Updated on 06.22.10

Getting Things Done: Setting Up the Right Buckets

Trent Hamm

This is the seventh entry in a fourteen part series discussing the time management classic Getting Things Done by David Allen. New entries in this series will appear on Tuesday afternoons and Friday mornings through July 16.

gtdSo far, we’ve talked about two of the five major steps for getting things done: collecting all of the stuff you need to do and processing that stuff down. Today, the focus is on organizing – or where the stuff goes when you’re processing it.

Allen suggests that there are seven specific destinations for stuff when we’re processing it. Although this looks complicated, all you really need for this is a trash can, some folders, and some paper.

This is pretty straightforward. The stuff you don’t intend to keep goes in the trash can. The notes you’ve written to yourself and then processed go straight in the trash can. Envelopes? Trash can. You’d be surprised how large of a portion of your inbox goes straight into the trash can when you’re processing it.

“Maybe/Someday” refers to a collection of lists. I keep all of these in a single folder on my computer so I can easily find them.

What do I mean by this? I have a list of books I’d like to read someday. I have a list of projects I’d like to take up in the future. I have a list of people I regularly buy Christmas gifts for. I have a list of movies I’d like to view someday.

Each of these lists is just that – a computer document listing all of the items that fall under that specific category. If you prefer, of course, you can use pen and paper and a series of folders.

Whenever I have an item in my inbox that refers to a book to read or a movie to watch or a big project I’m thinking about, I add these to those lists – and I usually date them. Then, during my weekly reviews (I’ll talk about this more in the next entry in this series), I pull out these lists and look them over. I usually study the most recent entries more specifically so I can decide whether I should do something with those items right now, like request them from the library. I sometimes add notes to the items on the list, too.

Reference materials refers to things that I’m going to want to keep, like tax statements or car titles or other things like that. If I think there’s a solid chance I’m going to want to refer to such an item in the future – or if there’s a slim chance but that slim chance absolutely requires the document, I keep it.

For magazines (which we subscribe to in bulk), I’ll often just tear out the articles I want to keep over the long term and throw away the rest. I have a few file folders jammed with potential articles that I might talk about on The Simple Dollar in the future, for example, and I also have a fat folder full of recipes.

I really don’t worry too much about a filing system. I put things into folders under a name that makes sense to me and organize those folders A-Z and then 0-9. I can always find what I want pretty quickly in that scheme, with only a guess or two needed to find anything at all.

Projects and Project Support Material
Some of the things I work on are ongoing “projects” – meaning big tasks that break down into lots of pieces. For each of these “projects,” I keep a folder in a separate part of my filing cabinet. I actually have a single drawer for “projects,” to tell the truth.

Again, I organize these by A-Z and 0-9 based on the title I decide on. This makes it easy to find them when I need them. I also keep a master “project list” just for my own reference – this makes things much easier when I do my review of projects.

What’s in each folder? Whenever I conceive of a new project, I usually brainstorm big time with a sheet or two of paper in front of me, then I come up with a rough outline of what needs to be done for the project (all of the steps from beginning to end, broken down into the smallest chunks I can), with lots of spaces between the items for additional steps and notes. I usually do the outline on my computer, save it, then print it out. The brainstorming and the outline are saved in the folder.

When I do my weekly “review,” I usually update each folder (if I haven’t already during the week) and then add the next step for each project to my “next actions” list (which I’ll talk about in a bit).

There are obviously some things that require “waiting” for some unspecified time for someone else to come through for you. For example, if I’m working on a collaborative project with another writer and I send her a draft, I don’t know for sure when I’ll get a response from her.

For most of these things, I just wait for the response, but some of these things do require me to hold onto things. I just keep a “waiting” folder in amongst my projects to handle any such things.

If something needs to be done on a specific date and/or time, I add it to my calendar. My calendar is the first thing I look at each day – I maintain it with Google Calendar and it is, in fact, my browser home page.

What should go on a calendar? Allen specifies on page 142:

[There] are two basic kinds of actions: those that must be done on a certain day and/or at a particular time, and those that just need to be done as soon as you can get ot them, around your other calendared items. Calendared action items can be either time-specific (e.g., “4:00-5:00 meet with Jim”) or day-specific (“Call Rachel Tuesday to see if she got the proposal.”)

In other words, all time-specific actions should go on your calendar. Allen goes on to discuss some things that shouldn’t be on your calendar, on page 143:

What many people want to do, however, based on old habits of writing daily to-do lists, is put actions on the calendar that they think they’d really like to get done next Monday, say, but that then actually might not, and that might then have to be taken over to following days. Resist this impulse. You need to trust your calendar as sacred territory, reflecting the exact hard edges of your day’s commitments, which should be niticeable at a glance while you’re on the run.

Here’s a great example. I want to practice piano every single day, but there might be days where I’m simply not able to get around to it. Should I write the piano practice on my calendar every day? No. It should be on my “next actions” list for me to prioritize as I wish. The same is true if I want to clean the house on a given day or something like that – if I can miss it without causing devastation, it shouldn’t be on the calendar. Only the things at specific times that I can’t miss should be on the calendar.

“Next Actions”
What’s left after all of that? Surprisingly, all that’s left is the specific stuff you need to do that takes longer than two minutes (remember, you do all of the two-minutes-or-less tasks when processing it all).

For me, the “next actions” takes the form of a long list. Whenever I’m buckling down to get stuff done, whether it’s professional work or otherwise, I look through the list, pick out something, and just do it.

This is the point when the system really shines. All of the stuff above seems like a lot of overhead, but you make up for all of it and much, much more when you’re actually pushing through your pile of “next actions.” Why? Everything you need to do is right there in front of you. The only thing that matters is your next appointment, and you can set an alarm for that. Until then, the only thing on your mind is your current action. You don’t need to remember anything. If something floats into your mind, just jot it down and move on with your task.

This freedom of mind enables you to get into “the zone” (or flow state or whatever you like to call it) very easily. It turns out – and this is the big advantage of GTD – that the biggest thing that keeps people from getting into that flow state is the number of things they’re trying to keep in their head while working. If you can write it all down and have a trusted system in place where you can just toss that idea – whatever it is – and know it’s handled, then you don’t have to waste so many brain cycles keeping track of all of it.

When the system is running well for me, I can get into “the flow” for a long time every day. Without it, I would never be able to create this much material for The Simple Dollar plus all of the responsibilities of having three young children plus ongoing attempts at other endeavors. It just wouldn’t happen.

What about prioritizing? Obviously, some things on the list have a higher priority than others. The way I handle it is pretty simple. I just keep my list in a document on my computer and print it off occasionally. Before I start in with a work session (where I intend to knock several items off the list), I make an effort to roughly prioritize the list. I move the ones that I’d most like to get done up to the top so that they’re found first. That doesn’t mean I won’t change things up as I’m going along, of course; it just gives me some help as I go.

Next time, we’ll go through the fourth piece of the puzzle: a weekly review. I actually find that a weekly review (and patch-up) is perhaps the most essential part of this entire system. Without it, it would eventually fall apart.

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  1. Thomas says:

    Ahem…I believe you meant that some of those papers and all of those envelopes go into the recycling can, not the trash can. But I’m a dude who rides a bike to work – though that’s because I’m cheap and it feels good, not because I care about my gas-guzzling SUV’s emissions.

  2. Nicole says:

    I wanted to second the recycle NOT trash statement :) And just because I’m a envirohippy from a town where you get fined for throwing paper in the trash doesn’t make my point less valid!

  3. Elona_Witt says:

    I think I started to have the habit of throwing too much in the trash. I clean my room too often, and I always want to get rid of junk. I have a lot of junk but something makes me keep them and it bothers me. I do scrapbooking too, and I have tried to spend my summer so far to use up all the material, but I have summer school and I want a summer job.

    And a lot of stuff just means a fire hazard and a tough time looking for things, so I prefer to be simple.

    I had a to-do list and a calendar on my iPhone but I find it pointless to be used now because it isn’t unlock and I rather not waste the phone battery if it cannot act as a phone so far. I miss it so much :( The phone is just too pricey to be wasted. But, hopefully, the unlock and phone will be released sometime this week :)!

    Thank you for the article!

  4. Elona_Witt says:

    @Thomas That is a funny one! Yes the recycling can works. I have that separate at home!

  5. Debbie M says:

    * Trash – I’d call this “out” – trash, recycle, donate

    * Maybe/someday – I have paper file folders for things like media recommendations and fun things to do.

    I also have a wish list of stuff I’m looking for that I keep in my purse in case I’m at a library or store. I love adding things to this along with notes about prices or sizes or who recommended it.

    I also have a big list of things to do this year (more than I could actually get done, even if I didn’t add to it, which I do). I come up with 100 things at the beginning of the year and add to it. As I do the things, I not only check them off but write notes about things I’ll want to remember. This has kind of morphed into a place where I keep track of what I’ve already done each year in various categories. I was thinking of just starting with a blank slate next year and adding things as I do them, thus turning it more into an archive and removing the whole maybe/someday function.

    So this is a good time for me to think about a separate way to keep track of things I might want to do in the future without pressuring myself necessarily to do them this year.

    * Reference – I also have files for recipes, craft instructions, job and career info, etc. I might not be separating this category from the maybe/someday category in my mind.

    * Projects and project support material – I have folders for some of this stuff. But some projects have notebooks. And some have boxes or bags (like knitting supplies). And sometimes the information is with the other supplies—like the guitar songs I’m working on are in my guitar case. I think mostly I treat this stuff like reference material and am not good at deciding that certain ideas are parts of current projects I am working on right now while admitting that I am not, in fact, working on certain other projects right now and that this is okay and doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to give up forever just because I file away the stuff.

    * Waiting – I actually despise having to wait on others. Mostly, I’ve set up my life to not have to deal much with this sort of thing. When I do have to wait on someone, I’ve learned to add a tickler message in my calendar to remind them of things.

    * Calendar – I like the distinction between the calendar and a prioritized list of next actions. I like to have both a paper calendar and an electronic calendar that sends me reminders. If I start carrying around an electronic device again, I’ll be able to dispense with the paper calendar. (But the new ones don’t have real keyboards like my old Psion Revo, and I cannot be trusted not to drop them or let them get wet.)

    * Next actions – I get paper calendars with extra space outside the days so I can make lists of next actions there. When I do remember to do that for the week, I’m generally more pleased with what I accomplish. I like just picking off a few nonroutine things to focus on for the week.

  6. Michele says:

    Just wondering if everyone lists their next actions on one list?? If I remember correctly, the book had the notion of having separate lists (at home, at work, at computer, phone calls, etc.). I actually keep separate lists, but I’m not sure if it’s the best way.

  7. RealMe42 says:

    I agree about the recycling bin and donation pile being as much as part of the trash part. Every time you said paper and trash, I winced. I’m trying so hard to get better at recycling. I have a recycle box next to the door so that when the mail comes I can sort through it immediately and put it in the recycling box. We have a larger recycling box in the kitchen for papers, cardboard, metal, etc. All of this goes in the large blue can for my city.

    We should all try to make sure that our buckets are set up to be as environmentally efficient as possible.

    For the same reason, I don’t print out all my brainstorming lists and other things. How about keeping more of our files electronic?

    Save the environment a little while organizing our lives.

  8. Joann says:

    Just wondering how people handle longer-term projects with a deadline. They’re not really calendar items, but they’re also not “when I get to them” items.

    Right now, I put the due date in my calendar and have multiple reminders pop up in the days or weeks beforehand. The problem is, if the reminder pops up while I’m in the middle of something else, I tend to either dismiss it (and then it doesn’t remind me anymore) or click the “snooze alarm,” in which case it pops up again and eventually annoys me enough that I dismiss it.

    In 20+ years of work life, this is the thing that I find the most challenging!

  9. Michele says:

    Sometimes I do block off specific time in my calendar to work on those deadline projects. That way, I’m forced to put in 30 minutes or an hour of dedicated work toward the project or to complete a very specific action related to it. I don’t know if it’s GTD-compliant, but that’s one of the ways I handle it.

    About the “Someday/Maybe” list, I have viewed it quite differently than a collection of lists. I have things like “run a marathon,” “travel to Asia,” etc., on the list. I actually scratched the Marathon off of my list this past March :) It’s almost like a “bucket list” of sorts for me, but it does make sense to add in a list of books I want to read to this section.

  10. Jules says:

    @ Joann: Long-term projects usually have concrete, very-short-term steps. “Look up XXX”, “write up YYY”, “Edit ZZZ”, that sort of thing. If I get a long-term project, the first thing I do is break it down into pieces and assign myself a certain time to do each piece. I also move the due date up by anything from a week to a month, because I do sometimes fall into a procrastination hole, and because there are times when I have to re-do experiments that can take up to a week to set up. If everything goes right, then I look damn good :-) If everything goes wrong, then at least it’s still in on time.

    This list largely reflects how I do things, actually. I need to get better about throwing things away (by which I mean the recycle box–a box which gets emptied into the recycling bin) as soon as I decide they’re not relevant, and putting the papers I want to keep into the right bins the first time around, but for the most part it’s pretty effective. It really does help to get things done.

  11. Effectively managing your time allows you more time to spend the things you really want to do.

    Prioiritization and organization are key.

    I always feels that I can be more organized and prioritze more.

    I don’t think you can ever get “completely” organized.

    The more time you can shave off doing the things you don’t want to do, well, fill in the rest…

  12. Interesting blog post. Here’s my list of buckets:

    Blog Comments (comments from others I find useful)
    Blog Ideas (for my own blogs)
    Blogs (list of blogs I follow)
    Books (want to read)
    Curiosity (what I want to research)
    Dreams and Ideas
    DVDs (list of my movies)
    Facts (random interesting bits of info)
    Flowers and Plants
    Good Search Terms (when I find search terms that provide better than usual results)
    Just Random Notes (when they lack classification)
    Links Not To Lose (finally put them in one place!)
    Magazines (publications I like)
    Motels (I freelance on the road)
    New Beetle (extensive research on my next car)
    Sayings (quotes)
    Town Names (quirky town names I may want to visit)
    Wish List

    These are all electronic.

  13. BankVibe says:

    What if you have major projects which individual components that fit in each category? This is the problem I am currently undertaking. Things tend to get a little abstract and tricky at this point. I find the waiting pile stacks up at the most rapid pace…

    But in general, I feel that above all – prioritize. Just like when you were in school…if you have 3 homework projects or lessons to complete attack the most difficult first.

  14. twblues says:

    I’m finally seeing the benefit in doing the prior steps. Up until this post, GTD sounded like a lot of busywork. Now I can see there is a payoff.

  15. Julia says:

    I’m having a hard time reconciling my Projects bucket with my Next Actions bucket. You see, my whole job is about projects. We start each one with a scope of work, budget, and schedule. I’ll usually be responsible for one or two tasks (usually called Roadway Design, or Drainage Design – these aren’t actually actions). Then it’s my job to break down these tasks into smaller tasks, and break down those tasks into specific actions and get those actions done.

    I’m having a hard time picturing this process in the work flow.

    Maybe this:
    – After processing my inbox, I check each project to be sure it has a next action listed on my next actions list. This adds a step to the Processing part of the workflow and I’ll have my actions listed in two different buckets.
    – Or, after checking a project action off of my next actions list, I have to spend two minutes and identify the next action for that project and add it to the list in that moment.
    I think the first method would slow down the project process. If I only process my inbox twice a day, then I might finish all the project actions on my list and move on to other actions that are less important than the project.
    The second method seems to break with the concept of building a system you trust. I would finish a project action, define the next action, finish that, define the next action, all the while I’ll have other tasks and projects that are being ignored.

    Am I overcomplicating this? Anybody here with project-type work that has already implemented this system?

  16. Julia says:

    Here’s an idea for recurring tasks.
    I have a hard time with things like taking out the garbage, washing the dishes, going to the gym. These recurring tasks that I have to do every day just takes up more room in my mind. Otherwise I just dismiss them because they are recurring.
    I think what I will do, is make index cards to represent each recurring task. I’ll put the cards in my inbox, so these tasks will become a part of the work flow with everything else I have to do. When I complete a recurring task, I’ll put the card back into the inbox as a reminder to do it again. Or maybe I’ll get in the habit of dropping these index cards into my inbox every morning, then they’ll be processed and completed by the end of the day unless I really do have to much to do.

  17. Thomas says:

    @Julia, my job is a project. I am working on a comp plan for a municipality.

    I think where you are getting hung up is thinking of next actions as those little tasks you can complete in 2 minutes or less, but you can have next actions that are complete this one task. the task may take 30 minutes or an hour, what is important is complete focus on that task.

    I break my project down into chapters, sections and subsections. I have tasks like write section III.7.b, or read state parking code.

    I think my project is easier to fit into GTD than, say my wife, who has several small daily tasks that all have to be finished by days end, but can not be planned for from day to day.

  18. Elizabeth H says:

    Is it just me, or is this the sixth, not the seventh entry? If it is the seventh, what day was the sixth? I have somehow managed to skip it.

    As an aside, thank you so much for the great information, Trent. I’ve been a fervent (if mostly silent) viewer of your blog for several years now. You’ve been a tremendous inspiration, and we’re now completely credit card debt free! Thanks again!

  19. Michelle says:

    Michele, you’re right. That’s a big difference between David Allen’s system and others. You don’t keep one big list. You separate the Next Actions list by contexts: the limitations that will impact your ability to do the next action.

    For example, I have @Errands, @Work – Computer, @Home – Computer, @Call. Using contexts limits the amount of “rethinking” you have to do with your list. There’s no need to think when you sit down to tackle your next actions. By using contexts, you know that everything on that @Work – Computer list can be done when you’re at work in front of a computer.

  20. Tawnya says:

    @Julia — I like your idea of index cards for recurring tasks. Adding them to the inbox for the day makes it even better.

  21. maggy simony says:

    What’s that 0-9 mean in connection with A-Z. Filing is my death — I can’t file so I can find things easily!! Anybody know of a good book on filing for book writing and publishing projects??

  22. EvSav says:

    re: Reference I’m surprised that you “throw away the rest” after you tear out articles from your magazines…I’m guessing that there’s no RECYCLING for them. My other point is most magazine articles & recipes are published on the net, why not print those and donate the complete magazines to hospitals or other similar places?
    I use Mozilla’s ‘Reminder’ calendar program. There’s a reminder on my taskbar now and when there’s more for the day they all appear. I don’t have many ‘dah’ moments anymore.

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