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Set-up a complete GTD system using Google Apps

Getting Things Done (GTD) , heard of it? Chances are you have and are probably using it to some extent. GTD is a extremely popular organizational method created by David Allen.It has been described as the productivity cult of the new info age.Over the years there have been many variations of this method, but the essence has remained same.The popularity of the system is evident from the number of systems that have become avilable that support. They range from simple papaer based systems to automated software systems. The post however is not about what GTD is , but about creating a GTD system using Google Apps.I will try to keep the information on what GTD is to the bare minimum, if you need more information or help on GTD. Just try Google search. There are a lot of excellent sources out there.(A comparison of the most popular GTD apps)

A GTD system relies of four main phases

  • Collect – The collect or capture phase is essentially taking everything off your head.Everything and anything however small or big is captured.This is an ongoing phase and performed as often as required.
  • Process – The collected information is processed and categorized into actionable items and non – actionable items. Actionable items are further grouped as Next items,Scheduled items i.e. which require to be done at a specific date or time, Waiting items that waiting on someone or some task and Projects i.e tasks which require a series of actions to be done before the main item can be completed.Non – Actionable items are either archived for future reference or thrashed.As a thumb rule processing should be done at least twice in a day.You can choose a different schedule based your inbox pattern.
  • Review – As your system grows, you will probably have a few lists and number of projects and a lot many actionable next items in your system. A review of the system helps to identify and prioritize and build a focus list.You can do a daily, weekly and a monthly review.
  • Execute or Do – Execute the action items in the Next actions

The Set-up

So why use Google Apps? Firstly It is free.All the Google applications used to set-up this system are free. Secondly it is accessible everywhere i.e You are not bound by system, hardware or software. You can access your system from anywhere as long as you are connected to Internet. You can even access it on your smart phones, both iOS,Android or Blackberry.However the most compelling reason for me is that I am yet to come across a application or a product which has all the components of a GTD system i.e. mail,to -do lists,calendar and a filing system.

Before jumping to the set-up details, lets quickly summarize the elements  of a basic GTD system

  • The Inbox (Or the Capture System) – Dumping everything for later processing (Gmail,Google Tasks, Chrome Plug-ins)
  • Next Action Lists – Storing your next actions (Google Tasks)
  • Projects Lists – For storing your projects and associated tasks (Google Tasks)
  • Waiting Lists – For your waiting and delegated tasks (Google Tasks)
  • Calendar – For your scheduled events and tasks (Google Calendar)
  • Reference Filing System – Storing for reference (Google Docs)

Google Tasks

Google tasks is available as an integrated app within Google Calendar and Gmail. It can be launched from either of those or can be launched independently (see the tips section below).Google Tasks forms the core of the GTD system.It is a simple application to create and manage multiple lists. First you will need to create the following lists in Google tasks.

  • Inbox – Google tasks comes with one default list.Rename the default list to use as an Inbox. By default when you access tasks from GMail, it opens the default list(the default list cannot be deleted, but can be renamed).Since your email is one of your primary source of information, as you process your mail you will want to quickly send them to your task lists. You can do this via the more actions button in gmail.
  • Next Actions – For all immediate actionable items
  • Waiting – Use the waiting list for items that waiting on someone or some task, including delegated tasks.
  • Focus List – This is actually a personal GTD hack that I have been using for sometime now. As i do my daily review, I add the items that i would like to focus on for the next day. Sometimes it may be just one. the idea is to clear out your focus list first before attacking your next items.
  • Scheduled – All your scheduled items will make up this. You will need this list also in your calendar setup which we will go through later.
  • Projects - This list will hold your projects and sub projects. To create hierarchical tasks just use the indent option in Google Tasks or you can toggle between the ‘Tab’ and ‘Shift+Tab’

  • Someday – All your someday and later items will be part of this list.

Google Task Tips for GTD

  • You can use the task description to store supporting information.

  • For a more context sensitive sorting, you can setup multiple Next Action lists for example shopping, calls etc.
  • By default Google tasks appear as a popup within your screen in GMail or Google Calendar without any maximize option. The workaround to view the tasks separately and maximized is to use the following URL This canvas mode is nice when you are processing and reviewing your items.


Email is the most common source of your action items.I use Gmail as my primary mail system with the following setup specifically for GTD

  • Mail Consolidation – You can configure gmail with your other POP email accounts.The multiple inbox feature makes this more elegant. Check out more on multiple inbox here.
  • Priority Inbox – Gmail recently introduced the priority inbox feature which is just awesome.In my setup I have tweaked it to have sections actionable email, important and all others. More information on tweaking priority inbox here.
  • Sending email as tasks to your Inbox (Default) list for processing it later during your review.

Google Calendar

Google Calendar is perhaps the best calendar application out there. You can create multiple calendars and also share calendars. Tasks with due dates are automatically appear on your calendar along with your appointments for the day.However, currently Google calendar can only support one list at a time.To make your scheduled tasks show up in your calendar make sure select your scheduled list in google tasks while in the calendar application.Once you have done this.Every time you access Google Calendar your scheduled tasks will be displayed.

Tip – Google has a calendar sync utility which can sync outlook events with Google Calendar

Chrome with Extensions

I use Google chrome as my primary browser with the following extensions to complement the GTD system

  • Google Calendar Checker – This allows you to quickly see the time until your next meeting. You can also open your Google Calendar from it.
  • Google Tasks – A simple extension to quickly add tasks while you are browsing. It opens your default list, which by now should have been renamed to Inbox List.
  • Chrome Notepad –  This is my favourite and most used.A very simple notepad for Chrome to quickly jot down information. It also supports syncing between different browsers.

I am sure you will find the equivalent plug-ins for FireFox as well.

Google Docs

A filing system for your reference items is a critical part of your GTD setup.I have been using Google docs for this and have been quite happy with the results.Google docs is more than just an alternative to your more traditional office suite. One of the biggest advantage it has is that it is available over the Internet.You can directly save attachments from your Gmail to Google Docs.Its not limited to GMail, you can upload any file directly to Google Docs.It also has collaboration features to enable you to share documents if you need to. The search feature works great enabling ediscovery.For the record all the posts on this blog have been created on Google Docs.

Well that is just about it. You have a basic GTD system setup in Google apps.However there are a couple of limitations to the system

Do you have your own hacks or tips to add please leave a comment here connect via the About page on the top menu.

  • Jeff

    Just wanted to thank you for this. I had used google apps before but created my projects in google docs and sorted my tasks by context. This is much easier to move next actions around and it syncs with my android phone easier than using shuffle/tracks. I would recommend using google calendar checker plus extension as the google calendar checker doesn’t seem to work. Thanks again for a great article.


  • Wayne Palmer

    Thanks for this. I have used this advice and setup my own GTD environment in Google, after trying almost everything else I could think off – OneNote, EverNote, Remember the Milk, Outlook…

    …I already feel happier with this. I use it in combination with DropBox for general files as opposed to Google Docs (which I have never really got on with for some reason).

    I need to make sure I do not resort to my previous ways!

  • Sam Palani

    So glad you guys liked it :)
    @Wyne – I have used both Google docs and Drop Box. But I am trying to restain myself with Google Docs.
    @Jeff , Thanks for the tip will check out the Calendar Checker Plus extension.

  • Jonathan

    Great post! I will definitely consider doing a setup like this in the future!

    Thanks again!


  • Kyith

    nice one there. i will try to spread the message on my blog. i really think its useful.

    on a personal note. I use

    1. Google Calendar for scheduling on my smartphone >>

    2. 2Do on my ipod touch for task sync to Toodledo >>

    3. Evernote for keeping track of notes.

    4. I don’t rely on google docs but perhaps it will develop wel in the future. Office is still very important


  • Sam Palani

    Thanks for stopping by and featuring the post.Glad you liked it.I do use evernote , but mainly for webclippings.

  • mickmel

    I’ve tried something similar, but Google Tasks simply isn’t mature enough yet.

    In particular, it’s difficult to move items from a project to a next action, yet still associate it with the project. If they simply added “starred items” or something like that, it’d work much better. Until then, I’m sticking with Nozbe (combined with Google Docs, Gmail, Evernote and Dropbox).

  • Anonymous

    If you want something that integrates with Gmail and Google Calendar, but is more powerful than Google Tasks you might check out GQueues ( It’s a task manager I developed that has the features that Google Tasks is missing, such as tagging, assignments, reminders and repeating tasks. And it works great with GTD – check out this video:


  • Kyith

    No probs. but i really discover today that i can just save documents on a certain topics and form a note book digest. its good for next time reading and reference.

  • Anonymous

    Try GQueues which integrates neatly into any Google account. Very simple to set up and use. It is everything that Google Tasks should be.

  • Guest

    Thanks for sharing – will definitely try this setup a bit.

    Cameron, GQueues is good, but you have to pay for it to get the simple widget that lets you convert an email to a task.

  • Alex @Buduguru Alekseev

    Thank you for this tutorial!

  • Peyton Stafford

    How would you develop this for a team with multiple projects, deadlines, mileposts, etc.?

  • Vegassovine

    This is great, but when you add a email to tasks your email stays in your inbox.  What actions do you do to clear out your inbox?  Delete them as a second step.

  • Tony Thompson

    Recommend the ‘Open Google Docs’ extension as a more integrated note solution than Chrome Notepad… It allows you to create a quickie doc right in the browser window.

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