Disorganization? What’s That?

A Case Study of David Allen’s GTD System

Three years ago, in 2007, I spent my Thanksgiving break reorganizing my office.

You’re probably expecting me to say that I was handicapped when it came to organization and my office was a disaster. Nope. Even three years ago, most of my friends would have said I was pretty well organized.

But I knew the truth. Somehow, despite my organizational skills, things had gotten out of hand. I knew this because piles of paper — albeit neatly stacked — were all over my office, I couldn’t find things, and I was completely overwhelmed during my workday not knowing what to do next.



At the time, my copywriting business was growing, I had a child still at home, and one in college. The one in college had just gotten engaged so on top of everything else, I had a wedding to plan. As a widow, I had to do EVERYTHING myself to maintain my household, put food on the table, and keep a roof over our heads.

It was imperative that I get my office under control.

Other organizing systems I had used helped, but they weren’t enough. I didn’t know which way to turn. Then I happened to read a blog about David Allen’s book: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. The article resonated with me so I ordered the book.

When it arrived, I opened it eagerly, and, at first, was annoyed to find the writing style to be cluttered and, well, not very well organized.

But don’t let that stop you. The actual content is dynamite!


The most important thing to grasp is the GTD philosophy: Download from your brain everything you want to do immediately — as soon as the thought comes into your head.

What is unique about Allen’s system is the completeness of his mental download. It doesn’t matter if the “to do” is work related or a personal matter. It all comes out of your head.

The easiest way to do this is by having pieces of paper in every room and on your person, so that you can always write things down. Of course, there are times when you can’t download, like when you’re driving or taking a shower … and that’s a tad frustrating. Some people carry a digital recorder in their cars.

All these notes go into your “in basket” for processing later.

This is an incredibly liberating process. Getting every little thing out of your head frees your mind to do the work of the moment.


Eventually when you process your “in-basket” all those paper or digital notes will get sorted to various lists.

You might be thinking, “Lists? His system is about lists? Big deal, everyone writes lists.” Yet, stick with me for another few hundred words. You’ll see the difference.

But before you get to building your lists, you have to do the first HUGE DOWNLOAD!


Three years ago at Thanksgiving. I didn’t have to make the holiday dinner that year, so I had a few precious days off.

I chose the middle of my office floor for my “in basket.” You see a regular in-basket won’t do for the initial download. You need to put anything that needs an action in the in-basket. Papers, books, pictures, staplers, scissors, pens, pencils, notes, phone books, just about everything goes into your in-basket. Messy drawers are just dumped into the pile.

If something is too big to move, then you write the name of the item on a sheet of paper and put it in the pile. Only one item per piece of paper.

While downloading, you also write down all sorts of random stuff going through your head. Things you want to fix around the house. Doctor appointments. A trip you want to take. A website you want to build. Each on one sheet of paper.

By the time I was finished, my pile was about three feet high and three feet deep.

My kids thought I had gone crazy.

I must admit that I wondered, too, if I had made a mistake. But I had committed to the process, so I continued.

Once you can’t think of anything else to put in your in-basket, pause and appreciate what you have just created. Maybe have a glass of wine. There in that 3-foot pile are all your hopes, dreams, and aspirations.

It’s truly beautiful. I wish I had a picture of my pile.


Before processing your in-basket, you will need some tools. Allen requires …

Calendar (paper or electronic)

Notepad (paper or electronic)

Pens, Pencils

File Folders

File drawer

Electronic Labeler

A professional labeler is the only high-tech “must have” and it’s really fun to use.


Essentially, processing means picking up one piece of paper or item at a time and thinking what is the “next action.” Then you simply move the item to a list for that action. (See Allen’s book for how to handle items requiring a long series of actions.)

The lists themselves are organized by “like tasks.” If the next action requires a phone call, then the item goes on a phone call list. It doesn’t matter whether the call is work or home related. Both work and home phone calls are all organized on a list called Phone Calls.

This grouping of personal tasks right alongside work tasks makes everyday life so much easier, especially for the freelance professional.

You can create your own lists, but basic lists look something like this:

Computer Work – e.g. draft copy for Gail, reconcile bank account

Phone Calls – order prescription, call Lauren re. wedding date, call Dan re. landing page

Errands – e.g. groceries, banking, office supply store

Agenda – e.g. talk to Bob about next newsletter, talk to Gail about Facebook account

Waiting For – e.g. Heather to email me back re. GTD article, caterer to return call

House Chores – e.g. laundry, plant Irises

Someday / Maybe – e.g. visit Grand Canyon, write e-book, learn French

The two lists I have found to be especially valuable are the Waiting For and the Agenda lists. If I want to talk to someone about something specific, I write that person’s name and the topic on the agenda so that the next time I speak with him or her, I can quickly refer to that list. The Waiting For list helps me to remember who owes me a phone call or information.

Now I must mention that with client projects I do have to keep separate lists for them. Client work gets so involved, and moves so fast, that I just keep a To Do list for them and keep notes there. If a client has something very small going on, then I will just blend his tasks in with my regular lists.


The daily 43-files is an important component of Allen’s system. You can make your own system by marking 12 files with each month, and 31 files for each day of the month. You save action items in a monthly file. Then when the month rolls around, you sort the monthly items into the daily files. And then you check each day in the morning. I have always had and used a professional ready-made tickler file. See, I told you I was pretty well organized already.

Tickler files are handy when you want to save a piece of paper with the action item on it, as opposed to putting it on a list.


With Allen’s system, I learned to process emails efficiently. When an email comes in, it immediately goes to one of five folders.

ACTION (for items that need an action)

READ AND REVIEW (items don’t need an action and I would like to read)

REFERENCE / PROSPECTS (emails I want to hang onto for awhile)

CONFIRMATIONS (for purchases / sign ups, etc.)


I have other folders, too, like client folders. But if a client requests I do something, it goes to the action folder first. Once the action is completed, then it goes to the client folder.

The beauty of this is that my email in-box is clean most of my day. When you leave your in-box with emails in it, each time you open your in-box, you have to mentally re-process all those subject lines again and again, sucking up your brainpower and your time.

Later in the day, I often find myself deleting most of what is in the READ AND REVIEW file, saving myself an enormous amount of time.


Because tasks are grouped together, it’s easy to see windows of opportunity for getting things done.

Let’s say, I’ve finished up a client’s page. I have ten minutes until a meeting. There’s not enough time to start another big project. So I quickly scan my lists and see if there’s something quick I can do. Maybe I’ll look in the Read and Review email file and clear a few of those out. Or maybe I’ll go to the Phone List and order a prescription refill.

It’s really wonderful to be able to access those small tasks so quickly.


Allen’s system also allows for a wide swath of intuitive decision-making … something we creative types like. None of us like being locked-in to a system that says, every morning from 9-11, I will work only on …

In fact, Allen’s system only allows you to put hard appointments on your calendar.

With Allen’s system, you can see the big picture of your day, your week, your month, your life … and, yes, he works it in that order. From the day to life.

Most time-management systems encourage you to see the big picture and work backwards, breaking things down to manageable tasks.

But Allen believes that most of us are so mired in our day-to-day muck that we can’t see the big picture. He figures if you get your day-to-day stuff working, you’ll be able to see the big picture better … eventually. I’m still working on getting that big picture.


Below are my current personal GTD lists.















It’s really important to review your lists weekly. When I do my weekly review, I move anything I want to do in the forthcoming week to my This Week list. Hard appointments go to my e-calendar with an alarm set.


I begin each morning by checking my This Week list, my tickler file, and my calendar. Then I plan my day by writing on a legal pad what I want to accomplish. I like to group my tasks under headings: New Biz, Admin, Project A, Project B, Outings, Phone Calls, Home Chores.

It’s still a challenge for me not to load up my day too much. I don’t mind having a few items left over, but to have half of a page with unfinished tasks is very dispiriting.


I have to say that after three years of using Allen’s systems, everything is still on track. About six months ago, I had to purge some client files that had gotten out of hand, but that’s about it.

And I was able to do all of this by just reading one book. I did take a peek at Allen’s online forum and some of his other products, but I’m not a GTD nut — I’ve got other fish to fry. Though it did pass through my brain — more than once — that being a GTD consultant might be a fun career.

Of course, no system will save you from your mistakes. If I misfile something, it’s lost and it costs me time to find it. Or if I neglect to check my This Week list in the morning and miss a task, I suffer the consequences. I do make mistakes. Still, I have found Allen’s system to be the best I have ever used and very easy to tweak to suit my work style.

The real proof of his system is how easy it is to get back on track when things inevitably fall apart.
Sometimes I get harried or sick and things pile up again. Or maybe I go on vacation. Instead of taking 3-5 days to get back on track, it usually takes a morning! That used to NEVER happen.

At times, I still get overwhelmed. Too much to do is still too much to do. But I definitely DO NOT get overwhelmed because I’m disorganized. That feeling is long forgotten.


Now I have just reviewed a good part of Mr. Allen’s book in a fire hydrant fashion. And I may not have conveyed it as accurately as the way he wrote it — I am writing from my memory and how I personally applied his teachings.

I highly encourage you to pick up a copy of his book yourself. Reading it will prepare you to take the steps you need to become an organized GTDer.

P.S. Here’s a fun (long) video of David Allen conducting a seminar at Google.

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