[Workflow Guide] How to Organize Your Life with GTD

Overwhelmed by everything you have on your plate? Here’s how to set up a GTD workflow for "stress-free productivity"

GTD Todoist productivity

Have you ever felt like you had everything under control but then got thrown off by an unexpected change in schedule? Do you struggle to maintain your task management system when you are under stress or become especially busy? Are you plagued by thoughts of things you want to remember while you are trying to focus on something important?

If so, you may be expending more energy on remembering and organizing your tasks than you spend completing them.

GTD aims to give users a “mind like water” — a calm and clear-headed mental state where you can respond and focus on what needs your attention.

Getting Things Done, or GTD, is a task management system created by productivity consultant David Allen. It aims to give users a “mind like water” — a calm and clear-headed mental state where you can respond and focus on what needs your attention in the moment. When your GTD workflow is set up right, you’ll be able to confidently answer the “what should I be working on” at any given moment without worrying that you might forget something important you need to do later.

This guide will introduce you to GTD practices and what we think is the most intuitive way to implement them in Todoist. It isn’t meant to be comprehensive. We highly recommend reading the book, Getting Things Done, and, if you’re a Todoist user, buying the official GTD Todoist Setup Guide for a more complete overview of setting up your GTD system with Todoist.

The GTD Method: A Quick Overview

“If you are already in a creative mess, you have no freedom to make one.”– David Allen

GTD is based on a simple fact: The more information bouncing around inside your head, the harder it is to decide what needs attention. As a result, you spend more time thinking about your tasks than actually doing them. When information piles up in your head, it leads to stress, overwhelm, and uncertainty.

Allen observed that our brains are much better at processing information than storing it, and he designed GTD to take advantage of that fact. The method lays out how to dump all your mental clutter into an external system. This system helps you capture and organize the work you need to do, so you can focus on the right things in the moment.

The GTD method is made up of five simple practices to systematize the clutter of your brain and get things done:

gtd methodology

Capture Everything: Capture anything that crosses your mind. Nothing is too big or small! These items go directly into your inboxes.

  1. Clarify: Process what you’ve captured into clear and concrete action steps. Decide if an item is a project, next action, or reference.
  2. Organize: Put everything into the right place. Add dates to your calendar, delegate projects to other people, file away reference material, and sort your tasks.
  3. Review: Frequently look over, update, and revise your lists.
  4. Engage: Get to work on the important stuff.

Though the basis of GTD are these five simple steps, they’re not always easy to execute. The key to GTD isn’t the techniques or tools you use to execute tasks but rather the habits you employ on a daily basis to think about and prioritize your work.

The key to any lasting productivity system is to keep it as simple as possible and to use it as often as possible.

While GTD does require an upfront investment in time and energy to set up, it pays off with consistent use. You’ll no longer worry about forgetting a deadline or missing an important task. Instead, you’ll be able to respond to incoming information with less stress and prioritize your time with ease.

Set up your GTD workflow with Todoist

Some very specific but seemingly mundane behaviors, when applied, produce the capacity to exist in a kind of sophisticated spontaneity, which, in my experience, is a key element to a successful life. — David Allen

Many people are surprised to find that GTD doesn’t require a specific tool, app, or product. David Allen doesn’t even make a case for digital over analog systems. That said, the key to any lasting productivity system is to keep it as simple as possible and to use it as often as possible. Your tool should be versatile enough to handle your most complex workflows yet simple enough to maintain when you’re low on energy.

The rest of this article will walk you through how to set up and use Todoist to complete each step of GTD.

Before we get started, here’s a handy list of the Todoist features that are most useful for setting up and maintaining your GTD workflow:

If you’re unsure how a feature works, you can always come back to reference this list later.

1. Capture

For GTD to work, you must stop storing information in your brain. Anything that crosses your mind — to-dos, events, ideas, book recommendations, etc — must be captured and stored immediately in an inbox. In GTD an inbox, be it physical or digital, is a visual representation of all the inputs you need to somehow deal with on a daily basis.

Your inbox is only used to collect the chaos of your thoughts in order to get them off your mind. This is not the place or time to worry about organization.

Start by writing down all “open loops,” or the commitments you’ve made to yourself or someone else. Consult the GTD trigger list to help jog your memory on any open loops you may have forgotten.

Capture tasks in the Inbox

One of the core tenets of GTD is to capture tasks the moment they come to you. Todoist syncs across platforms so you can enter tasks anytime, from anywhere — computer, phone, web browser, email client, smartwatch, or smart home assistant. The easier it is to add task the easier it will be to build the habit of keeping everything in the system rather than your head.

To implement GTD with Todoist, at a minimum we recommend:

  • Downloading Todoist on your computer
  • Downloading Todoist on your phone
  • Installing an extension for the web browser you use
  • Installing a plugin for the email client you use

Browse and download the Todoist apps

Your Todoist Inbox will act as the default place to hold all your inputs until you have a chance to organize them. To add a new task to your inbox in the web or desktop apps, click the plus sign in the right corner or simply press “q.” The task will be added to the Inbox by default unless you otherwise specify a project. If you’re just starting out with GTD, do a full mind sweep of all the open loops you can think of and add them as tasks to your Inbox now.

Click + or type q to open the task Quick Add. Or click “+ Add task” in your Inbox.
The Inbox acts as the default place to capture tasks as soon as you think of them. You’ll come back to organize them later.

You can use Todoist to consolidate your other inboxes — from emails you need to follow up on, to messages you need to take action on, to articles to read, to reference materials you save for later. Keep in mind that the fewer inboxes you have to check for open loops, the easier your system will be to maintain.

Send items to Todoist from your email or team messaging tool

  • Use Todoist’s plug-ins for Gmail and Outlook to quickly add emails as tasks.
  • Forward emails directly to your Todoist inbox using your project forwarding address.
  • Turn messages into tasks from your team messaging tools like Twist or Slack.
Check out the full guide on how to reach and stay at Inbox Zero with Todoist. 

Capture reading & reference material

  • Take photos of business cards or event reminders and attach them to the relevant task’s comments.
  • Attach files from Dropbox, Google Drive, or your computer to any task to read or work on later.
  • Use IFTTT integrations with apps like Pocket to create Todoist tasks to remind you to read an item later.
  • Download the Todoist browser extension on Chrome, Firefox, or Safari, to save any url to access later.
Tip: Add links to the task field by bracketing your hypertext and following it with the link in parentheses, like this: [Hypertext title ](http://todoist.com/)
todoist formatting
Check out the article 11 Fast Ways to Get Tasks Off Your Mind and Into Your Todoist for more ways to capture your tasks.

2. Clarify

GTD Todoist flow chart
A summary of how to clarify and organize your tasks
Now that your Todoist inbox is full, the next step is to transform the chaotic clutter of everything you’ve captured into concrete action steps. Go through each item in your inbox, and do one of the following (there are more specifics on how to do each step in the next section):

  • If the item will take less than 2 minutes, complete it right away.
  • If it can be delegated, assign the task to someone else.
  • If it’s a non-actionable reference item (eg, a file, document, article, contact information etc.) that you’ll need to come back to later, file it away in a separate reference project or attach it to the comments of the relevant task or project.
  • If the item needs to be done at a specific date and/or time, give the task a due date.
  • If the task is no longer needed or actionable, delete it.
  • If a task requires more than one step, create a project to house all of the items associated with it and identify the next action.
Transform the chaotic clutter of everything you’ve captured into concrete action steps.

Be sure to include in your tasks the visible and physical steps needed to complete them. Add as much information as you can to save you time puzzling over it later. For example, “Call Mom” may actually need to be entered as “Call Mom to discuss birthday dinner.” Or, “Discuss taxes” could be “Discuss tax documents with Mary” with a list of the specific documents attached in the task’s comments (more on task comments later).

3. Organize

Once you’ve clarified an item in your inbox, it’s time to sort it into the appropriate place. Clarifying and organizing your tasks will happen in tandem as you clean out your inbox.

There are many different ways to organize your tasks with the GTD methodology, but we recommend using a combination of Projects and Labels.

1. One-Off Tasks

These are tasks that take longer than 2 minutes but only require one step. For example, “reply to Josh’s email about project pricing” or “renew car tabs”. You don’t want them cluttering up your Inbox, but they also don’t belong in any other project.

Create One-Off Tasks project
Tip: To change a project’s color, while editing the project click on the circle to the left of the project name.
  • Drag and drop your one-step tasks from the Inbox to this project by clicking on the grey “handle” to the left of the task name and dragging it to the project name in the left-hand menu.
  • You can also designate a new project by clicking on the task name to edit and typing “#” into the task field to pull up a list of your tasks. Select your project from the list or keep typing the project name to narrow down the results.
Move to Inbox
Type “#” into the task field to pull up your current list of projects. Keep typing the project name to narrow down the list.

2. Projects

You’ll find that many of the tasks you wrote down are actually projects. In the GTD system, projects are any item that requires more than two steps to complete. For example, “paint the bedroom” is a project because it includes other tasks like getting paint samples, picking a color, buying supplies, prepping walls, etc. Here’s how to handle projects in Todoist:

  • Create a new project for each multi-step project you identified as you were clarifying your tasks.
  • Drag and drop the associated tasks from your Inbox to the appropriate project. Or click on a task and type “#” into the task field to pull up a list of your projects to choose from.
  • As you think of other steps, add them as new tasks inside the projects.
Add all items that take 2 steps or more to complete as projects.
For a more tips and features for planning and organizing projects, read The Quick(ish) Guide to Completing Any Project in Todoist.

3. Areas of Focus

It may be helpful to group your projects based on your “Areas of Focus” – the GTD term for the various positions of responsibility to have in your life. These areas are a tool to draw attention to your broader life goals while deciding what to work on next. If a task does not fit within the scope of any of your areas of focus, it may be time to reassess if it is something to which you want to dedicate your time. Or you may just want to separate your projects between “Work” and “Personal”. You can easily accomplish this in Todoist using sub-projects. Here’s how:

  1. Create a project for each area of focus. This project won’t have any tasks in it, it’s just for visual organization.
  2. Click on the grey handle to the left of the project name and drag and indent your actual projects underneath the high-level “Folders” you just created to turn them into sub-projects.
  3. (Optional) To create even more visual separation between your areas of focus, assign a different project color for each area.
Tip: You could use your “Work” and “Personal” parent projects to house the one-off tasks related to each domain.

Now you’ll be able to keep your project list clean by collapsing your sub-projects underneath the parent project. For example, while you’re at work, you can keep your work projects in view while your personal projects are hidden and vice versa.

To keep things simple, finish setting up your GTD system first to get a sense of your workflow. If needed, come back and organize your projects into broader categories later.

4. Next actions

These are tasks with clear physical and visible action you’ll do at the next opportunity  (e.g. “Email James the budget for office party”). Next actions are separate from future actions – steps you’ll take eventually but do not need your focus now. Identify the next action for each project by tagging it with the label “@next”.  To add a label, simply type “@” into the task field and start typing the task name.

Create a new label
Type @ followed by the label name. If the label doesn’t already exist, you’ll have the option to create it.
Click on the label name to pull up a list of all tasks tagged with it. Edit the label to change its color.

5. Tasks with a due date and/or time

For items that have to be completed at a specific date and/or, give the task a due date and/or time. GTD cautions against over-reliance on due dates. Only add them to the tasks that really have to be done on a given date and time and trust your next actions for everything else. While editing a task, you can click on the Schedule field select a date and time from the calendar picker or simply type the due date and/or time into the task field using natural language. For example, next Monday at 8am.  The smart Quick Add will automatically recognize and highlight the due date and add it when you save the task.

Add a due date
Type any due date into the task field. The smart Quick Add will automatically recognize it, highlight it, and add when you save the task.

You can move items with due dates from the Inbox to the relevant project or to the One-Off Tasks project if they aren’t associated with a multi-step project.

Tip: You can sync your Todoist with Google Calendar so that calendar events appear in Todoist as tasks and scheduled Todoist tasks appear in your Google Calendar as events.

Google Calendar GTD Todoist

6. Agendas

Sometimes, the items you capture in your inbox will be reminders of something you want to bring up with someone else rather than next actions. To keep track of these agenda items:

  • Create a new project called Agendas
  • Create a new sub-project underneath Agendas for each person you need to touch base with. For example, your boss and any direct reports. You may also want to create sub-projects for each regular team or project meeting you have. For example, “Marketing Weekly”.
  • Add the items you need to bring up as tasks in the relevant agenda sub-project
  • When you meet with that person or come to the meeting, pull up the relevant project to see a list of all of the items you need to cover
Create an Agendas project
Create an agendas parent project, then create sub-projects for each person or meeting you need to remember items for.

7. Reference materials

Reference materials are non-actionable items that you need to save (e.g. tax documents, reading material, phone numbers). While they aren’t tasks themselves, they’re often needed to complete a task later. You can organize these kinds of supporting reference materials in Todoist by attaching them to the relevant task or project comments:

  • Task-specific reference materials can be attached to the task comment
Add reference materials to task comments
You won’t lose time searching for the information you need to complete a task.
  • Higher-level project materials can be attached to the project comments
Add high-level reference materials to project comments
Project comments are perfect for high-level reference materials needed to complete the project.

This way, when you’re ready to start the task or project, you’ll have all of the information you need close at hand.

You will probably also have reference materials that aren’t associated with a specific task or project. For example, an article you saved from the web for later, a file with important information, or a gift idea for your partner’s next birthday. Many people like to use a separate notes app to organize their reference materials, but you can also keep track of some or all of them in Todoist. Here’s how:

  • Create a new Reference project
  • Create new sub-projects underneath the Reference project for each type of reference list. For example, Gift IdeasBirthdays, Contact Information, Recipes, Networking, etc.
  • Move your reference material tasks to the appropriate project by dragging and dropping them from your Inbox. Or select a new project via Quick Add by clicking to edit the task and typing “#” into the task field followed by the project name.
  • To collapse your reference sub-projects, click on the grey arrow to the left of your Reference parent project. This helps remove visual clutter from your list.
Reference materials projects
Keep the things you want to remember here when they 1) aren’t actionable and 2) aren’t connected with any other task or project.

8. Waiting For

These are items that have been delegated or are awaiting action by someone else. For example, if you need to finish writing a blog post but are waiting on your editor to get you feedback on your last draft. Identify these tasks by tagging them with the label “@waiting_for”. Keep @waiting_for tasks organized inside the projects their related to, or inside the One-Off Tasks project if they’re unrelated to other tasks.

Create a waiting label
Tip: Make your labels stand out with emojis 👍

Alternatively, you can create a new Waiting For project and move your “waiting for” tasks there. In this case, the @waiting_for label isn’t necessary.

9. Someday/Maybe

Many items that you capture will be ideas for things you want to do in the future, but don’t have the bandwidth to work on now. Anything  (e.g. places you may want to travel, books to read, new projects you may want to try, ideas for blog posts, etc.). You want to be able to review these later, but you don’t want them gumming up your system now.

  • Create a new Someday/Maybe project
  • Add all of the tasks and/or you want to do in the future, but aren’t actively working on there
  • (Optional) Add sub-projects for specific types of “Someday/Maybe” tasks. For example, you may want to separate Someday/Maybe – Personal and Someday/Maybe – Work projects
  • Review your someday/maybe projects when time and energy open up to take on new work
Create a Someday/Maybe project
All the things you may want to come back to in the future, but don’t have the time for right now.

10. Tasks that can be delegated

If you can delegate a task to free up your own time and energy, you should.  In Todoist you can share projects with people, assign them tasks with due dates, and collaborate in comments. Your sharing setup will be different depending on your circumstances. Here are 3 ways you could set it up:

  • Create a separate shared project for each person you collaborate with (you could even reuse your Agendas sub-projects for this purpose)
Share projects
One way to organize your delegated tasks is to share your Agendas sub-projects.
Shared project
Share projects and assign tasks for everything that can be delegated.
  • Create a single shared project with your whole team (if you have Todoist Business, you’ll have an additional Team Inbox that the whole team is automatically added to)
  • Share existing projects that involve heavy collaboration ad hoc

Or you could use a combination of all three approaches.

11. Contexts

With your project lists in place and your tasks sorted, you’re now ready to tackle contexts. In GTD, contexts identify tools, places, or people that you require to complete a given task. In other words, contexts allow you to focus on what you can actually get completed given your current circumstances. For example, if you are at your office, you don’t want to waste time sorting out all the next actions you have at home.

Add context labels
The labels you’ll find the most helpful will depend on your specific circumstances.

Following the project approach we laid out above, the easiest way to add contexts is with labels. GTD recommends the following contexts:

  • Computer/internet
  • Home
  • Office
  • Errands
  • Calls
  • Anywhere

You can also add others that will help you sort your tasks quickly based on your current context. Some people like to add an Email context so they can take care of all their emails at once. Others add labels for the amount of time a task might take. For example, if you have just 15 minutes before your next meeting, it’s helpful to be able to identify all the tasks you could do quickly with an @15_min label. For most people, it’s more useful to create an “Offline” label rather than an “Internet” one for tasks you can do when you don’t have an internet connection.

It’s tempting to go overboard and start creating labels for everything — resist the temptation. For your GTD system to work, you need to build a habit of adding the correct labels to each and every task. The fewer labels you have to choose from, the easier it will be to remember.

To add a label, go to the labels section of your left-hand menu and tap the “+” button. You can also add a label while editing or adding a task by typing @ into the task field. All your existing labels will appear in a drop down menu and the results will narrow down as you continue typing the task name. And if the label you want doesn’t exist yet, you’ll have the option to create a new one to add to your list.

Engage

Here is where the time spent clarifying and organizing your tasks pays off. Your system is now full of concrete, actionable items organized into logical categories, ready for you to jump in. You’ll see that all of the labels, projects, and due dates added in the steps above help you quickly answer the question “What should I be doing right now?” at any given moment.

You’ll see that all of the labels, projects, and due dates added in the steps above help you quickly answer the question “What should I be doing right now?” at any given moment.

The time spent clarifying and organizing your tasks means that when it’s time to engage with work, you have fewer choices to make and fewer reference materials to find. To decide what to do next, you can see upcoming tasks with due date, sort tasks by label, or create filters to see your next actions based on context.

Today & Next 7 Days View

When you’re ready to sit down to work, click on Today to see any tasks that you must complete Today. Open the 7 Days View to see what’s coming down the pipeline.

Today view
The tasks that must be done today.

View Next Actions & Contexts via Label

To view a full list of next actions across all your projects, type “@next” into the Quick Find bar at the top of your Todoist.

Search by label
Click on the Quick Find bar at the top of your Todoist and type “@” to pull up a list of all your labels. Keep typing to narrow down the results.
@Next label view
See all your next actions across all you projects in a single list.

You can also quickly sort your tasks by context by selecting a given label to see all the associated tasks. For example, if you search for @errands, you’ll see a list of tasks with the @errands label that can be completed while you’re already out and about. To see a list of all the tasks you’re waiting on something to complete, search for the label @waiting_for.

You can also view all the tasks tagged with a specific label by clicking on the label’s name in the label list to the left of your Todoist.

Create More Custom Task Views with Filters

The real GTD magic happens when you create your own custom task views in Todoist using filters. Filters are essentially saved searches that sort your list with one click. You can use filters to search for tasks based on:

  • Due date
  • Label
  • Priority
  • Project
  • Date a task was created
  • Assignee
  • Keywords
  • Or a combination of some or all of the above

To set up a new filter, go to the Filter list at the bottom of your left-hand navigation menu (after Projects and Labels), then click Add filter at the bottom of the list. Give your filter a name and add the search query you want to see.

For GTD, the most relevant labels will likely combine “@next_action” with an area of focus or a context. For example, to set up a filter for all the next actions you can do at work, use the query “##Work & @next_action”. This will show all tasks in your Work project and associated sub-projects that also have the @next_action label. Or create a filter for next actions that can be finished at the office use the query “@next_action & @office”.

Next actions at work filter
This filter query will show you all the tasks labeled @next inside your Work project and all of it’s sub-projects.

Next Actions at Work
See just the next actions you can take while at work.

The most useful task views will depend on your specific needs, but these are some of the most common useful ones:

GTD filters

Add your most important task views to your favorites so that they appear at the top of your left-hand navigation menu above your Projects list. Simply right-click the filter, label, or project and select “Add to Favorites”. The filter will then show up in your navigation panel.

add to favorites GTD Todoist

Review

Each week, set aside time to look over all your lists, organize your tasks and keep your system running smoothly. The review helps you adapt to changes, refocus your attention, identify next actions, and reflect on your workflow.

Frequent review of your system will ensure that you aren’t just doing things, but that you are doing the right things.

David Allen has called this weekly review a “critical factor for success” because frequent review of your system will ensure that you aren’t just doing things, but that you are doing the right things.

To get started, import Todoist’s GTD Weekly Review template into your projects list. This template includes all of the steps you’ll need to complete your review each week. Customize the template by adding subtasks or task comments to hold the lists of all your inboxes, your current areas of focus, or to track reflections on your week.

Schedule your weekly review by setting up a recurring date in any task field. Simply enter your date as natural language, like “every Sunday at 5pm,” and Todoist will automatically recognize and schedule it when you save the task.

Here’s a full, step-by-step guide to customizing your weekly review with Todoist.

Have a different GTD-Todoist setup? Share the tricks and tips you’ve found work best for you in the comments below.

all done Todoist