t magically organize themselves into an efficient retrieval structure. This is where maintenance comes in. Make it a habit to sort out the inbox regularly: The longer you procrastinate this, the higher chances are that your neat GTD structure degenerates into an overwhelming inbox (also, an inbox that piles up despite efforts is an indication that it’s time to restructure your GTD!). The good thing is, this is a really simple habit, and it lends itself quite well to be taken care of in your typical 5-minute-I-have-nothing-else-to-do time slots (however, don’t forget to get bored intentionally sometimes).
But what is this “GTD structure” anyways? The nice thing is: It’s up to you! But here are some starting points/inspirations:
- The obvious: Shopping list, project-specific lists, things to remember when I meet my Ph.D. advisor next.
- Hiding future tasks: I have a dedicated folder where there is a list for each month. If something does not need to be worried about until that month, I put it there. At the beginning of each month, I bulk transfer all month tasks to my inbox.
- Useful stuff one might not have immediately thought of:
- A “waiting for” folder that reminds you that somebody should have done something for you by a certain date. Remind them if they haven’t.
- Gift ideas (they tend to come up when you don’t need them!)
- Interesting places/events in the city – recommendations
- “Requirements” lists (sometimes you realize non-trivial properties that make a certain product/choice good – for example, that a laptop should have a good IPS screen. Drop these realizations here, so that you can retrieve them next time you buy a laptop!)
- A collection of articles that were shared by colleagues and friends that you will retrieve when you feel like reading something new.
- Who owes you how much money (and the inverse).
Note that the original GTD formulation recommends additional structure to manage time retrieval (actionable VS maybes). However, while using Todoist, I have found it more practical over time to instead schedule actionable tasks, while leaving “maybes” unscheduled. Scheduling comes naturally after a while: Some tasks I schedule for “today”, some for days that I know to be less busy, some for the weekend. I usually push a small “wave” of tasks from day to day (I try to keep it below 20). Every morning I take some time to explicitly reschedule all overdue tasks.
For some larger projects, I still explicitly separate actionable items from maybes. Moreover, for some projects, I have a dedicated sub-inbox, if for some idea I have not decided yet how important / pressing it is.
For completeness/inspiration, I share my current structure at the bottom of this post. Note, however, that it’s important to start light! As you use the system, you should reflect on it from time to time, and restructure it according to your own needs!
Implementation in Todoist
1. First-time setup
- Shopping list
Done. Your system is ready for capturing tasks!
2. Implement quick capture
On the PC, switch to your Todoist tab. Have the inbox open per default. Type “q” to start writing a new task. If you already know where a new item goes (but only(!) if you have the time/mind for some extra keystrokes), you can use hashtags to automatically select the target project, without taking your hands off the keyboard. If you already know when to schedule it, you can write that, Todoist will smartly detect a wide variety of time indicators. For example, “tod” will be detected as today, “tom” as tomorrow, “19th” as the 19th of this month, “sat” as Saturday, etc.
For the smartphone, I recommend adding a widget to the home screen (have inbox open, use the app for retrieval, not the widget). Capturing is then as quick as unlocking your screen and tapping the “+”. The same keyboard shortcuts apply.
3. Getting shown the relevant stuff
This is trivial: To retrieve tasks for a given context, open the corresponding project. There is only one thing that is not trivial, and yet super useful (especially for time-based retrieval): Filters!
Todoist has some default “filters”, most importantly “Today”. However, I have recently found it tedious that both work and home tasks get shown on the same list! To address this, I have created two filters (and added them as (the only) favorites): “Today work” and “Today home”. Their filter strings (for the below structure) are:
- (today | overdue) & (##work | #should do at work | #low effort work to dos | #career options)
- (today | overdue) & (#anyplace admin | ##home | ##leisure)
Together with “Today”, they are my main modes of retrieval:
If the numbers don’t add up, I know I need to fix the filter settings 😉.
A regular maintenance task is going through the inbox and organizing not-yet-assigned tasks into the structure / scheduling them. If you can’t do both at the same time, schedule first, as (per design!) things become invisible once they are sorted into the structure (until you explicitly go to the corresponding list).
Every once in a while you will need to restructure the overall structure to optimize your personal manner of retrieval!
Thanks to Philipp Föhn, Marija Popović, Florian Cäsar, and Joey Zenhäusern for reading drafts of this! And thanks to Elia Kaufmann for inspiring me to write about this! Thanks to Prof. Guillermo Gallego for pointing me to the 70% educational discount!
Appendix: My current Todoist structure
For completeness/inspiration, here is my current structure. Don’t feel overwhelmed. You should NOT start with a structure like this. Keep it simple in the beginning. This structure has grown over several months and contains some historical structure that I wouldn’t even recommend anymore. For clarity, I write “proper names” of projects. Internally, I often use shorter names that allow quicker access through hashtags. This is more than what you can do with a free plan on Todoist. I pay. As a student or education professional, you get 70% off. It’s totally worth it. The free plan is enough for starting though. Also, with my referral link you can get two free months of premium 😉.
- Today work
- Today home
- Actionable (since switching to scheduling, I plan to get rid of this soon)
- Shopping list
- Thoughts to organize (ideas for which I haven’t created structure yet)
- should do at work (important stuff)
- low effort work to-dos (your typical tired-in-the-evening tasks)
- work waiting (stuff I wait for other people to do)
- Several project-specific projects (thesis, papers, student projects)
- A dedicated project-specific inbox
- Different sub-projects for different contexts, e.g. coding tasks, writing tasks, stuff to complete before the next open-source release, etc.
- Maybes, discarded ideas, ideas for the next iteration, etc.
- Research ideas
- Some sub-structure
- Stuff to discuss with my advisor
- Stuff to bring up in the next lab meeting
- Student project ideas
- Archiving to-dos
- Generic home to-dos
- Home waiting (stuff I wait for other people to do)
- People I want to say hi to again / chat to sometime soon
- Anyplace admin: Things I can also do on the train (anyplace!)
- People (stuff to bring up, questions to ask)
- One project per person
- Things to do when I’m visiting Mum in my hometown
- Stuff to do (e.g. on a weekend) in the city I live in
- People (stuff to bring up, questions to ask)
- Reading list (implementing Nicole Peinelt’s reading flow / Prof. Koltun’s reading list. This is relatively new and will probably develop further (or get abandoned) sometime soon)
- Second pass
- Off-topic to explore
- Vacation ideas
- Career options
- Budget optimization ideas (for Swiss people: Mustachian post)
- Requirements (moved most contents to Evernote recently)
- Next desktop PC
- “Midnight ideas”: Startup ideas/things that I wonder why they don’t exist, but that I’m probably not the right person to fix (but maybe someday).
- Home improvement ideas
- Place context
- One project for every city I might at some point visit
- Gift ideas
- Projects for things specific to people
- Don’t forget to do this when I move to a different apartment
- Non-grocery shopping lists
- Clothes I need
- Next big hauls that I need a car for
- Misc stuff I could/should order online
- Next Ikea trip
- Outdoor/sports gear
- Film recommendations
- Series recommendations
- Book recommendations
- Article recommendations
- One project for each month (see above)
- Stuff to do after a certain condition has passed (e.g. post-Corona-lockdown, post big deadline)
- Very misc
- Ideas for my “farewell speech” / acknowledgments not to forget
- People to send postcards to
- Thoughts for the next elections (Swiss direct democracy FTW!)
- People to contact
- Food (Polish traditions)
- Not to forget in the next tax declaration (donations are deductible in Switzerland)
- People to invite for my next sailing trip
- People to invite to my defense