My GTD System #3 - Working the system

Hello! You're looking handsome today. Welcome to part #3 of My GTD System series. In part #2 we went over the Horizons of Focus as the backbone of my system. Today we'll look at how I do long-term planning through regular reviews.

After reading Working with OmniFocus by Joe Buhlig, I've become somewhat addicted to reviewing. Alongside the essential GTD Weekly Review I also do daily and monthly reviews.

I set these up so they repeat and flag them so they show up at the very top of the Dashboard perspective.

Monthly Review

The monthly review is my chance to clear the archives, take the time to alter to my system, and more importantly, do some long-term planning. I use the notes field for each task to link to the relevant folder, application, or OmniFocus perspective or project.

The setup is simple, create a new project with the Admin context add your items, flag the whole project, and set it to repeat once a month.

Long-term planning

Long-term planning is difficult, so I take a prescriptive approach, reviewing each horizon in turn. From highest to lowest, building a plan out to 3-5 years, then setting goals for the year month by month as I described in Part #2.

Clearing archives

I have a couple of document and material repositories. So as to not clutter my active projects folder in Dropbox, I keep materials for retired projects in a project-archive folder. I manage notes through nvALT synced through Dropbox. Finally, paperwork like bills, contracts, and tax documentation goes in a paperwork archive folder.

Once a month I look through all of these to archive inactive projects, remove unnecessary notes and documents, and archive notes that are no longer active relevant. Finally, I look through my email archive, remove any useless messages and save important bits of info like bills, receipts, and ID numbers.

If I realize that the archive clearing job is gonna take a while, I create a new project in OmniFocus for that purpose and move on with the review.

Cleaning a little bit regularly is much easier than doing a massive job every once in a while.

Evaluating my system

I set a specific time to make changes to my system so I avoid over-tweaking it. It controls my hyper-nerdy, OCD-like obsession with making everything neat and square. Things that bother me about the system come up as I use it, so I leave notes to myself for when the Monthly Review comes around.

If I feel like making any changes I usually make a new project unless it's a simple change like removing unused contexts or creating new ones.


I've set a couple of goals for gaming, book reading, and movie watching. So at the end of the month I update those running lists.

Weekly Review

The Weekly Review is the cornerstone of GTD. I do my weekly reviews on Friday, looking over all my projects in the Review perspective of OmniFocus, paying particular attention to projects with no next actions and projects that need more planning. I finish with setting goals for the upcoming week, and as a reward, I go crazy adding things to my Someday/Maybe lists.

Daily Review

My daily review keeps me on track every day. I was already looking at my projects through-out the day so instead of it being a messy and incomplete process, I have a checklist so I don't miss anything:

  • Do a quick brain dumb to catch anything floating in my head. I typically use a trigger list to shake the dust in my brain. I also found this guided mind sweep by GTD inventor David Allen really useful.
  • Process the inboxes (OmniFocus Inbox, Drafts on iOS, and Downloads folder on my Mac)
  • Look at the Waiting For perspective for anything others owe me
  • Look through my calendar for any upcoming events
  • Check the Forecast perspective in OmniFocus to see if I need to defer any projects or actions
  • Review my weekly plans and flag new actions for the day accordingly
  • Look at completed tasks from the day before in the Completed perspective as a morale boost and to make sure I'm on track.

At the end of the review I open the Dashboard perspective and plan out my day hour by hour in my notebook.

Wait---What?---Pen and paper! Yes, you've read that right.

Daily Planning and Doing

The process is simple, with the Dashboard open I grab my trusty notebook, open to a new page, write down the date and start planning the day. Here I decide how long I will work on things, more than making estimates for how long things will take. If I go over over, at least I know what's getting pushed back. If I'm ahead? WOOHOO! Dopamine hit to the brain. Take that task!

This whole process has been working great for several reasons:

Work efficiency

Research shows that people get slower at completing tasks when moving from one kind of work to another. If you know what you need to do next, you don't have to switch from focus work to planning, and then back to focused work again.

In that time you are also more likely to get distracted, so removing the guesswork means you're not gonna reach for email or twitter.

Realistic daily workload

If you work an 9-5 job, once you take out the commute to work, the meetings, lunch, and wind up/down time in the morning and afternoon, there's only about 4-5 hours to do real focus work available. Having a birds-eye view of your day stops you from taking on too much, and at the end of the day you get a morale boost because you managed to finish most or all you've set out to do.

Understand how you work

Lastly, you become more aware of how your ability to do work evolves through-out the day. I've noticed that it takes me a little time to get going in the morning and after lunch, so I plan for that.

I schedule buffer-time in the morning for planning and winding up to focused work, and winding down in the afternoon before I go home. I do my end-of-day routine, clearing all the inboxes and my workstation, and go home knowing that I've tied up all loose ends.

Pen and paper

Going back to pen and paper feels great.

The amount of noise produced by all the screens in our lives is overwhelming. This is having a negative impact on our ability to focus.

By working out of a notebook, I don't need to have my laptop sitting there taking up space with all its fancy notifications and shiny icons, tempting me to see what Twitter is up to.

And it's easier on my eyes. As a data scientist I spend a lot of time in front of screens and my glasses are expensive enough, thank you very much. Anything that gets me away from the bright pixels is a good thing.

End of day routine

At the end of the work day I go through a short routine before going home:

  • I process my work paper-tray inbox for new tasks
  • Clean my desk (and the office coffee machine; because I'm nice like that)
  • I defer any work-related tasks I didn't finish to tomorrow
  • Pack up and go home

I also do a quick journaling session where I write about the big events of the day and how I feel about my progress. I write two things I'm grateful for (usually food related, I'm note sure why) and one meaningful accomplishment for the day.

Closing Thoughts

That is my system. I've left a bunch of details out so please feel free to ask me. My goal with these articles was to share techniques and ideas to help make your system more useful and cohesive. I realize that my system might be too much structured for some people, and that's OK. The point here is to build something that works for you.

My workflows have become routine for me at this point. It takes me between 15-60 minutes to get through my reviews and planning. The reward is that I can kick back and relax knowing that nothing will fall apart.

Regular long term planning means I always know what I'm working towards, and it's encouraging to see yourself hit those monthly goals. Suddenly a yearly plan doesn't seem so intimidating.

How do you approach GTD? Let me know. If you have any questions or just want to tell me about your hobbies, please leave a comment or message me on the twitters!

Have a Great Day. Until Next Time.

--Jay Blanco