Ah, Getting Things Done. GTD. A treasure to some and a piece of trash to others, GTD overshadows modern productivity discourse. It is certainly not as popular as it once was, but it looms in the background, the standard to which other productivity methods are compared.
The official GTD book does suffer from a certain tendency to sound as if its author, David Allen, is convinced his productivity system is the best possible system ever devised, but if we ignored every piece of advice that has this flaw, we would soon find very little to consider left to us. There is a complexity to full GTD that is daunting, perhaps especially for those of us with ADHD. Although the book has been updated, the system was created for a paper-based world, and some of the advice is no longer that applicable.
But personally, I have ADHD and have actually found several invaluable pieces of advice in GTD. Certainly I do not advise throwing everything else out and adopting its methods wholesale, but I would recommend considering some of this advice to see if it might work for you.
The most basic precept of GTD is that memory is unreliable and you should write everything down rather than trying to remember it. Because ADHDers often struggle with short-term memory, this seems obvious–if only those post-its wouldn’t disappear! Allen goes a little deeper than simply writing things down, and although it may seem simple, I believe it’s a valuable insight: capture notes in a limited number of ways (called inboxes) and review them regularly. He recommends emptying inboxes daily, and I manage to empty mine most days. (I have a reminder list of things I try to do each day, and emptying my main inbox is one of them.) It helps to have the same app on desktop and phone; I use a dedicated document in the nested list-making app Dynalist. Allen posits that when you check inboxes regularly, you’ll start to trust them and naturally write more things down. I still have to make myself write things down sometimes, and I do brain dumps occasionally for tasks and reminders that I’ve been trying to remember myself, but I find that most things get captured.
In GTD, current tasks appear in two lists: the next action list and the projects list. In classic GTD, the project list contains all active projects (defined as anything taking more than one action), and the next action contains the next physical action to do for each project. You can plan further ahead and put those plans into your project notes, but you don’t have to plan anything beyond the next action. For ADHDers, full planning can be overwhelming and discouraging, so I think this is a useful tactic to keep things manageable. Additionally, as Allen observes, plans may change drastically as projects are done, so planning too far ahead of where you are is not helpful.
Personally, I find that listing every active project is too overwhelming and creates lists that are too long to skim easily, so I try to keep my project list as short as possible. I have a hold list for projects that I want to do soon but do not have to do immediately. While this does add some complexity to the system overall, I find the shorter project list is worth it. I also frequently move projects back onto my paused list (my version of the someday/maybe list, which I will discuss later) to reduce the number of active ones.
Allen also recommends using context tags to designate where actions can take place, whether at home, at a computer, at work, and so on. Technology has reduced the need for these contexts, since we can work almost anywhere, and I work from home, so I don’t use context tags often. As discussed earlier, I keep my projects list quite short when possible, so I don’t need to filter it for it to be manageable. I do use them occasionally when I have an action that I can’t do immediately and want to make a note of that so I don’t have to keep rereading it. I also keep an errands list for the occasions when I’m out of the house.
Another recommended list is the waiting for list, to hold projects that are waiting on someone else’s approval or input. I don’t personally use this file much, although I might if I had more group projects. Generally I find a calendar reminder to check in with people is sufficient for me.
My longest list by far is the paused list, which Allen calls the someday/maybe list. (I find the name “paused” more appealing; I’m not entirely sure why). Those of us with ADHD tend to have an abundance of ideas, and the paused list provides an alternative to either overwhelming yourself with projects or letting good ideas slip by. I find this list is hardest to review because of sheer length. It helps to arrange ideas, nesting individual ideas under larger topics like “writing” or “creating.”
I also have two more custom lists, which are “umbrella” and “as possible.” The umbrella list contains overarching areas, such as working on this blog, that I want to keep at least one project going in at all times. The as possible list has different suggestions for things I’m currently working on but don’t work well as planned projects, such as craft projects.
The weekly review as described in GTD is practically a full analysis of your life, involving several question and a brain dump, and can easily take an hour or more. I find this is daunting, and not all that necessary if I keep up with my inboxes. I have a weekly task to carefully read over and review four lists: umbrella, as possible, hold, and paused. I make sure I have projects going for each topic on the umbrella list, remind myself of the suggestions on the as possible list, move items from the hold list to the projects list or paused list as needed, and organize items on the paused lists under topics as applicable.
GTD calls for a tickler file, a set of 43 folders that are labeled with the twelve months and the numbers 1-31. If you need to do or have something in January, for instance, you’ll put it in the January file. At the beginning of the month, you’ll put everything in that month’s folder in the numbered folders depending on what day you’ll need them. I find that this is overcomplicated given that most things (such as tickets or important papers) are easily accessible electronically. I’ll include links to what I need in the calendar entry or to-do list task. I have a single Project Support file to hold what I need in physical form (admittedly, I could review that file more often). I do also use my to-do list like a tickler file by having a scheduled list. Here, I’ll put dated reminders to do things or to start preparing for events.
Allen gives detailed instructions for filing documents, most of which I don’t use, although I might if I had more to file. He does have an evident fondness for label makers, which he recommends for creating neater, more professional-feeling file labels. I do have a label maker and like it; while I think I could do without it for files, it’s also handy for quickly labelling cords to prevent confusing messes. (Tip: I buy the off-brand label tape, which is much cheaper and just as reliable as the branded versions.)
GTD suggests only minimal calendar events, scheduling only those things that absolutely have to be done on a certain day, such as appointments and meetings. The idea is that plans and days change so much that trying to schedule other tasks is an exercise in futility, and distracts from the tasks that do have to be done at certain times. Instead, you’re supposed to look at the next action list and pick each task as you do it. I do find putting tasks in the calendar is too rigid for me, as I never know when I’ll have energy and focus. I also find that picking directly from the next actions list is too little planning, and instead I use a bullet journal (an article for another time) to fill out tasks for each day the night before, taken from the next actions list and from whatever else comes up.
In conclusion, I can certainly see why many are daunted by GTD; the full method can be overwhelming and perfectionist in tone. However, I think that it does contain some very helpful tips, and I’d encourage you to give it another look if you’ve dismissed the method outright. It may be that I’m a productivity nerd, but I think a little nerdiness is good for the soul.