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The secret to making your GTD system work

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

GTD Steps: Organize

There's a feeling of confidence and satisfaction that comes from having a reputation as someone who is organized and gets things done. Not to mention the career opportunities it brings.

When you manage your work well, you can do more in less time and feel relaxed and in control. You're able to spend more time on higher-value more enjoyable work. Others have more confidence in you. You are happier, have a bigger impact and more career success.

Managing your work well by itself doesn't bring career success. But it does calm your mind. No more bouncing from one partially completed task to another, rushing to meet deadlines, and continually scanning your mind to make sure you're not forgetting something. You're able to focus on one thing at a time so you can give it your best thinking and do your best work. If you do that consistently, people will notice. You'll get more opportunities to show what you can do.

But managing your work effectively in a busy corporate environment is not easy. You have multiple projects going at the same time and a long list of tasks with different priorities, urgency, and due dates. Not to mention a lot of what you need to do requires other people to complete work on time. Just trying to keep things from falling through the cracks takes a lot of mental energy and attention.

Learning how to manage your work effectively is one of the most impactful things you can do for your career. But at most companies you're left to figure it out on your own.

The 5 steps for managing your work

Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen is one of the most helpful books written on how to manage your work. It teaches a logical, specific, and practical system for staying organized and on top of things. It's helped millions of people enjoy their work, feel more confident, and perform at the level they are capable of.

The Getting Things Done system has five main steps:

  1. Capture - get everything you need or want to do out of your head and into a tool you trust.

  2. Clarify - identify the specific actions you need to take.

  3. Organize - keep reminders of each action and project in a tool you review regularly.

  4. Reflect - take a step back on a regular basis to clean up and look at your work from a broader perspective

  5. Engage - choose what to work on an actually get them done

It's worked for millions of people and it will work for you...if you follow it. Read here for more information on how to implement GTD at work.

Why people struggle to sustain their GTD system

If you've tried GTD but weren't able to stick with it long term, you're not alone. A lot of smart people who initially have success with GTD struggle to stay with it over time.

The below cycle is common:

  • Struggle to manage work - you feel disorganized, stressed, and disappointed with yourself.

  • Read Getting Things Done - you're excited and hopeful to have a roadmap to follow

  • Implement GTD partially - a huge weight comes off your mind as you follow the GTD steps. You feel calm and confident. You're able to start doing your best work.

  • Fall off the GTD wagon - you get busy and start skipping GTD steps. The mental weight and worry comes back. You fall back into your old ways of managing your work.

  • Recommit to GTD - remembering how much better you felt when you were following GTD, you recommit yourself to it and start to feel hopeful again.

  • Repeat

Does this sound familiar?

There's a reason people never fully implement GTD or get stuck in this cycle. Once you know the pitfall, you can avoid it.

The secret to long term success with GTD

I'm generally a clean person. I like things to be put away where they belong. But for a long time if you had looked in my bedroom you would have seen a pile of clothes on the floor next to my dresser and another one on the floor of my closet.

No matter how many times I cleaned up my room, within a week or two, the piles were back.

I finally realized why this happened. My dresser and closet were too far apart. My dresser was on the far wall of my bedroom while my closet was across the room and through the bathroom.

To dress for work I would go to my closet because that's where my work clothes hung. I would take off my pajamas but to avoid walking clear into the other room to put them away in my dresser, I would put them in a pile on the floor.

After work when I wanted to change into more comfortable clothes, I would go to my dresser. When I took off my work clothes I would place them in a pile on the floor by my dresser rather than walking into the other room to hang them up in the closet.

Hence, the two piles.

You get the idea. When I was rushed or tired I would avoid the extra effort of walking into the other room to put my clothes away where they belonged.

Once I realized why the piles kept forming, the solution was obvious. I moved my dresser into my closet. That way, I never had to walk into the other room to put clothes away. The piles disappeared and never came back.

So, why am I telling you about my personal cleanliness habits? Because in that story lies the secret to successfully following GTD long term - Make the GTD steps as quick and easy as possible.

That's it. If a step takes too much effort, you won't do it when you are rushed or feel tired. The quicker and easier a step is, the more likely you are to do it consistently.

So how do you make the GTD steps quick and easy? Good tools.

How to choose a good GTD tool

A good GTD tool will meet four criteria:

  • Aligned to the GTD methodology - it needs to be designed or at least configured so that you have a place to put each of your reminders in line with the GTD lists. If a tool doesn't align to the GTD process, you'll end up modifying the process to fit the tool and won't get the full benefits.

  • Quick and easy set up - it should require minimal configuration or setup, just start using it. If a tool requires too much setup work, you're more likely to stop short of full implementation.

  • Quick and easy to use - The mechanics of following the process such as adding a new task, moving tasks between lists, and prioritizing and sorting should be as frictionless as possible. If the mechanics are quick and easy, you're more likely to do them consistently.

  • Usable at work - if you can't use it at work, it won't help you there.

Tool options for corporate professionals

Unfortunately if you work for a corporation, your tool options may be limited. Apps designed for GTD are often blocked by corporate IT departments because of security and data privacy concerns.

Here are options most corporate professionals have available to them:

Physical Notebook or Planner

This is probably the simplest way to start with GTD. It's flexible, easily customizable, and readily available. The biggest downside of a paper-based tool is the effort required to keep it current.

Writing and rewriting lists by hand is not sustainable for most people in the work environment. Not to mention writer's cramp.


  • Aligned to GTD methodology: Yes

  • Quick and easy to set up: Yes

  • Quick and easy to use: No - requires rewriting lists over and over

  • Usable at work: Yes

Conclusion - Not sustainable

Specialized GTD Apps

There are quite a few cloud-based GTD apps on the market. But most corporate IT departments block them for security and data privacy reasons.


  • Aligned to GTD methodology: Yes

  • Quick and easy to set up: Yes

  • Quick and easy to use: Yes

  • Usable at work: Usually not

Conclusion - Not an option for most corporate employees

MS Office Applications (Outlook, One Note, Excel, Word)

These applications are powerful and flexible and are staples in the corporate environment. One of the benefits of using them for GTD is you can set up them up exactly how you want them.

But that flexibility can be a double-edged sword. Creating a GTD tool using one of these applications can feel like being given a blank canvas and asked to paint a work of art. Some people have the skill, time, and interest to do it, but many don't.


  • Aligned to GTD methodology: Yes

  • Quick and easy to set up: No - requires skill, time, and interest

  • Quick and easy to use: Depends on how it's designed

  • Usable at work: Yes

Conclusion - Good option if you have the skill, time and interest to set it up

Get2Done List Manager

An Excel-based application specifically designed to support corporate professionals following the GTD system. It provides tools for each of the GTD lists and built in automation makes it quick and easy to use. Because it's built in Excel you won't run into issues with your corporate IT department.


  • Aligned to GTD methodology: Yes

  • Quick and easy to set up: Yes

  • Quick and easy to use: Yes

  • Usable at work: Yes

Evaluation - Great option for corporate professionals

[Click here to try List Manager FREE for 14 days]


For those just getting started with GTD, take the time to find the right tools. It may take some experimentation, but once they're in place, following GTD will be so much easier.

If you've tried GTD in the past and didn't stick with it, is it possible you didn't have the right tools? Before starting the cycle again, set yourself up for success by first figuring out what tools you will use.

Following the steps of GTD can be fun and easy with the right tools. It's worth the effort and investment to get the right ones for you.

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