Simple GTD Startup

*Note* to the first-time-GTD-reader …

I advise people new to GTD, to read the first three chapters, and then stop. David Allen, please don’t excommunicate me for saying this, but when a green person is trying to do GTD on their own, what begins as a warm embrace, can grow into a guilt trip. The inner editors hound us about what GTD failures we are. So the warm embrace of discovering GTD pretty quickly morphs into self-recrimination.


So, don’t sweat that you are not doing all of the “official” GTD system. Enjoy discovering!

I think a year is the minimum amount of time to implement basic GTD. I had one MBA student who implemented 100% of GTD in a week. It almost killed them, and they dropped out of the MBA program without explanation. Cutting over to new infrastructure can be a killer. Don’t under estimate the impact of new routines.

So, I recommend that you not try to be a hero. If you still want to be a GTD hero, call me, stop by Portland, I’ll take you out for 3 beers and talk you out of it.

Back to GTD the book!  Let the words in the first three chapters sink in. Savor them, reread and absorb by osmosis. These chapters are battle tested and ready to rock your world. Take your time to discover them fully. Life is about discovery, not performance.


There is no need to bite off the entire GTD system to make big improvements in your work. All the big-picture changes you need at first, are in the first 3 chapters of GTD.

For example: after listening to the first 3 chapters on a 20 mile bike ride, I realized that I needed to:



  • Set up a reference filing system (Evernote + Fujitsu ScanSnap)
    • Most of my messes and clutter came from not having a good place to put X in.  Where X is an email, a piece of paper, a mind map for a project, or an agenda for a conversation with a client.  When you have the “ughhh” feeling when you need to put X down, but don’t have a good place to put X, then you’re experiencing hardening of the categories.  New rule, whenever you don’t have a place to put an X, then instead of just piling X up with other X, first put the X in your inbox and then add a project to think through a place that makes sense for X and its siblings.  Then, when you have time, you can ratchet your organization up a notch by systematically plugging the holes in your trusted system bucket.  Just having a place for X is a huge improvement over piles.
  • Write ideas down one-idea-one-piece-of-paper
  • Set up project folders (both electronically and in physical manila folders)
  • Separate the processing work, from doing of work (a HUGE leap forward for me personally)
  • Work more efficiently by consciously keeping my constraints in mind. Energy, focus, enthusiasm for tasks are HUGE in my getting tasks completed. Before GTD I would just work to exhaustion, sleep, repeat. After GTD I started pre-processing tasks (lists for “buy” that I put stuff on, and then look at the list in the store, lists for “people,” where I write down stuff as stuff comes to mind relating to a person) and then consciously switching to lower involvement tasks when I get tired.
  • I realized after reading GTD chapter 3, that I was not doing enough natural project management. I have always loved mind-maps, but I never realized they are best at surfacing next actions and list items. David Allen put them in context for me in Chapter 3. Now I am holding myself accountable to doing enough mind mapping and brainstorming (going for quantity not quality). Natural project management dramatically speeds up projects.
  • I found the beginning of the trail that is leading me to clutter-free work spaces. And, the unbearable lightness of being … paperless. :-)
After you’ve read, I next recommend these interventions:



  • Intervention #1:  Get a real desk! Every brain deserves a kick-ass place to work.  Typically this means
    • Make your desk much bigger. You need 30 square feet of desk space in your office. Not 30 squares in one desk, but 30 squares locally available.


  • Source:

    Get your desk completely clutter free from the surface of the desk up to 6″ off the desk. Only exception should be a monitor arm.  Monitor arms prevent your current small size desk from being turned into an overgrown monitor stand.


    Http www flickr com photos fogonazos 3051525726

    Source: Flickr

    To do your work you need elbow room. You need to be able to spread 3″x5″ cards, letter sized mind maps, and even butcher block sized mind maps across your desk all at the same time. When you get a big desk and fill it up with monitors, iPads, scanners, etc., you loose the opportunity to so much as fit a sandwich on your desk. Computers are not your brain. They are small piece of what GTD is about. Keep computers in proportion to your desk, as they make a true contribution to your job.  Don’t let computers be the tail that wags your work dog.

    The balance of computer/thinking-work facilities have shifted in the past three decades.  Back in the day, a 30’x60″x30″ desk was the default.  Here’s a pic:



    And companies had huge “bull pens” of hundreds of this kind of desk lined up.


    Source: John Lubans

    You might want to check out the Early Office Museum if you’d like to see more early office pics. Space was made for desks, though far from perfect this was more clutter-free than today’s cubicles.  Here is a representative home office desk today:



    And then an office-office cubicle environment.  The unique innovation of the modern cube is that the workspace itself is visual clutter.  But, it gets better when you have phones BBBBBBBBBRRRRRRRRringing and people talking.



    The bottom line is that today, a desk sized to allow brains to work are considered luxuries.  And modern offices have “furniture police” (see chapter 7 of Demarco & Lister’s book PEOPLEWARE (free summery here)) who take it as their mission to impose total uniformity.

    I feel very lucky to be able to control my desk. Control is important because your desk is a way that your conscious mind can demonstrate to your unconscious mind, that the unconscious is fully respected, valued, and celebrated. Without desk control, people take sick days when they need to get something done, spreading out on the dining room table (a great starter desk!).

    Conscious?  Subconscious?  Wait!  What?

    Right now I’m reading a fantastic book READING IN THE BRAIN. This book is about the brain as computational image processing pipeline. The research reported in the book steps millimeter by millimeter through the brain mapping out which neurons are doing what.  Neurons seem to be hard wired to recognize the sub-shapes of word. Every word is a complex tree.  In the following image, see how the neurons assemble letters from the primitive sub-letter shapes in the bottom row of processing.


    Source: READING IN THE BRAIN L 755

    When we put a shape in front of our eyes, we kick off large quantities of unconscious recognizing and processing.


    Source: READING IN THE BRAIN L 670


    “This view holds that the letterbox area of the brain initially evolved to recognize natural images, but not the shapes of letters or words. Nonetheless, evolution endowed it with a capacity to learn, and thus to turn itself into a reading device. Our writing systems have progressively discovered and exploited the elementary shapes that this region is capable of representing. In brief, our cortex did not specifically evolve for writing—there was neither the time nor sufficient evolutionary pressure for this to occur. On the contrary, writing evolved to fit the cortex. Our writing systems changed under the constraint that even a primate brain had to find them easy to acquire.”

    Source: READING IN THE BRAIN L 2346-2351

    I am only 1/2 way through the book, but based on what I’ve read so far, clutter triggers unconscious processing that is at the least an energy drain and at worst an energy drain + constant distraction.  Look at your desk and pretend you are a monkey.  Is there anything on your desk a monkey would be intrigued with?  We are monkeys, GTD monkeys. And clutter is intriguing to our inner monkeys.

    David Allen, when interviewed for the book WILLPOWER used a very provocative Buddhist image:

    “When he began working with overtaxed executives, he saw the problem with the traditional big-picture type of management planning, like writing mission statements, defining long-term goals, and setting priorities. He appreciated the necessity of lofty objectives, but he could see that these clients were too distracted to focus on even the simplest task of the moment. Allen described their affliction with another Buddhist image, “monkey mind,” which refers to a mind plagued with constantly shifting thoughts, like a monkey leaping wildly from tree to tree.”

    Source: WILLPOWER (pp. 77-78)

    Here is Drew Carey’s description of his desk before GTD:

    “I have self-control in some ways, but not in others,” Carey says. “It depends on what’s at stake. I just got so fed up with the mess in my office. I had boxes of paperwork and a desk I couldn’t get through. Both sides of my computer were piled up with crap and old mail. You know, it was at a point where I couldn’t think. I always felt out of control. I always knew I had stuff to do. You can’t read a book and enjoy yourself because in the back of your mind you feel like, I should go through those e-mails I have. You’re never really at rest.”

    Source: WILLPOWER (p 74)

    OK, let’s piece a couple ideas together.  First, we are evolved from monkeys (hey, God had to create us through some physical mechanism, why not evolution?) so we live in hot-wired monkey brains.  Second, we have an innate propensity to attract work and paper.  Like the Peter Principle of managers being promoted to their level of incompetence, it may well be that knowledge workers attract work to the point of “monkey mind” incompetence.

    And what is insidious is that clutter organizers, just magnify the problem.  See what Mindy Starns Clark says about organizing tools:


    “I thought that getting a house organized began with buying lots of cool holders, bins, dividers, and charts and then the stuff would almost jump inside and organize itself. I didn’t know I should never buy any organizational product unless it serves a specific function in a specific place. And even then the purchase should be made only after I’ve measured for it and determined the exact size and shape of organizer I need. In fact, it wasn’t until I began researching housekeeping in earnest that I learned that most organizational products create more mess than they help to contain.”



  • Intervention #2: Get a reference filing system that is easier to use, than to not use. See: Evernote + Fujitsu ScanSnap



  • Intervention #3: Do a complete mind dump.
    • Sit down for an hour with Excel, or Paper, or Word, and write down every thought that comes to mind about anything that is out of place in your life. I typically give students 20 minutes to do this in class, which I let run for 40 minutes (the student’s don’t notice because they all have a TON of open loops in their minds).  Do it for an hour the first day, and then 20 minutes a day for the rest of the week.
    • *Note* Mind dumps are a great method to get back on the GTD wagon after you have fallen off.


    Source: Austin Kleon

  • Intervention #4: Get a copy of THE HOUSE THAT CLEANS ITSELF and read up on the author’s ideas around “stations.” In short, the method Mindy Starns Clark uses, is to let the messes build up in your house by not cleaning.  Then, get a ladder, then climb the ladder with a camera by each mess, then take pictures looking down from the ladder, then print out the pictures, and then figure out the root cause of the mess, and design stations, to prevent the root cause from recurring. “Stations” allow you to do 100% of a job in one place, without having to make side trips to get materials or tools. In our new house, I’m going to build a charging station by the front door or the garage door once I figure out which door I’ll usually use. In the apartment I had a charging station by my desk, which was great for getting the devices on the teat, but not so good for taking them off before I left for school
    • The concept of “stations” resonates in harmony with GTD. Much of the GTD methodology itself can be decomposed into stations. The desk is a station. The phone is a station. Agendas for conversations with important people, are mental stations for future conversations.




After you have lived with GTD for three months, then try reading further into the book.  GTD is a puzzle, you need to start with the corner pieces of the puzzle (GTD chapters 1, 2, and 3) and then get the pieces assembled.  Once you have the basics down, you can move deeper into all the habits of GTD.
Hope this helps you get started with GTD!  Comment or email if you have any questions!

bill (“the” GTD excommunicatee :-) meade

Top 10 GTD Tips For Moving


Having just about completed my second move since starting GETTING THINGS DONE (GTD hereafter) 3 years ago, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on how great GTD is in facilitating a move.  Bottom line, applying GTD to a move is worth 2 days of effort, cuts worry by 75%, and saves you ingesting at least a bottle, of Naproxen.

Top 10:

#10 Use Next Actions to Cull

Before you pack, go through your stuff and ask “Will this EVER have a next action?” if the answer is no, then recycle it or put it up on craigslist free.


Recycling is good, cuts about 80% of the stuff-clutter out of your life.  And, giving away is even better.  I have a hard time giving anything away that isn’t in new condition, but putting the scratch and dent stuff up will give you a great check on how blessed you are. Don’t be too proud to let someone else benefit.

I estimate the next action filter saved me moving about half my stuff and 98% of my paper reference files.

#9 Resistance Is Futile, … Reference Files MUST Be Assimilated!

If you bite the bullet now and get the Evernote pro and a scanner, you will arrive at your move’s destination, with an unbearable lightness of being … PAPERLESS!!!   Triaging your paper a month before you leave, and start scanning at least two weeks before you leave.

My example: I had 94,000 pages of paper in a monster 5 drawer SteelCase horizontal file cabinet.  I triaged every page, pulled out 20% that might have a next action (17,500 pages) and scanned every potentially useful page into Evernote in 4 days.  But, I know that it is hard to read these perfectly good words and reach a critical mass resolution to go to Amazon and buy the scanner and then to Evernote to buy the premium account.

If you are not convinced, please let me relate to you what happens in my 1.5 day GETTING STARTED WITH GETTING THINGS DONE classes when we cover reference filing.

Imagine you have arrived at my class with a box of papers that need to be scanned and put into Evernote.  Great!  I sit you down to your computer and my Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M (works on both Mac and PC) and then I say “Pick the nastiest document in your box to scan.”  You pick a 3 ringer binder from a conference you attended, pull the front cover page out, pull the contents out, remove the dividers between sections, and put the first 50 pages into the scanner.

“Wait!” I say, check the time.  It is 10:11 am.  Then, you push the scan button and the pages start feeding.  When we are 30 pages through the 50 in the ScanSnap, we put another 30 pages into the ScanSnap so it will put all the pages into one continuous file. Repeat as the next 30 pages feed, and the next, and the next, and the next, and the next. Now the binder is scanned.

Once the entire binder is through the scanner and the Fujitsu driver has gone back to sleep, we look at the clock.  Let’s see: time is 10:15 am.  Fear of scanning 0, data, 1!  This is the sufficient experiment I use to help people  produce the data they need to evaluate for themselves, the value-in-use of scanning (Shout out to you Paulina!).  So far, everyone completing this exercise has had a funny “But this was easy!” look on their face, and then they’ve ordered a scanner.  And the best part is still to come.

Putting documents into Evernote.  Why is Evernote the best part?  Because if you pay your $50 a year, the day after you put a document into Evernote, the document is full-text searchable.  Now not only have you recycled all your paper, but, you’ve found a way to ACTUALLY FIND your reference materials.  Search and ye shall find.  First law of evernote.

#8 Upgrade Your Desk

A move is a great time to engage in desk hegemony.  In my first post-GTD office move, I upgraded the legs of my desk to IKEA Galant “A” legs which allowed me to tilt my desk forward and fit the desk into a smaller space in my office.  In my second post-GTD office move (Today, March 2012), I upgraded to a conference table sized desk.  Here’s the first peek.


The iMac is not on an arm yet, I have not figured out how to get goofy paper trays on the arm, but you get the idea of an even bigger mother of perfect GTD desk. Peopleware decrees that every knowledge worker should have 30 square feet of desk space in their office.  This gets me a lot closer to 30 square feet.

#7 Look for GTD-Furniture-Bricolage

I think of this as “furniture like water”.  When you are in a home, in a routine, it is just culturally normal in the USA to think of furniture solely in terms of “What’s the next piece of furniture we need?”  When you are moving, your mind can open up to new possibilities as a result of having new thoughts like:  “I have too much furniture?!” But the very best part of furniture and moving, is GTD-bricolage.

One GTD bricolage that has been FANTASTIC for me, is when I realized the shelves in a Home Depot purchased organizer, fit into the ancient TV entertainment center where the stereo used to be.  This allowed me to put my large format Epson R1800 printer behind the dividers where the TV used to be, and all the ink and paper for the printer in the organizer behind the smoked glass, and over size paper in the entertainment center’s drawers.  People are getting rid of entertainment centers these days, they can be used for a lot of organizing, setting up stations to keep clutter out of sight.  I’ll add a picture of the entrainment print center once it is moved next week.

#6 Upgrade Your Bed

Beth and I have used a waterbed for 26 years.  Our bed gets an upgrade every time we move it (5 times so far).  This move, I upgraded the bed by making it into modules that could be assembled more quickly.  And then, once the bed was up, I drilled cable run holes through the headboards on the attached dressers.  I have no clue how I could have not thought of drilling cable holes long before now.  Now I’ve got a slick simple solution that cost $4 (Ikea Signum cable outlet kit).  Again, pictures soon.

#5 Next Action The Garage

You know you’ve been postponing doing this for 15 years.  Or at least, I was.  But a month before the movers descend on your house, have some pride, and make a “Will there ever be a next action?” pass on your garage.  This takes a lot less time than you think.  It took me three hours.  It takes my students no more than four hours.  TECHNICALLY this was covered in point #10.  But the layers of procrastination build up into a coral reef when it comes to garages.  Don’t be like me and wait 15 years to do 3 hours of work.  Just do it!

#4 Use Open-Topped Boxes

The kinds of boxes typically used for moving conceal too much information.  If you go to CostCo first thing in the morning, you can get the cardboard fruit cases (which have nice thick handles) and then pack them by station where the stuff was organized.  When you have open-topped boxes, it is easy to see what the box’s destination is.  I think you get about the same amount of stuff loosely packed in a fruit case, as you do in a standard moving box.

D3M 3221

Open topped boxes 100% sourced from CostCo for free

#3 Or, Use Your Label Maker to Make Labels As You Pack Boxes.

If you follow my advice and get a label printer, you can make a label in 10 seconds.  If you follow David Allen’s advice and get a slow alpha numeric labeler, you can make a label in a minute.

#2 Make Floor plan Of the New Dwelling

And number each room.  If you can get nothing else done, label the boxes by the room that is their destination.  Bonus points for putting up a map on the wall so that your movers or (like us) helpers from church, can easily see the location of the room number of boxes as they walk into the house.

#1 Build Two New “Stations” When You Land

Stations hark back to the most excellent THE HOUSE THAT CLEANS ITSELF.  A station is an organized work area that allows a specific job to be done without side trips for materials or tools.  The two stations I’m gong to build at our new home are: First, a charging station by the front door for phone, bluetooth headset and iPad.  And, second, a station to organize the UPS, cable modem, router, NAS, etc. in a convenient spot (at waist height or better) but, out of sight.


bill meade




GTD Anchor #1: Reference Filing



What do I mean by “reference filing?”

Glad you asked!  There are two components to my reference filing system: Evernote, and the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500.


Evernote is document storage and synchronization infrastructure.  Pay $50 a year for a premium account, then install Evernote’s client software on as many Macs or PCs as you want, and all the documents in Evernote will be synchronized across all your computers without you having to take any actions.  Evernote could be described as a means of providing “working backup” where your Evernote store is used on each of your computers, so you are testing your backups whenever you switch machines.

Key features of Evernote in decreasing priority value are:

  1. Full text search.  Pictures, Word files, plain PDF files, and even some hand-written scans, are processed once a day so that the documents become full text searchable.  Once you start using full text search, you tend to do much less organizing of documents into notebooks, because documents become so easy to find via keyword search and tagging.
  2. Friction-free capture of (advertising-free) web pages.  <== Turns Evernote into short term memory for me.
  3. Keyword searching.
  4. Tagging.
  5. Friction-free synchronization.
  6. Cross computer availability of all mission-critical documents.
  7. Remote access to documents.  Evernote has a cloud component, so you can be at an internet cafe, decide you want to print a document, and then log in to your Evernote account, download the file and print it.

Some people have their entire GTD system in Evernote.  Not me.  When I first started doing GTD I put my entire life into OmniFocus, and my brain hated the one-electronic-system-to-rule-them-all solution.  I could not sit down at my desk and use OmniFocus after I had entered every open loop.  Welcome to my first “off the GTD wagon” experience. Since then, I’ve been iteratively refining my GTD trusted system, keeping it as simple as possible, but no simpler.

I use Evernote purely for reference filing (purple region 3 in the following figure).  Evernote has several nagging weaknesses: (1) it does not search within all file types, (2) It does not have a simple highlighting function.  Lack of a highlighting function causes me to read documents in PDF form, highlighting them in PDF, and then emailing them to Evernote, and using Evernote just to recall documents and original source web pages.

EvernoteReferrence 1

Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500

I can’t say enough about this little machine.  It enabled paperless reference filing, via Evernote.  It folds up into a very small package.  It scans fast enough that a 150 pages scan, in under five minutes.  I strongly encourage you to at least go to Amazon and look.

Here is my sales pitch on selling you on buying a scanner:

  • In under a week, you can be paperless via Evernote and the ScanSnap S1500.  I started with 94,000 pages in December 2010 and in 4 days, I had recycled the entire 94,000 pages.
    • Once you are paperless in Evernote, you will discover that you can “find” documents you never would have bothered to look for, while the document was in paper.  I’ve found old newspaper articles that were handed out to me as a student, and then forwarded them to my students.
    • When was the last time you could find any document that you knew you had?  You can be there again with Evernote and a ScanSnap.
  • There are four tricks to guaranteed scanner success:
    • First, go through all your papers and sort them into boxes labeled “Recycle” and “Scan.”  When in doubt, put the paper into your “Scan” box.  Once you pre-sort, you will know which scanner to buy.
    • Second, buy the right scanner for the amount of paper you need to scan.  If you have less than 500 pages you can buy the slightly cheaper ScanSnap S1300.  I did this at first when implementing Evernote.  I found that the S1300 with its 12 page paper bin, and slow speed, was just too clunky to get it done with my piles of paper.  If you have 400 pages to scan and a doubt about buying a slower unit, or, if you have 501 pages to scan, then you are crazy not to buy the ScanSnap iX500.
    • Third, as soon as the scanner arrives, take it out of the box and put it on your desk.
    • Fourth, once the scanner is on your desk, call your friend “Bill” the gadget guy and tell him what is on your desk.
  • Remember “Meade’s Law” which is “Buy the best, only cry once.”
    • I was lucky and a friend offered to buy my ScanSnap S1300, I warned him that he’d be happier with the iX500 but he insisted.  By the way, “Thank you Steve!”
    • For most people with a bureaucratic residue of disorganization, the Fujitsu iX500 is going to be the happiest, highest-utility long run solution.
  • If you’ve read this far, ask yourself, “How long have I been thinking that a scanner ‘might be useful’?  If you have been thinking about this for longer than a month, the time is now to GET YOURS. You won’t regret it.

What happens next?

One you have a reference filing system, you have an anchor set solidly into improved organization.  Whenever your fall off the wagon with GTD, no matter what, your reference filing system will be in ever increasing order.  Evernote and the ScanSnap make it easier to be organized, than to be disorganized.  Once you have an anchor in improving your organization, you have a home base to work out from as you refactor your life to incorporate more effectiveness and more efficiency.

If anyone has had great experiences with other scanners, please post what scanner you have (make and model), how long you’ve used it, what the one best thing about it is, in the comments to this post?

Thank you!

bill meade