David Allen’s “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity”  was first published in 2001, and updated in 2015, and has remained a best-selling business “basic” for all of that time.  Applications, products and whole communities of users have sprung up around it, making Getting Things Done (GTD) one of the most popular organizational systems around.

The system was designed when paper was king…but its principles are simple and technology has made them even easier and more powerful.  If you’re a GTD user, or think you want to give it a try, OneNote is a fantastic tool – especially for Microsoft Office and Office 365 users.


The core principle of “GTD” is that anything stored in your head is a source of stress and anxiety, and destroys productivity.  When you get everything out of your head and into a simple, functional and trustworthy system – so that your mind is free to focus on DOING the work, rather than trying to remember what to do – even an overwhelming amount of work becomes manageable.

It can take a while – hours or even a few days – to get everything in the first time, but once you do, GTD relies on a simple decision making system (“Do it, Delegate it, or Defer it”) and a handful of defined “Buckets” which hold all your projects and tasks, no matter how small, and the supporting information you need to perform them.

Those “Buckets” are easily organized as tabs inside of a OneNote Notebook.  Each task or action item, no matter how small, becomes a separate page on that tab.  Store your GTD Notebook on OneDrive, so you can access it from anywhere, and link it to your smart phone, tablet devices, home and work computers.  You will then have access to one of the most powerful management systems ever devised, no matter where you are. 

Once you have the basics, you can “tweak” the system to customize it to your needs, but start with these basic tabs:

  • Inbox – here is where you initially drop anything and everything that needs to be organized in the system. You can use the “Send to OneNote” button in Outlook to forward emails that need followup; One Note web clip apps in your browser to save information and links from web pages; your cell phone or tablet camera to scan printed items; or type, write, or record directly into OneNote.
  • Current Projects – This is a list of everything you have to do that has more than one step. If you have to research something before you call someone about it…it’s a project.
  • Calendar (use Outlook for this one) – Put items with a real deadline here. If you’re an Outlook User, you’ll love the integration between OneNote and Outlook Meetings and Tasks.
  • Next Actions – Move any single specific, actionable “Next step” that you can physically do to this tab. You can use OneNote Tags (or create custom ones of your own) to help divide those Next Actions into more manageable “Action Lists” by labeling the type of tasks (phone calls, emails, research, etc.) and/or the priority level of the task.
  • Waiting For – Move anything that you’ve delegated to someone else or are waiting for information for here, so it’s off your list until you get what you need to make it actionable.
  • Reference Material – Use this tab for all those things you have to remember that aren’t ACTIONS. Contact information, research material, memos, etc. This is one area that you might prefer to use OneNote Tab Sections, so you can further divide it, but for now, start simple.  “KEEP” stuff goes here.
  • Someday/Maybe List – If it’s on your list, but it’s not due right now, or at a defined date in the future, put it here. You can (and must) review this list weekly, or even more often if need be, to move things to your Action lists when it is time.

 There are lots of books and reference materials on GTD, and we strongly recommend you spend some time learning the system at a deeper level, but here’s the basic process:

Start with your “brain dump” – get EVERYTHING you can think of into one big “INBOX” and start sifting through it, asking yourself  “Is it ACTIONABLE? Is there some specific PHYSICAL action that can be done on it right now?”

  • YES: If it can be done in less than two minutes just DO IT. If it will take longer than that, DELEGATE IT to someone else, and move it to “Waiting For” or DEFER IT by putting it on your Next Actions list.  IF that action has a “real” deadline, more than just a plan, put it on your CALENDAR.
  • NO: If there is nothing that can be done to move it along, it is TRASH, REFERENCE Material, or something you plan to do SOMEDAY. File accordingly.

Every day, look first at your calendar for things that MUST be done that day, then at your Next Actions list for things that can be done that day and set your priorities.

Once a week, review your “Waiting For” lists for things that have been received, your Projects for things that need moved along, and your Someday/Maybe list for things that should be acted on.

When new things come in throughout the day, put them in the system. Whether it is adding to your grocery list or planning a new event, ask the question: Is there something that is ACTIONABLE right now…and work the rest of the process.  Then weigh that next action in light of your current list of priorities to decide where it fits.

OneNote makes it easy to move things from list to list, to tag items with priorities or type, to quickly text search for reference material, to move information in and out of Outlook and other apps, and to manage your system from anywhere you happen to be.

Give it a try, and let us know how it works for you!

Bonus tip: Use Amazon Kindle on your phone, tablet or PC to get more information, and have it available anytime you have unexpected down time, like late appointments, transit time, or long lines.  We found some great ideas and additional material in OneNote Ultimate User Guide to Getting Things Done by Jack Echo; How to Get Things Done With OneNote by Dominic Wolff, and ONENOTE: Easy Users Guide to Improve Your Productivity and Get Things Done Fast by Eric Peterson.


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