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Getting Things Done – the Basics

Welcome to this page, in preparation for the course.

We explain the five steps of GTD and the Horizons of Focus in both video and text, so that you can choose the one you prefer.

Table of Contents

Step 1: Capture

Capture everything that gets your attention

There are lots of things you want to do. If you try to remember them all, it’s not going to work out well. After all, you’ve got to remember to call someone at 11 am … But the drawback of keeping this in your head is not only that you won’t remember it at 11 am. The risk is that you will think about it too often at the wrong times. In a nutshell, try not to manage all your tasks from your head.

In this short video, David Allen explains what you need to do to get everything you have to do, want to do, or can do out of your head. Capture it systematically! Read what this involves and how to do it on this page.

Video afspelen

You promise a colleague that you’ll look something up and you write the task down in your notebook. You also jot down a still hazy idea you have for streamlining the onboarding process. You don’t try to remember what you want to do. You write it down immediately instead.

What we mean by capturing is recording everything you might want to do something with. Capturing means saving ideas you have, actions you might want to take, or commitments that others make to you, together in a place that works for you, like a notebook or the To-Do section of Outlook.

Once you have captured all your actions and commitments, you no longer need to rely on your head to remember them. That way, your head no longer reminds you what to do at inopportune moments. You can just do what you’re doing. Without distractions.

Practical tips for Capturing

  • Choose a system that works for you and write down everything you want to do. It might be a small notebook that you always carry with you, or a To-Do app on your smartphone. Going forward, write down every insight, idea, quote or action in your notebook or app.
  • After a busy meeting or a long day of work, take the time to add all the actions and things that require you to do something to your collection tool. Just sit for a while and write down everything that’s in your head. These things don’t belong in your head, because then you’ll think about them at the wrong times. Capture them instead!

As well as this active capturing – writing down what crosses your mind – there are also many places where other people bring things to your attention. Like your phone, text messages, email, Teams, social media DMs. These places are buckets filled with all sorts of inputs that require your attention. For many knowledge workers the number of buckets and the content they contain has risen considerably in recent years. Streamlining these places is also part of the first GTD step: Capture.

Make sure that you go through what you have captured and what other people have added to your inboxes regularly. Empty your collection tools on a consistent basis or make a habit of doing it at the end of your working day. How do you process these collection tools? Read about it in step 2: Clarify.

Step 2: Clarify

What does this mean?

In this short video, David Allen explains what you need to do to clarify everything you have collected. You can read more about what that means and how you can do it on the page below.

Video afspelen


The benefit of capturing is that you get to have all your ideas and all your messages from other people in one place. You capture things in your notebook and various inboxes so that you don’t have to take direct action on every idea immediately. You need to process these collection tools on a regular basis. And you also need to decide how often you process each inbox.

Everything you’ve captured caught your attention for some reason or other. To clarify, you need to decide whether you are going to do something with what you’ve captured or not. Perhaps you spotted a nice Spanish course, and you jotted down the website. Upon reflection, you decide that you’ve already got enough on your plate with your current workload, and you decide to put the course off for a year. Thus, you can decide not to do anything with something you’ve captured.

Practical tips for Clarifying

  • Process everything you have captured. This will give rise to a series of decisions: take action, do nothing and keep as a reference, or schedule for later.
  • When you decide an item is actionable, immediately define the first step, or Next Action you are going to take. By doing the thinking now, you avoid putting something on your to-do list without knowing exactly what you want to do with it next. So instead of adding ‘Vandelay Presentation’ to your to-do list, you add ‘make table of contents for Vandelay Presentation’ instead.
  • When you’ve captured something that’s going to create a new project, it’s important to ask yourself what the project will finally deliver. Or in GTD terms, what is your Desired Outcome? Imagine that you want to change bank or research an innovative idea, what will things look like when you’re done? By clarifying your thoughts, you avoid embarking on ill-defined projects.
  • The Clarify step is a mechanical process where you use the Clarify Map. By using the Clarify Map, you make a decision about what to do with each item that you’ve captured. That way, each item has one of six places it can go. View an image of the workflow here.

But where do you store all these decisions? What does it mean to keep as a reference and where do you record your Desired Outcomes, for example? You need to write them down or type them up so that you can return to them when the time is right. That’s what we call Organising.

Step 3: Organise

Everything in the right place

In this short video, David Allen explains what you need to do to organise everything upon which you have taken a decision. You can read more about what that means and how you can do it below.

Video afspelen


Once you have decided that something is actionable, you must record it somewhere so that you can remember you want to do it. If you want to save something, you need to keep it as reference. In brief, organising means that you have fixed places for your tasks, commitments, projects and all your other stuff.

Practical tips for Organising

  • You need an archive to store all the notes, files, emails that you don’t want to do anything with right now, but that you want to keep as a reference. You need to decide how and where you are going to store this information, so that you can retrieve it within seconds if ever you need it again.
  • For actionable items, choose to schedule them in your calendar or put them on your to-do list, or in GTD terms, your Next Action list. This is preferably a single, complete Next Action list with a complete overview of all the actions you want to take. When Organising, you need to find yourself a tool that will help you see the right action at the right time.

Organising completes the first steps of GTD. Capture everything that has your attention, clarify what this means to you by taking a decision on it, and save this decision in the right place. You no longer need remember anything because everything you want to do is now in the right place. Out of your head and in a place you trust.

How do you manage to keep everything up to date and actually use your lists? What if you’ve got too many tasks? What are your priorities? You need to think about all of this during regular reflection times.

Step 4: Reflect

Reflect regularly

In this short video, David Allen explains what you need to do to keep everything you have organised up to date, and how to set priorities. You can read more about what that means and how you can do it on this page.

Video afspelen


If you don’t look at what’s on your list on a regular basis, then you find yourself reacting too quickly to the latest and loudest, just as David Allen says in this video. By looking at and deciding which tasks you want to do at the start of each day, you avoid just reacting to whatever comes your way.

Practical tips for Reflecting

  • By checking your to-do list daily, you keep an overview. But there are other reflection moments that are very worthwhile, such as a weekly reflection, which we call the Weekly Review. You reflect daily on the actions you want to do that day, while on a weekly basis you look further ahead and further back.
  • Schedule an hour for your Weekly Review at a fixed time each week. Make a habit of it. It’s a pillar of your system and you’ll find this investment of time very valuable.
  • The Weekly Review is a pillar of GTD. Tailor your own checklist with all the things you want to check on a weekly basis. Make sure that after your Weekly Review, you know everything that’s going on so you can rely 100% on your lists.

Now that your lists are complete and up-to-date, you are ready to start work, or what we call Engaging. Or in other words, step 5.

Step 5: Engage

The final step

In this short video, David Allen explains what happens in the ‘Engage’ step. What do you need in order to give your full attention to whatever it is that you’re doing?

Video afspelen


You can’t choose something from your Next Action list if you can’t trust it. This demonstrates once more the importance of Reflecting in step 4. Work with current, complete lists, to ensure you have a complete overview of your obligations.

Choosing from an up-to-date list means that you are also aware of what you are not choosing to do. You can only feel good about what you are not doing when you know what you are not doing.

There are two steps to choosing a task. Firstly, ask yourself what can I do in the here and now? Secondly, from all the things you can do, what is the most important? There are often limitations to what you can do. Sometimes you can’t make calls, or you might not have enough time to complete a long task. That limits your choice. From what you can do, choose the task that adds the most value.

Practical tips for Engaging

  • You can’t do every task everywhere. To make a call, you need your phone, and it needs to be quiet enough to make yourself heard. To read, you need peaceful surroundings. To talk to Mark, you need… Mark. Give every task a context, for example, ‘phone calls’ and ‘agenda items for Mark’.
  • When you Engage, you need to think about how to manage interruptions. Which form part of your work, and which don’t? Which ad hoc things can become scheduled work, and which truly are ad hoc?
  • For an extra advantage, when you do a particular task, do more of the same type of task in succession. It’s easier on your brain to make four telephone calls and then write three emails than it is to switch continually between phoning and writing.
  • Choose the most important task from the tasks you can do. That might be coffee with a colleague, or it might be a strategic brainstorm. Given what you can do, what adds the most value? If you struggle with setting priorities, you’ll find it helpful to use the Horizons of Focus.

Horizons of Focus

In this video, David Allen tells us about the Horizons of Focus. We’re adding this dimension to the five steps, so that as well as control, you’ll also have perspective on your work and life obligations.

View an image of the Horizons of Focus here.

Video afspelen

These are the Horizons of Focus:

  • Values and Life’s Purpose (horizon 5) is about your core values and what really matters to you. These are the standards that you expect from your staff, your team and yourself.
  • Vision (horizon 4) is about what success looks like to you, in your work, your organisation and/or your family in the longer term. Where do you want to be? If you were to wake up in four years’ time, where would you be and what would you be doing?
  • Goals (horizon 3) is focused on the concrete goals required to reach your vision. What plans do you need to make and carry out to turn that vision into reality?
  • Areas of Focus and Accountability (horizon 2) are the areas of your work and private life that you want to maintain at a certain level, so you can reach your goals and vision.
  • Your Projects are on horizon 1. These are all have multi-step outcomes. Projects are typically completed within a year, and need to be aligned with your Areas of Focus and Accountability.
  • Finally, there’s the Ground level: all the actions you must carry out in the here and now. The ground level consists of your Next Actions and calendar.

Each level of your Horizons of Focus requires a different way of thinking and reflecting. In an ideal world they’d be aligned and would reinforce one another.

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Getting Things Done - the Basics

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