- Learn how I’ve refined the GTD process with Trello for modern living.
- Get a template GTD board to kick-start your own.
GTD+Trello has really helped sooth my neurotic tendencies around todo lists. I’m often startled by starting off thinking I have more than I could ever achieve and then getting all my top priorities done in one sitting and being able to truly relax afterwards. No more nagging feeling there’s something urgent at the bottom of the pile of papers somewhere.
What is GTD?
Getting Things Done https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Getting_Things_Done is an old but effective method for organising the flood of todos that enter your life in many forms. We need it now more than ever in our infinitely connected world. And as a middle-aged working parent I need it now more than I ever did.
The point of GTD is to eliminate all the other places that you might have hidden todo lists such as
- unread emails
- your memory
- phone notes
- bits of paper
- phone screenshots
- other unstructured todo lists (Trello, Evernote etc. let me know what you use now that isn’t working for you and I’ll add it to the list)
And then to make your todo list something that you can almost mindlessly churn through, eliminating huge task switching costs caused by badly defined and variably sized tasks.
Trello + GTD
The original GTD method involved bits of paper. But now we have Trello, which is an excellent fit for GTD with its cards, lists and many integrations. There’s a great write-up of using Trello for GTD here: https://blog.trello.com/gtd-getting-things-done-maximizing-productivity-trello which I suggest you go and read first. It’s how I got started, however I found I was still left building my own process and set of lists from there before it really worked for me.
Trello is great for GTD because:
- You can set up lists how you like
- There are apps so you have it everywhere
- You can forward emails to it (yay, inbox zero at last)
- It supports attaching pictures, PDFs etc.
- You can add checklists, due dates, date-stamped comments etc.
- Drag-n-drop sorting and moving of cards
- Buttons for archive / move on the cards
- A lovely cross-platform interface
- It’s free!
Neither GTD or Trello can give you more hours in the day, help you focus, get you to do things you really don’t want to do, or make your tax return go away. This still requires putting the work in. Having said that, at least you will know you haven’t just forgotten anything really important, it’s just a bit stuck on your list. Personally with life as it is for me now I never get close to the weekly/daily GTD schedule laid out below, but that doesn’t make it less valuable.
If you are looking at GTD for the same reasons as I did then beware “the efficiency trap”
My GTD Method
Here’s my actual GTD board (minus details) to give you an idea of what it looks like. You might be able to see I have far too much in Inbox and Action items as is often the case, but it doesn’t take too long to clear down when I actually focus on it.
First you need to get everything you might have to do into your GTD board. Don’t think too hard at this point, just ping everything to Trello and deal with it efficiently at your next GTD moment:
Getting Everything to the Board
Forward emails to your GTD board “send-to-board” email address to get to inbox zero quickly. Make sure your GTD board email address is in your address book so you can just type “gtd” and hit send.
Using GTD instead of your unread email as a todo list makes inbox-zero possible again.
The subject line becomes the card title so edit that if you want. The body of the email becomes the card description so you can add to that too.
Web based tasks
Install AddToAny to send any webpage from Firefox to your GTD inbox.
Documents, physical objects, pictures, screenshots
Install the Trello app and use the native share buttons to share pictures, web pages etc to your GTD inbox. Use this to take photos of paper documents and physical things you need to deal with and send the picture straight to your GTD inbox on Trello.
Verbally Received Tasks
For when someone just says to you “oh, can you do this for me?” and you don’t want to be that person that lets them down by forgetting.
If you think you are “the forgetful type” (you aren’t, that’s just a negative self-label compounded by habits), then you can fix it forever by just being more organised, no-one will ever know it was GTD, they just think you remembered for them.
Open up Trello on your phone or laptop and add a card. Or if it’s easier write an email to your GTD board!
Using Alexa/Siri etc
For advanced magic teach your Siri/Alexa/Google to email to GTD by mere voice command
Hey google, email gtd …
Or maybe set up a custom action. (If anyone’s done this send me some details and I’ll expand out this section. PRs welcome!)
Inbox Processing (Daily)
Go through inbox cards and triage them as follows:
- Unactionable or not important?
- Archive the card
- or move to reference
- or move to someday.
- Less than 2 mins?
- Do now.
- For someone else?
- Move to “waiting”
- Need to just mull it over a bit?
- Move to “incubate”
- For future time/date?
- Add to google calendar as event or timed reminder and move to “scheduled”.
- More than single step to complete? (Even two really small steps counts)
- Move to “projects”
- and add a checklist.
- For some multi-step things I keep it as a single card, put it in actions but put the next step in the title (e.g. “something to do - call bob”), and when I’ve done that step I update the title to the next step. It’s a bit less overhead than juggling multiple cards, but it’s a judgement call whether it’s worth a project card. I like project cards for things that are going to drag on over months.
- Move to “projects”
- Finally if none of the above then:
- move to “action items”
- and edit the card to make sure it’s doable in one go (add links, forms, phone numbers etc).
- move to “action items”
I’ve learned to do more of this in the Trello app when I have five idle minutes during the day so that when I sit down at the laptop I don’t use all the time just getting GTD straight.
I add some Trello labels to the cards so that I can tell whether a card is something I can pick up in any particular situation (do I need the laptop? good phone signal? good internet? do I need to be somewhere in particular?) The situational ones are all black with an
@ prefix, e.g.
Go through each project
- Do I still need this project (move to someday, or just archive the card if not).
- Create next action card - use the “convert checklist item to card” feature of Trello.
- Set due dates on the cards so that they’ll get highlighted if they are due chasing next time you review.
- Chase up if no action from others and past the due date (maybe fire off an email or WhatsApp).
- Archive if dealt with, or move back to inbox if it’s thrown up other issues.
Rules - Thou Shall Not Scroll
I.e. things that I’ve learned knock me off track when trying to do a “GTD” session.
- DO NOT READ the articles - send them to Pocket.
- DO NOT READ the newsletters - leave them as unread in mail inbox.
- NO twitter/facebook/linkedin FEED reading (posting is okay).
Dealing With Action Items
Once your GTD board is triaged your inbox should be empty and your action items should be prioritized and full of things that you can “just do” without getting blocked. Start at the top and work down as if your boss told you to get on with it.
This is where the magic happens!
What to do when “Action Items” is too long or not getting done
I found that after a while Action items gets overwhelming. Cards end up stuck in there forever, never quite getting to done.
To deal with this, use the “move all cards in list feature of Trello”.
You have two choices here depending on the state of your list and how important thing things in it are:
- Move all cards back to Inbox and re-triage them.
- Move all the cards to “Someday” because they actually weren’t that important.
Or you might pick a few to bump back to inbox then move everything else.
This gives you a complete reset, and eliminates the mental overwhelm that results from an unrealistic todo list.
You might initially think this is a failure of the GTD method, but actually without GTD you are just forgetting things that have been on your brain’s todo list, and maybe some of them were actually important. With this approach you have the opportunity to decide what you want to punt to the eternal pot of “someday” with no angst that you are dropping important tasks.
If you have tasks that really are important and they are never getting done, then
- you’re avoiding it and you need to move them to the top and just do them, a well formed action card is often not as bad when you actually tackle it,
- or you don’t allocate sufficient time in your life for these tasks, and it’s up to you if you want to adjust your schedule to get more done.
Watch Out For
Spending all your time just arranging your GTD board and never doing any of the action items. Are you avoiding an unpleasant task? Are your tasks too big and need breaking down?
When the lists get long
You have to make sure you’re investing enough time on average for the piles not to build up and up.
When my list got to the several hundred range I needed to know for my own sanity whether I was winning or losing week by week, it’s hard to remember whether the inbox was on 197 or 185 the week before. Being a bit of a systems person not afraid of a spreadsheet, I enabled the firefox trello card counter addon, manually copied them into a spreadsheet, added a graph, and now I can see if I need to spend more or less time getting on top of it.
I’ve shared a google sheets copy of the card count graph spreadsheet which you can use yourself.
Having run this system for a while, it grew to a daunting few-hundred cards in inbox/actions. To figure out what I’m doing wrong I did some more research.
The official GTD podcast is gold, hearing from the creator and his consultants on how they really use it and help clients get unstuck was really helpful.
Key points I learned:
- Projects are not what you’d normally think of, they’re just anything bigger than one action. Anything. (You can add another layer for big projects if that’s your world).
- The weekly review isn’t just shuffling your todo pile. It’s stepping back and considering the big picture, setting strategic direction, and just having time to reflect.
- If tasks are getting stuck, or you are avoiding them it’s probably because you haven’t taken the time to step back and think clearly about whether it’s something you actually want to do (someday/incubate/delete), and if you do then thinking about what the one next step might be (e.g. “google xx to learn more” about it).
In no particular order, and of varying usefulness:
Get started with a template GTD+Trello board
You can easily create your own GTD Trello board from this template I’ve created for you.
The template contains:
- Preconfigured columns,
- Some example cards,
- A full instruction list in the inbox for daily processing,
- A butler action button for moving to “someday”.
I reckon using this ready-made template will save you at least an half-an-hour of your time just fiddling with Trello to get going. It’d also be a nice way of saying thanks if you found this article useful.
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I still struggle with what to do today even with GTD in place. I’ve found the (paid) Sunsama app to be a game changer, especially as I transition to full business owner from sole contractor. You could do it without, but having an app that continuously reminds you what you planned to do today & this week makes sticking to priorities so much easier.