GTD, Personal Finance Style

I’ve been a long-time fan of GTD, an action management method that relies on the idea that a person succeeds when they get tasks out of their mind and get them recorded somewhere, freeing their mind for actually doing stuff instead of merely storing lists. When I saw this brilliant hacking of a Moleskine notebook for GTD, I knew I had to write up how I use GTD to manage my personal finances and the craziness in my life. In some ways, it’s similar to the GTD Moleskine hack; in other ways, it’s quite different.

What is GTD?
GTD is short for Getting Things Done. It’s a methodology of personal organization in which individuals record lists of action items rather than remembering them, freeing the mind to actually focus on completing tasks. As a general rule, priorities aren’t really all that important with GTD; what’s more important is breaking things down into manageable small tasks, listing these tasks, and knocking them off the list one by one.

There are five core principles to GTD:

Collect: Whenever you think of something you need to do, write it down in your “inbox,” which is just a list of tasks to be completed.

Process: When you are ready to start completing tasks, start at the top of the inbox with the first un-done item. Deal with one item at a time until they’re done. Dealing with them can mean defining it as a project (it’s a complicated task with many subtasks), delegating it to someone else, or deferring it to later. If you defer it until later, add it to your inbox again along with a clear reason for why it was deferred. I usually just do this deferment once a day, because I often have to skip around my inbox to get tasks done.

Organize: Allen suggests several possible lists for you to use to keep the inbox organized. I mostly just do one of two things with items I can’t handle immediately: define them as projects (which I’ll explain later) or defer them (add to the end of the inbox with an explanation of the deferment). Allen also recommends a detailed filing system for any documentation.

Review: Go through the remnants of your inbox and your project list at least once a day so you can review what you need to get done.

Do: Do stuff. This system is meant to be easy.

Three little pieces
For my purposes, I’ve basically reduced the GTD system down to three basic elements.

The Inbox This is basically a list of things I need to get done. I just keep it as a checklist and check off things when they’re done. At the end of the day, I review it by drawing a thick line at the bottom, adding tomorrow’s date below that, and deferring what I need to defer onto the next day’s tasks.

The Projects For ongoing tasks that require many sub-tasks to complete, I add a page in my Project notebook for it. It just names the project at the top and has a list of sub-tasks that I need to do under it. I keep a blank line or two under each task, because quite often these need to be deferred for a while, so I use this space to write an explanation why. Each day, I review my ongoing projects and decide what the next sub-task I need to accomplish is. This keeps me going on larger tasks like buying a home or learning something new.

Datebook Any task that needs to be done on a certain day or time goes in my datebook. The datebook takes priority over the inbox every time.

Two little notebooks
I handle these three items with two little notebooks.

The first one is a Moleskine Pocket Ruled Notebook. At the start of the notebook, I maintain my inbox. About halfway through, I have a thick bookmark that marks the start of my projects; each project has a page devoted to it. I use the built-in ribbon to mark my place in the inbox, usually the place of the last “undone” item. Pretty easy, isn’t it? I find this easier than maintaining separate notebooks for each. Ideally, I’d like to have a Moleskine with two bookmark ribbons rather than the one ribbon; then, I could have one at my place in the inbox and another at the start of the projects.

The second one is a Moleskine Large Daily Planner. This is my dayplanner, which includes only tasks that have to be completed on a certain day. I also add such tasks as paying bills a week before their due date, buying gifts a week before a birthday or an anniversary, and so on. The dayplanner is compact and makes it easy for me to record such things as birthdays and such in a year calendar that fills up the first few pages.

These two notebooks basically take care of my implementation of GTD. I also keep a third Moleskine for an idea diary, which basically just lists things I want to think about. These often jump into action items that I place in my inbox.

Using this system for personal finance tasks
You’re probably wondering how I use this system for personal finance, right? Here are five examples of how I use this system for basic financial tasks.

Paying a bill
When I get a bill in the mail, I just add it to my daily planner about a week before it is due, indicating how much it is and which bill it is. That day, I just pay it and mark it off in my daily planner. Done.

Going grocery shopping
Each week, I add a new project entitled “Weekly Shopping Trip (date range).” I also have an entry on my dayplanner for the day to go grocery shopping (which is every Saturday). On this project page, I just add things I notice that I need to get at the store; it’s much like a traveling grocery list. We also maintain a grocery list on the refrigerator door. When the shopping day comes, I take both lists to the store.

Regular financial chores
I have these as a project entitled “Financial chores.” These include rebalancing my portfolio, reviewing some individual stocks, calculating and charting my net worth, and a general review of spending and saving. I do these on a regular basis, but not every day or every week. I add these to my inbox when it comes close to the time to do them, because they’re not required to be done on a certain day.

Investment ideas
I usually start off recording these in my idea diary. I then go through my idea diary and do a bit of research. If it looks good, I figure out an action plan of some sort and either add it as a project or as a single to-do to my inbox.

Planning for a home purchase
This is a major project that has tons of sub-tasks, so this project actually takes up three pages. I just keep slogging through the tasks, transferring them to my inbox as I go through the list of tasks for that project.

My version of the GTD system helps me keep my finances in place. It encourages me to keep my eye on the ball and not let my finances run away from me. It also enables me to keep all of the crazy tasks in my life under some semblance of control.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.