How I do GTD

September 18, 2007

Well, thought I’d take a little break from technical discussions to describe how I handle the “GTD” mentality that seems to be so popular in many many blogs these days. In case you are unfamiliar with GTD, you can read the encyclopedic definition of it from wikipedia or take a look at some of the articles that lifehacker has under the GTD label.

For simplicity purposes, I don’t follow the stringent GTD process that the actual author of the book (David Allen) about it explains, his way is waaay more complex than I currently need, I’m not some crazy CEO that gets >300 emails a day.I tend to get anywhere between 30-70 emails a day regarding work and anywhere between 5-40 emails a day from personal/mailinglist traffic. I just figured that I’d outline how I handle all my todo and work items.

Let’s start with the requests that we get, we use a ticket tool called Mantis to manage our system administration bugs. Requests come in and are sent to us (Myself and Bar-El) via email, we can also browse our tickets from the Mantis web interface which normally looks something like this (click for larger picture):


I have the Mantis emails filter into a separate mail folder (more on email later) so they don’t clutter up my inbox. Using this interface, I normally add the TODO items to my handy-dandy Moleskine notebook. I use a todo setup that I found on a persons blog (sorry person, I can’t remember who you are!) That involves the following:

– New items come in with a “-” to the left of them, this means a task to be done
– When I am done with a task, I cross the – with a vertical line, to make it a “+
– If an item is no longer needed or needs to be deleted from the list, I add a couple of lines to make it a “*
– If an item is deferred for a different person to handle it, it is preceded by a “<“, making it looks like “<-
– If an item has been moved on the list to perhaps a different list (or a different page), I circle the -

Here’s a couple of pictures of what my notebook normally looks like:



I use the Moleskine from the front for only todo items. Then, when I need to note something or jot down a phone number or other notes, I flip the entire moleskine upside down so that I am essentially writing backwards (and upside down so it’s still left-to-right like a regular book) for notes, I feel this makes a nice balance between todo and notes without getting the two mixed up. When the two sides eventually meet, it’s time to buy a new one.

I normally write in pen using my (sweet) $5 copy of a $200 mont-blanc pen made using these instructions. I really like the way this pen writes, very smooth and easy to write with, not that I would actually pay $200 for one, but I’d definitely pay $5 for one. Highly recommended!

So that’s how I handle our daily requests that come in through Mantis, next, I’ll talk a little bit about how I handle email and requests from different accounts using Mutt.

First, let me starting with a screenshot showing how my email is laid out (makes it easier to talk about) (click for larger picture):


I am using Mutt 1.5.16 with the sidebar patch to show mailboxes on the left-hand side. I fetch mail every 3 minutes using fetchmail, process it with procmail to separate it into separate mailboxes, I then use msmtp to send email out. I have different scripts to change mail fetch and smtp preferences based on whether I am at work or at home (gmail pop3 and smtp are blocked at work, and I can’t access work email from home). I also have fetchmail hooked up to Growl so that I receive updates when new mail arrives. If you are interested in setting up Mutt/Fetchmail/etc, I highly recommend checking out Vincent Danen’s excellent “Using Mutt on OS X” article (even if you don’t use OSX it’s extremely useful).

Anyhow, back to GTD, email comes in, is either dealt with immediately, or pushed to the “ACTION” box (which has 0 messages in the screenshot). Gmail comes into Inbox, Work email goes into EMC, Mantis tickets go into mantis, all my old CU email goes into CU, everything from the securityfocus mailing lists goes into securityfocus, keys for some software go into key and spam goes into Spam. mairix-search contains the latest search results from mairix (a mail searching program that can be integrated into Mutt). Additionally, I keep archives of all sent mail, but you can’t see that on this screen.

I have attachments setup through the ~/.mailcap file that automatically open attachments with the right application, in this case, I open all of Microsoft Outlook’s .ics files with iCal, essentially tying in with the calendar system that EMC uses. Here’s a screenshot of what my iCal looks like (very sparse, I don’t have too many meetings on there right now):


I set it up to alert me 5 minutes before a meeting (normally all I need) and I typically don’t use it for much else.

That pretty much finishes up how I use email and a moleskine for my daily GTD. Hopefully you found it not too terribly boring.

And to anyone that reads this, how do you organize your daily tasks and email? I’m always looking for ways to improve mine, let me know in the comments!

Questions? Feel free to email me (see bar on the right) :)

posted in email, fetchmail, gtd, ical, mantis, moleskine, mutt, todo by Lee

10 Comments to "How I do GTD"

  1. Delilah Hinman wrote:

    Can you set up Growl for my mail client?

    Anyway, for my GTDness can be found on and the to do list on my iGoogle homepage.

  2. itsjustcamille wrote:

    So, the title didn’t sell me at first, because I thought it was more computer stuff that would be way over my head. But I am thoroughly intrigued. I sit here thinking about how I organize my job, which is far different from yours. For one, we don’t use e-mail at my job, we use voice mail. I have to remember to call in to my voicemail to check it every few hours. And I don’t write things down usually, I just remember them, or respond to them as they come. Since I work at 8 different locations, with over 50 different individuals on a person-to-person basis, and under 3 different structures; I use folders, as opposed to a notebook of tasks. And my basic task with each individual only changes once a year, however the mode in which these tasks are completed changes. Thus, the handy sticky note. Things needed for the next time spent with an individual are written non-specifically on a sticky note and slapped in a folder that summarizes each location. No specific individual is written, I just remember. So, I guess I collect info during the time spend with each individual, I write down needs, I process as I drive or sleep or cook dinner in my background thoughts, I organize materials at the beginning of each week-stuffing them into specific folders, I review in the first five minutes with an individual, and I do for the remainder of the time. I have no clue if that is anything near what you’re trying to talk about…but there you go. I don’t really think I’m that organized at all.

  3. Legit wrote:

    Ah, so thats why you had a moleskine notebook the other day, I’ve been meaning to ask you about that. While I haven’t really looked into GTD all that much the whole structure seems too hard for me to learn while I’m in the middle of school, so for me, its the old “I need to make sure to remember this” routine.

  4. Kephas wrote:

    Wow, dude. I would have to say that your organizational skills are quite superb. Mine pale in comparison. However, I think that that is due to the lesser amount of tasks that I might have, not being an admin or anything. Typically I get 0-5 emails/day, which I suppose is nice, because I don’t have a lot to go through. Then for a todo list, I just use a legal pad. I make checkbox next to the stuff I need to do, and check them off when finished. I like the Moleskine idea a lot though, perhaps I’ll try that.

  5. Delilah Hinman wrote:

    Yeah, Moleskines are really nice. I recently purchased one and am currently using it for school. In the front I write homework that is due and flipped over and upside down I write foreign words to look up. Though I usually only work with e-todo lists, the Moleskine is proving to be useful. Thanks for encouraging me to get one, Matthew :)

  6. Lee Hinman wrote:

    Yea, I find that online todo lists don’t really work too well for me because most of my memory of tasks comes from muscle memory of actually writing it down.

  7. getting all my crap organised - draft 1 « The Painted Porch wrote:

    […] not immediately For my daily tasks list a smaller moleskine notebook, implementing the key show in this […]

  8. Joel Esler wrote:


    Thanks for the point to the article! I appreciate it!


  9. :wq - blog » Blog Archive » GTD and desktop workflow/setup, revisited wrote:

    […] that might have read my blog for a long time might remember this post about how I do GTD (Getting To Done) on my machine(s). Well, I decided it’s been quite a while since I’ve talked about that, so I’ll […]

  10. bascht wrote:

    Thank you!
    I got a lot of inspiration from your article.

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