All posts by David Allen

Getting Things Done QA

How Getting Things Done® (GTD®) Works for Teams

Dear David,

How does Getting Things Done relate to teams?


Dear Curious,

I frequently get this question from people new to GTD and those interested in applying the skills within an organization. Because the GTD methodology focuses primarily on self-management principles and best practices for individuals, people struggle to connect the principles to team success.

Yet the best practices of GTD apply equally to teams, and even whole enterprises. The five steps—capture, clarify, organize, reflect, engage—are exactly what successful teams do to maintain control and focus.

Let me break it down further.

What do the most successful teams do?

First, they consistently identify what has their attention, what’s not on “cruise control” (capture). Second, they define the outcomes they want to achieve (clarify). Third, they keep a clear inventory of projects and tasks, sorted into categories, with specific team members accountable for them (organize). Fourth, they regularly review progress and challenges to keep the team focused and current (reflect). Fifth, they hold each other accountable for taking action on individual commitments (engage).

How does using GTD as a team differ from using it as an individual?

The team needs to have a leader. For an individual, it’s obvious who should implement the skills (they run their own show), but it’s not always obvious with a team. That needs to be decided.

The team also needs a clear purpose to fulfill. In fact, it’s purpose that brings a team together; it is the reason for a team. Whereas an individual might start with GTD by getting control of whatever has his or her attention and then clarifying purpose, a team begins with purpose.

A team does not necessarily need to define next actions related to its projects, as long as accountability has been appropriately assigned. Individuals, on the other hand, must define next actions for whatever has their attention, whether assigned to them by the team or not, to get clarity.

How can a team apply the GTD skills?

The work of a team is done by individuals. Just as you can’t “do a project,” but only actions related to an outcome, a team can’t “do” anything without the members involved taking individual actions. That’s why a team with people trained in GTD gets work done at an elevated level, especially when the team leader “gets” GTD, for they are better able to manage team projects in a way that optimizes their own effectiveness.

Think of it like this: Can you teach a team to read? No. But does the team need people who can read? Of course. Can you teach a team GTD? Well, a team as a group can learn about capturing, clarifying, organizing, etc., and implement those to some degree. But if any team member doesn’t integrate those practices, the whole team suffers. For example, organizations often do “team building” exercises to try to reduce failures caused by individuals who don’t follow self-management best practices.

Workplace communication is a good example of how this can play out. Too much email and too many meetings are often a bane to team morale and performance. Sub-optimal performance spurs more meetings and emails, neither of which solve the problem. The personal productivity habits of team members prevent the team from being effective. Conversely, a team of GTD-trained people stays focused on outcomes and actions, in both meetings and communications.

It’s no secret that through teamwork humans can create and achieve amazing things. And the clearer and more present everyone in the team is, the more the team can achieve. But the team, as such, doesn’t give people the ability to be clear and present. GTD does.

How does GTD work with well-known organizational workflow approaches?

It’s not surprising that the popularity of GTD has, to some degree, paralleled rising interest in Six Sigma, Kanban, Lean, Agile, Scrum, and similar project and workflow approaches. The influential Agile Manifesto was published one month after the first edition of Getting Things Done was published (February 2001).

While these methods have greatly improved workflow and output in enterprise productivity, GTD amplifies their effect by equipping individuals with optimal techniques for dealing with change, integrating new information, recalibrating activity, and staying focused.

Everyone I’ve spoken with who has significant experience with workflow models has suggested that GTD aligns with these models and even galvanizes their implementation. Interestingly, a senior researcher in these new approaches once described GTD as “Lean for the brain.” That is to say, no wasted thinking.

All the best,

Getting Things Done QA

Get Clear with a GTD Weekly Review

Dear David,

My company recently sent my team through GTD Training. Learning how to capture and clarify has been beneficial, but I’m struggling with the organizing, reflecting, and reviewing. That seems to require a lot of time, and because I value productivity, well, I tend to skip those steps and just capture, clarify, engage. I feel like I’d need a whole day to review everything. I’d like to clearly see the “big picture” of my life, but I struggle to set aside the time. Is there a shortcut you can share?

Mining for the OR in CCORE

Dear Mining,

Consider the following analogy. Your kitchen is a mess and you have friends coming over for dinner—soon. If you focused only on what’s “off” in the kitchen—items out of place, dirty dishes, etc.—and didn’t start fixing dinner, how effective would that be? If you want to have an enjoyable dinner with your guests, you’ll have to organize and reflect on the situation before you take the first step.

Is that any different than your work and life? Organizing, reflecting, and reviewing are about getting clear on what you really want and need to accomplish. If you don’t regularly do that, how can you be sure your “productivity” is actually, well, productive?

Here’s something else to consider. The GTD methodology isn’t an arbitrary formula. It’s grounded in principles that must be followed if you’re to achieve stability, control, and focus—whether in your kitchen, your company, or your consciousness. There’s a logic to this behavior.

And as you start to reflect and review regularly, it won’t take a whole day—maybe a couple of hours at most. Anyone who consistently does a weekly review will tell you it’s perhaps the most productive time of their week.

The way out is through. If there were a shortcut, I would use it, share it, and teach it. If you have one, let me know.

Good luck,

Getting Things Done QA

How to Get the Right Things Done

Dear David,

I read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, as a teenager. I loved it. I purchased the FranklinCovey planner and for years I defined my roles and tried to execute on important-but-not-urgent matters related to those roles. I loved getting clear on my values and trying to keep them at the center of my life, even if I didn’t always succeed. Recently, I discovered the GTD system, and I’ve found that executing around context (rather than roles) works better for me. I actually get more done with less stress. Who knew!

That said, I feel I’m veering from my values. I’ve only just started with Getting Things Done so maybe I’m missing something, but I often find myself at the end of a week having accomplished a lot, though not everything I wanted to, and not what matters most to me. How can I better be productive at the things I value most?

Rudderless Speedboat

Dear Rudderless,

It’s quite true that once you’ve gotten some experience with GTD, you might be seduced by the positive experience of getting lots of stuff done and, as a result, potentially lose sight of some of the “bigger things.”

Based on my experience over many years with many people, you are probably in a “swing” mode—you’ve discovered and implemented operational productivity that you may have been previously lacking, but are now realizing you need to focus again on your higher horizons and values. It’s quite a natural process. And I’ll bet when you do spend some time reflecting on your bigger game, it will be from a more grounded and confident place.

It’s like learning to drive a car. You begin by getting comfortable with the nitty-gritty details of controlling and managing such a large and complex moving machine. And then at some point you feel confident enough to focus on where you actually want to drive it.

If your higher purpose, goals, and values have come onto your inner radar, it’s as much “GTD” to engage with those appropriately as any of the more mundane aspects of your work and life. What makes you feel like you’re “veering from your values”? What has your attention about any of that? What’s the next action you need to take to move forward for resolution? What’s your desired outcome?

Now that you’ve begun to learn and incorporate the powerful GTD thinking process to manage your everyday workload, you can apply it equally to the more subtle but important levels of what you’re about, and to great effect.

Best of luck,