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GTD: 5 steps and a leap

GTD the 6th Step

David Allan, author of “Getting Things Done” (GDT) has millions of people on the path to greater organization and productivity. In a previous post, I wrote about how Stephen Covey and Landmark Education inspired me to be proactive and action oriented, but I now see David Allan’s GTD practices were also at play in getting my projects to the finish line. 

I agree, when David Allan says the GTD methodology is more about focus management than it is about time management. Although the steps sound easy, I find GTD in a complicated world like learning martial arts. You need to practice and there are different levels of difficulty which makes it easy to get frustrated and falter. So I have added a 6th step. I believe this additional step will deliver faster results. I also provide a real life example of my perspective of GTD in action.

But first here the steps are in a nutshell. They will also be explained in more detail later in the post.

  1. Capture – what has your attention?
  2. Clarify – process what it means
  3. Organize – put it where it belongs
  4. Reflect – review frequently
  5. Engage – simply do
  6. Consult – work with a productivity specialist (optional)

Of course, step 6 is optional. But I believe a productivity specialist (aka professional organizer) will provide the insight and support you may need to get through the 5 steps. You don’t have to figure a system out for yourself in a vacuum! A consultant who knows how to apply GTD, can develop a system that suits your specific needs, and you will learn how to integrate the steps into your personal and professional life.

To visualize my perspective of the 5 steps of GTD in action, read the next section.

Nonprofit Boards Show GTD in Action

David Allen says, he did not make up the 5 steps of GTD. He has only clarified the steps after observing what we all tend to do, to get focused and in control of our situations. I agree. When I look closely at these steps, they remind me of my former roles as a coordinator of nonprofit Boards.

Boards basically follow the steps of GTD through its agenda development and meeting minutes to: capture, clarify, organize, and reflect. The committees, extensions of the Board, organize the Board’s information in context. The agenda is a collection of open loops which clarifies what decisions and actions are required; or if the matter is just for information only. The minutes allow for reflection and next steps to be identified, and it provides a system for accountability to ensure actions are being completed as promised.

Boards use a system called Robert’s Rules of Order, to maintain fairness, structure, and clarity. GTD practices can be replicated, although the methods are different for everyone. This example, was an analogy to show how the 5 steps can get us focused. This results in better decisions and less wasted time.

David Allen’s 5 steps plus the optional 6th step, are further described below. Integration, like anything requires  consistent practice for new habits to be formed. Even if we don’t take on GTD in a hard-core way, even being mindful of what is involved in each of these steps will get us on the road to increased effectiveness.



Capture is a practice of systematically collecting what comes our way. Use a physical in tray to put notices, brochures, bills, etc. Along with our physical in-trays, designate capture zones for digital to dos and anything weighing on your mind. Then aggregate all your outstanding tasks, appointments, meetings, and projects; calls you need to make; things you are waiting for; things you hope to do one day…. Look for this information in your designated capture zones but go beyond that. Dig deeper. Check with colleagues and partners; look in last year’s minutes to see if you are missing anything. So go on the hunt for open loops.

Pen and paper are the basic tools to capture with. But, there are many digital options also, such as Google Keep, OneNote, and Evernote. Just like there are many brands of cereal, there are similarly many options for managing information.

The new tool I am feeling excited about for managing my focus is Wrike (Work + Right = Wrike). It is a project management application, and is outstanding for small to large scale oversight. I may never use the advanced features, but they are there. Even with the basic features, I clearly see the hierarchy of my tasks and can prioritize much quicker. It is free for collaboration up to 5 users, and we do not have to download anything to use it!

After you have done a big sweep to capture everything, go on to clarifying it.


This step requires a decision and sorting.  The sorting in many respects is part of the organizing in step 3. Start by deciding which of the 5 categories your stuff belongs in:

  1. Toss
  2. Action  
  3. Project*
  4. Reference
  5. Incubate

For the action items, clarify further by asking: “What is the very next action required?” and “How many actions are required to get the job done?” Things we need to do that require more than two tasks may be a project or ongoing responsibility. Multiple tasks, known as projects, may be simple to complex and may require special oversight.

Projects often accumulate a lot of reference materials and have many tasks that flow out at different times. For example, planning a wedding may have tasks in many categories to track. Therefore, projects can be managed best when they are contained in their own folder(s) for quick review and reference. 


This step is closely connected to the clarify step, but we expand on developing a system to efficiently contain all the papers you have earmarked as for action, projects, reference, or incubate. Keeping it simple isn’t always easy. We live in a complicated world. In a previous blog post I wrote about organizing paper reference and incubate materials in an A-Z system. But you can also do it by category and label the files: “handy reference” and “pending”.

Also, in addition to a paper system, you may also need a digital system to organize reference paper. The more complicated your life is, the more you will benefit by having digital tools to help you organize tasks separately from reference materials; and urgent tasks from important tasks.

For example, MS Outlook gives us the convenience of converting emails into our task folder or to our digital calendar. The Outlook task folder becomes the container for all the things we need to get done or want to incubate, and we can prioritize them. So our email inbox is our processing zone, not our to-do list. Wouldn’t you love to get your inbox to zero?! We could also use a program like Evernote to contain all the things we deem as reference. Evernote’s search capabilities will ensure we have that important receipt or document when you need it!


I see reflecting in two separate contexts. 

First, I see reflecting as being proactive about what is going on in our lives. This involves a consistent review of your actions, items on incubate, and knowing where you are at with your active projects. This review is done daily, though will involve a thorough weekly sweep and review to update your systems. The practice of reflecting keeps you alert and – focused.

Second, I see reflecting in the context of the continuous improvement cycle. It is us assessing the systems and tools being used to capture and organize your stuff. It looks at the types of information that comes into your lives. Is it digital or paper based? Is it coming via email, mail, face to face or messenger? Is the system in place allowing you to access it quickly? Maybe we need to divide our reference material into sub categories? Maybe we need to consolidate categories? Maybe we need to consult with a professional organizer who is an expert on office systems?

Continuous improvement has us ask, “Is there a better way to manage these streams of information so I have better oversight? Then tweak the system. Tweaking (not twerking) should be done when you see a glitch.


After doing steps 1-4, you should be really clear on what our next action steps are. Even if that next step is to do nothing. It is great that you can consciously relax, and know there will be no surprises from doing so. GTD isn’t about all work and no play. Engage is just being intentional of knowing your priorities and executing as needed. 


The 6th step! I added this step because I believe the assistance of a productivity consultant can be incredibly beneficial. We think in systems, patterns, ideas, and solutions. Where others see complexity, we can sort through the clutter and find the best route to clarity.  You become more effective faster with rewarding outcomes. Whether you are a CEO or retired, you will feel better when you are organized!

Organize to Optimize Can Help You, Too

Are you looking for more hours in your day to focus on what is most important to you? Melody offers  100% judgement-free organizing or productivity consulting. She has a BA in Professional Communication, a Graduate Certificate in Project Management, and a member of Professional Organizers of Canada.

She serves Parksville and most areas of the Regional District of Nanaimo but also offers her services virtually. Check out her introductory package rates and call to find out how she can get you to achieve more with less stress.




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