Getting Things Done, the focused space way

Apr 21, 2024

This week we are talking about the five steps of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” System. 

The central idea behind the technique is that our brain is not good at storing things but it can process them well.

The Getting Things Done or GTD method occurs in five phases. This system focuses on closing open loops created from the "stuff" in your life by moving these loops through five phases — which we’ll explore this week.

By taking the time to slow down and plan first, we can focus our attention and effort on the task at hand. 

This method has multiple benefits — including helping to reduce stress, ensuring you don’t forget tasks, empowering you to focus on the task at hand, and helping you complete the things most important to you. 

Phase 1: Capture

The first of the 5 phases is Capture. In this phase, you capture everything that has your attention — you essentially create a space to add all the thoughts in your head. This can be a notepad, an app, or anywhere you write things down.

The goal is to write down things that are worrying you to free yourself from them. This includes ideas for decorating your room, that call you need to make, phone numbers, a shopping list, the prompt for a poem you want to write — truly anything that pops into your head goes into this list. 

Don’t forget to write down ideas for hobbies that help you relax, your favorite way to incorporate movement, and ways to resource yourself. Your list can include enjoyable tasks and goals, too!

In GTD terms, all of these things we’re writing down are called “open loops” — they keep circling in your head. This week, we’re going to cover tips for how to close them. Even just getting them jotted down somewhere can free up some mental space and capacity, so that’s why we start with Capture.

So as you go through this week start thinking about what’s on your list that you’d like to capture.

Phase 2: Clarify

In phase 1, we captured everything that was on our mind! Now we will clarify.

In the Clarify phase, we make decisions about the things on our list. This is the step where we transform our vague ideas into concrete, actionable steps

To clarify, first go through every item on your list, and ask yourself what outcome you desire for each task. 

This helps you clarify your goals and set a clear direction. Once you have defined the desired result, start to break down what steps need to be taken to get you the result you’re hoping for. This is part of why we have the zoom-in phase of our wake-up calls!

For example, let’s say you have to "call Mel on Thursday about the project budget." The next step is not picking up the phone to place a call. Rather it might be to send an email asking about their availability on Thursday. The next action would be sending a meeting invitation, and prepare any necessary talking points. Then you’d get on the call!

Phase 3: Organize

If you’ve tried capturing all of your ideas in a long to-do list or brain dump, you’ll likely have a lengthy list. To effectively manage these items, the Getting Things Done framework recommends organizing them into specific categories or "parking" them in spaces.

Organizing ideas into spaces allows your brain to categorize them, so that you don’t have to spend much energy context-switching between tasks.

Here are some suggestions for breaking up tasks into categories:    

  • 🗓️ Calendar / Schedule: For actions that have a specific deadline or a planned appointment, such as calls, meetings, etc

  • 📝 Priority List: Your list of to-do's. Try organizing these according to priority, a rough estimate of the time needed to complete it, and the reason why you are completing it.

  • ⏱️ “Waiting for” list: The “waiting-for” list is for tasks that you cannot act on immediately because you are waiting for input, information, or action from someone else.

  • 💡“Someday” list: The “Someday” list is for ideas or actionable tasks you would like to work on in the future but can’t devote time to immediately.

  • 🗑️ Trash: For tasks that you can’t work on or don’t want to devote time to, it’s best to discard them entirely. 

  • 📂 Reference folder: Store items with intrinsic value that don’t require immediate action in a reference folder. This category may include informative articles, inspiring quotes, or valuable resources you’d like to revisit later.

If these categories aren't enough or don't apply to you, feel free to break your ideas into spaces that resonate with you better.

Phase 4: Reflect

Reflecting is arguably the most crucial step in the GTD process. This involves taking a step back, assessing what you’ve accomplished, and deciding what to do next.

The Getting things done system involves two types of reviews:

📅 Daily reviews: Daily reviews are shorter reviews carried out every day. It can be at the start of the day, or the end of the day. Look through your calendar and your to-do lists to determine what needs to be done on that specific day.  P.S. If you made it to a focused space wake-up call this week, you’re already doing this — Congrats! 🎉 Wake-Up calls are a perfect space to reflect and plan for the day.

✍️ Weekly reviews: Set aside time to ensure that your mind is clear and you’ve captured and clarified all incoming tasks and ideas from and for this week. You should review your projects, “waiting for” lists, and “someday/maybe” list. This is great to do during our focused space weekly planning sessions!  

The GTD framework approach is built off of the fact that it takes a lot of mental energy to capture and make decisions about a large inventory of open loops, especially when they’ve been undecided or stuck for an extended period. The benefits of regular review ensure that you are spending your time on the most important things to you. 

Phase 5: Engage

The final step in the GTD process is about choosing what to do and when. Even with a list of to-do’s, it can be challenging to know the right thing to do at any given time. 

David Allen offers three models to help you choose what to work on when it works best for you.

This model helps people decide which action to take next by considering factors such as the appropriate context, priority level, energy level, and available time

  • Context: Where are you? What tools do you have available?

  • Time available: Do I have the time to do this now? Be sure to build in breaks while time blocking and carving out time. For example, you can’t squeeze a 20-minute task into a 15-minute window before a meeting.

  • Energy levels: Where is my energy? What is my capacity (creative or otherwise)? For example, choosing to take a break (or a lower “mental load” task) over brainstorming a problem when you are tired. 

  • Priority: Having in mind the 3 criteria above, what action remaining of your options will give you the highest payoff? What will move the needle forward on what’s really important? 

Final Thoughts

Thanks for joining us on an exploration of GTD this week. As with any framework, try it and see how it works for you! You can always modify parts of the framework to suit your needs.

See you around some of the sessions this week!

— Megan