get good at GTD

3X3=GTD – How to understand, set-up, and get good at GTD

People sometimes ask me: “How long does it take to get good at GTD?” According to David Allen, it takes three years. My answer: “It depends on your mindset and how fast you get into the habit of doing a weekly review”.

David is right, for most people, it takes about three years. This has to do with the fact that most people don’t handle change very well. And, the truth is; to get good at GTD, you have to change.

So, you want to get good at GTD?

Great! I suppose that you already have understood the core concept, what David says takes three hours. The next step is to set things up. Here, I can attest that David is 100% correct. Setting up a GTD system for a person that is active on many fronts takes three (long) days.

“GTD takes 3 hours to understand, 3 days to set up and 3 years to be really good at.”
– David Allen

Understand the system

Getting Things Done (2015)

You cannot get good at GTD if you do not understand the GTD methodology. In three hours, you get the concept of what Getting Things Done is about. To truly understand it, you have to read the book. Personally, I would recommend doing this before moving on to set up your system.

In fact, I would argue that you should read the book again in six months, and then again a year after that. The reason for this is that you will gain a deeper understanding of core GTD when reading the book after you have started practicing the methodology.

I promise you that if you re-read the book, you will find answers to a lot of the questions and challenges that will surface during your first implementation of GTD. 
All the people I know that are good at GTD have read the book multiple times.

If you want to get good at GTD, you have change how you are dealing with email

Like it or not, most people today are more or less driven by email. For people who fall into the category of knowledge workers, most of the work-related communication is done using email. Email is also the place where you get a lot of your actionable items and a lot of your support material. Hence, how you relate to email will have a huge impact on your productivity.

You don’t have to go all the way and practice Inbox Zero, but you have to stop checking email and start processing email. A part of GTD is the habit of regularly emptying your inboxes. This means that you have to tackle each email with the goal in mind to get the actionable or valuable information into your GTD system before archiving it and move on to the next message.

Finding your GTD system and setting up your workflow

I sometimes compare setting up a GTD system with the act of buying a new car. It’s a huge investment. Not in money, like when buying a car, but in time. Just like a car, you are going to spend a lot of time in it, so it has to fill your needs, and you have to like it.  The setup (app) has to have a good reputation, a service routine for maintenance, and a backup routine for when things go wrong.

In short, you have to trust and like to use your system.

Unless you are going old-school, with pen and paper, you are going to have to orient yourself in the jungle of “productivity apps.” First, there is the platform issue. Android? iOS? Mac? Windows? Web? Unless you are in a position where you can define the environment you are working in for the foreseeable future, not having to think about corporate guidelines and mandatory applications, I would argue getting a cross-platform solution that at least work on your phone and on the web.

Most of the apps you will look at are offering a web version. This will at least allow you to get access to your data. Unless you are using Gmail for work, email integration will be a weak point.

In the below blog post, I go through the 5 steps of GTD and the tools that I have found to work best for me.

5 steps of GTD

The 5 steps of GTD and the tools I use in each step

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When you think you have found the right app, I have a list of things you should check before going all-in.

best productivity app

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Use your system for everything. David Allen calls this “one trusted system.” Don’t start having Post-it notes on the side. This will dilute your system, and undermine your ability to trust your lists.

Experiment until you get it right

I took me more than six months to find the right contexts. Now, after more than five years of doing GTD, I still have to adjust my filters in Todoist. If you want to get good at GTD, you have to be on the lookout for constant improvements. The Japanese practice called kaizen is the perfect analogy for this.

Even if you do not use Todoist, I think you can find some good advice with regards to the naming of contexts and projects in this blog post: 

Todoist GTD setup

My Todoist GTD setup – Part 1: Projects, contexts, and actions

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When your life changes, your GTD setup have to change with it. If you get promoted at work, you will have new people to report to, new meetings to attend, and new deadlines. All of this will have to trigger things like new agenda contexts, and projects.

get good at GTD
To get good at GTD, you have to adjust the system until it fits your needs. (Picture: Pexels)

Understand the power of “What’s the next action?”

To get good at GTD, this question has to become your default mode of operation. It does not matter if it is an email or an item on the agenda for your current meeting, if it’s actionable, you have to identify what is needed to move it forward. This is at the core of the Getting Things Done methodology.

Here comes the “magic bullet”

Remember that I said that you could get good at GTD in less than three years?
You can, but it’s hard work. There is a reason why I previously have called the GTD Weekly Review for Your most important task of the week.

The GTD Weekly review is you weekly exam in Getting Things Done

A proper weekly review is a weekly test that will show you just how good you are in GTD. First of all, you have to make the weekly review a habit. If you are struggling with this, the below blog post is full of advice on how to get into the habit of a weekly review. 

weekly review

How to make your weekly review a habit

The weekly review is the single most important element in the Getting Things Done methodology. This will make or break your ...
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Second, if you use your findings in the weekly review to improve your workflow, you will find that you get better every week.

The short summary

  • Understand the core of Getting Things Done
  • Find a system and build a workflow
  • Keep everything in “one trusted system”
  • Keep experimenting with the small details
  • Think “what’s the next action?”
  • Do your weekly review
  • Read the book more than once

One comment

  1. Thanks for sharing your insights as always. I’ve been meaning to re-read the book and this gave me that extra push to revisit it now rather than later!

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