Articles Book Reviews

Why learn GTD

2017 was a mixed year for me. For 6 months, I lived in Denmark during an external stay for my doctoral studies, and this experience was wonderful. Professionally, I became a colleague of researchers I truly admire, complemented my numerical studies with some important experimental work, re-evaluated my work ethics. On the personal side, I tried to learn Danish while also practicing my English, ate a lot of bread, met some new friends, and experienced of the most exciting cities in the world in the wonderful company of my wife.

The preparation, however, was an emotional hell. For starters, me and my wife had visa issues. I also missed an opportunity to book accomodation months before going, and when I finally found a place, I missed the deadline for the security deposit for our new home (luckily there was no consequence). Since 2016, I had been trying to follow a “simple” productivity system, inspired by the works of Kourosh Dini, with some daily routines and review practices, but clearly it was not enough. I am a huge fan of Dini, and I follow his work closelyto incorporate his ideas about creativity in my own work, but I needed something more suitable to lots of projects with multiple deadlines.

And that’s the story of why I decided to revisit the productivity classic Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen, whose first edition I read in 2009. I bought the new edition just before traveling to Denmark, to make this period an opportunity to learn to be better organized. During my daily train commutes, I read this book very actively, taking lots of notes and trying to implement its practices. My period abroad was an excelent experimentation opportunity.

I will use this blog to document my GTD setup and what I’ve learned from the book. I’m by no means a GTD expert; this is a pure example of showing my work of reading Getting Things Done analytically. I did become a lot more organized and productive in this process. I’ve already mentioned my great experience there, but in more specific terms, while I was in Denmark I accomplished a few things:

  • Published the first journal paper from my doctoral studies
  • Submit one conference paper and have it accepted
  • Prepared one poster and one talk for another conference
  • Travelled with my wife to several countries, after my study period ended
  • Managed to host my family and some friends as they visited Copenhagen
  • Participated in two bike trips around the city
  • Completed my first street run

In addition to that, I kept regular contact with my family in Brazil, continued to work in my numerical studies, attended Mass regularly and hang out with friends often. The GTD method was essential to that, and now I hope to help others. This series is a not a substitute for the book; it´s mainly intended for people who have read the book and need some practical examples, or for people considering to read the book and who would like to know a little more about the method.

To understand GTD, there are three fundamental principles:

1. Learn to manage open loops

The GTD method is a productivity system. It tells you how you should manage your projects and tasks, with the basic goal of higher producivity with lower stress. According to Allen, productivity is simply a ratio of outputs and inputs: how much you can accomplish (in terms of results) for a given investment of time and energy. Being productive is valuable for two reasons:

  • For fixed input, you accomplish more or perform a better and more complete work, in the same time it would take to do a poor job if you were not productive
  • For fixed output, you need less time to conclude something you have to but don’t want to do

The challenge is being productive without the stress and overwhelm of trying to do too much. The first basic argument from the book is that the key to being productive and stress-free is managing open loops. You feel anxious about your work when you do not control it. Some piece of information comes to you: a worry about a family member, a request from your boss, the fact that something is broken at your home, an email about a paymemt due. You know you should do something about it, but you don’t know what. In addition, you have unfinished projects: a report, a party to organize, a talk to prepare.

Keeping these open loops on your head is a bad idea. You have no guarantee that you will remember to do the appropriate things at the right time, as you cannot control what you remember and what you don’t (try it). And these worries take energy out of your mind, preventing you from doing good work. The goal of the GTD method is, in its own terms, to help you engage with your work, achieving the state of flow, the state of play as Kourosh Dini calls it in his texts. In a sense, the GTD method is all about creating conditions for deep work . The GTD term for this is mind like water: your mind is so relaxed that, when requested, it reacts in a proportional way, but then goes back to equilibrium. When you are working, you work, and don’t think of anything else.

The core of the method is to provide a system where you store information, ideas and worries out of your mind, and to develop habits that allow you to not worry about open loops. This was what caused most of my problems: I had lots of deadlines (for submitting the visa application, for mailing documents, for paying fees) that were not properly recorded, and I often had to act in a hurry when it was almost too late. I also was underutilizing the concept of contexts (as we’ll see in later texts), the notion that I can do different things in different places; I would maintain a list of sequential tasks and would postpone some of them until others were completed, when in reality I could do some things while waiting for others.

2. Start bottom-up

The second main argument from the book is that the most effective way to manage open-loops is bottom-up: first manage your day-to-day actions and commitments, and only them re-evaluate your commitments and higher priorities.

This is not exactly common sense, and is against “modern” advices on productivity. Most gurus advise you to do something like a “personal mission statement”, and then to only work on goals that align with this mission. However, decision-making takes time on itself (as discussed in Kourosh Dini’s excellent Workflow Mastery) , and it’s impossible to find time to important things like this in the midst of a daily chaos.

Based primarily on his experience as a coach, David Allen states that first you have to be able to manage daily activities. If you have to do a report for next week, you need to take care of that. If you have a meeting in an hour, you have to be there in time, even if it does not align with your personal values. However, if you learn to be productive, you start to take less time to do your work (as discussed in the first principle above) and to be less stressed, and it is with this energy and time that you attack on your higher levels of focus.

Fancy techniques, trendy apps and productivity hacks don’t work because they don’t give you more time — or worse, they may help you processing your email in less time, but then you will want to fill this time with new responsibilities (something I experience myself all the time, and I bet most readers do too) and then new worries. What we need is, according to the author, a systematic approach of managing these worries.

Another important proposition, related to this argument, is that the key to manage open-loops is to manage actions: if something is on your mind, then you must find what your should do, physically, to resolve that loop. If I’m worried about a birthday party, then I need to put the date on my calendar and then a reminder to buy the gift; when the time comes, all I have to do is go to the party. We’ll talk about this concept of next actions in future posts.

To summarize: if you have an open-loop in your head, draining energy, you have to act on it. As you learn to do this, you begin to take control of your days. Then, you can take time and energy to analyze your long-term goals and values. Doing that in the reverse order may only create more worries.

3. To close open loops, apply the 5 steps

We’ve already established that, to be productive and stress-free, we have to manage open-loops, so that worries don’t pop in our heads when we are trying to engage in the work. But how do we manage these open loops?

David Allen states that there 5 habits or processes that you have to master and apply to every piece of information that comes to you. The author argues that they are “commom sense, systematized”, and are the result of years in coaching successful individuals. Personally, I think that the examples the author gives to show that these steps are “natural” a little bit forced, and he is trying to prove the conclusion he wants. The GTD method is used for many years and many people have already proved that the method work; we don’t need to fit it into a precise explanation of how our mind works.

The 5 steps of the GTD method to control the workflow are:

  1. Capture
  2. Clarify
  3. Organize
  4. Review
  5. Engage

To recap: open loops are created with stuff (to use a term from the book) that comes to your attention. Some other examples:

  • You’re reminded by the newspaper that it’s tax season
  • Any colleague request you to do something
  • Your wife kindly suggests it’s time to visit her family again
  • You feel ill and should see a doctor
  • You receive an email about a job opportunity
  • You get work assignments after an important meeting
  • You need to study for an exam that was just announced

For every item like this, you apply the 5 steps, defining concrete things to do, until you close all loops.

In the next posts, I will detail how I set up my GTD system and how I implement these habits.


Por Fábio Fortkamp

Pai do João Pedro, Marido da Maria Elisa, Professor do Departamento de Engenharia Mecânica da Universidade do Estado de Santa Catarina, católico devoto, nerd

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