The current state of my GTD tool setup

The current state of my GTD tool setup

In the last two weeks, three different people have asked me: Where are you with your GTD app choices, and what did you finally decide on for a GTD setup? The last time I blogged about this, it was part 3 of a multi-part series on rethinking/rebooting my GTD setup and I concluded with a cliffhanger:

In the next post, maybe the next two, I'll show you which ones made the cut, how I set each one up for GTD according to my updated values and rules, and how I decided on the one that I am sticking with (for now).

I'll be honest: The reason I didn't immediately follow up with parts 4, 5, etc. is that I changed my mind about the GTD setup I decided upon. Twice. It's taken me this long to get to a point where I have a stable setup that I am willing to talk about. I'm not particularly bothered by this, because as Michael Hyatt once put it, every app I use is on a permanent job interview. When it becomes apparent that a tool is no longer delivering, I change it -- and we should all feel like we have permission to do this, provided it doesn't run up costs (subscriptions can add up) and we don't spend more time futzing with apps than we do actually accomplishing things.

Remember in the series on rebooting my GTD setup (part 1, part 2, part 3) I decided there are three essential elements to what I want from GTD moving forward:

  • Tighter integration between organizing my tasks and getting them done.
  • Radical simplicity in my tools and processes.
  • Flexibility over features from the systems and tools I use.

Tactical vs. Strategic

One thing I realized while trying out different apps to implement GTD is that I have two distinct needs for working with GTD, which I classify as tactical and strategic.

  • The tactical side of GTD is what I use when I am in the trenches, doing stuff and making decisions in the moment. This is the majority of the time I am working, and for those situations I need a tool setup that is fast, flexible, simple, with as little friction as possible, and makes me think as little as possible. This is where the "mind like water" mantra kicks in.
  • The strategic side of GTD is what you see when you are doing reviews (weekly, trimesterly, etc.). This is the part of GTD that is not in the heat of the moment, but rather when making high-level decisions about goals, projects, and tasks. I mentioned that in a tactical situation I want to think as little as possible. What I mean is, while of course tasks require thinking when you do them, there is a lot of thinking about tasks that has to take place apart from when you're doing them. What context is appropriate? What resources or tools are required? How much time does it take? What priority does it have? You are supposed to do the thinking about these issues before entering into the fray of everyday getting-things-done. To do the strategic stuff right, I need a tool setup where all my goals, project notes, project support materials, etc. can reside and be visible and easily accessible.

Before this reboot business, ToDoist was my tactical tool and Evernote my strategic tool, with an assist from Google Drive and Google Keep. Those are still really excellent apps that I recommend to anybody trying to get organized. But I migrated away from ToDoist mainly because I just wanted a change; and I stopped using Evernote for the most part when I moved from a Mac to a Chromebook because I wasn't fond of the web interface or the Android app, plus I felt the price tag was getting a bit steep for an app that hasn't really seen significant improvement in years. (I still have Evernote because I have thousands of notes still in the system and the thought of migrating makes my brain hurt; I downgraded to the "Plus" plan from "Premium".)

At first, I made the mistake of looking for an app that does it all, both the tactical and the strategic. I'm not certain such an app exists. The ones I tried out that purport to handle both roles didn't seem to do either particularly well; it felt like neither-nor instead of both-and. (If you're a fan of Notion, I hear you moving in your seat right now. I'll talk about that app later.) So I embraced the idea of two apps: One tactical, one strategic.

The tactical choice: Workflowy

Back in the spring, I got frustrated with how clunky and poorly thought-out many GTD apps were. It's clear to me that many of these apps were developed by people who have never read about or used GTD and are just trying to create something to cash in on the productivity phenomenon. Anyway, I was doing some planning work for my summer class using VS Code as a scratchpad, and I was just so happy at how clean and simple everything was. I could enter and manipulate my content in just about any way I wanted, almost effortlessly, without the app getting in the way. And I thought, Why can't GTD apps be more like text editors?

In fact, they can be. That's the premise behind the todo.txt system, that your GTD lists are in plain text files with minimal formatting using some basic rules. I adopted todo.txt for a while a couple of years ago and really liked it, but came back to ToDoist because of technical issues and a dormant app ecosystem. Those issues still exist and so I didn't feel like trying it out again, but I decided that whatever tactical GTD app I go with next, needs to be as much like a plain text editor as possible.

Enter Workflowy.

Workflowy at its heart just an outlining app. It reminds me of one of the first apps I ever really fell in love with, OmniOutliner Pro. It is extremely simple, almost confoundingly so. When you open it up and look at it, there's not much to see, and it can be hard to know what you are supposed to do. But it has a superpower: All the bullet points you create in Workflowy are infinitely zoomable.

I'd used Workflowy before as just an outliner, to plan lessons and outline talks and such. Often when my professional world would spiral out of control with stuff to do, I'd go into Workflowy and start making simple bullet lists, because making lists has a calming effect on me. (This should have been a signal that I needed more of the app in my life.) I'd never considered using it for GTD until two things happened. First, it dawned on me in one of the earlier posts in this series that the basic data structure of GTD is a simple text list. If you strip GTD down to its essentials, it's just a bunch of lists that you keep, maintain, and review; you don't need fancy apps for this, or even electronic apps at all! David Allen's original GTD implementation was a stack of index cards (one card per context), and some people have ingenious and effective analog implementations today. The second thing that happened was I bought Cal Newport's book Digital Minimalism, and when I pre-ordered the book I got a link to a video where Cal explains his GTD setup --- and it uses Workflowy. I figured if it's good enough for Cal, maybe I should give it a shot.

Workflowy is radically simple and is the epitome of flexibility over features. It actually has very few features: no due dates, no recurring tasks, no notifications, no color coding, no file attachments, no calendar integration, no forward-to-inbox feature. These are all things that I once thought were deal-breakers with GTD tools, but you know what? It's fine without them. The lack of features hasn't slowed me down at all, in fact it speeds me up because Workflowy is basically just an amped-up text editor. There are no unnecessary features. It obeys my rules rather than forcing me to do the opposite. Sometimes when I use it, it feels like I am speed-skating. Frictionless.

Let me explain how I've set Workflowy up for GTD. Here's what it looks like at the outermost zooming level:

  • Week n contains sublists for my Big Rocks, weekly goals, and daily checklists. I update it each week at the weekly review.
  • The Inbox list is for all incoming tasks.
  • DOING is a list for stuff I am doing in the moment --- when I am using the pomodoro technique to focus on tasks for 25 minute blocks, the tasks go here, and I can zoom all the way in on those tasks and see nothing else. This is an example of how Workflowy supports integrating organization and doing.
  • Next Actions contains all disaggregated next actions -- things I need to do as soon as I get a chance but are not associated with a project. Projects holds all my projects lists, one sublist per project; and individual tasks for those projects are another level down, with the next action on each tagged @next.

I should have mentioned, the one feature Workflowy does sport is tagging; any item can be tagged using @ or # , which creates a hyperlink --- clicking on the tag then brings up all the items with that tag, scoped by whatever bullet you are currently zoomed in on.

  • All the other items are just standard GTD lists -- Someday/Maybe, Waiting For, etc. Future contains tasks that need to get done but can't yet be done (like a tickler file). Reference has checklists for my various review processes. Workspace is where I have outlines for other stuff; I still use Workflowy to plan meetings, classes, blog posts, etc. and all of those outlines are tucked in there. Shared contains all the shared lists I use.

About Workspace, an interesting aspect of the metaphor of Workflowy is that there is no concept of separate files --- everything in Workflowy is in one giant outline and you zoom in and out of it, like a fractal document. This took a while to get used to, but I think it's a great advantage over systems like todo.txt and competitor apps like Dynalist which do use separate files, which you have to organize and track. All my GTD lists --- and any other list I choose to use --- are in one place. Radical simplicity.

Actually using GTD in a tactical setting is pretty simple. When I am working, I do a search (or click on a saved search) for tags that match my contexts and tools. For example if I'm at home, I enter @home in the search bar and up comes all the tasks with that context. The contexts I use are @anywhere, @computer, @online, @email, @gvsu (for stuff on campus), @home, @errand, and @calls. I also have a tag @next for next actions (every task in the Next Actions list, and every next action on a project, has this tag). And I have tags that are more aimed at properties of a task: #today, #week, and #month for tasks that need to be done on those time frames; #mit for most important things for the day, and a few others. So I use the tags and searching to slice through my lists and give me a view of what tasks as best suited for the moment. For example  here's how I get the tasks that I can do either home or anywhere and which are Next Actions:

Then in the moment I can just pick a handful of those tasks and get to work, maybe moving the bullet points into a pomodoro list and commit to a 25-minute pomodoro block to get them done.

This is all great because getting stuff into Workflowy is dead simple -- just open up the app and start typing, no extra fuss or features to contend with. Converting that mass of lists into a short list of actionable items that make sense for the situation I'm in is also simple. The whole thing stays out of my way and lets me work.

I try not to add too many third-party features to Workflowy because the beauty is in its simplicity. However I do make heavy use of the Workflowy web clipper to get stuff from the web into my inbox. This includes emails; I use GMail, so every email is actually a web page that I can clip into my Workflowy inbox, solving the issue of not being able to forward emails directly into the system. I have also started using the new and tremendously powerful WFx Chrome extension which provides a quick-entry box for jumping directly to a bullet in Workflowy (or any web page) and executing JavaScript. There's a "power pack" (for a fee) that gives dozens of JavaScript programs for doing things like moving bullets to arbitrary lists, sorting lists, and counting numerical fields in a list.

The strategic choice: Google Drive

Google Drive needs no introduction. It's cloud storage, plain and simple. My university is a G Suite for Education campus, and we faculty get Google Drive with unlimited storage. So if I've got something I need to hang on to, I just drop it in Google Drive. Documents are easy. Web links? Put them in a Google Doc. Web pages? Grab the link and put it in a Google Doc. Photos? Those are files, so upload them. Handwritten notes? Do them on paper, scan, then upload the PDF.

When I still used Evernote, it seemed like most of my use case was creating a note and then just attaching a Google Document to it. So why not cut out the middleman? It's one less app I need to think about, and until this blog post I really hadn't even thought about Evernote since June when I downgraded my account.

The strategic and tactical go very well together, because every bullet in Workflowy (which can represent a project or a single task) can have a notes field added to it by hitting Shift + Enter. If I have a document I need to attach to a bullet in Workflowy, I just grab the Google Drive link and add it to the notes field. Simple.

You might be wondering about some apps that weren't mentioned here.

Trello. I love Trello and I still use it for certain things (like the grading status board). When I was in the hospital and first trying out different implementations for GTD, I built a complete GTD setup using Trello (using only my phone!) using the official GTD guide for Trello from David Allen Co. I used that Trello-based system for a good portion of the spring and summer, and in fact this was the system I was about to unveil before I changed my mind the first time. While using Trello for GTD was very interesting and I learned a lot about GTD from using it (especially the value of contexts as a focusing mechanism), ultimately I backed away from it because I just have too many tasks and projects for an app like Trello to handle. If you have 10 or so projects and maybe 30-50 next actions --- it's great. But if you are like me and have 30+ projects and hundreds of tasks, it leads to visual clutter and I simply couldn't find what I needed to work on.  I wish my professional existence were simple enough that I could make Trello work for me, but alas that's not how it is.

Notion. Notion is the new kid on the block of productivity apps and has a tremendous amount of hype behind it. It's so powerful and flexible that it's hard to describe exactly what it is. I guess you could say it's a notes and organization app that can be reorganized by the user almost at will. For example you can create a basic text page, insert bullet points, insert a Google Drive file, then rearrange those two things to be side-by-side, then create a database underneath them into which you can add items with tags and other data, then turn that database into a kanban board, and on and on. I spent a lot of time in the summer wondering whether Notion could be the app that truly does it all for GTD, both the tactical and the strategic. I managed to build, at one point, a GTD system in Notion where next actions are kept in a database with tags for context, priority, and status; projects were kept on separate landing pages with their own databases of actions which were linked to the main Next Actions database, and you could convert either the main database or any individual project database into a kanban board with ToDo, Doing, and Done lists and individual actions could be dragged back and forth, and their status automatically updated once you switched back to database view.

It was pretty awesome --- and so complicated that I hated using it. Why not just use a basic list program, and Google Drive for the back end? So that's what I gravitated toward. Whenever I read articles about people's setup on Notion, it seems to me that it's a solution in search of a problem; and, much like bullet journaling, using Notion seems to be more about showing people how clever your setup is instead of how well it works in practice. Today I just use Notion for recipes.

So that's it for now: Workflowy + Google Drive. Workflowy for the tactical jobs where I need to move fast and with agility; and Google Drive as my bottomless, searchable strategic back-end for project management and big-picture stuff. This could all change next week!

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.