A Simple Index Card GTD System

Editors Note: This great piece has been contributed by GTD Community Member Joe Ely who was kind enough to offer to share his personal GTD system with us in the following post.

A bit about Joe: Joe Ely is the Director of Operations at Cook Biotech, Inc, a medical device manufacturing company in West Lafayette, Indiana. He writes the blog Learning About Lean, a study of Lean Manufacturing. In his spare time he enjoys distance running and the Chicago Cubs, both avocations requiring great endurance.

By Joe Ely joeely618 at gmail.com

Coach Kelly Forrister recently blogged on what makes a good GTD list manager? One of the beauties of GTD is its flexibility; as such, the “best system” will vary for each individual. Being a systems geek myself, however, I’ve been working for sometime to find what works for me. Kelly and Oliver invited me to share my decidedly low-tech system which, for me, meets all of Kelly’s criteria…

I learned of GTD about six years ago via a blogging buddy in the manufacturing world. I devoured “Getting Things Done” and tried to apply it. I saw some success yet struggled to find a list manager to capture all the “stuff” coming my way.

My first try was with a PDA, linked to my PCs at work and at home. It worked reasonably well, especially when I was connected to my PC. Direct entry of list items into the PDA while I was in the field or on the shop floor, however, was clunky.

A job change four years ago sent the PDA packing, for a variety of reasons. I sifted through a series of web-based list managers. Again, they were useful when I was at my computer at work or at home. Yet much of my job in manufacturing management happens NOT in front of a PC but on the shop floor or in a meeting.

Further, the system didn’t accommodate my weekends. I get ideas about work at a ball game or a concert or church; I get ideas about personal projects at odd times during the work week. How could I capture these in a system I could trust and get on with my weekend or my job responsibilities? I actually spent a lot of time pondering this.

A key event came in the fall of 2006 when our company president required all of our mangers to take a full day of personal planning. I devoted half of that day to re-reading “Getting Things Done” and hammering out a new system. And what I came up with that afternoon has worked and continues to work.

The system is simple. I use a small stack of colored 3 inch by 5 inch index cards, held together with a small bulldog clip. During the week, the stack resides in my shirt pocket; on the weekends, it moves effortlessly to my jeans or shorts.

The system works on three simple premises. First, the color of the card indicates the context of the list. I realized virtually all of my actions fell in one of these seven contexts:
• Work-computer
• Work-errands
• Work-projects
• Home-computer
• Home-errands
• Home-projects
• Someday/Maybe

So, with seven different card colors, I have the seven contexts for everything I do. The impact of color on how we sort things in our brain is amazing. Now, when I realize there is something I need to pick up at the store for a weekend project, I instinctively reach for my white card, which holds my “home errand” list. When I realize I need to email a vendor on a supply issue, I zip to the blue card, holding all my work computer tasks.

The second premise addresses the language of each item on the list. I write each next action in the form verb the noun with the object, as described by Merlin Mann. Always. Every time. That discipline forces me to call the action what it really is.

The third premise is the notation of the action’s status. As I write a task, I precede it with a dash. From that humble beginning, the list stays neat using this key:

It is incredibly simple. The dash means it is still to do. Adding another mark makes it done, delegated, waiting, moved or canceled. No messy crossing out of the entire item. One mark…I’m done.

This marking system is not original; I first saw it on a link from a link from 43 Folders, but I can no longer locate the originator. If someone knows of it and can let me know, I’ll like to give full credit.

This “Dash Plus” notation system is not original; I found it via this link to Patrick Rhone in 2006.  It was so simply elegant, like GTD itself, I adopted it immediately.  Patrick recently posted this update on Dash/Plus in Action.

Putting this all together, I end up with a compact card deck of tasks, neatly labeled, in my own handwriting, in my shirt or jeans pocket. For example, here’s my current home computer list.

I have found I can fit two columns of tasks on one card, giving me space for about 20 actions on one card. Yeah, my handwriting is not that great but I can read it. Note most of these items are done. The simple plus sign in front of the item tells my mind it is no longer of any interest. I simply no longer see it.

One further use of this method. When I need more detail, I can point to a further list. Note the last item– “Write David Allen blog (over).” This item is undone (at least as I write this!). To organize my thoughts, though, I wrote a brief outline of this post on the back of the same card


Note here I broke down the task to several subtasks. I actually wrote this list during a dull portion of a work meeting last week…the ideas hit me, I wrote them quickly, then reengaged with the business meeting, knowing I had secured the ideas.

So how does this system hold up to Kelly’s requirements for a good GTD list manager? Let’s look, step by step.

Key features to look for:
* Sorting lists by context – many programs have a “category” feature that will easily support this.
>>>Yep…color calls out the context.

* Ability to assign a due date – not forcing it on all of them, but allowing it for those that need it.
>>>Yep…I just write down the date, if needed.

* Portable for on the go access – can be synched to a handheld or printed.
>>>Portable, yes. Synched, no. For me, this is not an issue; I found with my earlier experiments that synching really didn’t mean that much. I am happy to trade off network synchronization for portability.

* Easily accessible – less than 60 seconds to get something in/out.
>>>Big time…I reach into my pocket and have the full deck in less than 3 seconds. A quick five-second glance to the right color and I’m at the context list.

* More attractive to you than repelling – you’ve got to like the system you’re entrusting your brain to.
>>>If you can’t tell already, I find this system VERY attractive to me…it is compelling; it is congruous to the way I think and work.

* Doesn’t force priority codes – if you know GTD, you know that forcing priority codes is old news and rarely accurate anyway.
>>>No problem on this one.

* Place to capture additional notes – attached to an item to capture relevant info related to the item.
>>>Yep…I flip the card over and write on the blank side.

* Ability to search and sort in various ways.
>>>My lists are short and the contexts are clear. The marking system keeps, typically, less than six open items on any card at any time. This is adequate for me.

* Robust enough to handle all of your stuff.
>>>This is the key…and this system handles ALL my stuff.

Recently, this all came together for me in a funny way. I went on a weekend fishing trip with some buddies. As I sat in a small rented bass boat in a sheltered cove on a big lake in remote southern Indiana where none of us had any cell phone connections, I had an idea about going fishing with my twin grandsons in the next couple of years. I reached in my pocket, sorted to my “someday/maybe” list, wrote the idea down and resumed my conversation with my friend.

If you’d like a paper-based system, I hope these ideas trigger your thinking.