How I Mix Basecamp and GTD


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 (aff) and Backpack (aff), but their Campfire and Ta-Da list are 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 seperate 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 3 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.

3. Use BackPack. Backpack (aff) is a great alternative if you don’t want all the bells and whistles of project management, and are looking for something for personal use. You can create up to 5 pages in the free version, each of which you could use for contexts.

Tickled Pink

One thing that you can’t do in Basecamp is set up 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”. It would be great to set these up in Basecamp, but unfortunately it doesn’t allow for that functionality. But you can bet your sweet potatoes that Backpack does. Set as many reminders that you want to by email or text message for free. You can have these sent just once or at designated intervals. Problem solved.

A Winning Combination

So as you can see, you can combine Basecamp with GTD. You may need a little help from it’s more generic friend Backpack, but it can be done. (This will be even easier in the future, as the 37Signals guys are planning on allowing basecamp and backpack integration.) 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.

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: