Google spreadsheet as a GTD list manager

Jesse, a GTD’er in Pittsburgh, sent David a write up about how he’s managing his GTD lists in a Google spreadsheet.   The useful thing about spreadsheets for GTD is that they are very customizable and sortable.  Google Spreadsheet also has a handy “Form” feature for quick capture into the form.  Here’s what Jesse does:

I know every crank in the world has a version of your system that they use — and I’m no exception — instead of the sets of paper lists your book describes, I have been using a simple Google spreadsheet of tasks with six columns:

Urgent: (a binary column — urgent or not urgent)
Where: (home, at work, computer, in car, etc.)
Project: Which project is this task part of
Action: What to do next on this task
Due: If there is a particular due date
Tickle: If nothing can be done until a particular date, put the date here

I keep all my tasks, tickles, and projects here. If I want to see tickles for today, i sort by the “tickle” column. If I want to see what is due next, I sort by the “Due” column. If I want to see what is urgent, I sort by the “urgent” column, and if I want to see what is up with a particular project, I sort by the project column, which groups all the actions associated with a single project together.

This has been working very well for me, combined with a daily “don’t go to bed until you’ve done these things” checklist, which is things like:
– Empty email inbox
– Empty desk inbox
– Empty voice recorder

Jesse Schell is on the faculty of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, where he teaches classes in Game Design.

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  1. Looks simple and functional. I keep trying to make Outlook do what I want, but can’t seem to make it work with hierarchal tasks. Jesse’s system would probably work with them if you numbered the individual actions of each project. I guess it’s OCD, but I just like the idea of my tasks and calendar being in one program.

  2. I’m glad to see someone else using apreadsheets as a way to handle this. I am in the process of designing one for myself and had come up with pretty much the same columns. Since I use GTD for personal stuff instead of work, I also have a column for area of focus which includes all the organizations I belong to, with projects associated to them.

  3. I like how Jesse keeps it simple! Stop obsessing over the perfect system and do it 🙂

    I worked around tracking hierarchical tasks in Outlook simply by documenting the next action in a tasks and additional dependencies in the notes section.

    Once dependency is complete, copy and paste new next action (or if you must, check as complete and C&P into a new task). No reason to concern yourself with a task unless you can complete it.

    Plus, it supports getting things done (no pun intended, OK maybe a little) by keeping things small and incremental.

  4. The best part is that the spreadsheet is web-based, making it accessible (and editable) from ANY computer or smart phone (iPhone is my preference). Well done!

  5. Great minds think alike 🙂

    I use a Google spreadsheet too. Except that mine is far more rudimentary. Column 1: project, column 2: comma-separated list of ‘areas of focus’ tags that the project is relevant to, column 3: next action. I break with GTD theology a little bit: I have a 4th column called “hopper” where I capture any beyond-next actions, or unclarified placeholder actionish phrases. I have a dates column, but the default is =today(), and I set it to a hard date when necessary (either a deadline date or a tickler date), and have a rule that turns past due rows red.

    I repeat this structure on multiple tabs, each tab is one context. I have an extra 2 tabs, one with a someday/maybe list organized pretty much the same way, and a final one containing my sweep locations.

    Not perfect and I fall off the wagon a lot, but works better than anything else I’ve tried so far.

  6. I like this, and would use a system similar, but I have actions that I can’t act on yet but that are identified on a project that I don’t want to see on my to do list. I wouldn’t sort the to do list by project – I’d put those actions I wanted on it from the project pages when I did my review. I guess I could have a tab for each project.

    Nozbe seems like it would do what I need by whether or not I “star” the action. Toodledo lets me give the task a priority of -1, but I have to define my view each time rather than just get what I want – defining my view requires me to think about exactly what I want to see, and I don’t like having to think that much when I’m looking at a list of pre-thought stuff.

    I still use paper because of these reasons. I use the DA planner with my projects in the projects tab – one page each with a list of projects as the first page in that tab. My actions in the actions tab, by context.

    This is a great idea, though, don’t get me wrong. Having anything that works is great. I’ve missed reviews and taken the whole planner out and put it back in the in basket to become mostly someday maybes that I’d lost interest in finishing for now, so mines not perfect by far. The point of having something – a list – and working, is great. I’m glad you have yours figured out. Good tip for people who don’t want to pay for a system and want something digital that’s accessible everywhere (including iPhone).

    @Danny: The task/calendar in same place can be taken care of with Google Calendar btw.

  7. Hi, We are creators of an excel based tool for task management called X-TrackAmaze, which people typically use for personal tracking as well as project tracking.

    Recently, triggered by feedback from one of our customers that this tool seems apt for GTD, I studied GTD diligently (just finished 3 days back 🙂 ) and found that with some small tweaks, we can actually marry the power of GTD’s principles and X-TrackAmaze’s features.

    At this point, we haven’t done any enhancements/tuning specifically for GTD but we tend to believe that the as-is version also should be pretty handy in implementing GTD.

    For those of you who may want to try out, you can download the tool (it has 15-day trial period) from our site (X-TrackAmaze 07 for working with MS Excel 2007 and X-TrackAmaze 03 for working with MS Excel 2003).

    In case you have some specific feedback/requests for tuning, you could reach us though our website or our support channel. If there are specific requests that we can service, we would surely give it a try.

  8. I like this. It’s simple and able to keep all of you lists together and it’s portable, because google docs can been seen at any internet site, including your phone if you are out and about and have some extra time.

  9. Hey,
    Like the spreadsheet (but then again I’m partial to them!). Also agree with Danny that I would love to have tasks and calendar in one function. I use a BB curve and have been struggling with this and haven’t perfected a system yet. Anyone got any ideas other than expensive programs like ToDo Matrix and such? I’m looking to integrate tasks and calendar. Right now, I mostly put the tasks in the calendar as untimed appts. Any ideas are welcome.

  10. This is a great solution, I love it and am totally converted. In particular:

    I love being able to quickly switch between project view and context view according to where my thinking is right then. I’ve found the “List View” (under View menu) is particularly useful for this, and saves you needing to have separate tabs for each project or context, as it does it all for you.

    The form for entering tasks is great, as I can include verbal prompts to just have the very next action. Just edit the form to customise it however you want. I then have a shortcut to the form in my bookmarks bar for a quick link. I put a direct link to the list in there too!

    The flexibility of leaving it online (so can access from work or home), or printing a copy or downloading the form as an excel or text file is also very useful to me. For me this has a lot of the advantages of simple text files, but with easier rearranging etc and entry.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  11. Holy s..t!
    This is just what Ive been looking for for the past 6 months, ever since I got into GTD! I feel like I have just discovered the wheel!

    I ve been using google spreadsheet for project management and as action list for couple of days now. What a relief. Sort by date, sort by project, sort by context. Rules to make overdue items glow red, ability to link to action support materials in google docs and to messages in Gmail. This is priceless.

    Who needs all those overcomplicated apps like RTM, Outlook or My Life Organized?


    1. You touched on an item I‘m wondering how to handle. Let’s say we have 50 projects with next actions for each. However each project may have quite a few other tasks. Some could be have been selected as the next action, but wasn’t, some tasks could be done now and some may depend on other tasks that have not yet been completed. Where do we put all of these other tasks? If on the main spreadsheet, really makes it a long list, but if not there, easy to overlook opportunities to complete. Ideas?

      1. Hi Dave,

        Dependent tasks (also called “future actions”) can go in a variety of places. If you want to keep it in the Google family, you might try Google Keep or Drive. We’re about to release an update to our GTD & Google Apps Setup Guide to include more instruction on using Keep in particular:

        We’ll post an announcement about that new update to the guide on

        Hope that helps!

  12. Hi. Do you think this is too static though? I would have thought a good system needs at least some checkbox for cimporting to remove the task and more importantly automated re-ordering if you change the date. Would be good to group them by days also. I would like to use a spreadsheet due to adding my own custom columns not found in standard to do lists (e.g. Costs) but automation/dynamic processing is also important to make it quick.

  13. I find all these systems are just list makers and theres a higher level of planning that needs to be done. Working on projects is fine but sometimes theres multiple projects aiming towards a common goal .. Many programs leave out that all important thing – GOAL why am i doing this in the first place in my life ..

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