So far, so good. I took a look at quite a few of the computer tools that ‘plug in’ to the Getting Things Done process, and found them all over-engineered for my needs. I don’t own a PDA. And the thought of tying myself down to an office again by using reams of cardboard file folders didn’t appeal to me, especially since my life is now almost entirely paper-free. So I simply constructed a table, using word-processor software, for each of the eight ‘buckets’ of ‘stuff’. I already had my Projects numbered, with a Windows folder for each one, so I didn’t need to set up anything for the Project Plan bucket. I already had a References Windows folder, with all my checklists and other reference materials. And I’m not a pack rat, so I don’t need anything for storing Trash either — once a task is done, I’m content to delete it permanently. So all I needed was a table for each of the five remaining buckets:

  • Project list, with the next few actions, in order, comprising each project
  • Next Actions list, for all the ‘one-off’ things to do that can’t be done in two minutes
  • Waiting For list, for actions that are pending action from someone else
  • Someday list, with projects and actions that are not immediately actionable, but which you want to get around to eventually, and
  • Calendar, with the actions scheduled for a specific date and/or time

I set these tables up, with the headings that David Allen’s Getting Things Done book suggested, and then I started processing my ‘stuff’. For me, this was not difficult: I already have a lot of lists — to do, to blog, to buy (books, music, other shopping), to research. In order to aggregate all my ‘stuff’ for processing, all I needed to do was pull together:

  • These six ‘to’ lists
  • The implied ‘to do’ items in my mail inboxes (once I have done what needs to be done with incoming mail, I either trash it or move it into one of my Reference folders)
  • The unprocessed ‘reminder’ items in my browser bookmarks
  • The implied ‘to do’ items in the 40 documents in My Documents (mostly related to my 20 currently open Projects) Windows folder that haven’t yet been processed and moved to Reference folders
  • My stack of unread books, magazines, and hard-copy articles people have given me
  • The appointments on my calendars
  • The stuff in my small stack of ‘bills to pay etc.’
  • The stuff in my head that I’ve never got around to putting in any of these places

As you can see, I’m a lot more anal than most people. For twenty years I’ve made a point of working without the need for an office or an administrative assistant — my personal war for independence. As a result, it didn’t take me long to identify all the ‘stuff’ that needed processing. I’m a terrible procrastinator, but I know what I’m putting off, and while I do a lot of things last-minute, I rarely miss a deadline. This process of identifying all my ‘stuff’ only took me a few hours, whereas I suspect for many people it would take a full weekend or more.

The most useful part of the ‘stuff-gathering’ exercise for me was actually thinking through my 20 Projects, and identifying the sequential identifiable Next Actions needed to move each one forward. As Allen points out, you can’t ‘do’ a project, you can only do the Next Actions in a project, one at a time, until the project is done. But many projects aren’t quite that linear — they often have several Actions that could be done Next, in any order. As I went through the process, I often ended up identifying several Next Actions for each project, and thinking further ahead than I normally do. Agility doesn’t preclude, and sometimes requires, thinking a few steps ahead, and doing several things in parallel.

Having gathered all my ‘stuff’, I then went through the process in the above diagram to move each item into one of the eight ‘buckets’. My first breakthrough was disposing of about 30 items in the ‘If it takes less than two minutes, just do it’ category. Since few of these items were urgent, I had probably looked at each of them a half-dozen times without acting on them, wasting a lot of time in the process. In the space of a couple of hours (I confess they took an average of five minutes each to do, not two, but give me a break, I’m new at this) I had cleared 30 Next Actions from my various ‘to do’ lists. This accomplished three things: (a) it removed logjams that were preventing several projects from progressing, (b) it cleared a bunch of one-off Next Actions from my lists, making what was still to do clearer and simpler to put into perspective, and (c) it moved several projects into the Waiting For list, when after doing my part I e-mailed various colleagues to tell them I needed something from them next, and to my surprise most of my colleagues responded almost immediately, moving these projects ahead quickly.

As I posted each item of ‘stuff’ into the appropriate table for that ‘bucket’, I began to notice that the column headings for several of the tables overlapped, and I started merging tables together, using a ‘flag’ in the first column of the table to indicate which ‘bucket’ it belonged in. I liked the idea of doing this, since it meant fewer tables to have to review, and fewer transfers of tasks from one table to another — all I had to do when an item moved from Next Action to Waiting For was to change the flag in the first column.

I ended up merging four of the five tables together: Projects, Next Actions, Waiting Fors, and Someday items, creating a single table with nine columns and about 200 rows. The nine columns are:

  1. Bucket: P for Project, N for Next Action, S for Someday, and W for Waiting For.
  2. Project # and Action #:  I’m using a convention of project number before the decimal and action number after, so the third action in my fifth project is 005.003, and the 27th next Action not associated with a project is .027 .
  3. Project Outcome: As Allen suggests, I’m using active verbs and outcomes as the Project Names, e.g. ‘Write & Publish Novel’.
  4. Action Name & Waiting For: The widest column, also using active verbs, citing what the next action step is, and, if applicable, who it’s waiting for.
  5. Deadline or ‘Tickler’ Date & Time: In easy-to-sort format (YYYY-MM-DD hh:mm) using the 24-hour clock, the scheduled or deadline date (and time if applicable) or the date you’ve put in the ‘Tickler’ file to next look at this item, so it doesn’t get deferred indefinitely.
  6. Context: Where and how it’s to be done — Online, Offline (using computer but not needing network connection), Calls, Errands, At Home, or Meetings — Allen’s #1 criterion for deciding what to do next of all the unscheduled Next Actions.
  7. Hours Required: Estimated time to do this Action — Allen’s #2 criterion for deciding what to do next of all the unscheduled Next Actions.
  8. Energy Required: A simple ‘Y’ for actions needing special concentration or mental energy — Allen’s #3 criterion for deciding what to do next of all the unscheduled Next Actions.
  9. Priority: Importance, not Urgency (urgency is captured in the Deadline Date), a subjective assessment (H, M, L) of how important it is relative to other actions –Allen’s #4 criterion for deciding what to do next of all the unscheduled Next Actions.

Here’s what I’ve filled in on this table for actions that belong in each Bucket:

  • Projects: Project Outcome in column 3, and then, in column 4, one under the other but in the same cell of the table, each of the foreseeable Next Actions, in approximate order, with column 5-9 data for each, and then at the end of the list, one single ‘action’ called Rest of Project with the Hours Required for the rest of the project, so you have a general idea of the total project size and time yet needed to complete it. By leaving all the actions in a project in the same row of the table, the actions in a project stay together when you sort the table by rows. For those who haven’t read Allen’s book, a Project is anything that comprises two or more actions. When there’s no hard deadline date, I simply assign a ‘Tickler Date’, putting the high Priority items first, starting with the earliest date in which I don’t already have a full 8 hours’ work assigned for that date. I only enter a specific time if there’s a scheduled appointment.
  • Next Actions: For ‘to do’ items not associated with a Project, I complete columns 4-9, using the same process I used for individual actions in Projects.
  • Waiting Fors: I only complete column 4, adding the name of the person I’m waiting for, and a ‘Tickler’ Date to follow up if I haven’t heard by that person by then.
  • Somedays: These are, I think, essentially Projects that you haven’t really thought through yet. I’m treating them just like Projects, except I enter only one Next Action for each.

I have the luxury of a UXGA (1200 x 1600 pixel resolution) screen, so I’ve set up the table in panorama mode using 9 point type, and display it at 150%, so I can see all nine columns on the screen without scrolling. I had originally expected to be sorting the table in a variety of different ways, but so far a sort by column 5 (Date & Time) is all I’ve needed. Each morning I add my new inbox ‘stuff’ to the table (excepting stuff that I can deal with in under two minutes or so), and re-sort it by column 5, and I have my entire day and week laid out for me. As I finish actions I just delete the rows. For Projects, I erase the Next Action as I complete it, and move the subsequent actions up. I’m going to follow the book’s advice and do a weekly review of the entire table on Friday afternoons.

Right now I use a manual pocket diary plus a monthly computer Calendar (a Firefox plug-in) which I print out and post on the refrigerator so my technology-averse wife and I can coordinate our schedules. I was originally thinking of continuing this, and transcribing information from my Getting Things Done table to my Calendars. But then I realized that my table, with the actions sorted by date, was a calendar. So instead, I made the table a complete calendar by adding a fifth type of action, Appointments (bucket type A), for scheduled events that didn’t relate to any Projects or Actions (doctor’s appointments for example). For these appointments, I now enter an ‘A’ in column 1, a description of the appointment in column 4, and the date and time of the appointment in column 5. Re-sort by date and, voilý, the table becomes a complete Calendar as well. My pocket diary is now a thing of the past — I just keep the table’s icon in the upper left corner of my computer desktop, and print it out only on those rare occasions when I’m going to meetings where my laptop won’t be there and I may need to schedule another meeting.

My three ‘to buy’ lists are still kept in paper & pencil form. I’m adding books, CDs and groceries to these lists all the time, and it’s just easier not having to print them out.

So far it’s working like a charm — greater productivity, better organization of the day, less stress, less wasted time deciding what to do with ‘stuff’ and what to do next. I’ll do a follow-up report as I get more experience. Until then, three questions for others who have used the GTD methodology, or any similar personal productivity tool:

  1. What’s the best way to link actions to the documents and messages on your hard drive that relate to them and support them? Right now I have a Windows Folder and an e-mail Message Folder for each project, but usually only a few of the documents and messages in these folders relate to the Next Action — most of them relate to actions already done or actions to come later. And I hate nested folders (tedious to navigate) so I don’t want to create a Windows Folder and a Message Folder for every action. I set up the project/action numbering system I describe above just for this purpose — so that I can put the project/action number at the front of the document name and message subject, but this is pretty cryptic. Is there a simpler, code-free, folder-free solution?
  2. How do you best use Google Desktop or Copernic or FileHand desktop search tools to support the GTD process, i.e. to find documents and messages quickly related to a particular action?
  3. What’s the optimal total amount of work to assign to one day? I tend to put in 12-hour days during the week and 4-hour days on weekends, and so far I’ve been scheduling and ‘trickling’ 8 hours of work for weekdays and 3 hours for weekend days. But by the time you add in a few indulgences (actions that you do because they’re just plain fun) and allow time to process the new ‘stuff’ each morning, including the 2-minute quick actions, and allow for the fact that evry project takes longer than you expect, I’ve been unable to get the 8 hours of work scheduled into 12 hours, and a couple of items each day are sliding into the next day’s schedule. Anyone have any answers for this?
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  1. Wil says:

    I have created a template that’s getting positive feedback on Ecco Pro’s newsgroup. You must have a version of Ecco Pro to use the template. The template is called GTDWU_1.4 and can be found at: will probably have to join the group in order to download the template. Ecco Pro can be found here:

  2. Michael J. says:

    Thanks for such a detailed outline of how you’re using this. I’ve read GTD, and a lot of online material, but have had a hard time figuring out the right toolset and approach. As you say, many tools are over-engineered, but even so, it’s mostly up to me to define my own system.Questions: — Why have separate “Outcome” and “Action” columns? It seems possible to combine them in a way that a project has an outcome but a next action has a description.– What gain do you see from using a project # and action #? I get why that might help tie something to a Windows folder structure or a paper file, but is there any benefit in the table itself?

  3. Raging Bee says:

    Your smart-looking flowchart left out “Make a smart-looking flowchart to show how complicated your work is and why you need more time and money to do it.”I’m a government contractor, and our smart-looking flowcharts leave out this step too, so I guess I shouldn’t complain…

  4. Sarah Nagy says:

    You might check out David Allen’s download entitled something like: “How to Get Outlook to Function Intelligently” – which sets up the Tasks and Notes in Outlook to perform some of your tables’ functions. I don’t have a PDA either, but have discovered that I can export those folders (and I imagine, the Calendar when I work that in) to my thumbdrive, enabling me to have my lists on whatever computer that I’m using. I’ve been using Outlook in a similar way (to your tables) and have noticed parallel advances in productivity. I particularly like his ‘Someday/Maybe’ category suggestion.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for the tech solutions. I’m content with what I have — it works fine for me, and I like keeping things simple. But I know several others following this thread who might benefit from your suggestions. Michael: The only value of separate Outcome and Action columns is you can see at a glance which Projects you’re working on next, and when. I could simply put the Project Outcome in the Actions column in boldface at the end of the list of Actions for that Project, I suppose, and save some real estate widthwise. And you’re right, the only purpose of the Project # and Action # is to link to the Windows and Message folders & documents. Too bad Windows doesn’t work like HTML, where clicking on the Action name would take you to the ‘URL’ on your hard drive for the supporting folders and messages.

  6. Michael J. says:

    Yesterday I experimented with a “master table” such as you describe, in an outliner program (OmniOutliner for Mac OS X). I used just one column for “Outcome/Action.”In my outline, projects get a top-level node, and specific actions are collapsed under that node. It appears, granted after only a short evaluation, that the problem with the combined column (in an outliner) is that I can’t tell the next action on projects because they’re “hidden” in the collapsed outline. I have to expand the outline to see the big picture. This is not optimal.I’m going to play with this some more during the holidays when I have two weeks off to reset and re-organize. Will post to my blog when I have something worth presenting. Meanwhile, here are two interesting links on a GTD-specific outliner use for a Mac OS X product called Hog Bay Notebook:<><>

  7. Katherine says:

    I throw all project support materials into a folder with the name of the client or project. Be sure to give electronic files useful names, for example incorporating your project numbers. You could then hyperlink to the file from the Next Action list, assuming that the software you’re using supports hyperlinks. If the information item is small enough, like someone’s phone number, I just put it directly in the Next Action item.I mostly use desktop search (I use X1) to find phone numbers and email addresses, as it’s faster than Outlook’s internal search. With this system, I rarely have trouble finding other project support materials. If you do, I’d advise labeling files with appropriate metadata when you save them.Every time I schedule more than half my available work hours, I get in trouble. So if your official work day is 12 hours, don’t assign yourself more than six hours of work. You might want to schedule even less than that, since I suspect the 12 hours includes at least one meal and several other breaks. If you take an hour for lunch and two half hour breaks, don’t schedule more than five hours of work. If you get to the end of your action list and still have time, you can always pick up something from the next day’s list.

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