Managing time vs managing attention: harnessing the power of Getting Things Done

by Alison Hill

Have you ever woken at three in the morning remembering that you didn’t make that phone call you promised you would? Or had a great idea for the account you’re working on while on the bus to work, which you then promptly forget?

Our minds are simply not all that good at remembering stuff. They chatter away about irrelevancies at inconvenient times, and can’t keep track of all the things we have to remember. Making a to-do list is a huge help, and a great start, but it’s not a full solution. That’s why I was intrigued to discover a system for organising everything we have to do called Getting Things Done, or GTD®.

GTD® was ‘invented’ by David Allen, who wrote a book called Getting Things Done: the art of stress-free productivity way back in 2002. Although it’s been called ‘one of the most influential business books of its era’, I had never come across it until I saw the new, 2015 edition. I’m not a big reader of corporate how-to books (it always seems they take 300 pages to say what could have been said in 3000 words) so I’ll confess to not having read Getting Things Done. But I have spent some quite productive time reading the many websites and offshoots of the GTD® system. You can find out all about it at and at thousands of other sites. There are apps, podcasts, videos out there that will guide you to the nitty gritty.

Here are four ways in which GTD® is different – and worth your time.

  1. It’s a system for managing your attention rather than your time

You start by capturing, on paper or electronically, whatever has your attention. This gives me hope that I will get my head around what I really want to achieve rather than just getting through a list of tasks I have to do.

  1. It doesn’t separate work tasks from rest-of-life tasks

If you’re thinking, ‘I have that big meeting to prepare for and also I need to buy cat food, plus I think my bank account is overdrawn and I want to write a book’, all that is stuff that must be recorded. You don’t need a separate shopping list, project list and bucket list, you can work with it all in one system.

  1. It aims to quieten your brain and free your attention for things you really want to focus on

When you write down everything you have to do – the big things and small things; professional and personal – you no longer have to remember. This frees your mind to concentrate fully on what you are doing in the moment, leading to a big reduction in stress and increased focus on doing your best work.

  1. You can adapt it to suit your personal circumstances

Don’t like electronic diaries or lists? You can use paper. Find the whole GTD® system a bit overwhelming? Use the parts that work for you. If you work across multiple devices you can use one of the many apps that will sync all your notes and lists. You can start simply and add parts of the technique as you get better at using it.

So how does Getting Things Done work?

At its simplest level, GTD® has five steps:

  1. Capture. You collect everything that has your attention in one place. At work, this might be all your routine tasks, your special projects, priority requests and long-term professional development goals. Use an in-tray, app, notepad or voice recorder.
  2. Clarify. Analyse everything you’ve captured. Actionable items go in one place and non-actionable items are trashed, parked or filed for reference. Then you do any task that will take less than two minutes – dealing with it later wastes time. If it will take longer than two minutes, delegate it if you can, or add it to your to-do list.
  3. Organise. Put each thing where it belongs on a list, according to a system that suits you. You may have sub-lists for emails, reports, discussions and learning on your work list, for example.
  4. Reflect. Check back on your lists regularly to do what you need to do next. Review and update your lists to keep your mind clear – weekly is good.
  5. Engage. Do the things on your list with confidence that you are making the best use of your time.

This is really just touching the surface and you should definitely investigate further if you think it could help you be more organised and do more of what you enjoy. I, for one, will never use some of the techniques, such as the 43-folders system, involving 31 numbered folders for each day of the month and 12 for the months of the year. But I will be using and adapting the system to free up some mind space and find some quiet.

Our next post will be about productivity apps and helpers, including some that work with the GTD® system.

We’d love to know if you already use the GTD® system or any of its offshoots. Let us know in the comments below.