Getting Sh-t Done

Personal organization without the hassle

"Probably the first productivity/lifehack plan I have actually finished reading"
"This system is so simple ... almost no overhead. I love it."
"A wonderful, slightly irreverent, lightweight system for those not interested in joining the GTD cult."
"I'm a TV producer in NYC and ... I just produced a whole season of shows using GSD"
"Is this the holy grail of organizational techniques?"

People around the globe - from high school teachers and product designers to TV producers and astronauts - use GSD to get things done.

No time? Skip straight to the GSD method »

#plannerlife, #weeklyspread, #showmeyourplanner

Spend any time on Instagram or Twitter these days, and you'll be assaulted by an endless stream of over-the-top planner spreads: immaculate handwriting, bespoke pastel color palettes, cute little bunny stickers, inspirational quotes, monthly habit tracker matrices, and - are you forking serious - giant swaths of calligraphy worthy of a royal wedding invitation:

Mad props to people who have the time to do this

A little secret: This is not productivity.

This is a multi-month arts and crafts project. It's analog procrastination, self-help exhibitionism, vainglorious doodling. This is spending your time choosing among a rainbow of Stabilo Boss markers, seven different widths of Rotring pens, or maybe just either the Strawberry- or Pineapple-Scented Limited Edition Pilot Juice 0.7mm (a real product, I'm sorry to say) ... instead of making real, tangible progress towards something important at work, school, or home.

"There is probably some inverse version [of journaling] where for every minute spent fretting about organizing, an hour is lost. My fear was that if I created a bespoke planner, I would fixate on the frills and not focus on the function." - Andrea Valdez for Wired

Heard enough? Skip straight to the GSD method »

How it all started: Aching to scribble

For years I fought the good fight, shoehorning my life into a clusterfumble of digital devices, trying to flatten the complexities of an analog world into the rigid strictures of digital to-do lists, LifeHacker-approved "productivity" apps, and cloud-based services that promised the world on a silver platter.

I was a model digital citizen, tapping my tasks on tiny keyboards, selecting tags and due dates with wild abandon, synchronizing across devices and time and space, staring bleary-eyed at time-stamped, prioritized, and algorithm-optimized lists of things that I had not, and would not, accomplish in the foreseeable future.

It was all just so ... involved.

Instead, I ached to scribble in the margins, to draw fat circles around things that suddenly became important, to scrawl lines across the page to link thoughts together, to furiously scratch out mistakes and things I had given up on. I needed to scratch an itch that no digital device - not even one with a magical stylus carved from the horn of a glittery technicolor unicorn - would ever let me satisfy.

But then a chance lunchtime stop one sunny April day at a random old-school stationery store happened to change my life forever. For real.

Standing there in front of the giant plate glass window, I found nirvana in a notebook. No longer was I going to be trapped in a digital black hole, for I was going full-tilt analog, armed with a paper notebook and a shiny new pen.

The birth of Getting Sh-t Done

For the next few months, I slowly evolved a method for personal organization, using just paper and pen. It was brutally simple, didn't require much forethought or planning, and kept me focused on the tasks at hand rather than on the task of organizing. And it worked.

But it took a chance encounter with Dave Gray and a few other folks several months later in a San Francisco restaurant to realize that I actually had a system here. So with a bit of goading from the crew, I wrote it up and gave it a name: "Getting Sh-t Done", or GSD. It's quick, it's dirty, and it doesn't require a lot of preparation, special materials, or rigorous thinking.

Why GSD works

GSD works because it focuses on three simple principles:
1. Writing by hand - Reduces distractions and intentionally slows you down, helping you to think more clearly. Proven to improve recall significantly over digital notes.
2. Focus on individual tasks - Emphasizes breaking projects down into individual tasks which can be completed, not intangible ‘goals' that just sit on your to-do list mocking you.
3. One place for everything - Provides a single place for all of your tasks, and a simple way to do them, so things get done and don't slip through the cracks.

The GSD method

It's quick, it's dirty, and it works. Let's get started!

First, an important part of GSD is being able to quickly scan a page to see the status of everything on it. Here are the symbols that I use (but you may want to modify them):

So, with no further ado, I present the GSD method, in three easy steps:

Step 1: Create the Master List

The core of the whole system is dead simple. I start off by banging out a stream-of-consciousness list of everything that I can think of that I have to do, putting an empty box next to each of them - and not spending any time prioritizing or organizing. Some of these items should be short-term ("Pay bills"), and some should be the next step towards longer-term activities ("Set up monthly automatic transfer to savings").

But the key is to make sure that each item is a task that I can actually do. Not "figure out dishwasher repair", but "make list of five dishwasher repair people and phone numbers." Otherwise, items just linger there on the list, mocking me, and never actually get done.

Step 2: Create the Daily List

Early each morning, I sit down with my notebook (laptop closed, phone off) and open it to the next blank page. I write the day and date at the top, and pull forward the Post-It™ tab that I use to mark the current page.

Next, I dump a list of the things that are top of mind, in no particular order. That's important, because it lets me get everything out without worrying about structure. I put work items on the left and personal items on the right, although you may want to combine them.

Then, I go back to previous days and look for unfinished items. For each one I find, I draw a slash [/] through its box (indicating it's been moved forward), and rewrite it on today's page. The goal is to move all open items onto the current page, and eventually have every box on prior pages filled with a check (it's done), a diagonal line (it's moved), or an X (I'm punting and will never do it). Once I've moved everything forward from a prior page, I put a check mark in the upper-right hand corner of that page to show it's closed out.

Finally, I review my Master list for items that need to be addressed. Usually, a lot of them have already come through in the brain dump, but it helps me remember and stay focused on longer-term goals.

Step 3: Work the Daily List

Next, I look at my entire Daily list, pick the top 3 or 4 most important items, and put little dots in their checkboxes. Then I get to work, cranking through the list and checking items off as they are completed. Once I've completed my priority items, I go back and put dots next to the next-most important items, and work on those ... on so on.

The key, however, is to make sure that you're only working on things that are on the list. If something new comes up, add it to the list, and then re-prioritize. And for good measure, take a moment or two during the day to go back to Step 1 and revisit your Master List and Daily List, making sure that you're still focused on the most important things.

And that's it!

So that's it, GSD in a nutshell - one place for all your to-dos and notes, a quick and dirty way of managing them, and no need to buy special software or spend your Sunday evening fighting with a cumbersome prioritization scheme or a table full of stickers and colored pencils.

(Help others learn about GSD by sending them this page or 'liking' the GSD page on Facebook?)

You're done! Stop reading and get at it!

But if you want more ...

Bonus Thoughts

When you're stuck

From time to time, even the little dots don't work, especially when I'm up against some sort of deadline. In that case, I'll draw out a time ladder: start with the current time, map out the hours through the end of the day, and then map activities against it in rough 30- or 60-minute blocks. That usually works for about half a day, then the whole thing goes to hell and I just wing it. And that's ok.


Several people have written to ask about how I do calendaring. My primary calendar with daily entries is through my work email. However, I've started putting a small calendar in the back of my notebook to keep track of major upcoming events. It's a nice way to think 'big picture' about the future (but prepare for lots of rewriting/mistakes/changes as life evolves!).

Carrying forward

One GSD user told me that she uses Post-It™ notes to capture various lists, such as things she hopes to complete in the coming week, urgent tasks, or other short lists of various types (to-do lists from meetings, sub-steps for larger tasks, etc.). Then she can easily move the Post-It™ from one page to the next in her notebook as she goes through her week. And as a bonus, she mentions, "if the list is shorter/longer I can use a smaller/bigger one (psychological benefits, hahaha)."


I love to write by hand. I've spent years refining my script, and wasn't really happy with it until well into my 30s. But you don't need to have good handwriting to GSD, as long as you can read what you write. If you're not happy with your handwriting, try slowing down and forming the letters with a bit more care - you may find it helps you with planning and recall as well.


When I first started GSD, I used the 6-inch x 8-inch 300-page Miquelrius notebook with a black cover and grid rule. However, as I purchased additional copies from them, it seemed like quality had started to suffer, both in terms of the paper and the binding. If you're using larger notebooks, Flexible Notebooks sent me a few of their Zequenz notebooks large and small to try out, and I was very impressed with the paper quality and overall design.

Personally, I've ended up moving to a smaller format notebook that I can always have with me. My family gave me a subscription to Field Notes notebooks, and I find that their standard-size notebook fits perfectly in my front left pocket along with my phone. Each notebook has 48 pages - just enough for about a month of GSD. I love their dot grid design, because it's just enough guidance to keep my writing straight without the overbearing imprint of a grid.

For projects where I need to have a bird's-eye view of the entire thing at one glance, I've started using a Studio Neat Panobook. I don't carry it all the time, but keep it in my work bag for when I need it. I'm careful, though, to make sure any actual tasks still go in my primary notebook.


Honestly, any old pen will work as long as it's reliable. A pencil or the basic Bic works perfectly well. That said, I like pens. Over the years, I've used dozens of the black uni-ball Vision Elite Micro pens. They start instantly, lay down a consistent line (no drop-outs or ink globs), last forever, and do not bleed significantly to the back of the page. Recently, however, my wife bought me a Baron Fig Squire. Not something that I would have purchased for myself due to the price, but it's a really nice pen and the ink cartridges are even better than the uni-ball ones.


If you use one of the thicker notebooks, you may want to create an index on the edges of the pages:
Step 1: Inside the front cover of your notebook, make a small index, with one line per major project. Then, put a black mark on the edge of the page next to each project name. Here, I have five projects, and five black marks. Make sure your black marks go right to the edge, so you can see them when your notebook is closed.
Step 2: Bring your project names onto the edge of your notebook, creating a 'key' so you can see them without flipping to the first page. A lot of the work I do is client-confidential, so I'm using abbreviations instead of the full project name.
Step 3: Whenever you create a page that's related to the specific project, put a small black mark on the edge of the page (in alignment with your key). Then, when looking for pages related to that project, just slightly fan your book and you'll see them all at a glance!

Other websites to consider

The interesting, but more complex Bullet Journal method by Ryder Carroll
If you're having a hard time focusing on your work, you might want to read up on ADD and ADHD and Executive Function, or look at The Focus Course which looks interesting
Another interesting method for tagging individual pages called the Gene of My Life

Thanks for reading, and feel free to contact me if you have any questions. Good luck with your tasks.

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