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    Unleash the power of GTD in Tana

    This article takes you through the principles of Getting Things Done by David Allen, and how to adapt this popular productivity framework in Tana.
    Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

    What is GTD?

    Getting Things Done, commonly known as GTD, is a personal productivity methodology introduced in 2001 by David Allen. GTD allows its practitioners to capture all of their work and process it in such a way that they stay organized and in control. They don’t get flustered or frustrated by work that is in disarray.

    The goal of GTD is to achieve a state that David Allen calls “Mind Like Water,” easily and comfortably deciding what work to pursue, informed by engagement with the GTD process.

    Forty-three folders

    When David Allen wrote the book Getting Things Done, he taught clients to implement GTD with physical paper and folders. One component of the system, the Tickler File, requires forty-three folders to implement it physically—one for each day of the month (31), and one for each month of the year (12). It’s a useful approach, but it’s begging for a simpler, digitized way to execute it.

    Digital tools certainly existed in 2001, but GTD’s specific structural requirements made digital implementations challenging. In the two decades since its introduction, followers of GTD have built the system using a wide variety of tools.

    But as powerful as digital GTD setups can be, it often feels as though something is missing—that there’s a disconnect between the organization and the action.

    GTD is a framework for emerging work

    What’s missing from most digital systems relates to this: GTD is not a top-down system.

    What does “top-down” mean? A top-down system is prescribed. Top-down systems have a pre-built structure that dictates the way you work. Almost every digital task or project management tool is top-down to some extent, and they often collide with GTD principles.

    Because GTD is a bottom-up system. Bottom-up systems can still have structure, but the structure emerges as you use the system. GTD is a framework that allows you to organize your work, but doesn’t force it into pre-built pigeonholes.

    Like most emergent systems, GTD relies on iteration: you see your work in different phases and through different lenses, and each step of the GTD process provides a perspective that makes your work easier to accomplish.

    GTD is a frame that supports the bottom-up emergence of your work.

    The steps of GTD allow you to see your work when you capture it, when you organize it, when you review it, and when you do it. That iteration helps you better understand what your work is and where it should fit in your day.

    GTD in Tana

    There is now a digital tool that allows you to achieve what GTD promises: Tana.

    Tana supplies the best of both bottom-up and top-down systems: a flexible, powerful workspace where your work can emerge and develop through iteration, plus the tools to define structure once it does emerge. Those same structural tools allow you to establish a GTD framework without inhibiting the flow of information through that framework. From capturing work all the way through to its completion, Tana allows you to experience David Allen’s elusive Mind Like Water.

    What will this article cover?

    This article will explore each of the steps of GTD in sequence and highlight which features of Tana can make that GTD process simpler.

    • Capture: Capture is the process that involves gathering all tasks, ideas, and ongoing projects that occupy your mind and getting them into your system.
    • Clarify & Organize: When you clarify, you analyze your captured items to determine what is actionable and what their immediate next steps are.Then the organize phase allows you to sort tasks into categories like projects, next actions, or work that you’re waiting for someone else to complete.For simplicity, this article will group clarify and organize into the same step.
    • Reflect: The reflect step involves regular reviews of your GTD system to update and revise your task lists.
    • Engage: With everything organized and reviewed, you can simply execute the tasks
    • Beyond GTD: Digital tools provide significantly more power than paper and folders. This article will also explore how Tana opens up new possibilities beyond standard GTD.

    The Steps of GTD


    We only have so much working memory—mental RAM, as David Allen calls it. Capturing your ideas, tasks, and projects into your GTD system ensures that nothing gets lost and contributes to your mental clarity. Capturing is essential to a usable GTD system.

    GTD System Components for Capture

    GTD uses the concept of an Inbox to capture things that do not yet have a place in your system. Using the Inbox, you can capture now and then later determine where you want to store a task or idea.

    How does Tana make Capture easy?

    No matter what environment you’re in or what hardware is at your disposal, Tana has effortless ways to capture your ideas, tasks, projects—or anything else you may need to capture!

    Tana Capture app

    One of the biggest GTD challenges is this: How do you capture when you’re not working at your computer? Tana’s answer is the iPhone and Android app Tana Capture.

    Tana Capture gives you several different ways to capture information.

    You can scan text from images or from the “real world”—documents, signs, etc.—and capture that as text directly in Tana.

    You can capture an image or video saved on your phone, or open the camera from within Tana Capture and snap a picture to capture right now.

    You can use “Write” to type text, which includes indenting to organize the information. Write is especially useful, because you can also scan text, capture images, snap pictures, and capture voice memos from within the Write area, which allows you to add additional context that may help you better understand what you’ve captured when you review it later in your Inbox.

    The Voice Memo option opens up a world of possibilities. In other apps, recording voice audio has limited uses, because listening back to audio is time consuming. But in Tana, you don’t have to listen to it!

    After you take a voice memo, the next time you open your Tana Inbox on your computer you will get the option to automatically transcribe it. That’s the best of both worlds: it’s faster to talk than it is to write, but it’s also faster to read than it is to listen. With transcription, Tana makes voice memos not only useful, but essential.

    Capture Voice

    Even if you are sitting at your computer, you can take advantage of transcription using the Capture Voice command. Capture ideas or tasks by speaking them aloud and convert them to text with transcription.

    Worth noting: the first prose draft of this very article was “written” by dictating paragraphs into Tana’s Capture Voice command and transcribing them!

    Day node & Quick Add

    Another way to quickly capture information in Tana is by typing or dictating it into the day node.

    Each day you work in Tana, you get a new day node. This daily “blank slate” provides a natural default place to capture information that may not immediately belong elsewhere—say, in a project or on a someday/maybe list.

    There’s also a pop-up called Quick Add that allows you to capture to your day node no matter where you are in your Tana workspace. Simply call up Quick Add, type or dictate whatever you need to capture, and then save it to your day node by closing Quick Add.

    Between Tana Capture, Capture Voice, your day node, and Quick Add, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a context in your life where you can’t capture information into Tana!

    Clarify & Organize

    What are Clarify & Organize?

    This article combines the Clarify and Organize steps because it makes it easier to understand how they work together in Tana.

    Clarify requires you to analyze your captured items to determine what’s actionable and what their immediate next steps are. You might execute tasks right away, depending on how long they will take, or you might choose to organize your tasks into projects or onto other lists. Or you might decide not to do them at all!

    Once you’ve determined what to do with your captured items, the Organize step is when you add them to projects, next actions, or waiting-for lists, or save the information as reference material. Organizing lets you establish order, and prevents tasks from overwhelming you or being overlooked.

    Organizing also answers the big question: where does this go? One of Tana’s major contributions to GTD is allowing this answer to be “wherever you want”—provided you tag the information.

    The Clarify and Organize steps aid in decision-making and set the stage for productivity by focusing you on execution rather than wondering what to do.

    GTD System Components for Clarify & Organize

    Project list

    The GTD definition of a project is this: when two or more tasks are united in purpose, pulling in the same direction, they comprise a project.Projects give you a place to organize those related tasks, and also serve as a hub for information that will help you complete those tasks.

    Someday/Maybe list

    The Someday/Maybe list in GTD is a list for things you want to do but don’t have time to schedule right now. Someday/Maybe gives you a place to organize those items that don’t require or demand immediate attention but that you don’t want to slip off your radar.

    Waiting For list

    When you need someone else to do something before you can move forward on a project, you are “waiting for” that to be done. The Waiting For list tracks this so you won’t lose the thread of work simply because the ball isn’t currently in your court. It also reminds you to follow up with other people.

    Tickler File

    The Tickler File is the 43 folders mentioned earlier. Using physical paper, you can jot notes and reminders, or you can store bills that need to be paid or other date-sensitive documents.The Tickler File is particularly improved in a digital format: you don’t need physical space for 43 folders, and it allows information to be resurfaced automatically rather than by checking and reordering folders.

    Reference material

    Reference material associated with projects needs to be collected and organized as well. Physical GTD relies on file cabinets and folders for reference material. Tools like Tana can link directly to digital files, URLs, or anything else that supports the projects you’re working on.

    How does Tana make Clarify & Organize easier?

    The Clarify and Organize steps demonstrate how Tana really shines as a way to implement GTD. Here are a few examples.

    Combining notes and tasks in one environment

    Dedicated task apps like Todoist, Things, or Omnifocus handle tasks quite well, but they are limited when you need to link to notes and other information.

    Tana gives you the freedom to implement your own structures for surfacing projects, tasks, ideas, and more, which provides much more leverage than dedicated task apps.

    Clarifying and Organizing isn’t just for your tasks. It’s for the notes and other reference material that support your work. When notes and tasks live in separate tools, these steps become considerably more cumbersome than they need to be.Tana allows you to go from seed of idea to full project implementation in the same environment. Context switching costs are eliminated when you’re not bouncing from one app to another as you move through the various stages of a project.

    Making sense of your ideas and your work

    GTD is a framework that supports emergent work. You don’t need to have a project pre-built in advance—you can create it as you clarify and organize the tasks that make up that project.

    Tana supports this in a way that comparable apps like Roam Research or Notion cannot. Roam is good on the emergence side, but weak at establishing the structure projects require. Notion is the opposite: solid on structure, but emergence from seed of idea to project is far more difficult.

    A deep dive into Tana’s supertags, fields, and searches would be beyond the scope of this article, but those tools make it easy to build immediate and durable relationships between tasks, projects, reference materials, and any other information relevant to your work.

    Supertags define types—your tasks, your projects, or honestly anything. Fields allow you to schedule tasks, define next actions, assign contexts for work, track what you’re waiting for, or handle any other information you need for your work. Searches surface the information you need when you need to see it, and include filters that allow you to narrow down to exactly what you’re looking for.

    Creating lists for anything, effortlessly

    If a node in Tana is tagged as a project, you can view it together in a search with all your projects. The same is true for tasks, items you’re waiting-for, reminders tagged as “ticklers,” reference notes, or anything else.

    It’s not necessary to store all of these “in one place” to keep track of them. When you use tags to organize your information, you can automatically access it in searches you create to surface that information.

    This is a major improvement in the maintenance requirements for a GTD-style system. You can stay organized with far less effort on your part, and feel comfortable knowing information will be where you need it when you need it.

    Executing the Clarify and Organize steps in Tana allow you to make sense of new ideas and wrap your mind around projects, while still having the framework and structure in place to add tasks to projects and link work to the reference materials that support it.


    What is Reflect?

    If you’re going to keep track of the work in your GTD system, you must reflect regularly upon it: you must perform reviews. This is where GTD often collapses, because people don’t perform those reviews.

    GTD contains three types of reviews: daily Inbox processing, the Weekly Review consisting of the primary maintenance requirements for the system, and higher-level big-picture reviews for staying aligned with goals.

    The Inbox processing and Weekly Review, in particular, are notorious bottlenecks for GTD users. Captured items pile up in the Inbox, un-clarified and unorganized. And GTDers often go months without performing the so-called “Weekly” Review.

    When this Reflect step fails, the GTD system fails. Reviews are required for your system to stay up-to-date and remain adaptable to the change that is inevitable in your life and work.

    It’s not that GTD practitioners don’t know this—they do! But there’s a piece missing, which fortunately Tana can provide. That piece is the simplicity of remembering the reviews and the ease of performing them.

    How does Tana make Reflect easier?

    There are no other tools that combine the fluidity of information entry with the ease of information review as effectively as Tana does.

    The first step to performing reviews regularly is as critical as it is mundane: you must remember to do them. Tana comes with a reminder function built in—you can surface reminders on specified day nodes.

    Beyond that, it’s possible to combine Tana’s supertags, fields, and commands into robust and reliable recurring tasks. With a recurring task poking you to complete your Weekly Review, you’re that much more likely to do it.

    The next step to excellent reviews is surfacing the right information to review. Tana’s Live Search feature is infinitely flexible. You can build searches to deliver you any information you could possibly need.If you’re checking in on your projects’ next actions, you can configure a search to provide you exactly that and only that. Or to review your projects themselves, as part of a Weekly Review, you can build a search just for projects. You can configure it to display only what you need to see, and group or sort them in any way that’s useful for you to make sense of the information.

    Using Tana’s tabs view, you can easily build dashboards that contain a series of searches or other information, with each tab leading you to a critical step of your review process.

    A Weekly Review delivered by a series of pre-configured tabs in a dashboard is far more likely to be completed than one from a checklist that requires you to go fishing for the information you need for each step.

    Plus, reviews of your big picture from (to use David Allen’s terms) 10,000 feet, 20,000 feet, 30,000 feet, or higher, can be assembled into a dashboard of searches configured to surface goals at various time intervals or tied to specific areas of your work or life.


    What is Engage?

    Once everything is captured, clarified, organized, and reviewed, you can simply execute the tasks. This is where David Allen promises Mind Like Water—because you have engaged with your work in this iterative way, you understand it deeply. You can trust your instincts: simply look at the next actions in your projects and choose what to do now.

    This step is where productivity becomes concrete, as you confidently tackle tasks based on their priority and your current contexts.

    Just do the work. Engage.

    How does Tana make Engage easier?

    It is easier to take action when your tasks, notes, information, and more, are aligned with your way of thinking and working. Projects serve as not just containers for tasks related by purpose, but also as hubs of information. That’s where Tana makes executing your work easier.

    If you build a project exactly to your specifications, then there’s no fumbling around for information when it’s time to act. Everything is at your fingertips when the structure reflects your requirements. There’s nothing that’s going to stop you from getting that work done.

    What that structure looks like depends on your needs and the needs of a given project. But Tana’s features make it simple to incorporate any structure that makes your work easier to execute.

    Beyond GTD

    Tana takes us beyond the paper and folders David Allen envisioned in his pure GTD of 20+ years ago. The power of digital systems, and of Tana in particular, will allow you to expand into areas that GTD doesn’t address.

    The most critical blind spot of GTD is the value of recurring work. The only recurring structures in pure GTD are the reviews: Inbox processing, Weekly Review, and big-picture reviews. But productivity leverage comes from capturing work you’ve done before and using it to avoid reinventing wheels in the future.

    As mentioned above, you can build recurring tasks in Tana using supertags, fields, and commands. This isn’t particularly amazing—any task app can handle recurring tasks.

    But task apps do not allow you to capture processes into reliable procedures, or create project templates with set task lists that can be pre-scheduled based on a relative reference date.

    None of that is part of pure GTD, but it’s critical for efficient productivity. Nothing kills productivity more than starting from scratch with every piece of work you do. The extraordinary flexibility and power of Tana opens up these possibilities.

    Any set of workflow relationships you can imagine—dashboards that are unique to your work, subsystems that allow you to track pipelines of information—all of this can be built in Tana.

    Granted, you have to learn Tana to do that. It’s not immediately obvious how to build these more advanced workflows, but that’s true with any tool.

    What’s not true of any tool is this: once you understand Tana’s features and recognize a few fundamental patterns, the flexibility and power available to you is out of this world.

    What’s your Next Action?

    Tana is a tool built for emerging work. You can capture, clarify, organize, reflect on, and engage with information that is structured by the frameworks that you design. It is a perfect fit for GTD, because you can build a GTD framework in Tana with relatively little difficulty once you understand the fundamentals. If you use GTD—or if you’ve used GTD in the past but always felt something was missing—dive into Tana and take it for a spin!