Productive Living
David Allen

Hi everyone!

I'm often asked how to plan projects with the GTD® process. In my experience, most people seem to fall into two categories: those who overplan with too much structure, or those not planning enough and avoiding jumping in to the details. I've discovered that the real need is to capture and utilize more of the informal, creative and proactive thinking we do—or could do. But the tricky thing about this, for many, is that if you already feel out of control with your current commitments, you'll unconsciously push back on doing more creative thinking and planning. This is where GTD becomes an integrated system of horizontal and vertical control. Easy? Not always. Doable? Of course. And you may just find that when you have a trusted system for your actions (horizontal), your creative thinking (vertical) will generate ideas you didn't know you had.

All the best,




A vast majority of professionals think they have a problem these days—"project management." Problem is, that's not the problem. Well, it is, but not the way they usually think it is. Let me be a little more vague...

I am often asked if I have a good "project management" seminar for their people. My first response is, "What exactly do you mean by 'project management'?" Very few have a good answer quickly. They've often just heard it as a need from their reports or their constituents. "Do you have people who need to know how to lay out a GANTT chart or detailed critical path for complex projects like constructing a building or implementing a new corporate information system? Or do you have people who feel like they're overwhelmed with the load of things to do, many of which can't be finished in one simple action step?" Usually it's some combination of the two, but mostly it's the latter.

I call anything a "project" that is not likely to not be finished with one action step. A trip coming up? That's a project (Finalize Prague trip.) Need clarification on your new job responsibilities? That's a project (Clarify new job description with boss.) Need to look into consultants for the website you think you need? That's a project (R&D Web consultants.) My experience with thousands of people over the years indicates that most people have 20-50 of those kinds of "projects" at any one time.

Problem #1 - I've never seen any two of those projects that needed the same amount of planning or detailing of steps to get them under control. It ranges from three bullet points on the back of an envelope in a coffee shop (usually your most productive thinking) to days of intensive planning with a group of a dozen people, with pages of outlined steps, critical path, etc. So most single "project planning" or "project management" models would under- or over-plan most of our projects.

Problem #2 - How do we integrate "horizontal" vs. "vertical" control? "Vertical" thinking is: how do I detail out a single project, theme, or topic? If that's all we ever had to think about, we could feel pretty comfortable with a model that helped us think through the steps of anything. The 2nd day of our Managing Workflow, Projects & Priorities seminar gives a great Natural Planning Model for what questions to answer, in what order, that most efficiently makes things happen. "Horizontal" thinking, however, has to look across all the hundreds of parts of dozens of things we need to keep tabs on during the course of any 24-hour period. It often requires that we be extremely flexible in recalibrating when to do what actions on multiple things we have going at one time. The Horizontal usually blows the heck out of our Vertical!

The only way to really get all this together is a holographic approach to all of it. It requires that we know how to think rapidly through a project, problem, or topic as required (vertical, natural planning); capture the results of that thinking and plug it in appropriately to the whole mix of action reminders and information we might need to access; and scan the complete horizon regularly enough to trust our intuition about what we need to do and by when.

It's possible, but not an easy task. We need to think and capture as much as we need to do, to get things off our mind; and fly by the seat of our pants amidst the results.


Q: What do you recommend to organize the Projects list in order to quickly find a particular project?

A: If you're using a software application for managing lists, and if it can sort the list alphabetically, then get in the habit of writing the key word about the project first, so you can scan down the alpha listing. E.g. "Finalize vacation" becomes "Vacation - finalize." That's what I discovered works best for me.

The other question might be: Why do you need to "find the project"? What are you looking for? If you're doing a thorough weekly review every week, you probably don't need to refer to the project on a list that often. If you need to refer to your notes and plans about a project, they should simply be accessible in your reference or project support areas by file or folder; and you just refer to those as you need.

Another option is to create some sub-categories of projects that you feel you need to review frequently. Nothing wrong with that.


"Clear the deck, create a context, and do some creative project thinking. You'll then be way ahead of most people."

-David Allen
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Get practical and tactical tips for setting up your projects and actions at one of our Mastering Workflow classes. Join us in Newport Beach, Seattle or Pittsburgh. Get 25% off a public seminar with the purchase of the GTD System kit.*

* Note: you must purchase and receive the GTD System before you will be able to apply the discount to a new registration. Discounts can not be applied retroactively, or prior to receiving the GTD System kit.

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A great project planning technique David describes in the Getting Things Done book is mindmapping. Catch the latest Webinar on GTD Connect, our online learning center, on "Getting the Most Out of Mindmapping." Learn the history, techniques and tips for using this creative process. GTD Connect members click here to watch it now. Not a member? Try the 14-day trial.


Our new GTD Mastering Workflow Interactive eLearning course is a terrific way to get your team (especially if they are in different locations) up to speed with GTD. Join the free upcoming webinar to learn more.


Check out the ultimate list of FREE GTD resources.

Do you have problems or projects? Listen to the free podcast with Coach Meg Edwards.


GTD'er Rob passed along this helpful tip for handling receipts:

As a business traveler, I detest collecting and processing receipts. Messy. So, when I'm finished with a dinner that I need to expense, I simply shoot a pic of the receipt with my iPhone and email to my assistant while still at the dinner table. Takes less than 2 minutes, and I can leave the receipt next to the dessert. Done. Out of mind for good. For those who don't have an assistant, I recommend emailing to your Evernote account for processing after your trip. Saves you the work of scanning, and again, you don't have to lug around your receipts.


GTD® is the popular shorthand for "Getting Things Done®", the groundbreaking work-life management system and book by David Allen that transforms personal overwhelm and overload into an integrated system of stress-free productivity. Read more...


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