The Core Habits of a Successful GTD System

- 9 min -
Joe Buhlig

When you first build your GTD system, it’s easy to focus on the tools and setting up the correct lists. At that point, it’s important to build the infrastructure and get your projects under control so overwhelm can vacate the premises. But it is common to let the system slide after a week or two or maybe a month.

The problem comes when the new and shiny wears off and old habits start to resurface. You didn’t write down that request from your spouse and forgot about it . Friday had a lot of unexpected circumstances that prevented you from doing a weekly review and now your system is out of line. Or you have a simple system in place but you keep forgetting to clear out your inboxes so it’s out of date.

It is this point at which your habits have taken over. And I’ve been there all too often. I have done every single one of these and more. But over time, I have picked up a handful of habits that lower the number of times I fall off the wagon and help me stick to the system. I still deviate from time to time, but each time I come back I am better at being intentional with my time.

And that’s the point, right? If I stick to these habits, it means I am better at helping others and building real-world relationships.

Capture at Multiple Levels

This is something I have recently learned. And it only came after reading Making It All Work. In this follow-up book, David Allen often refers to higher levels of thinking. Yes, the day-to-day, “pick up dog food” tasks are important to capture. But there are many levels of capture that we tend to ignore because we focus on these lower-level tasks.

It’s the relational tasks and the conceptual conversations you need to have with yourself that lead to the real cream of GTD. It’s not uncommon to see items like “develop a regular conversation with my siblings” or “help Emma comprehend her reading” in my inbox.

When you adopt this habit, the GTD process starts to make more sense. The “what is it?” and “is it actionable?” questions are better served when dealing with these higher-level items. The answer to these is borderline obvious with most day-to-day projects. But when it turns to relationships or beliefs, these questions become a challenge worth facing.

Decide When to Empty Inboxes

If you listen to the GTD podcast or read articles by David Allen, you’ll hear him reference the timing of “every couple days.” That usually comes with the caveat of how fast your work moves. If you work in IT or support, tasks can enter your inbox and reach completion within a few hours. And that means you need to clear it out more frequently.

But something I have found wrong here is that I am terrible at deciding when to do this thinking work. I will leave my inbox untouched for two weeks and run from my brain without realizing it. And that comes down to too much flexibility in emptying inboxes. Yes, I should be able to sense the feeling that my system needs updating, but I don’t act on it.

The counter to this problem is to schedule a time for clearing inboxes daily. My work moves on a day-to-day basis so I know I need to make these decisions daily. But there have been times when I have two or three critical, fast-moving projects running at once. In those cases, I schedule two or three times a day to empty inboxes.

In any scenario, it is best to have time on the calendar for this. Without a schedule, it becomes easy to put it off entirely and then your system becomes untrustworthy.

Actually Use Someday/Maybe Lists

It’s one thing to collect items on a someday/maybe list. It’s another to put them to work. I can capture ideas all day long every day of the week. But incubating them, curating them, and activating them is work in itself.

I see arguments against deleting items for these lists. But this is unfounded advice. If I have decided a task isn’t something I’ll do, delete it. Get rid of it. Make it go away. I don’t want to keep skipping over it because I remember my decision. If I have decided the answer is no, then act on it and delete the thing.

I see the goal of someday/maybe lists as a place to keep tasks and projects I don’t know if I want to do. It’s also a great place to hold things that you want to do, but don’t have time for this week.

And I say, “this week” intentionally. Sometimes we refer to these lists as bucket lists or a holding place for things to do in years to come. And that’s fine, but these are also places to keep tasks you have committed to do in months to come, but you are not actively working on them right now. It’s better to keep your “active” tasks limited to what you can do this week.

Review When You Don’t Know

David Allen talks about the importance of the Weekly Review. And I have been a strong promoter for the Weekly Review for a long time as well. That’s because I am terrible at sticking to it and need to make it as easy as possible to do.

And although I find a scheduled time for a Weekly Review valuable, you can’t always trust or rely on a single, weekly time for updating your system. It’s pretty common for a new project to land on my plate mid-week or to cut an existing project. And every time that happens, I need to do an extra Weekly Review. It’s the only way I know to refresh my commitments for the week.

A Weekly Review is important, but it’s also important to review your vision and life mission when you have life changes. I try to do quarterly and annual reviews to ensure I have a good vision to work towards and that I’m working on my life mission. But when a job change happens, an illness strikes, or my wife and I decide to take on a big household project, I often need to review these again. It helps to make sure I am not running forward (backward?) haphazardly but moving towards my vision for the future.

Trust Your Previous Decisions

One of the big mistakes I have made in the past with my GTD system is second-guessing my decisions about what to work on each day. I have built dashboards and today lists for a long time. And I still do this.

But the problem comes when I look at the list, see things I don’t want to do, and convince myself that there is something better to work on. And this enables me to procrastinate to no end.

Don’t do that. Trust the system you set up. Trust your thinking-self from earlier and work the list.

If Not Now, When?

This is a question I picked up from Patrick Rhone a few years ago. If I am not committing to completing a task right now, when will I commit to it? What day on the calendar or what time will I set aside for it?

In the case of GTD, we often think about this through the lens of contexts, a set of tools or periods when we work on certain lists. And a common misunderstanding here is working from these contexts “when you find yourself in that context.” I’m sorry, but I don’t “find myself” anywhere by accident. Even if that is the way life worked, I’m pretty sure that working from lists whenever you accidentally end up in a context wouldn’t allow you to complete the tasks you need to complete each day.

Instead, you have to choose to put yourself in those contexts. And I have found that the best way to do that is by scheduling time for different projects and contexts throughout the week. You see this concept employed in a lot of ways: time-blocking, daily themes, yearly themes, tasks on a calendar, etc… Choose the method that works for you, but don’t expect the contexts to magically appear and the work to complete itself when that happens.

Stick to Your Tools

I shouldn’t have to say this. Don’t change tools very often. In the eight years I have practiced GTD, I have used three tools for my GTD system. I started with Evernote because it was the tool I was using at the time and I knew how it worked. Then I upgraded to OmniFocus. I deviated for about six months into the world of text files, but came back to OmniFocus and have been there since.

Here’s the key: I know OmniFocus and I know how to work my system within it. I have looked at Todoist a few times and Things 3 and even Notion and Basecamp. And it’s very common for productivity writers and podcasters to talk about switching tools and show how they are doing it. I’ve even seen folks online switch tools four or five times a year.

But here’s the trick: these writers make money off of talking about these tools. So switching tools gives them more content to talk about. So, of course, they switch a lot. But the problem is that this encourages the general population to switch more often. Don’t fall for it.

Notion is new and shiny and there are a LOT of people talking about it right now. My suggestion: leave it alone. Stick to what you know and what is reliable. If you don’t have a tool you trust, find one that has been around for a long time, has a proven business model, doesn’t completely alter the interface frequently, and has a lot of people talking about it. You will have a much better chance of finding a tool that you can count on in the long run.

I say this because it is easy to spend more time setting up tools than it is learning the intricacies and nuances of GTD. For example, I only learned to capture high-level projects because I had a system I know and understand well. If I would continue switching tools regularly, I would be tempted to spend time learning the ins and outs of the tool instead of focusing on where I spend my time.

Know Your Weakness

My weaknesses are Capture and Review. I know this. It’s likely why I write about these two steps the most. I need the self-encouragement that comes from teaching others what I am doing. And knowing this allows me to focus more on those steps to ensure I am following through and working towards my vision.