How I Mix Basecamp and GTD


Updated April 2020

I can’t get enough of 37Signals‘ products. These guys have made some of the most elegant, robust, yet at the same time dead-simple products I’ve seen around. I primarily use Basecamp and Backpack, but their Campfire and Ta-Da list were great products too. (There are plenty of other task and product management tools here if you’re so inclined.)

Unfortunately, there isn’t much written about how to fuse Basecamp with GTD principles. The only article I could really find devoted to it stated that “Basecamp is not set up for GTD-style organization.” I beg to differ. Because Basecamp is so flexible, you can make it do just about whatever you want. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Basecamp is almost ideal for GTD setups. You just have to use a little creativity.

A Little Intro

Basecamp is really designed for people trying to organize projects. You can create wiki pages and messages for your thoughts, to-do lists, and milestones. You can assign to-do lists to milestones as well. And for the cherry on top: you can chat with other members of your project (and log them), all within Basecamp. (I’m only touching on a few of the features available. If you want to read up on all of them, check out their tour). It should also be noted that I only use the free version of Basecamp, as I only manage one project (right now).

To-Do Lists, Your New Best Friend

The real beauty of Basecamp lies within their to-do lists. You can create as many as you want, and map them all on the project page. You can then re-arrange the lists in any order. This is key.

Here’s what I do. I keep all of my tasks in these lists. But here’s the difference than your traditional usage of to-do lists. For every single task, I create a new to-do list. This way, I can map out all the next actions, or all of the physical steps needed to complete the task. Then I drag-n-drop the lists in the order I want to complete them. And if they’re time sensitive, I make a milestone and attach the list to the milestone. However, you should only make milestones for things that have to be done on a certain date. If too many lists are assigned to dates, then your system loses it’s flexibility. (You can read more about this concept in David Allen’s book.)

What About the Contexts?

As of right now, we haven’t touched on action contexts. Action contexts are basically ways to classify how or where you’re going to be doing the task. For example, I’d separate all of my lists into a “Phone” category for people I needed to call. It’s not so much about how you’re going to do them, but where.

Because I only use Basecamp for my web development projects, the context is always the same. But if you’re going to use it for organizing the rest of your life’s contexts, I have 2 solutions.

1. Just add the context in front of the list name. It’s so simple. For people you need to call, add “Phone:” and then your list name (or for proper GTD syntax, “@PHone:”). Then list the calls you need to make.

2. Upgrade your account. With the free account, you only get one project to work with. So if you bumped up to the Basic account, you could have each one of your contexts as a project. 2020 update: Basecamp now allows 3 projects for personal users.

Tickled Pink

What about tickler files, or reminders for those things you do often but don’t want cluttering up your calendar? For example, “set trash to the curb.” Basecamp lets you schedule reminders for events and recurring events.

A Winning Combination

So as you can see, you can combine Basecamp with GTD. My system is by no means the holy grail of Basecamp and GTD, and you can easily expand upon it. Just use a little creativity, and you can go far with 37Signals products.

GTD in Basecamp, a Case Study

Here’s an example: I’ve been working on a web app for quite some time now, and I’ve kind of hit the point where I need to buckle down and git ‘er done. However, there’s a snag: I hate working on it. I’ve been looking at the thing for the past couple of months without blinking. The project had become stale for me, and something had to be done before I became completely depressed and started downing gallons of ice cream while watching Seinfeld reruns. Naturally, I turned to the David for help.

I decided the best course of action was to take some of my own medicine and start using GTD principles to sort my enormous mound of to-do lists in Basecamp. I’ve been using Basecamp for over a year, and the layout of my to-do lists were still set up in the initial crappy, helter-skelter system. The tasks were organized basically into five lists: Pre-launch, Launch, Later, Someday, and Bugs. For those who are developing a web app, let me be the first to tell you that this is possibly the WORST way to set up to-do lists. If you hate yourself, you’ll set it up this way. Ugh. Anyway, I started breaking each action down into it’s own list, and putting the next actions below it. What I found next was incredible.

“I’m bringing sexy progress back…”

Just by rolling up my sleeves and gettin’ dirty with the actions, I was freeing a lot of the stress associated with them. Now each action was meticulously laid out with all of the next actions below it. I could now mindlessly navigate through each list and knock them off, instead of having to think about what to do next.

Not only that, but I can give a better time estimate of how long each action is going to take by seeing how many “next actions” are below it. It’s an all-together good feeling when you regain more control of your project via smart organization.

Mind Games

Aside from re-gaining control, spicing your project up with GTD can trick your mind into thinking it’s doing more. Take my example. Once I broke every action down into a list, it made for a much larger page. I now had a bunch of smaller lists instead of a few long lists. So whenever I finish an action and delete an entire list, I clear up a couple inches of literal screen space. With the older method, only a fraction of an inch is cleared by ticking off an item.

When there’s more action involved managing the project (ie crossing items off, deleting whole lists at a time), your brain visually sees the progress, which explains why this method is crazy-good for your productivity. There is much more of a relieving sensation linked to slaying an entire list in 10 minutes than taking the same amount of time and only ticking one measly item off.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Needless to say, once I completely inspected, changed, and broke down my lists, I instantly saw that the project was a lot closer to launch than I had previously thought. With the end in sight, it’s been much easier to work on it steadily, and it has given me the much-needed kick in the pants to finish the dadgum thing. So if you’re ever needing motivation for finishing a project that’s been hanging around for two long, re-evaluate your project management setup. It’s more important than you think.

Featured photo by Toomas Tartes on Unsplash

Leave a Comment

{ 13 comments… add one }
  • julien September 27, 2010, 8:50 am

    ThinkingRocks is a nice tool, but not online.

    I subscribed to basecamp only.
    highrise interests me too.
    but backpack, unsure yet.

    about recurring, did you test that:

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  • Dave Lindberg November 19, 2006, 10:36 am

    Nice to see this topic getting so much new juice. The Backpack tickler has promise, and Patrick’s context strategy works beautifully in my system. My new post on the subject focuses on the use of People to manage items on your multiple projects:

  • Randy October 16, 2006, 1:27 pm

    You might want to check out my recent post on a Basecamp/GTD hack when you have multiple dimensions to each To-Do item like Priority, Type, and Person:

  • glen October 14, 2006, 12:11 am


    That’s a great idea, using the People assignments as contexts. See, a little creativity can go a long way.

  • Randy October 13, 2006, 11:00 am

    Great post. I’m an avid Basecamp and GTD user myself and have been thinking about a post just like this. Instead I think I’ll just link to yours. Keep it up!

  • Patrick Rhone October 10, 2006, 4:46 pm

    Wouldn’t you know it, just as I finished up a post on my site about using Basecamp for GTD, I go to my feed reader and see that you beat me to the punch. That being said, mine offers some tips others may find helpful including how to hack contexts into the system by making them “People”

    Here is the link: