The Gregory Jay Blog


I've been doing GTD for over 10 years now and I feel like writing about it but I'm having trouble decideing why I should write about it. Am I trying to convince the reader to use GTD? I don't think so, that would make little difference to me. Though I do recommend GTD to those interested in getting more done and feeling good while doing it. I'm obviously not writing this for views or money - there are no affiliate links or ads on my site and I don't even have a like button or view counter. I suppose then I am writing this for myself, as a snapshot of where my understanding and implementation of GTD is at at this moment in time. As you will read, my system has changed a lot over the years and I'm sure it will continue to change in the future. It will be good to look back and read this in 10 years time.


Everything I've achieved in the past 12 years I owe to GTD, it has been the one constant driving force in my life, pushing me towards my goals and setting me back on track when I fall away from them.
Without GTD I doubt I would have finished my four year degree in two years. I probably wouldn't be fluent in Chinese, or have payed off my house so quickly. I certainly wouldn't have taught myself to code or gotten my first job after graduating (it ws the coding that got me the job.) I wouldn't have learned Tibetan or decided to homeschool my son...the list goes on.
It's not that these things would have been unachievable without GTD, plenty of people have achieved more without it, it's that I wouldn't have been able to do these things without it.

What is GTD?

In case you haven't heard of GTD, GTD or Getting Things Done is a time management system created by David Allen. It describes a precise process to follow to make progress and ultimatley complete any task, goal or project regardless of it's size, scope and complexity. I use it for things as simple as reminding myself to buy more steak or for things as complicated as my work projects involving many people from different departments situated all over the world - everything is treated the same way and everything gets done.
Everything gets collected into one place in the GTD workflow, which means everything you need to do is all in one place, you don't have to worry that there are unfinished tasks in your email inbox or or that thing you needed to do but can't quite remember what it was or remembering to help John with the report he asked for - Everything goes into 'collection.'
From collection you decide what you need to achieve and what the next action is. If I collected the word 'hard drive' I would need to decide what my desired result was i.e. to get a drive to back up my photos. Then decide the next action, which may not be to buy the drive. Here my next action would probably be to check the size of my photos folder so I would know how big a drive I needed.
Actions, once defined are either done, delegated or put onto a list to be done when later. I would put 'Check Photo Folder Size' onto my computer list (if I didn't have access to my computer at the time.)
Although GTD does include a lot more than this simple summary, such as projects, areas of focus, goals and objectives, lists, calendars etc. This is the bare bones of GTD's task management workflow. If you're interested to learn more of what GTD has to offer, pick up David's book: Getting Things Done: the are of stress-free time management. Or (the even better) Making it All Work (I like to listen to the audio book version.)

Life is Messy

The main reason I like GTD and get on so well with it is because I am terrible at using GTD. I forget to collect tasks, don't put them onto the right list or just stop using the system for a week or two for no real reason. But GTD accounts for that, life is messy and a system that forces too strict a framework is destined to fail or create a really anal person.
When my system becomes a mess or if I stop using it for a few days and have tasks and idea hanging about in my mind, untracked, there is a simple process to get quickly back 'on.' Having falling off the GTD wagon so many times I can now get back on in 10 or 15 minutes.
Getting back on only requires collecting all the rogue tasks and ideas that have been floating about uncollected in 'the morass of the subconcious' and collecting them in one place. I don't even have to do them! But having them all in one place categorized and waiting for me gives me an instant feeling of clarity as my mind gets freed up from trying to track all these tasks.

The Extended Mind

Having all of your thoughs, ideas and things to do all stored in an external system has some other benefits. Being able to quickly see all the things you want to get done in a certain context in your hands right in front of you allows you to analyse and and actually think about what these tasks mean to you or how you should go about doing them or how they relate to one another. The result can be some very different decision making!
Try doing the same thing without a system, thinking about all of your work tasks at once, realting them to each other and analysing and making decisions - it's impossible. Our heads just can't hold that much information at once. Studies say you can hold between 4-7 items in short term memory at once and this is if your straining, but your mind has no capacity left to do anything else but hold them there. David says "The mind is for having ideas, not for holding them."
Understanding the power of having an extended mind inevitably leads GTD'ers to find which is the best method for creating a GTD system. Pen and paper, software, apps, online etc there are hundreds of solutions and over the years I have used many of them. Over the years though the vehicle I use to do GTD has become less and less important to the point now that I just use plain text files.
Originally I was using an app 'things' on IOS (this was back in 2008) but I found myself wanting access to my tasks on my computer at work which was where all my work was done. I switched to 'toodledo' because it had both an app and an in-browser front end. I used this set up for a few years. using my phone when I was away from my computer but still having access at work or home on different computers via the browser.
It was around this time that security starting to become very important to me. I was working for a biotech company in the IT department and so security was always a concern at work, I had to start incorporating those principals into my personal life. I de-googled myself, de-dropboxed, de-evernoted and de-everything else'd that was holding my data. Finally it dawned on me that I couldn't keep using toodledo if I wanted to make security a priority. I went to pen and paper and actually quite enjoyed it, the speed of writing on a pice of paper is noticible compared to pulling out a phone, unlocking it, opening an app and typing with my thumbs. However eventually it was the issue of collecting on paper that put me back on track to go digital.
Anytime I have an idea I write it down to process later, which meant alwys having a pen and pad around. That wasn't a problem as I always had my system which was in a filofax anyway, the problem was how to collect all these pieces of paper with ideas on them. At first I just used my bag as an inbox but over time I found that the bottom of my bag would just be covered in scraps of paper and I didn't want to go through them. Or times when I wasn't carrying a bag they would go into a pocket or on my desk and the system just fell apart.

Back to Digital

So I worked out what I wanted and set out to find it. What I wanted was a system that was:

Stored locally
Syncable to all my devices
In an open format so that I could easily import into some other system in the future

I found todo.txt, a free and open source format for creating todo lists in text files. It was exactly what I needed! As long as I conformed to the todo.txt structure, I could use any compatible app or software to access my system and what was more I could easily sync a text file accross all my devices (I use syncthing for this.)
Over time I realised that there was more I could with an extended mind in a text file. I can use any text editor to manage my system on any device. I can use dedicated apps on my phone or software on my computers. I can also write my own software to do exactly what I want with the system. This, in my opinion is the greatest benefit of using a plain text file. I can write functionality into software that most GTD apps don't have. Such as knowing how many and which projects don't have current tasks (which means I've not got anything pushing me towards completion of the project.) I can also track my completed tasks to see patterns in when I am getting things done.
I have my computer list automatically updated on my desktop using conky. I have the number of unprocessed tasks constantly on my taskbar so I know when my inbox is getting too full. I'm also able to incorperate my projects, Areas of Focus and Goals into my system in a way that most GTD apps fail to do well. I can do this by using multiple files and pulling them all together with a single piece of software.
I was surfing the GTD website when I came accross some sketches David Allen had made of his ideal GTD app. Drawn in the early 90's much of what he wanted back then is the same as what I had wanted to implement. It was all the inspiration I needed to take my text files to the next level and create a simple script to have constant access to all the functions I could want from my laptop and desktop. As Dmenu is so small, fast and simple to script with I decided to use it as the interface between me and my text files. I created a menu system based on David's requirements and added in all the functionality I needed. Within a week I had exactly what I wanted.

My Dmenu driven GTD script can be found on my github at

Greg is a true Sinophile, fluent in Chinese and proficient in Tibetan he is a homeschooling Dad that also consults on the side. You'll often find him cigar in mouth, book in hand, waiting for someone to finish their work or for the coffee to brew.