Simplify Life

Destroy Clutter and Overwhelm with the GTD Method

You have stacks of papers scattered throughout your house, inbox zero is a thing of myth, and you’re always forgetting something you were supposed to do. It makes you feel constantly stressed and overwhelmed, with a million little things you’re trying to keep track of. Sound familiar?

I lived this way for years until finally, I had enough! I’d tried in vain to tackle each of these problems individually, but it wasn’t until I encountered a method that would work with all three that things finally improved. The key was to figure out the underlying cause of the anxiety and overwhelm. Sure a stack of papers isn’t pretty, but is that really enough to make me feel anxious?

David Kekich said, “Anxiety is caused by a lack of control, organization, preparation, and action.” In the book Getting Things Done by David Allen, he says:

“Anything that does not belong where it is, the way it is, is an “open loop,” which will be pulling on your attention if it’s not appropriately managed…

“We need to transform all the “stuff” we’ve attracted and accumulated into a clear inventory of meaningful actions, projects, and usable information…

“Here’s how I define “stuff”: anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined what, exactly, it means to you, with the desired outcome and the next action step.”

Allen calls them “open loops”, I think of them more like tabs in a web browser. You’re feeling overwhelmed and anxious because each thing is essentially a new tab open in your brain, running in the background because it hasn’t been dealt with. Have you ever tried to keep 20 tabs open in your browser? First off, the tabs get super tiny so you can’t even differentiate them and secondly, it doesn’t make your browser very happy, (Trust me, I know, I’m notorious for having 10+ tabs open…)

Okay, so what’s the secret fix? The GTD Method, or Getting Things Done, named for David Allen’s book of the same name. This is how he outlines the method, “We (1) capture what has our attention; (2) clarify what each item means and what to do about it; (3) organize the results, which presents the options we (4) reflect on, which we then choose to (5) engage with.”

Clear as mud, right? Don’t worry, I’ll walk you through what that actually means. I break down the steps into 4Cs:

  1. Capture
  2. Clarify
  3. Categorize
  4. Choose your next action

Photo by Brandi Redd on Unsplash

1. Capture

The first step is to have inboxes to capture everything. I have 3, one for papers (my physical inbox), one is my email inbox (my digital inbox), and one captures thoughts, next actions and to-dos (my mental inbox- I use Todoist). Having designated inboxes means you always know where to put something new. And having 3 central locations to gather things means less “stuff” is scattered about.

Don’t worry about organizing anything just yet, right now you just want to set up a simple way to capture everything that passes through your life.

Photo by Aki Tolentino on Unsplash

2. Clarify

In this second step, you’re going to start processing your inboxes. You’re going to take each item and ask yourself three questions:

  1. Do I need to keep this? If yes, move to question 2. If no, toss it.
  2. Does this require action? If yes, set aside into an “action needed” pile until the next step. If no, move to question 3.
  3. Do I need to keep this as a reference? If yes, set aside into a “reference” pile until the next step. If no, then your answer to question 1 was probably wrong and you can toss it.

Photo by Sanwal Deen on Unsplash

3. Categorize

In this third step, you’re going to categorize your “stuff”. This is how Allen breaks it down:

“There are seven primary types of things that you’ll want to keep track of and manage from an organizational perspective:  

  1. A “Projects” list
  2. Project support material
  3. Calendared actions and information
  4. “Next Actions” lists
  5. A “Waiting For” list
  6. Reference material
  7. A “Someday/Maybe” list”

You can use these categories if they work for you, or you can develop your own. I categorize each of my inboxes a little differently, I’ll go into more detail on my process for each in separate posts.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

4. Choose Your Next Action

This fourth step helps us move from organizing to action. It’s nice to get organized but if it doesn’t help us accomplish more, what’s the point? This method is called Getting Things Done, after all. The idea behind this step is, for any project, task or item in your “action needed” category, ask yourself, “What’s my next actionable step?”

Allen explains it this way,

“Typical things you will see on a to-do list: “Mom” “Bank” “Doctor” “Babysitter” “VP Marketing” etc. Looking at these often creates more stress than relief, because, though it is a valuable trigger for something that you’ve committed to do or decide something about, it still calls out psychologically, “Decide about me!” And if you do not have the energy or focus at the moment to think and decide, it will simply remind you that you are overwhelmed.”

Get in the habit of asking yourself, “What’s my next actionable step?” any time you encounter something that needs action done. When you accomplish that task, ask the question again. I use my mental inbox to keep track of these next actionable steps.

Photo by Hope House Press on Unsplash

The Weekly Review

Hey, I thought there only 4 steps! Well, technically, that’s true. This step is more maintenance than another step. Once a week, gather and sort your inboxes and tweak anything in your system that’s not working quite right.

Allen says, “The Weekly Review is the time to: Gather and process all your stuff. Review your system. Update your lists. Get clean, clear, current, and complete. You have to use your mind to get things off your mind.”

Make an appointment in your calendar for your weekly review, and don’t skip it! Your system will eventually fall apart if you don’t re-calibrate every week.

And that’s the GTD Method! Pretty straightforward, right? Implement inboxes to capture all the “stuff” in your life, then clarify if it’s trash, something that needs action or needed for reference. Categorize all the “stuff” and decided your next actions.

Check out David Allen’s book to learn about his system in more detail. He does a very in-depth walkthrough of his system and how to implement it.

The details of his system didn’t jive with me, so I’ve used the overview of the GTD method and made it my own. I’m more a spirit of the law, rather than a letter of the law kind of person. I’ll walk you through the exact systems I’ve developed for each of my inboxes over the next 2 weeks, so stay tuned!

GTD for Paper Inbox

GTD for Digital Inbox

GTD for Mental Inbox

Leave a Reply