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How To Use the GTD System as a Student

8 min read

Being a student these days is stressful. We’re bombarded with incoming deadlines, exams, meetings, and my favourite one - rescheduled classes. How can we keep up with all these inputs and not get stressed out?

These inputs clutter our mind and stress us out. We can’t focus on the present moment, and we become less productive.

In this article, I’ll share how we can use the Getting Things Done method, a method we can use for stress-free productivity.

Mind Like Water

The central thesis of a GTD system is to store everything your brain has to hold inside a system you can trust. According to David Allen, your brain is for having ideas, not storing them. By capturing everything your brain needs to remember in a place you can trust, you can use your brain for having ideas. David Allen calls this ‘mind like water’

“Mind like water” is a state where you can respond to whatever life throws at you. When you throw a rock into the water, the ripples respond to the size and force of impact. By being in a mind like water state, our daily inputs won’t overwhelm us. By being in a mind like water state, you’ll be able to focus on the task at hand, and not have thoughts bother you.

Your brain is not capable of multi-tasking. When you hold tasks in your head and work on what’s in front of you, you are always in multi-tasking mode. Trying to do two tasks needing cognitive effort is not possible.

David Allen refers to these thoughts circling in your brain as open loops. Open loops are incomplete commitments. When you keep it in your brain instead of storing it somewhere you can trust, you waste energy and attention. This will reduce your productivity.

5 Steps to Get Things Done

There are 5 steps to implement a Getting Things Done system

  • Capture
  • Clarify
  • Organise
  • Reflect
  • Engage

What You need for GTD

You don’t need a specific app to implement a GTD. You can do it with tools as simple as pen and paper. I use Todoist as my tool of choice. However, there are a few tools you need to utilise GTD as students.

  • A capture inbox. You need to pick 2 capture inboxes. One analog, and another one is digital. The digital inbox can be anything, as long as it can store written text. The notes app on your phone will do. For analog, I use a small notebook I can carry along in my pocket.
  • A calendar
  • A Next actions list

It’s important not to use email as a capture inbox. Instead, capture the tasks you get in your email into your Digital or Analog inbox.

When you have over 2 capture inbox, you’ll have a hard time maintaining them. It is difficult to remember where did you put this specific piece of info. By simplifying and sticking to 2 inboxes only, it’s easier to clear it every day.

If you pick over 2 inboxes, you’ll also add friction to capturing, since you have to ask yourself: ‘Where does this go?’. By using 2 inboxes only, you’ll know exactly where to capture it.

Step 1: Capture all your ideas

Have you ever had an idea but forget about it a few moments later? This is a normal limitation of the brain. You can’t expect it to remember every fleeting idea you come across daily.

You’ll have dozens of ideas as you go throughout your day. As a student, they range from assignments, exams, classes, meetings, and books to read. As a writer, I get ideas about what to write as I go through my day.

These ideas stay in your mind, take up mental space. We have difficulty focusing on our work, because these uncaptured ideas take up the mental space you need to focus. These ideas clutter your mind, and taxes your brain.

We can clear our mind out of clutter by capturing all these ideas into an inbox.

Jot down every idea and task. It could be errands (buy groceries), deadlines (study for upcoming Anatomy test), and random ideas (learn how to code). Capture everything, from personal to work tasks. Focus on capturing the ideas as fast as possible and instead of thinking about where this idea fits.

Step 2: Clarify your ideas

After you’ve captured all your tasks, spend time at the end of each day to clarify them. I call this the Daily review.

By clarifying your tasks, you get clear on what input you should put in and what you need to achieve to complete it. I follow these simple steps to clarify each of my tasks.

1. Start each task with a verb. Good verbs to use: Research, read, email, call, brainstorm.

• Ambiguous tasks: Mom, Physiology

• Clear tasks: Call Mom, complete Physiology assignment

2. Break down big tasks into tasks takes 25 minutes at most. By keeping tasks small, you get small wins throughout the day. This virtuous cycle makes you more productive and keeps the momentum going. By making tasks small, you’ll have fewer tendencies to procrastinate because you’re confident you can achieve it.

3. Triage your tasks

  • Is it relevant? If not, delete it.

• Does it take <2 minute to do? If yes, do it now. David Allen calls this the 2 minute rule. However, don’t do too many 2 minute tasks at once. Doing 50 2 minute tasks at once is counterproductive.

• If a task takes > 2 minutes, defer it. Add due dates.

• Can you delegate it to someone else? This might not be viable for students, but try to delegate tasks wherever possible.

Step 3: Organise your tasks

Organising your task is all about moving your tasks from your inbox into lists. I do this step when clarifying my tasks. There are 2 lists you need: Projects and Areas.

Projects are tasks with deliverables and due dates. To identify a project, ask yourself what are you working on? If something has over 3 tasks, make it a project.

Examples of projects:

  • Apply for scholarship
  • Plan for research paper  
  • Complete lab report  
  • Study for Anatomy quiz

Areas are ongoing activities and require a minimum standard. To identify your areas, ask yourself: What always matters?

Examples of areas:

  • Health
  • Finances
  • Key relationships
  • Hobbies
  • Things you own (such as home, car)

Start out by making these 7 lists:

  • Areas: Finances, Health, Family, Direct Reports, Self Improvement
  • Miscellaneous: Single action tasks, Someday/Maybe
  • Projects

You need to clear your inbox every day and move them into these lists.

Once you have these tasks on your list, organise them by adding metadata. Add due dates, context, location, energy levels, value, next action, and label the tasks you’re waiting on.

1. Only add due dates if there’s a penalty for missing it. Fake due dates don’t work. In Getting Things Done, your tasks don’t fall into the cracks because you review your tasks weekly (Step 4). Add due dates such as deadline for assignments, reports and exams.

2. Do tasks based on your energy levels. Throughout the day, your energy levels will fluctuate. Taking action even when your energy levels are low by doing low-energy tasks is key to being productive. When you feel your energy levels dipping, switch from a high energy task to a low energy task.

3. Add next actions for sequential tasks. Identify the next action you need to do to advance your projects. Do these tasks before doing other tasks. For example, if you want to sit for an exam, your first step should be to register and schedule your exam dates.

4. Label each task with its value. No two tasks are equal. Tasks you can leverage are worth 10k. Tasks such as emails which need little effort are worth 10 dollars. Forget the low value tasks and focus on the valuable tasks. Don’t be a lion who hunts mice. Hunt the antelope.

5. Capture tasks other people owe you. Are you waiting for a response from your peers? Do you need a paper from your colleague? Instead of using due dates, review this list every week to make sure nothing falls through the track.

Don’t add metadata for the sake of it. Adding metadata might be more work than doing the task itself.

Step 4: Reflect on your tasks every week

Nothing falls through the cracks in GTD thanks to the weekly review. A weekly review in GTD is about reviewing your project lists, checking their due dates, updating metadata and identifying the next actions.

Reflect on any assignments you have and try to plan it out for next week. This is where we deviate from traditional GTD, as most assignments have short due dates. Break down your assignments into small tasks throughout the week and use due dates for each small task. This way, you’ll spread out your work and avoid cramming and piling up your work.

It is important to do a weekly review every week to make sure we’re on top of everything. Pick a fixed time every week where you review your task lists. I do this every Sunday morning, as I have the chance to catch up on my tasks throughout the day if needed.

Since we don’t use due dates, we must reflect on our tasks. Let’s say you have a task named schedule dentist appointment. By doing a weekly review, the longest you’ll go without scheduling the appointment is 7 days.

Make sure your weekly review does not exceed 25 minutes, or it might be a chore to stick with.

Besides doing a weekly review, do a review after each semester ends. This is the time to reflect on big questions such as; “Am I doing tasks important tasks?” “How have I performed this semester?”

Here’s a simple checklist for a weekly review:

1. Empty your capture inbox

2. Check all overdue tasks

3. Review your projects and their next actions

4. Add any new metadata

5. Review Waiting tasks

6. Review Someday/Maybe List

7. Review upcoming calendar

8. Review outdated tasks

9. Bonus: Clear out your Documents and Downloads folder

Step 5: Engage and act on your tasks

This is when you put all the pieces such as metadata together. Plan your day according to the metadata in your tasks.

Unlike those who work full-time, students don’t have a set amount of time for work. Thus, we need to separate our day into work hours and non-work hours.

During work hours, do the tasks with due dates first. Once you’re done with these, use the metadata from GTD to decide what you should work on. If you’re at home, do tasks tagged with “Home”. If you’re feeling motivated, do tasks labelled “high energy”.

Keep the work hours sacred and do nothing other than work. During non-work hours, do whatever you want.

How do you determine the time you need for work hours? Add up time needed to complete tasks with due dates and add an extra hour for tasks on your lists. There might be days where you have short work hours, and days where all your waking hours are work hours.

After deciding how long to work, decide when to work. Using your calendar, cross off the hours for your meals, personal tasks, classes, workouts and meetings. This way, you’ll be clear on the time you have in a day. Mark the free hours as work hours, starting from the earliest available hour, moving towards later hours. Do this until the total number of hours you’ve blocked equals the total amount of work hours you need.

You’ll be squeezing in tasks throughout the day instead of piling it up at night. You’ll get stuff done faster, as you have more energy in the early hours.

The key is to treat your work hours and non-work hours as sacred. You’ll get to focus when it’s time to work and relax when it’s time to chill.

Common Mistakes

1. Not clearing your capture inbox daily. When you don’t clear your inbox daily, you’ll have a backlog of captured tasks, and you don’t know if you will handle them. As a result, you can’t trust your inbox.

2. Not doing a weekly review. By not doing a weekly review, some tasks might fall through the cracks and you might forget about them.

3. Capturing too many tasks. Capturing too many tasks is counterproductive. There are some tasks you should ignore when they fleet through your mind instead of capturing them.

4. Using GTD for collecting content. Don’t keep notes and articles inside your lists as they are not actionable.

What’s Next?

  • Pick 2 inboxes for your GTD system: 1 Digital and 1 Analog
  • Start capturing your ideas into your inbox
  • Process and organise your inbox at the end of every
  • Review your list every
  • Act on your tasks


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