GTD Cheatsheet: The Workflow

This is the first part in a refresher series on the basics of Getting Things Done.

getting things doneOk, I’m going to jump right in. Getting Things Done (or GTD) is a system to free your mind of it’s resources and become more organized in the process. In short: it’s a way to become more productive and stress free, in one fell swoop. It’s a beautiful thing, really.

The book deals mainly with the processes to the GTD system which include clearing your mind (and living space) of useless clutter, organizing it, and storing it in appropriate places, and reviewing it on a consistent basis. On the surface, it’s nothing too revolutionary. Today’s post will be focusing on the business of setting up an appropriate system to collect all of your data, both physical and psychological.

The Workflow

The workflow is a very powerful thing. It’s not a hard concept to grasp, yet it’s the hardest one to put into practice. The stages of the workflow are this:

gtd workflow
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Once you see something that needs to be organized, you ask the question What is it? (Odds are you don’t need to really ask this question out loud for every object, due to our mind’s ability to stay about 9 steps ahead of our inner monologue, as well as how annoying you would sound to anyone in the room. However, asking “What is it?” out loud is acceptable if you’re referring to something you just pulled out from under your car seat that looks kinda fuzzy and smells like goat cheese. There are definitely some questions that need to be answered at that point.)

Is it doable?

Well, if it’s doable or actionable (meaning it takes 2 or less minutes to complete), go ahead and do it. Simple enough, right?

If it’s doable, but takes multiple actions, we call that a project. Dump that project into a “projects” list, as a reminder that it might take a little more time to finish. You’re going to review this project list on a regular basis, so don’t worry about forgetting it.

We’ve also got some other options for doable items. We can either delegate it (my personal favorite), or defer it (the procrastinator’s favorite). If you’re going to defer it (you lazy bum), then it should be broken down into next actions (more on that soon), or put on a calendar.

Dude, it’s not doable

Don’t fret! If the “thing” isn’t doable (or doesn’t need any action to complete it), you can either trash it, put it in a tickler file, or place it in a reference file.

tickler fileThe Tickler File

Ok, ok… get your snickering out now before you go any further. Trust me, it’s not what you think.

The tickler file is a file system made up of 43 folders, one for each month (12) and one for each day in the month (31). The tickler file has anything that needs reminding at regular intervals (ie. the cable bill needs to be paid on the 13th). The tickler file should be reviewed often.

Reference Files

These are collections of general or topic-based catch-alls that hold materials that can easily be retrieved. But don’t get carried away storing everything like a pack-rat, it only muddies the system. Keep what you need, nothing more.

Next Actions

Any item that takes longer than the magic number of 2 minutes should go on a “next action” list, and reviewed daily. It’s like a glorified to-do list, except these lists are divided into different physical contexts (ie “while I’m at the office” or “while I’m at the store”, etc.) We’ll have more on this to come.


Ok, we’ve made it through the first part. That wasn’t so bad, right?

Next up, we’ll be talking about how to use the GTD workflow to take all of the mental and physical clutter surrounding us, and organize it effectively.

Thanks for reading¬†the GTD Cheatsheet Series. If you’re ready to set it up using free¬†tools, check out GTD with Google Apps.

Leave a Comment

{ 76 comments… add one }
  • Tessa February 2, 2011, 5:51 am

    Planning is the best way to accomplish GTD.

    Before moving into the project you have to choose the best projectb planning tool.

    I have came across this free project planning tool ( ) which is ms project alternative.

    Hope it would be helpful :)

  • Nathan Woodbury January 11, 2011, 9:16 am

    I admit that I am struggling with the “GTD” audio book. I’m about half way through it and now admit that I am more confused than when I started. At first, I felt great about it and was excited, however, this system or whatever he’s explaining seem so complex that I’m trying to decide if I should spend the time to finish the audio book.

    The main thing I’ve taken from it is that I need to have the ability to write down my thoughts, and organize them. Any more than that I still haven’t pieced together, because there seem to be a million folders and file cabinets… Am I looking at this the wrong way?

    • Belle April 29, 2017, 5:09 am

      That insight solves the prmoleb. Thanks!

  • Noah September 11, 2009, 11:36 pm

    Thanks for all the useful info. I am on my first month of GTD. Got a Moleskine pocket notebook and used the Mike Rhode's hack. So far so good. My productivity has increased and less “mind clutter”.

  • Noah September 11, 2009, 7:36 pm

    Thanks for all the useful info. I am on my first month of GTD. Got a Moleskine pocket notebook and used the Mike Rhode's hack. So far so good. My productivity has increased and less “mind clutter”.

  • fred March 2, 2009, 8:16 pm

    is there a beginner article?

  • James Whitaker January 17, 2009, 10:07 am

    I think this is a great way for many of us to become more organized.

  • wife hubby watcher August 7, 2008, 2:44 am

    another watcher wife watches wife watcher

  • Pablo May 18, 2008, 9:54 pm

    Ive totally messed up my GTD system by not doing the weekly review!! oh time to start again!

  • Dan May 15, 2008, 4:16 am

    May 15:

    Now Gtdagenda has full Someday/Maybe functionality, you can easily move your tasks and projects between “Active”, “Someday/Maybe” and “Archive”. This will clear your mind, and will boost your productivity.

  • Dan May 8, 2008, 12:22 am

    As with the last update, now Gtd Agenda has due date for tasks (you’ll see in the calendar on the right if you have tasks due today), task notes, and Email & Print support.

  • DanGTD April 16, 2008, 9:28 am


    For implementing GTD you might try out my application for time management and productivity,

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.

    Hope you like it.

  • P.Alvarado March 13, 2008, 7:22 am

    Just beginning to implement this system myself. iGTD seems like a good program to start. Do you recommend this program above a paper based system?

  • Petr December 11, 2007, 2:43 pm


  • Craig Cameron July 16, 2007, 4:52 pm

    As for the calendar section of the workflow you might want to look at the 43 folders concept for organizing future tasks. Like your system it is pretty straight forward to use.

  • tihopilik July 8, 2007, 1:28 pm


    I can’t be bothered with anything these days, but shrug. I just don’t have anything to say recently.


  • Met April 18, 2007, 2:48 am

    nice blog. good photo.

    • Marnie April 30, 2017, 7:02 am

      That’s not even 10 mienuts well spent!

  • Jessica March 26, 2007, 2:48 am

    Blog of people search