Making your GTD system work for you

Date: Saturday, June 25, 2011 by GTD Times Staff

This post is from Maureen, a coaching client of the David Allen Company. She describes her experience using both paper and computerized GTD systems.

I have been practicing GTD for about 8 years. I use the word practicing deliberately, because it takes time, effort and patience to improve my skills. Early last year, I made the bold decision to go from a paper-based system to using tasks in a computerized system. I had observed how much of my work was generated on the computer. It seemed that I ended up never fully capturing the totality of my work in my paper system because of this. I thought switching to a computer-based system would be the perfect way for me to finally get on top of all my work, get clear on my projects and their outcomes, etc.

I was so very, very wrong.

I have spent the last year in agony, enslaved to an elegantly designed system, which had me sucked in at such a minute level that the whole thing revolted me. I almost small things that if I thought about it are missing. But you know what? I am okay with that. I just don’t think about them, they don’t take up psychic RAM, and I don’t get overwhelmed with my ginormous work plan.

I invite you to listen to the voice in your head as you journey with GTD. Do what feels right, not what is the coolest. This system/process/approach should be in service to YOU and what works for YOU. There is enough in our lives we have to do—processes that are forced upon us, unreasonable timelines, and more. GTD shouldn’t be one of those. It should make you feel good.

29 Responses to “Making your GTD system work for you”

  1. Terry Cavanaugh says:

    I think these comments are very important and very valuable. I, too, am very paper-dependent. I have working very hard to make the computerized system really work for me but, like Maureen, I find myself with a load of on-line To Do’s that I don’t look at. I especially don’t like all the reminders I have set up for myself.

    This post is giving me the idea to stop beating myself up over not “getting” the computerized system, and step back to my comfort zone. I can still use all the principles of GTD, but on paper.

    Thanks, Maureen!

  2. Tess says:

    Excellent post Maureen!

    Would love to know how you combine electronic inputs, like emails, with your paper system.

    Also, are your lists ‘linear’ or mind maps or some other style?

    And…what type of notepad do you prefer?


  3. Richard says:

    I think it would be very helpful for someone who’s very adept at using the GTD system to create a digital film showing in real time, over this course of 10 minutes and maybe a few hours, how the entire system works.

    Included in this could be a narrative that explains the reasoning why and the how to, that results in a workable system.

    One big thing that has always stumped me is how you track all your lists and projects in a little notebook. How can you possibly have enough room to list the 200 or so active projects?

    I would love to see someone in 10 minutes of active involvement show step by step how notes are recorded, lists are utilized, and how overall decisions are made regarding use of the system.

    Be great if David Allen could do this – might help clear up much of the confusion.



  4. Melissa says:

    Love it. Thanks for the encouragement to make the system work for me.

  5. Mary says:

    Thanks very much for this. I love my electronic system, and I don’t want to return to paper, but there’s still much that is salutary here for people like me. Slowing down, remembering that 90% is good, maintaining a project list: all good reminders. Many thanks.

  6. Marc says:


    I second your thoughts, completely. That is one of the frustrations that I have with the system. The underlying question of, “Am I doing it right?” I understand, as Maureen pointed out, that the system has to fit ‘you’, but it would be very educational to see what the ‘system’ is supposed to look like, in action.

    Great suggestion.



  7. Maureen says:

    Thanks for all the comments, everyone!

    Tess – my notepad is a junior sized Circa notebook from Levenger. About 1″ thick, so not svelte. Before I went digital I used a filofax, but am liking the larger paper (or at least my eyes like the larger writing).

    My lists are context lists; I also have a section of my notebook where I have project pages where I might do mindmaps, etc. Another section is for agendas (everyone I meet with on a regular basis has a separate page). Another section is just where I take notes from meetings, etc.

    On how to include emails into paper system… about 90% of my emails require 5 minutes or less of my time so they don’t go on my lists; the rest get electronically filed in a project specific file and I simply add the “to do” on my context list and/or on project list. This still isn’t as great as I’d like (I don’t get email to zero near often enough…), but I’ve found I’m more disciplined now then I was before.

    Lastly, and almost embarrassingly, I invested in a really nice fountain pen and that has made me want to write more, spend more time with my lists… It’s like GTD jewelry…


  8. Julian says:

    Did you use any particular paper system or just blank pages and notebooks? Thanks.

  9. Isaac says:

    This is great post, especially I like the sentence “With software-based tasks, three clicks and I created another something to do, which just added to the never-ending pile of things I kept meaning to look at but never did”. This is so true.
    But still I didn’t find until today the perfect bridge between paper and computer life and this is frustrating point for me. Anyway, I find the paper more friendly user, more relaxing and easier to use. All computerized task lists only creates lots of alerts, reminders etc’ which leave you with lots of undone tasks.Sorry to say, but as someone wrote he has 200 open tasks, its mean he just collect tasks not solving it. The all idea is to review and do the tasks, and not postponing it.


  10. Olivier_G says:

    Very interesting article, especially as a reminder to focus on one’s needs and what works for you, when implementing GTD.

    The pen & paper method could work for me… but I don’t enjoy writing (except love letters <3 :). However, I focused on efficiency (and not exhaustivity) when I discovered GTD, thus feeling good with 90% instead of chasing the 100%. I also designed carefully my GTD implementation to "Keep It Simple S." before actually choosing the tool.

    I always have my iPhone with me. I tried all the major ToDo/GTD applications but they are too complex and their interface gets in the way constantly. Instead, I found a simple iPhone application that synchronizes with Google Tasks. It's actually so limited that I had to simplify my GTD even further. The interface of this application is so easy and efficient that I actually enjoy playing with it! It flows…

    It seems that most applications are designed for GTD geeks, when users would benefit from "easy to use" interface instead. I think there is a huge gap here, and I was happy to find an exception with GoTasks (see here:

    Now, I'll write a love letter.


  11. Tess says:

    This is a fascinating post/comments.

    Thanks Maureen for replying re the notepad. I am in UK so am not familiar with your particular brand.

    I mainly use A4 with blank, not lined paper, as I write all my notes as mind maps.

    I do like your idea of sectioning the notepad! I usually just fill up as I go but then have to flick thru pages to find things. In plan to start sectioning the pads using your system straightaway.

    I also love to use fountain pens and have a collection of different inks. Whenever I need uplifting or inspiration, I go to a stationery shop and browse the pens.

    BTW, I am a big user of tech stuff, have iPad, notebook, PC, phones but nothing beats fountain pen and paper for capturing notes and doodling.


  12. virens says:

    The problem of paper-to-digital bridge is really a huge one. Here are my 2 cents about this.

    As an engineer, I use LaTeX for nearly everything. For those who never heard of this word before – this is a markup language for scientific documents, like HTML.

    So I managed to implement my GTD system in LaTeX: Brainstorming, Projects, Calendar, Address book, References. The main feature is that I actually have style files to generate a paper output for everything. Here how it works:

    – if I have an idea, I just pull my Circa organizer with lots of fresh paper and briefly sketch the goal, desired outcome, ideas, and possibly next steps. Then I throw it into my In-basket. After that, I open my LaTeX viewer and add new Projects into my e-GTD. Once typeset in LaTeX, I immediately print the project and add it to my organizer.

    – the other way around: if I have an idea on the computer, I open simple text editor and start typing the ideas, goal, brainstorming and all the rest. Then I open my LaTeX viewer and again add the project there. Once I added the project, I just compile it into PDF and send to the printer.

    Sounds a bit complicated, but that’s how I bridge my paper and electronic organisers together. If you have some knowledge of LaTeX (or don’t afraid to learn it a bit), here you can download my implementation. It’s free, so you can modify it as you wish. Some comments and examples there are in Russian, but it works in English without problems.

    Hope it helps.

  13. André says:

    I was also for a long time, going back and forward between paper and tech systems.
    After some years of pratice my experience tells me that it is simplier to use it to capture things in the run; frees my creative energy so it is better when I need to go through a project and find new paths, ideas, tasks…
    Tech on the other hand enables one to organize all system and information related in one place and with time, effort and adquirement of best pratices can simplify, automate work from a stress free productivity state.
    I found that mix between paper and tech was the key for me.
    Nevertheless, I totally agree with you when you said that we should do whatever feels right for us when learning GTD; I would only add to that, try new things from time to time and see if they work for you.


  14. Maureen says:

    Here is what my notebook is like:

    One section is actions: project list, context lists each get a page, and for major projects I have a page for each so I can jot notes about future “to do’s”.

    Next Section: Notes… just where I start writing when I’m in a meeting. Most of these pages get either shredded or filed, once I pull off actions.

    Next Section: Agendas… one page for each of the people or meetings I have regularly.

    I use Circa ruled pages – love that I can easily remove/replace pages (could do the same with my Filofax). I also use “sticky flags” in a few places (they make some real durable ones now) for projects or people I work on a lot – saves me time from thumbing through pages.

    Hope it helps!

  15. Maureen says:

    Here is a page that describes what a Circa notebook is (can’t vouch for it, just found it and it seems a good summary)… says there is a flavor of Circa available in Europe. The main benefit is it is very easy to add/remove pages. Hope this helps!


  16. Robert says:


    Keep It Simple (Stupid) applies as much to me doing GTD as every other piece of information management.

    Personally digital capture and review *is* easier and simpler. Using basic lists projects and tasks migrate when (not if) needed. Don’t want my information trapped (or worse, lost!) when changing systems.

  17. Jim says:

    The more open projects you have, the more Next Actions there will be. If you are finding that you have to many actions (somebody mentioned 200 or more), just park a few open projects. I take a make an open project “someday/maybe” and, in my digital GTD system, its actions automatically dissappear from my Next Actions list.

    Alternatively, you can make all Next Actions within a project into “someday/maybe” and also add a ticker, dated (say) 2 months in the future, reminding you to “wake up” the project again. In my digital system (MGSD), when the ticker fires, I can take action or just let the project continue to sleep, backing off that ticker another month or 3 into the future.

    Following GTD, all your open projects will be worked in in parallel. The more you have, the slower each will be worked, and the longer your Action lists will be. By controlling the active projects, you control the length of these lists and your workload.

    On another subject, the advance of technology has skewed GTD somewhat. For many of us, the number of contexts is shrinking. The context I do most of my work in is “sitting in front of the computer”. Book a holiday ? Online. Buy a fuse ? online. Contact Fred, research a bank loan, buy ? Online. This means my “Online” context list is by far the biggest, and contains many very diverse and logically seperate tasks. Entering that context, I lose some of the leveraged GTD goodness that comes from focussing on one context at a time, because I (a) have to manage a large list and (b) have to switch between very different types of activity (eg from “research” a bank loan to “book concert tickets” to “find new house”).

    What might help here is to split the “Online” context into logical contexts, rather than physical ones. For example, “Facebook”, “Email”, “Amazon”, “my web site” could become different contexts in your system. While sitting in front of your computer, you can (in your mind) deliberately occupy one “context” at a time, and then focus only on tasks in that context.

    Thanks for slogging through this rambling post. When people use paper lists, what do they do with items that need to go on more than one list ? Eg “measure windows” needs to go on the “Next Actions” list and on the “get new Windows” project list.

  18. Tess says:

    Thanks for the info on Circa notebooks.

    It seems they are hard to find in UK but in the course of searching, I found this vey nice fountain pen forum for your new pen interest, Maureen!

    I might revert to plain A4 pads and lever arch file with dividers, using the section lists named above.

  19. Mark Jantzen says:

    Thanks for sharing, I found this article interesting!

    It goes to show the importance of your GTD system’s contents over the tool where the content resides.

    A good GTD system consists of words, numbers and easily accessible URLs organized in a way that makes sense to the user.

    “Call Fred re: project XYZ, 555-555-5555” is equally effective handwritten on an index card or inputted into eProductivity sitting on top of Lotus Notes.

    The key is your attraction to and willingness to use a tool … and the Weekly Review, of course.

    I once saw David Allen’s system when it was on the Palm. The technology was nowhere near cutting edge but the content certainly was!

  20. Hatza says:

    In The GTD book David states the number of projects and next actions typical for knowledge workers. Cannot recall it exactly, but it was around 80 projects and 160 next actions. Someday not included.
    Most applications and small paper implementations referred on the net do not scale to that. And many suggest that is excessive.
    I would suggest that If you have just a dozen projects and two dozen actions on a few index cards, you are not quite there yet to reach the load of typical knowledge worker

  21. Isaac says:

    After reading all posts, there is one mistake we all do, that we like to have “all staff, lists, projects, etc” with us all the time. Therefore people use all these electronic bullshit stuff. The idea is to collect everything into one pile, and once in a while to review it, and file it. No need to carry list, projects list, CRM, etc’. Small paper note pad and pencil is fine. Just check the drawer once in a while 🙂

  22. Boleslav says:

    I can think of two reasons why paper is better:

    1. I trust it (no viruses there, no internet connection glitches).
    2. It’s a lot easier to view. When I see a paper folder with my lists I relax and get inspired. When I have lists in my laptop, I feel like I have no lists at all.) Perhaps there is some psychology to the phenomenon, because many people feel this way

  23. Anita says:

    Thanks for the article, it sounds very familiar to me! I’m using my filofax after going through some thing very similar & love using paper.

    I used to add so much unfinished’stuff’ to Vitalist or Remember the Milk, & the length of my lists would freak me out. Some how I find the act of writing things quite calming & I love the tactile aspect of my filofax too.

  24. Carl says:

    GTD works.

    Discussing “paperbased” vs. “e” is just like the “GM” vs. “Ford” discussion unsolvable and only fit for causing shift of focus from the “mechanics” to the “system”.

    Go with what works for you and practice.

    “E” works for me.

  25. Bob says:

    I think Richard (6/25/11 @5:17pm) was indicating he had 200 projects, not next actions. I agree 200 projects fit into a Circa notebook is a lot to keep track of.

  26. Ali says:

    Thank you for this article.

    I knew GTD about 5 years ago and i still did not enjoy it. and the reason could be that I am a computer geek.

    I was always busy searching for the most complete and neat electronic system.

    on my laptop , phone , etc ..

    GTD was an excuse for buying an iPad , iPhone , Galaxy tab and frequent changing of a mobile phone.

    Now I am off to the stationary store to get a ( manual ) diary or a mole skin and have a go .
    I have a strong feeling that it will work.

    I think I need to listen to the audio book again as a refresher.

    Will report back hopefully 🙂


  27. Priya says:

    Very interesting article and comments – I too swing between computer and paper based systems but at the moment am feeling very comfortable with my computer system.
    I liked Jim’s suggestion about splitting the online context from a physical one to a logical set of contexts – this area has long perplexed me, given the vast number of things I do online and using logical contexts sounds like a great idea.

    Thanks for the tip Jim!

  28. Adam says:

    An old paper in the Harvard Business Classics might be worth mentioning on this topic. The article is worth a read and adapting the concepts it delineates to get a GTD system “working for you” instead of “you working for the system” should be easy enough but very different from one person to another.
    The analogy I found useful:
    1. A Monkey (which defines a project) needs to be fed or shot, but left starving is not an option.
    2. Feeding a monkey should not take more than 5-15mns. If the number of monkeys is larger than you can afford time to feed them one better get them off one’s back!
    3. Feeding only happens at a set time and in person. You cannot feed a monkey by email or phone call!
    4. Decide any adjustments of when the next feeding will be at the feeding time! Too fat, too skinny, etc. will determine the diet, regimen of feeding.

    Paper and/or digital is a personal choice and you would not know what works for you till you try both. I tried both and digital works best for me. I carry an iPhone with me at all times! No sweat there.

  29. Adam says:

    Even though I use digital for lists, next’ses, and daily management of system, I still use paper for brainstorming during reviews (while feeding the monkey) and for planning my day (every day is different: energy level, weather, calendared tasks, mood, inspiration, etc.), however the resulting paper from these two activities does not live beyond that day’s session! Paper does still survive brainstorming sessions for specific projects.

Leave a Reply