Getting Things Done (GTD) is an incredibly popular time management methodology, introduced by David Allen in 2001. While sound and proven, it requires that the user actively practice it. That’s why it works! Like fitness, there is no magic pill, system, or app for effective time management. You need to put in effort to make it work.
The most important aspect of a time management system is its usability: If you can’t integrate it easily into your life, you won’t use it. I’ve tried a number of different apps for implementing GTD over the years: Trello, KanbanFlow, Nozbe, Evernote, OneNote, and others I’m sure. I’ve settled on Todoist because it’s easy to use, supported on all platforms and makes it dead simple for me to add items to it.
Everyone does GTD a little differently, based on their individual environment, circumstances and needs. In this post I’ll describe how I use Todoist for GTD. If you try Todoist for GTD, don’t feel constrained by my choices. Use them as a starting point and tweak them to your liking. Again, the best system is the one that you’ll actually use.
This post also assumes that you’re familiar with GTD. If you aren’t, and have serious time management issues, I highly recommend the book. Lifehacker has a nice primer and GTD in 15 minutes is a solid overview – but nothing beats the book.
Setting up Todoist
Todoist is divided into three sections: Projects, Labels and Filters. Each plays an important part in the process.
Projects may be hierarchical, up to three levels deep. I have three root “projects”: Personal, Family and Work. I follow GTD rigorously in my work life, but am a bit more relaxed outside of it. Since this is a work-related post, I’ll only be talking about what I do for work.
When practicing GTD, it’s critical to break down “tasks” into items that are actionable. For example, “sell car” is infinitely deferrable since you don’t just “sell car”. When broken down into actionable steps (“research price to sell car”, “get quote from CarMax”, “determine whether to trade in”, etc.), it becomes accomplishable. You’re much less likely to defer actionable tasks.
I create a project under Work for every task that requires more than one action. This is a wonderful asset during the Weekly Review, as some projects simply lose relevance over time. When that happens, I can remove all tasks directly related to that project.
I like to give projects verb names, which makes it clear when a project is complete. In my experience, projects that are action-oriented get more attention. For example “Get oil changed” (which might be made up of “Find date when partner doesn’t need car”, “Schedule oil change”, “Bring in car for oil change”) gets done more quickly than tasks in an open-ended “Car maintenance” project/list.
Action items from company projects are tracked here as well. These are almost always projects that I’m not involved in day-to-day, but require action on occasion. Tracking them in separate lists helps when I’m choosing what to take on for the day; if I know that I don’t need to involve myself with projects X or Y, I won’t waste time looking at the tasks associated with them.
Finally, I do track some lists in Todoist; mostly those that are comprised entirely of actions. Many people use Evernote, OneNote or similar applications for this purpose. I use OneNote for tracking my work reference material, but like to keep actions close at hand in my task management app. Agendas, Recurring and Someday Maybe are the list-based items in the image below.
Colors are used to keep the different types of projects visually distinct. In the abbreviated list below, you can see that I use light blue for action-based projects, dark blue for company projects and gray for lists.
Labels provide a great deal of value in helping me get done as much as possible every day. I use three types of labels:
- Time based (blue): These are attached to every task and let me know about how long something should take.
- Today (green): This indicates that I would like to accomplish that particular task today. I treat task due dates as must be done dates, not nice-to-have dates. This is an important distinction and drives much of my practice.
- Waiting for (gray): I’m often waiting on others so I can complete an action and this helps me track blockers.
- Some GTDers find value in contextual labels such as “in office”, “at computer”, “at phone” and so on. They don’t add value for me, so I don’t use them.
Todoist has a nice query language that serves as the backbone of filters. I set up the following filters (syntax is in brackets):
- Today [@today | today]
- Tasks that have the Today label or are due today
- Overdue [over due]
- Tasks whose due date has passed
- Waiting for [@waiting_for]
- Tasks that have the waiting_for label
- Next five days [5 days]
- Tasks that are due in the next five days
- <5m, <15m, <30m, <1h [@<5m, @<15m, @<30m, @<1h]
- Tasks that are estimated to take less than the time specified.
GTD advocates consolidating inboxes, and Todoist makes it incredibly easy to add things to its inbox, reducing the number of places that thoughts/TODOs can accumulate.
- An email address may be set up for the Inbox (and/or any other project), allowing you to add tasks from any email-enabled device.
- The Android app has an option that allows you to add a task from the global notification list; this means that you can add a task by pulling down and tapping from anywhere in Android.
- You may add a new task, or add a note to a task, via Android’s Share functionality.
- The Windows application has global hotkeys, allowing you to call up the “add task” dialog from anywhere in Windows.
- Add-ins for Outlook, Chrome, and other applications easily allow adding tasks from almost anywhere you might have content to share.
Todoist has great support for Mac and iOS as well.
Having a daily plan is critical when time is at a premium. I perform the following tasks before every work day. (Some folks prefer doing similar actions at the end of the day instead.) While those familiar with GTD may sense a bit of Weekly Review in these steps, it’s necessary for me to stay on top of everything. You may not need this level of curation on a daily basis.
- Empty email inbox
- While the standard rule states that if it takes less than two minutes to “do” you should do it, I generally do not, since time is limited and I usually have a large number of emails to go through. Instead, I’ll create a new task in Todoist referencing the email (“Reply to Kurt’s email about widget pricing @<5m”) and file the email in my Processed Email folder. The “@<5m” is a label indicating that I anticipate that it will take me less than five minutes to complete the task and since I process my email within 24 hours of receiving it I can easily find it in my Processed Email folder. (The Outlook add-in works well here for some, but I find that it’s quicker for me to add it into Todoist directly myself.)
- Empty Todoist inbox
- My Todoist inbox is usually quite full, from processed email, ideas that pop into my head throughout the day and so on. I consider the following for each item in my Todoist inbox:
- Is it important?
- Oftentimes I’ll have ideas that seem great at the time but just aren’t worth the time upon consideration later. For those of us with too much to do, deciding what not to do is the most important decision we make. If the item is worth consideration later I’ll add it to my Someday Maybe list. Otherwise I’ll delete it. Gaining the confidence to delete items takes time, but understanding that important things make themselves known makes it easier.
- Is it a task or a project?
- If it’s a project, I’ll create a project and an initial task.
- How long should it take?
- I attach a time estimate label (<5m, <15m, etc.) to each task. Later I’ll explain how this really helps get things done when there is little time available.
- Finally, I’ll move it to an existing project (if it applies) or into the general “Work” project.
- Review the Overdue filter
- The Overdue filter lists items whose due dates have passed. Since due dates are considered “must have” dates, this list should be empty most days. Review each item in the list and determine the best course of action. Is it no longer relevant? Delete it. Does it still have a due date? If so, update it. You cannot deliver something in the past, so this list should be empty once you’ve gone through every item.
- Review the Waiting For filter
- Is each item still valid? What can you do to move them along?
Bravo! The whole process really shouldn’t take more than a few minutes once you get the hang of it.
With all inboxes empty, no overdue tasks, and Waiting For issues addressed it’s time to determine what should be done today. I first look at the calendar to see how much time is available for tasks. Depending on your work style and/or environment, you might want to block off those times to allow you to get things done. Then I go through each task in the Work project and determine what I want to get during the day and mark it with the @today label. I’m not committing to finishing them today, but they are the tasks that I want to get to. This, too, is very quick since only relevant tasks are in the main Work list and tasks in projects are in actionable order.
The Weekly Review is a required investment in GTD – and where many people fall off the wagon. There isn’t anything special about Todoist that will help facilitate it. This is simply a reminder to do it!
So here we are. All inboxes are empty, Todoist inbox is empty and I’ve determined what I want to accomplish today. For the rest of the day I work off of just a couple filters. The Today filter is my primary driver, oftentimes using the time estimate labels (<5m, <15m, etc.) to determine what I do next based on time available before my next meeting. I’ll also use the time estimate filters in case I have only a few minutes available before a meeting but don’t have anything on the Today list that can be done in that time.
The time estimate filters are the most empowering aspect of this whole system. I never had an appreciation for how many <5m and <15m tasks I had that just went undone for days at a time, until I started acknowledging them with the labels. Now they rarely last more than a day or two.
Jobs change, responsibilities change, life changes and tools change. Today, at this exact moment in time, Todoist and the process above is working better for me than any of the myriad other combinations of tools and process that I’ve tried. I wouldn’t expect it to work perfectly for you as-is, but I hope you can take a couple things away from this post to make you even a little more effective at getting things done.