Habit 5: Simple, trusted system

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One of the keys to any time-management system is the to-do list -- it keeps all the tasks that you can’t do at this moment organized so that you know what you need to do at all times.

David Allen’s GTD asks you to separate your tasks into separate to-do lists, known as "context lists", such as @work, @ computer, @home, @calls, @errands, and so forth. The reasons is so that when you’re in a particular context, you only have to look at the tasks you can actually do at this moment, rather than looking at a long list of tasks that are mostly un-doable right now.

In ZTD, it is important to keep a simple system that you will actually use ... a system that you will trust to keep your information. Here are the three components of a simple, trusted system:

  1. Setup. A simple system would consist of inboxes, a calendar, lists, and a reference system.
  2. Tools. It is also important that you use very simple tools, so that the system does not need to be maintained much.
  3. Usage. Finally, the important thing is that you actually use the system, and make a habit of checking it daily.

The Setup

ZTD says that you should use the lists you need, but keep your system as simple as possible. While the concept of context lists are useful, they can be difficult to maintain. Instead, keep as few as possible. A sample setup might look like this: @work: for everything work-related.

@personal: all your personal tasks.

@errands: so you can have an easy errand list.

@calls: for calls you can make from anywhere.

@waiting for: a useful list for stuff you need to follow up on.

Someday/maybe: a list of stuff you don’t want to or can’t do right now, but want to check on later.

However you do it, remember that these are not your daily to-do lists. The work and personal lists are just master lists that you can pull from for your daily MITs and your Big Rocks (see Habit 3: Plan). The errands, calls and waiting-for lists can be checked as needed, of course. In addition, if it helps, you could use a Project list, to keep track of your projects.

The other components of a system, besides the lists, would be inboxes (Habit 1: Collect), a calendar, and a simple filing system

The Tools

And while many popular GTD tools (Kinkless, stikkit, Outlook, Remember the Milk, etc.) make things a bit complicated, the truth is that all you need are lists.

Many people get too caught up in fiddling with the tools, with creating complicated systems, changing tools and systems every week or two, instead of actually getting things done. But ZTD asks you to use the simplest tools possible, and then forget about them. ZTD is about the doing, not the tools. So the obvious question is: which tool to use to keep your lists? Here are my recommendations - the simplest, most effective GTD tools:

  • Simple GTD: This is my favorite, and the one I use right now. I was using Tracks, which is also simple and very good, but I recently switched because I wanted something a little simpler. Simple GTD has what you need, with a nice interface, but none of the frills. Play around with it - the interface is extremely intuitive and doesn’t require a manual. It doesn’t have a lot of features, but that’s its appeal.
  • Moleskine: Another of my favorites. Actually, any small notebook that fits in your pocket will do - the easy of use of a notebook (you don’t have to power it up or press any buttons!) is perfect for this daily GTD habit. But the Moleskine has a special appeal - it is aesthetically pleasing, and wonderful to use. I highly recommend it!
  • Hipster PDA: Popular among the low-fi GTD crowd, the Hipster PDA is as basic as it gets, and extremely portable as well. Basically, it’s a stack of index cards attached with a clip. You can find templates for printing them online, or just simply write your lists on them. The cool thing: you can toss the cards when they’re full, and replenish your PDA at any time.
  • Tadalist: (retired) Perhaps the simplest tool of them all, tadalist is simply a list program. No frills, although the interface is nice (it’s from the same folks as Backpack and Basecamp). Create as many lists as you need, print them if necessary, check only the context you need. Simplicity at its best.
  • Todoist: Another simple, slick to-do list manager, this has a few extra features, but nothing complicated. I don’t use it simply because I don’t like the outline interface, but that may appeal to some of you more. It’s worth a look, at least.

Once you’ve selected a tool, set up your lists, and keep them simple!

Other tools for a simple setup:

  • Calendar: I suggest Google Calendar, 30 Boxes, Outlook or a paper calendar.
  • Reference system: For paper filing, use manila folders in alphabetical order in a single drawer is a simple setup that works best. Just create a file for each project, client, and/or topic. For digital files, you could use a simple folder system similar to the paper one, or just archive stuff and search for them when you need them.


The next part of this habit, and really the most important part (more important than the tool you use), is checking your lists every day.

I suggest making it a part of your daily routine (more on this in Chapter 13), where you check your lists in the morning and at the end of the day, and of course check your calls and errands lists when you need them. This isn’t such a hard habit, but it’s one that you should give special focus for about 30 days. Because once you make checking your lists a daily habit, your life will become much more organized and productive.

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