Posted by: Liz Massey | October 13, 2009

Clutter-busting by … Getting Things Done (GTD)

584708_69243477Photo courtesy SXC.

It’s an artistic stereotype that creative people are “disorganized.” Anyone who’s spent time around successful artists will probably notice that they are anything but. Unconventionally organized, perhaps, but most creatively productive folks have some sort of system to help them stay on top of their art-making, the business side of their vocation, and their family and social commitments.

If you are casting about for an organizing framework, one of the bigger names in systematizing these days is the Getting Things Done (GTD) system, developed by David Allen. Allen created GTD while piloting a productivity seminar for a thousand managers at Lockheed in 1983. His system has grown into an information empire, and adherents consider it a powerful method to manage commitments, information, and communication.

The heart of Allen’s system is the concept that lists of all the things that need to get done must be put into a logical and trusted system outside of one’s head. The key, once that’s been accomplished, is to have the discipline to make decisions about all the “inputs” in one’s life, so there will always be a plan for the next actions to take, although those plans can be renegotiated at any time.
GTD mandates five stages to workflow on any project:
1.    Collect all inputs—especially those hanging out inside your head. Get them on paper or in the computer!!
2.    Process the inputs—assess whether the input requires an action or if it could be useful in the future (tickler file, reference material)
3.    Organize the results—utilize a system for tracking and moving information
4.    Review options—Look over what you could do, now that you have the proper information available at your fingertips
5.    Do—take action if it’s a priority, time/energy is available, and the context makes sense

Allen’s book provides comprehensive information about how to put the GTD system to work. (You can also read this nice synopsis of the book from WikiSummaries.)

What does GTD offer artists and creative people?

You may be wondering what all this left-brain sounding activity can do to benefit those living the creative life. One of the best explanations I’ve found comes out of the mouth of musician/writer/speaker and website creator Merlin Mann. He was interviewed for Lifehacker blog a few years ago, and here’s what he had to say about artists and freelancers using the GTD system:

“In my experience, GTD can work really well for almost anyone who primarily has to manage themselves.

“So many careers — whether consulting, programming, sales, writing, or even art and music — are basically a black box to the people who are paying the tab. They hire you for your skills and then understandably expect you to take care of all the sausage-making that makes the magic happen. … Ditto in spades for freelancers and the self-employed. Having a theoretically unlimited amount of time to do a theoretically unlimited number of projects is fun for about ten minutes, and then you basically feel like your staring into an abyss.

“GTD provides a sufficiently transparent and flexible framework to allow people with a huge array of interests and careers to provide a shape to the formerly inchoate. Whether you’re making sculptures or filling out invoices, you’ll benefit from a system that keeps you focused on the best use of your time and creativity.”

A visual artist who’s found GTD to be useful is Aisling D’Art, who struggles with Allen’s book but finds following the system makes her to-do lists, well, doable.

“It’s not easy reading (Allen’s book). Not for me, anyway… (But) it’s already making a huge difference in how much I’m getting done. More importantly, it’s given me more focus for my creative projects. And, it’s given me a way of creating to-do lists that I can actually complete, even when unexpected things come up and divert my attention.”

What works about GTD

I will come clean here—I am not a GTD adherent; I am offering this post as a window into an organizing system that has a lot of support and documentation available, since many folks find that helpful. With that said, here’s what I like about GTD’s five steps:

Any system that encourages “getting it out of your head” has done at least one thing right. Our brains can only hold a limited amount in our working memory and ideas and creative inspirations are competing with your grocery list, your e-mail inbox and your phone messages list. Finding an appropriate holder for information as it comes at you is crucial to actually finding it when you want to act on it.

GTD forces you to step back and evaluate inputs, rather than reacting solely on an input’s perceived “urgency.” We’ve all heard the advice, “Never let the urgent crowd out the important,” but it’s difficult to practice this in real time. GTD’s middle three steps force one to figure out the proper response to the input and if immediate (or eventual) action is really the best option.

Flexibility of response is built-in. GTD goes beyond just making a to-do list, or several to-do lists. The review phase just before the “do” phase allows one to consider several options, and doesn’t make ACTING the be-all and end-all. This focus allows one to take the right action, rather than seeing acting as right under all circumstances.

What doesn’t work about GTD

Of course, not everyone—artistic or not—is a fan of GTD. Jamie Grove, writing in 2007 on the assertively named How Not to Write Blog, mentions that co-workers at his tech-savvy workplace had embraced GTD, but he had not. For him, the joy of the flow of writing trumps any worries about productivity or process. This is how he explains his stance:

“I haven’t got it in me to prioritize anymore. I don’t want to get things done. I just want a long, uninterrupted think, and maybe a cigarette (even though I don’t smoke). I’ll keep to my scatterbrained ways and think about the flock of robins that landed in my front yard and wonder just what the hell they were all doing together.

“Writing, even structured writing, takes me away from all that process oriented crap. It’s takes me away from the if-then mentality of the workaday world. It is my salvation.”

Another on-point critique of GTD, ironically, comes from Andrew Flusche, an ardent lover of the Getting Things Done system. He says he’s writing tongue in cheek in this 2007 post on his Legal Andrew blog, but his complaints—that there are too many books, blogs, indexes, software packages and Moleskine notebooks out there to help you successfully organize your life via GTD—actually hold some sway, if you ask me. I’m very suspicious of any system that requires me to invest in lots of paraphernalia before I even begin to sort through my piles—but then again, I was the girl who had the local printer make up my high school graduation announcements and headlined them with the Thoreau quote, “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”

Resources for artists getting started with GTD

GTD Times
Official blog of Allen and the business he has built around the system.

Getting started with Getting Things Done
From Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders blog, which discusses the usefulness of various productivity techniques.

Massive GTD Resource List
From Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits blog. Leo is a writer who is a huge fan of GTD.

GTD Drawings
A blog by (male) artist Joan M. Mas, with the tagline, “because getting organized should be attractive.” Illustrations and tips for using GTD.

GTD Toolbox: 100+ Resources for Getting Things Done
A list with lots of GTD-related apps you can download.

The questions to you

Do you use GTD or another formal system to organize your life? How does your organizational system impact your ability to make art and/or be creative when you want to be?


  1. […] of us have been exposed to popular time management/organizational programs, such as GTD, Steven Covey’s “First Things First,” etc. Many methods, developed to boost […]

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