Matt Shelley

Applying the Getting Things Done Methodology

July 22, 2020

I try to stay organized, keep on top of everything, and accomplish what I set out to do. But honestly, outside of work, I really struggle to complete my personal goals and projects.

Earlier in the year, I tried out Marie Kondo’s “Tidying Up” method. Y’know, the “Does it spark joy?” 1 one. I cleaned up most of my home. Then, I took five months to finally put up some picture frames. Five months!

I wish I could say this incident was just a one-off case, but in reality I often fall behind on my personal to-do list.

Frustrated with my lack of progress on personal goals and projects lately, I decided to dive fully into David Allen’s Getting Things Done 2 methodology.

It’s been great. Heck, it’s even fun! And yes, I am getting things done.

What is Getting Things Done?

Roughly speaking, Getting Things Done 2 is a general approach to, well, getting things done. Here is how I applied it.

Horizons of Focus 3

I began with my purpose, and broke things down by horizons of focus 3, until I reached actionable items I could do within a day.

For the first three horizons of focus—Purpose, Vision, and Goals—I used Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle from Start with Why 4.


“Why do [I] do what [I] do?” 4

What makes me a great friend, co-worker, or leader? What gets me out of bed in the morning? What can I offer to others?

Ex. To support others through self-improvement.


“How do [I] do it?” 4 What does life look like when I do it?

Ex. I am a Technical Lead who builds great software and great software developers.


What do I do? 4 What are my specific goals and objectives?

Ex. I am a Technical Lead or equivalent. I lead a team.

Focus and Accountability

What do I need to do to keep things running smoothly?

Ex. I eat well and exercise everyday. I maintain a 3-month emergency fund.


What can I complete within one year that requires more than one action?

Ex. Incorporate Test-Driven Development into my workflow.


What actions can I do in less than one day to move a project forward?

Ex. Read an article on Test-Driven Development.

Inbox 2

I collect everything that comes to mind, such as requests from others or things I want / need to do. I get things out of my head as quickly as possible.

Someday Maybe 5

Often, there will be things I want to do that are not a priority right now. I keep them in a Someday Maybe list 5, and pull them forward when I can.

Reference Material 2

Reference materials are non-actionable information, like notes or documents.

Workflow 2

  1. Capture what comes to mind in an inbox
  2. Clarify if it’s worth doing, what it means, and how to push it forward
  3. Organize items where they belong
  4. Reflect on horizons of focus from time to time
  5. Engage by working through actions

What's the next action? 2

Asking, “What’s the next action?” will push projects forward.

Thus, completing actions brings projects one step closer to being done. And, completing projects brings goals one step closer to being done. And, so on.

When I complete actions, I move one step closer to my purpose.

Here’s an Example

One day, another developer introduces me to Test-Driven Development. It sounds pretty cool, but I’m not sure how to use it in my workflow.

First, I capture “Look into Test-Driven Development” in my inbox.

Second, I clarify what it means to “Look into Test-Driven Development.” Is it worth doing? Is it a single action or a project? Is it reference material?

I see that it’s a project, so I build out the idea a bit more:

- I have read a few articles on Test-Driven Development (TDD)
- I understand the benefits and drawbacks of TDD
- I understand when to use TDD and when not to use TDD
- I can explain what TDD is to someone else
- I have written a small feature following TDD

All of a sudden, this vague idea of “Look into Test-Driven Development” means something. I understand what I want out of it.

Further, by clarifying, I find some next actions:

- Read at least 3 articles on Test-Driven Development (TDD)
- Summarize the benefits and drawbacks of TDD
- Build a feature using TDD

Third, I organize the project and its actions.

Unfortunately, my current projects and next actions are filled with important work. So, I add the items to my Someday Maybe list.

Fourth, I reflect on my current projects, next actions, and Someday Maybe list to adjust priorities from time to time.

After a few weeks, it looks like I can work on my Test-Driven Development project now. I pull the work forward into my current projects and next actions.

Finally, I engage by doing my next actions.

My Getting Things Done Setup

Putting everything together, I use Trello, Google Calendar, and Google Drive. I found Daniel Chait’s approach with Trello 6 very helpful.

Trello tells me what things to do. It includes my Inbox, Someday Maybe, Purpose, Vision, Goals, Focus and Accountability, Current Projects, Next Actions, and Done lists. I also added Blocked / Waiting For and Doing lists to track the state of in-progress actions.

Google Calendar tells me when to do things. It includes my recurring activities, like washing laundry, and upcoming actions, like appointments. As I plan out each day, I schedule time in my calendar.

Google Drive stores reference material in alphabetical folders. Initially, I started with a single folder called A - Z, then broke it into two folders of A - M and N - Z, and then into four folders of A - G, H - N, O - U, and V - Z. With these folders, it is pretty quick to find things.

Eventually, I added a “Projects” folder next to “Reference Material” with the same alphabetical folders. It separates projects, like presentations, from notes and documents, to reduce clutter.

I tried to keep this system as simple as possible, so I could evolve it over time. It’s not fancy, but it’s easy to use and helps me get things done.

Get Things Done

If you have struggled to reach your professional or personal goals or projects, I recommend trying the Getting Things Done 2 methodology. A little bit of setup, clarification, and figuring out next actions may help you get more things done.


  1. KonMari Media Inc, KonMari Philosophy
  2. David Allen Company, Getting Things Done
  3. David Allen Company, Horizons of Focus
  4. Simon Sinek, Start with Why
  5. GTD Forum, What goes on a Someday Maybe list?
  6. Daniel Chait, The GTD Approach To Maximizing Productivity With Trello

Matt Shelley
Writing about software development and self-improvement