How to Customize GTD to Fit Your Life


Dave Allen’s wildly popular, Getting Things Done system is great to stay organized. It achieves the goal of storing information, tasks and commitments so your brain doesn’t have to. Ever since I began working with the system the burden to my memory has gone down substantially.

The only problem is that GTD isn’t for everyone. Initially I found Dave’s system to be too large to meet my needs. I rarely used many of his suggestions for folders, calendars and planners. And when a system doesn’t get used, you stop checking it. When you stop checking it, you go back to using your memory and end up where you started.

My friend Leo over at ZenHabits offered another alternative which he called ZTD. I lean more towards using Leo’s system, but even that is insufficient. What you really need is some ideas to customize a system to fit your life, not Dave’s, Leo’s or mine.

Step One – Identify Information to Track

What kind of information do you need to keep track of regularly? To-do items? Project lists? Routine actions to perform? Commitments in the future? All of these? The first step is to identify what kind of information you need to track with your system.

Here’s just a few categories of information you might want to consider. I’d recommend starting with the essentials. Tracking too much information can pollute what’s important.

  • Next actions in projects
  • To-do items
  • Routine actions to perform
  • Future commitments
  • Scheduled activities
  • Goals and deadlines
  • Information (books, reports, memos to be read later)
  • Interests

Step Two – Create the Fewest Containers Possible

The key to an effective organizing system is to have as few containers as possible, that can still hold everything you need. A GTD-esque system requires you to check it regularly or it isn’t reliable. With less containers to check, you are more likely to check them frequently.

With your list of information sources to track, decide which of these containers you could use frequently:

  • To-Do Lists
  • Calendars
  • Daily Goals
  • Long-Range Goals
  • Day Planner
  • Various Folders/Binders

After a bit of introspection and experimentation I’ve found that to-do lists, a calendar, goals-binder and a few folders work best for me. Pick as few containers as possible that will still cover your information streams.

Step Three – Add a Notepad

There’s one container that needs to be added in any system, this is a notepad and pencil you carry with you everywhere. Even if your system covers 90% of your information streams immediately, having an input notepad will help you out if you are away from your computer or desk.

Step Four – Digital or Not?

With the explosion of new technologies to handle organizing and time-management, should you go digital or stick with paper and pen? I’ve used both and I can say each has its advantages. You’ll want to base your decision on a couple of factors:

  • Access to Computers/Internet – If you’re like me and surrounded by technology all the time, digital might work better. But if you need to make frequent trips away from computers, paper and pen are probably best.
  • Flexibility of Design – Some computer programs can give you more flexibility than their paper alternatives. I find Google Calendar’s easy functions that can store dates, times and locations far better than the wall-hanging variety. But I’ve also tried many goal-setting programs that are too complicated and lack the vividness of putting pencil to paper.
  • Heavy Pockets – With web-based productivity apps, you can access your information anywhere you have internet. Paper solutions might mean more carrying on trips. Then again, paper solutions are still often lighter than a laptop if you need to haul all your digital equipment just to keep up.

Step Five – Tweak the System

Once you’ve got a basic system, the work is almost over. The next step is to fine-tune it. I don’t believe this fine tuning leads to any huge gains in productivity. But if you routinely find holes where your containers are leaking information, you need a tweak.

Here’s a question for you: What system do you use? Do you have a full GTD system or a slimmed down one like myself? Perhaps you have something even more exotic you’d like to share.

  • Basu

    i just write things down on a scrap of paper and put them down in Gcal each night. I don’t bother with a to-do list or anything else.
    BTW, do use a PDA or anything like that?

  • CSS

    I’m pretty happy with the customized system I created after reading Getting Things Done. I have a Circa PDA notebook from Levenger that I carry with me all the time. From that, I can move notes to my writing journal or enter them into Toodledo, my main task list. Everyday I copy from Toodledo what I need to do for just that day, so I can carry that list with me everywhere. I also use Google Calendar, though I don’t have many date-sensitive to-dos. Great post; I also felt that GTD wasn’t quite right for me until I started tweaking it.

  • ZHereford

    Scott, I agree with you that you have to tailor a system to suit your individual needs.

    I try to keep things as simple as possible i.e. a calendar, to-do list and a planner. For bills and upcoming appointments I have a folder/filing system.

  • Yynatago

    “I don’t believe this fine tuning leads to any huge gains in productivity.”

    Fine tuning does a great job in improving the efficiency of your system, enabling you to organize more things in less time.

  • ZHereford

    p.s. I’m so organized I screwed up my link in the above post!
    The correct one is here. 🙂

  • Iair

    “Perhaps you have something even more exotic you’d like to share” made me think about “Bruce Almigthy” post-it solution… (Remember? The movie… Jim Carrey, mmm).

  • Addy

    I’m still working on my system. GTD was too complicated and ZTD was too simple. My biggest problem is managing information that is needed for projects including reference information and deadlines. I can NOT multi-task and online applications aren’t helpful with the way I work. Things that do work: my calendar that I drew in my moleskine, notecards, and folders. I also have filing system for reference material. Obviously, I’m a paper-person but not everything can be offline– such as the websites I work on.

  • Dave

    My basic system is a to-do list and notepad and pencil but the main problem I find is simply remembering to check my lists.

    Simple system and simple problem. But most things in life ARE simple.

    Scott, I find your articles very thought provoking. Keep up keeping on up.

  • Saurabh Tomar

    I use Freemind (an open source mind mapping tool), for planning the goals and also to break them down to ‘next actions/to-dos’. I have created separate nodes for all the bullet points that are on my job Description, and can focus on achieving results on each of them ( I am HR Manager and most of my work includes taking new and creative HR initiatives to address various areas of my responsibilities) Freemind max has feature to setup reminders also. With this mind mapping tool, i can keep an eye on my long term goals as well as day-to-day tasks.

    When I am away from my laptop, if something pops up in mind, i send my self an email (through my windows mobile Cingular 8525) with “Action” in subject line, my Outlook on laptop automatically ‘Flags’ it and sets a followup reminder of one day (it is done through ’email rules’ in Outlook) and then it filters the email into a ‘search folder’ titled “For Followup”.

    For errands like Shopping list etc i use ‘Tasks’ feature on my windows mobile, that way while shopping as i pick the articles from the shelves, i quickly mark the items as done, and then can see only the active items.

  • Sarvesh Patil

    I use a notebook to write everything down. If my notebook is not with me. I take notes in my cellphone and copy it in notebook when I get home.

    I have a…
    1. “Later list”,
    2. Goals list and
    3. Todo lists.

    I use flash cards for todo list.
    The current goal im working on is always tapped on the wall until it is completed.
    And I use simplegtd.Com to handle my someday/maybe/later list.

    I keep my appointments on the smartphone calender. I have another calender on my table which I use to cross of each day I did my goal. “keep the chain going” thingy.

    Basically my notebook, my todo list and my smartphone are the things that keep me organized and help me get things done.

  • Chris Yeung

    I outlined my GTD implementation in a post here:

    It’s called the HipRock and consists of:
    1) ThinkingRock
    2) A Modified PocketMod
    3) Calendar (cell phone)

  • Lela

    I’m not too high tech, but I do love my Excel, so I downloaded the list manager here:…, and then added my own sheets as needed. In working on charity fundraisers, I find the Waiting For list to be a lifesaver. I also just finished putting all my family’s birthdays on my call list and errant list (to buy and send cards!). I also wrote a macro to sort by date so that every time I add something, or push it off, I can re-sort the list quickly. Then every day I copy everything for that day onto a Daily list. (I can’t let go of my daily list!) It’s all been a lifesaver.

  • Prescott

    Thanks for the info on this. This is a great blog and I am pleased to read the posts and articles. Keep up the great work and informative shares.

  • july

    May I thank you for adding that startling info. I have learned a lot from it. Running a home office is very challenging. Since I use Chandler “Running-To-Do-Lists” in my business too, I have the advantage to be more organized in fulfilling my daily errands and thus my day does not feel so stressful and packed. In order to stay organized with my emails too, I use Email Sorter Wizard, a MS Outlook add-in. Using Email Sorter Wizard is like having a personal email assistant that takes care of a cluttered inbox and gets everything organized.

  • Amit Chaudhary

    I use some apps for the purpose.
    1. Google calendar:
    – Exams, deadlines, classes and everything related to dates.

    2. Notepad:
    I have an app called notepad in android thats simple to use. Every idea, links, names is stored there. It acts as a draft.

    This web app allows us to bookmark sites by just adding infront of the url. I save urls in mobile to refer back later.

    4. Koalcat’s clear:
    I store all my todos here. Its all gesture based and very simple to use.

    This works very well for me.