Can you manage GTD lists with a spreadsheet?

Yes, you sure can. GTD Times reader Angela wrote to share her format for tracking action items.

GTD has made a significant impact on my life, and I’m glad to share a specific technique that has worked for me.

I format my Action Items list in a spreadsheet. It’s really convenient to add items as they come in chronologically or during the processing of “in.” Then the items can be sorted according to context. This is easily done by just having three columns in the spreadsheet:

1) Context (errands, @computer, etc.)
2) The item itself
3) Notes such as phone numbers, reference data, referral name, etc.

You can process “in” without wasting time inserting rows in order to put like items together. Just add more items at the bottom of the list. It is a simple procedure to sort the data by context, and BAM — action items are grouped according to context.

It has worked best for me to keep this spreadsheet on my desktop. This way I don’t have to open my spreadsheet program, open a folder, find the document, then open the document. A quick double-click on the desktop opens the application and the document, and I’m ready to scribe.

Editor’s note: You can also add a keyword for projects and actions, and then sort by the Item column to see the Projects with their next actions.

Join the Conversation


  1. Thanks for this powerful idea. I use a paper system now, but am ready to switch to something digital. But I haven’t wanted to get into a feature-heavy application when all I need is simple list management.

  2. I have been using excel spread sheet for my list.

    1. with shortcut like ctr+shift+L you can get a sort filter, its very powerful.
    2. Item like ‘get cat food’ since it’s a recurring item which you might be doing it every month; set a recurring date column in sheet or put it in google calender recurring calender event.
    3. Item like ‘Acme:client contract’ you can hyperlink this item to take you directly to the contract file.

  3. I use the GTD Outlook plugin. I have tried simpler solutions like notepad and also migrated to RTM for a short while.

    I am now back in Outlook, and the main reason is that main main “bucket” is my mailbox. The GTD Outlook plugin keeps the relation between my tasks and the email that triggered them.

    The plugin also enables me to defer tasks from any list to the calendar if neccesary.

    Another great feature of the plugin is the ability to link the Task to a project, so you can track what is getting done to move those forward.

    If you can build this into the spreadsheet I might consider migrating. I don’t like how everything is tied to the thick client and my laptop computer. I’d rather have something on google docs 🙂

  4. I moved from a feature-heavy website with apps for most devices because I was using almost none of the features. I set up my system on a spreadsheet and I kept my list handy through a cloud syncing program. However, even spreadsheets seemed too proprietary (the excel-like solution on my smartphone was expensive), so now I use plain text. Spreadsheets were better because of the sorting options mentioned by others, but my work and life have me cycling through devices; operating systems, etc at a high pace. To get close to universal access, plaintext and cloud syncing has been the way to go. I recommend a spreadsheet if you are not too mobile. In the end, it all depends on what you have and what you need.

  5. Is there a way to sync an excel sheet between Mac, iPhone and iPad without a cloud (using local WiFi or USB cable)?

  6. The only issue I see with this is a confusion of categories that could cause some difficulty. While projects may have contexts, a project is not a context. Actions associated with projects have contexts, and in order to keep the relationship intact it might be helpful to remove the projects context to its own ‘projects’ column where you can identify each project and its correlated actions by context.

    Just my $.02. This is a great, simple, and intuitive approach otherwise. Well done!

  7. Hey everyone,

    it’s my first comment on this blog. It’s good to see that I’m not the only one to uses excel for writing tasks to be done! I find it’s very convenient for that. I’m working on a new coaching program to help people set realistic goals for themselves and build self confidence that way. I was wondering if you can help. What is the biggest challenge or/and opportunity you face or faced in the past with goal setting? Carl

  8. Just add a Project column to the spreadsheet. Keeps it all in one place. Too many sheets and you will forget to look at one or more.

    Also in Excel use the AutoSort and pivot table functionality to help slice and dice.

    A colleague and I developed a GTD / Excel solution so simple it was scary. Made us wonder why we ever spent money on other software solutions.

  9. I like spreadsheets.

    You can have one big sheet with all tasks and you can also make a custom dashboard sheet to make lists with top 3 actions for each project or a column per project or a column per context. Statistics like open items, archived items, next actions, etc.

    But how do you “check off” tasks? What to do when they are done? Change color? Put a strikethrough? Or simple move to another tab in the sheet, Archived?

    I like the idea really much. Google docs is accesible online, offline and mobile so you can always reach your tasks.

  10. I have always used excel but have the projects listed at the bottom with a page break between each project. On my screen there is the action list at the top, projects below, and then if I print out for some reason, I have 15+ pages–one for action and one for each project. I can share a project page with someone in a meeting without them seeing my tasks or any other projects. I imagine the autofilter/pivot table combination would work similarly but may not print out as smoothly.

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