Updated on 06.10.10

Getting Things Done: Setting Up the Time, Space, and Tools

Trent Hamm

This is the fourth 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.

gtdLast time, we discussed how exactly to plan a project and fit it into the context of focusing entirely on the next specific action. Prior to that, we discussed the five stages of a task and information management workflow (collect, process, organize, review, do).

But how does all of this work in a coherent system? This chapter – and the five that follow – break it all down into incredibly simple steps. Along the way, I’ll show you (often visually) how exactly I implement all of this stuff.

Right off the bat, though, Allen makes the point that implementing such a system is a lot about “tricks.” On page 85:

If you’re not sure you’re committed to an all-out implementation of these methods, let me assure you that a lot of the value people get from this material is good “tricks.” Sometimes just one good trick can make it worthwhile to range through this information.

If it all sounds too overwhelming, just focus on picking out the specific bits that work for you.

I’ll say this from my own experience. Switching over to this system as a whole takes quite a bit of time, and it also takes some maintenance time as you go along. What I’ve found, though, is that the time it saves you every single day is tremendous.

Without this system, I would have never been able to launch The Simple Dollar. I just would have never had time for it. I wouldn’t have the time I have each day to spend with my family. I wouldn’t be able to juggle the fifty different activities I’m involved in and the fifty different interests I have. It just wouldn’t work – I wouldn’t have the time.

So, let’s walk through what you need to get started one step at a time.

I’ll be blunt. If you want to set this up in your life, the best way to do it is to simply set aside a whole weekend – or two to three full weekdays – to do it. For many people, it’s tricky to find that kind of a block of time, but it’s really worth it. In Allen’s words (p. 87):

I recommend that you careate a block of time to initialize this process and prepare a workstation with the appropriate space, furniture, and tools. […] An ideal time fram for most people is two whole days, back to back. (Don’t be put off by that if you don’t have that long to spend, though: doing any of the activities I suggest will be useful, no matter how much or how little time you devote to them. […]).

For me, the time invested wasn’t spent just getting a “system” set up, it was getting a bunch of the mental backlog of things I had to do done so that the system wouldn’t immediately fall apart. I wound up spending maybe half a day getting the system itself ready, then the next day and a half mostly tackling tasks that had just built up over time: going through my accumulated papers and tossing the trash and filing the stuff that needed to be kept, taking care of lots of miscellaneous tasks in my life, coming up with plans for some of the big projects in my mind, and so on.

The reason for this will be addressed in more detail in the next article, but one big portion of “starting up” is simply doing a brain dump. You just write down everything that’s on your mind – all of the stuff you’re thinking about doing – and then you process that big list of stuff. For many of those items, that simply means doing it.

So, in the end, a weekend spent getting GTD set up is a weekend getting a lot of the stuff built up over time finished.

You have to have a bit of room to get started, too. You’ll need just a bit of space, but it’s space that you should devote to this. A small table with room to write and space for a basket will suffice. From page 89:

A functional work space is critical. If you don’t already have a dedicated work space and in-basket, get them now. That goes for students, homemakers, and retirees, too. Everyone must have a physical locus of control from which to deal with everything else.

If you have a desk at home that catches the mail, that’s a perfect place for this. Most of us have such a place in our home – a little corner table that serves as a desk or something like that. Often, it has a computer on it. All you need space for is a place to write and an inbox.

Allen suggests a long (unnecessarily long, in my opinion) list of supplies you’ll need to pull off his full system. From page 92:

Let’s assume you’re starting from scratch. In addition to a desktop work space, you’ll need:
= Paper-holding trays (at least three)
= A stack of plain letter-size paper
= A pen/pencil
= Post-its
= Paper clips
= Binder clips
= A stapler and staples
= Scotch tape
= Rubber bands
= An automatic labeler
= File folders
= A calendar
= Wastebasket/recycling bin

That seems like quite a list – until you realize that most people already have at least some of this stuff lying around their home. Even better, you can often find a lot of this stuff on sale at various places if you look around – and, to tell the truth, you don’t really need at least some of it.

Some GTD supplies

Here’s a walkthrough of the stuff on this list I actually use.

Paper-holding trays I actually have three of these, two of which you can see in the picture above. One is an “inbox,” one is a “stuff I’m currently working on” holder, and one is a “stuff to be filed” tray.

A stack of plain letter-size paper On the rare occasions I need a full sheet of paper, I steal it from the printer (which you can also see above). Usually, I just use some Mead Cambridge pocket notebooks, a stack of which you can see in that picture. These each have 70 sheets and I buy them in groups of twelve for $5 at Sam’s Club. I like these because they fit easily in my pocket along with a pen, so I can take it everywhere.

A pen/pencil Just something to write with. Anything works. I really love my space pen, but it’s pretty expensive for a pen that you just carry around in your pocket all day (and plus, I’m prone to losing them). I usually just keep one or two cheap ones in my pocket and a few more in a pen holder in my desk.

Post-its I usually get the 4×4 lined ones that you can see on my desk there, at Sam’s Club in bulk. At first, I didn’t really find these useful, but I find myself often sticking them to documents and other things as a reminder of what I intended to do with them.

Paper clips Again, I didn’t think I’d use these – and you might not ever need them – but I do find myself using them to keep small piles of loose paper together at times.

Binder clips Never bought them. Never used them. Don’t waste your money.

A stapler and staples I have been picky about my staples for a very long time. Currently, we have a Swingline high capacity stapler (this one) that we’ve used for years. Again, I don’t use one that often, but when I do (for taxes, for one example), it’s incredibly handy.

Scotch tape We have some in the kitchen for wrapping gifts. Never used it for anything organization related, though.

Rubber bands Nope.

An automatic labeler My technical term for such a device is a “pen.” Sometimes, I upgrade this with “masking tape.”

File folders I do have quite a few of these – again, bought in bulk and used regularly. In fact, we have a home filing cabinet which resides in the closet in my home office (which is a converted bedroom).

A calendar I abandoned using a paper one a few years ago. Instead, I now use Google Calendar and I keep an electronic copy of it on my iPod Touch for offline use. Even if I didn’t have a “portable” version of the calendar, I’d still use an electronic one and just print off any pages I needed to have with me on the road.

Wastebasket Of course!

One big part of this system is getting the stuff you want to keep but don’t need out of the way, but in a place where you can easily find it if you need it. In other words, get a filing system. From page 96:

A simple and highly functional personal reference system is critical to this process. The filing system at hand is the first thing I assess before beginning the workflow process in anyone’s office. As I noted in chapter 2, the lack of a good general-reference system can be one of the greatest obstacles to implementing a personal management system.

What does that mean? It simply means that when you have something you want to keep and look at later, it should go into some sort of system where it’s out of your way, but you can easily find it when you look for it.

I just use a simple A-Z filing system for everything. I just name folders with the most logical name I can think of at the time – Joe – Artwork is one, for example, that contains a few highlights of my son’s artistic output. That way, it’s out of the way, but I can retrieve it later on if I need it. Everything is simply A to Z based on the name at the top of the folder.

I try to keep all of the shelves in my filing cabinet balanced (except for the top shelf, which I handle differently – but I’ll talk about that later on). Right now, all of the files I have fit on two of the shelves – A to M and N to Z. If the shelves start to get out of balance, I move a letter to the other drawer to keep them in balance. If either one starts to get full, I’ll just annex another drawer (which is empty right now and, honestly, is my spot for hiding gifts).

Whenever an item comes in that I need to save, I file it away. If I don’t need to save it, I chuck it. If I need to retrieve it, I pull out the file, look it over, do whatever I need to do with it, and toss it back into my “to be filed” basket when I’m done.

I also keep plenty of fresh folders nearby so that I never feel bad about starting a new one. If I need a new folder, I usually know it right off the bat and it’s pretty poorly effective if I’m trying to hedge my bets over a simple folder.

One final note: the best time to do this is over a holiday weekend where you won’t be interrupted anyway. A holiday like the daytime portion of the Fourth of July is a great time to do this.

Next time, we’ll look at chapter five, which focuses on the “collect” portion of this system.

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  1. Jeff says:

    “I bought a seven-dollar pen because I always lose pens, and I got sick of not caring.” – Mitch Hedberg

  2. Mat says:

    I’ve been using things (mac software) over the last year and have really loved it. Might be interesting to those with space constraints.

  3. This post puzzles me. I don’t understand…how could you NOT have these things around the house? And if you do any sort of computer or paperwork, even if it’s just balancing your checkbook, why would most of that stuff not be located in a single place? While it’s not unheard of for people to deliver a shoebox full of receipts to their tax accountant, don’t most people own at least one file holder, even if it’s just a cardboard file box from Staples?

    Possibly it’s just that describing a commonsense set-up for a home office in narrative overcomplicates matters.

  4. Josh says:

    I have 3 Space Pens and they are, by far, the BEST pen I have ever had. I will also admit I have had my first 1 for 10+ years without losing it.

  5. David says:

    When I first started, I didn’t have the stuff. It’s nice to have a comprehensive list explaining why I would even need it. It was a good excuse to get the things that I really did “need” as well. A $50 investment has saved me a lot of grief over the last couple years.

  6. Debbie M says:

    It seems like you could sub a pencil and eraser for the post-it notes. Especially if you always put your note in the same spot, like the upper-right-hand corner.

    My “automatic labeler” is made out of “invisible” transparent tape and pencil—I put that on my file folder tabs so it’s easy to change the label and still have the file folder looking nice. Do you label things other than file folders?

  7. cv says:

    The thing I really like about this series is the way it shows a detailed example of a real-world and highly effective implementation of the system. The book makes it sound a bit like you need to be perfect or the system will fall apart, though I’ve gotten a lot of value out of an imperfect implementation.

    I like the fact that you don’t worry about the label maker or the binder clips, and that you have a “to be filed” bin (a big no-no in the book). It shows how to adapt the system to your own style and needs.

  8. Katie says:

    Thanks so much for this series. Where did you buy your paper-holding trays? They are a nice size.

  9. Stacy says:

    Good basic list, although there are a few things that I would add.
    Decent crosscut paper shredder. If not in this office area then at least somewhere in your house/apartment/wherever. So far as I’m concerned this is a household essential (unless you burn your paper trash).
    Because I often transport papers between my home and a physical office, I bought a poly plastic envelope for these things. It sits in one of my filing trays and anything that needs to go to the office (including my work thumb drive) goes straight into this envelope. Then when I know I’m headed in to the office all I have to do is grab the entire envelope.
    I really need to redo my filing system, both my work and our personal one.

  10. Ken says:

    I can’t say enough about going digital – forget about paper files and the amount of space they take up. Grab a Fujitsu Scansnap and a subscription to Amazon Web Services (along with a program like S3 Backup). Yeah, the scanner is like $400, but it is sooo worth it. I also second the shredder – once the files are backed up in the cloud, shred the paper.

  11. Joanna says:

    Stacy, love the plastic file folder idea. I’m going to steal that one if you don’t mind. :-)

    And Debbie M, one use for a labeler that I’ve seen recently was for a linen cabinet. I’ve never done anything like this, but while househunting I noticed a few linen cabinets that had labels on them like “Queen sheet sets” “blankets” “hall bath towels”. Some were with label makers and others with masking tape/sharpie or some combo like that. The label maker labels were much cuter if that matters to you. :-) (I like attractive organization, what can I say?!) Like I said, I haven’t done it mostly b/c I haven’t had a linen closet & it’s just the hubs and me, but I can see how that could be useful for big families w/ kids & hubs helping out with the chores.

    I also like Ken’s idea. We’ve recently gone to this method, saving only original documents like transcripts, marriage certificates, etc. I think we’re going to get a fireproof safe w/ a filing system for those.

  12. Chris says:

    Thank you so much for this series Trent! It makes GTD make so much more sense! I bought the book about a year and a half ago. Tried reading it. Then tried reading it again. It just seemed so dense. Just from reading your summaries/posts on each individual chapter makes me feel like I am ready to take charge of my life!

    Keep it coming!

  13. Franke says:

    Have to totally disagree about the labeler, Trent. I have one and use it constantly. It’s a battery-powered one, not one with a corded option as Allen recommends, but those kinds are much more expensive. I probably like it so much because my handwriting is so messy that it just looks sloppy on file folders. But I definitely consider it indispensable. If your handwriting is actually neat, then I would say you could do without.

  14. Loving the hands on approach to the series.

    Gotta say though, the labeler makes a HUGE difference in my world. I don’t know that David is right when he says that the brain reacts one way to a printed label and another way to a hand written label, but I know it makes a difference for me.

    Ken, congrats on going digital, currently I can’t imagine the concept. Could be an age thing, but I’ve got to have that little sheet of dead tree in my fingers if I want to be able to really think about it. I’ve also got to be able to scrawl notes on that little sheet of dead tree, or on a sticky note that I attach to that sheet of dead tree.

    It could also be an organizational thing. If I were to digitize everything, I honestly don’t think I would be able to find the stuff I want and need. How do you add notes to a pdf? How do you re-organize 50 sheets of paper that you now know were miss filed. How do you set something aside in a way that you can’t get up for coffee with out literally tripping over it?

  15. Michele says:

    I third the notion of the labeler. One of my favorite things and I use it quite frequently, and I even label shelves and the like. My breakdown is my general filing at home. I only have one drawer and it’s very hard to work the A-Z thing.

    Trent, thanks for offering your take on this system. It really helps to see how you and the readers implement the ideas.

  16. sheila says:

    Wow, Trent! Those are the deepest letter trays I’ve ever seen! Most of the ones I see at office supply stores only hold about 1″ to 1.5″ of paper.

    Where in the world did you find those monsters?

  17. Fidget says:

    Wow. You really do need to say where you got those letter trays, they’re the first ones I’ve seen that are deep enough to be useful for me (PhD student in literature with countless articles).
    Do you/does the book have any suggestions for coordinating an electronic filing system with the hard-copy one? I’m trying to wean myself off printed articles before it becomes absolutely too much.
    Thank you so much for this series. The last post just helped me get some headway on the papers that have had me stymied for the past month (the mixed blessing of incompletes!).
    Something that came free with my stapler but I’ve since grown really fond of: my magnetic rimmed paperclip holder. Never would have bought one, but it’s nice if you go through a lot of clips.

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