Not getting things done? Try WSD

I want to welcome guest author Tim Chase and his “family friendly” version of WSD. His system is just as simple, just as much fun, but with a less-adult vocabulary.

Thanks to my local public library, I’ve joined the ranks of folks who have read David Allen’s Getting Things Done. However I became bogged down in the implementation details. Then I stumbled across this article on and in a lightbulb moment I recognized it as a similar technique I’ve watched my father use for years.

Failed by GTD

Overwhelmed by GTD’s buzzwords (contexts, ubiquitous capture, tickler files, 43-folders, buckets, etc), the simplicity of WSD is appealing:

  • Find something to write on.
  • Find something to write with.
  • Finally, and most importantly, WRITE STUFF DOWN.

GTD also seems to promote beautiful yet expensive implements — PDA/smart-phones, Moleskine® notebooks, space-pens. WSD has no such pretensions. While you can use your PDA/smart-phone, your Moleskine or your space-pen, you can certainly employ a wide varity of writing surfaces and implements.

Writing Surfaces

Write on whatever is handy — 3×5 cards (Hipster PDA-ized or otherwise), Post-It® note pads, cheap spiral-bound pocket notepads, envelopes, margins of newspapers or magazines, or even paper-towels, napkins, tissues or toilet-paper in desperation. You can carry them with you at all times or just as needed. I prefer to only carry paper when I know I may not have something on which I can write. A box of old business cards and a small whiteboard in the kitchen for grocery lists; page-a-day calendar sheets in the study for to-do lists; a small tablet by the bedside and in the car; Post-It pads at work. For other places, I simply take a little pocket-sized notepad (a four-pack at the local dollar-store).

Things on which you should not write your important brain-droppings: receipts, bills you have to pay, cheques, paper currency, contracts, library books, the Dead Sea Scrolls, or the Magna Carta. Unless you copy them off ASAP to something less transient (and in the case of library books, the Dead Sea Scrolls, or important constitutional documents, I suggest removing your writing from them first).

Writing Implements

Writing implements also abound — while you can use your space-pen, that $180 gold-encrusted beast engraved with your name and business, or your favorite Hello Kitty® glittery gel pen with the glow-in-the-dark purple ink, I lean toward the cheap and abundant options. You’re not illuminating monastic manuscripts, you’re getting an idea out of your head and onto paper. Out and about, I usually carry a Papermate® medium-point point pen because they write well and come in 12-packs for under $2 (USD). Occasionally, I augment with a #2 automatic-pencil, also obtained in multi-packs under $2 (USD). I’ve found that the long narrow “tool pockets” in carpenter jeans/shorts hold my writing implements so they don’t jab my thighs like a regular front pocket can. And they make for a snazzy quick-draw holster effect when you whip out a pen on demand.

Depending on your location, you may find you don’t need to carry a writing implement. We keep stashes of implements around the house — in the nightstands, in the desk, in the catch-all drawer, in the bill drawer, in the cars, etc. If you’re the type who steals pens from coworkers and banks, cut that out. Or, at least give them back. At conferences, many companies hand out business-branded pens for free. In addition to the craft-boxes, parents likely find crayons under foot, in couch cushions, up noses, and on the floor under little Johnny’s wall-art. For those who do their best thinking in the shower, you can find shower/tub crayons to scrawl on the shower wall.


Get something to write on. Get something to write with. Write stuff down.

48 Comments for “Not getting things done? Try WSD”

  1. posted by Kay on

    Funny and also perfect. Thanks.

  2. posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown on

    I LOVE this post! I’m also an advocate of the WSD system. If you’re a gadget girl like me I WSD on my iTouch, if you’re a paper person (like another organizing colleague of mine) you use an agenda.

    I advocate carrying a notebook around all the time and WSD in one notebook. You can use a divided one to keep ideas separated (home, work, other stuff) but a small one that fits in your pocket is nice too.

  3. posted by Brad on

    While I agree that you should always write stuff down (that’s really the core principle of GTD), you really should minimize the number of places you write them down. I think David Allen says something like “have as many inboxes you need” but not so many that it becomes a problem keeping track of them. That said, if you can keep one or two (maybe three) pads/journals/piles then your more apt to follow up on the things you write down. If you’ve got a pile of notes in a dozen different places, how likely are you to actually go through each pile and do something about it?

  4. posted by Gene Chase on

    Brad is right. I sometimes have too many places to write things down. (I’m the “my father” of Tim’s post.)

    I am also plagued by the fact that sometimes the notes are too easily lost because of their small size. My colleague tapes those to larger sheets when that becomes a worry.

    I like typing stuff into a computer file when I can, because then I can (1) sort stuff into priority- or time-order, (2) search for stuff, and (2) break a lot of stuff easily into smaller piles. For example, books/DVDs to read/watch are now a separate file, so I don’t look at it all the time, only when I am ready to read or watch.

  5. posted by Noelle on

    Funny! And true to how many of us (esp. parents of small children) operate, I think.

    I’ve gotten GTD out of the library, too, but never seem to be able to finish it, much less implement all the steps. What I know about the system comes from reading reviews on blogs :~)

    As far as I can tell, WSD is the main thing as @Brad said, so I keep blank index cards in places all over the house to write notes on. It is extremely satisfying to toss (or SHRED) these cards when the task is complete.

  6. posted by Rhys on

    I’ve been writing things down since I was a teenager. I’ve still lost plenty of ideas, but I’ve kept so many that would otherwise just have been flashes across my brain. After losing a notebook full of ideas in Paris, I have one bit of advice: transcribe your notes nightly, or at the very least, don’t carry around all your untranscribed notes. “The power of small” definitely applies when choosing notebooks.

  7. posted by Heather on

    I was the write on the back of anything that didn’t move type and I lost all sorts of things. It was my motto that if you lose your to do list, you don’t have to do those things. Alas, not the case. Now that I have a Blackberry that goes with me everywhere, I use that to write myself notes. I use the note pad feature for some lists, but I do my “to do” list in a calendar item so that it is staring me in the face.

  8. posted by FB @ on

    Agreed. I forgot how to do the stupid GTD system and found it to be a hassle

    WSD is a lot easier. I just write things down, and mentally I know their priorities so I just do what I feel like doing

  9. posted by Michele on

    After reading the original NSFW article on WSD several months ago, I realized I’d been implementing WSD since about the 7th grade.

    Love it!

  10. posted by RML on

    My whole blog is my way of writing down the decluttering things I need to do and as its in a public way, it keeps me accountable! So, I´m also a big believer in WSD – on paper and online 🙂

  11. posted by Get “Getting Things Done” Done with WSD. on

    […] today I came across a post on Unclutterer about Tim Chase’s take on it, and his own mini-introduction to GTD: WSD – Write […]

  12. posted by skittles on

    I’ve followed the WSD mentality, but I prefer to use blank index cards or blank business cards. The thicker paper makes it easier to find both to write it down & then to follow-thru.

    For me, the next step is to have a place to gather the cards, whether the task is finished or not. Leaving the cards “around” makes it easier to ‘lose’ the task or list & then it doesn’t get done!

  13. posted by Nashville SEO on

    My problem with this system is a little thing called A.D.D. I used to WSD shopping lists; but it would be a 50/50 proposition if it would still be in my possession from home to the store—even when I knew this and did my best to overcome it. My solution has finally come in the form of eWSD. 🙂 Between my iPhone shopping app and my calendar that I’ve turned in to a to-do/task list, I’ve gained some semblance of order now.

  14. posted by Tania on

    I loved the Writing “Stuff” Down method from the moment I found it.. I found it via.. I don’t know where I found it but anyway it was perfect for me. I agree that GTD is awesome but not for everyone… (I’m another who mostly eWSD)

  15. posted by Anita on

    Nicely written post! It’s given me a giggle.

    Also: it appears I’m ahead of the WSD curve; my trusty planner is practically part of my anatomy. The only downside is that you’re more likely to forget things you don’t write down, after a while. When you need a note to remind you to water the plants, it’s time to get your good old fashioned remembering skills out of moth balls. 🙂

  16. posted by Susan on

    GTD – WSD – WTF, I hate acronyms! KWIM

  17. posted by GTDfan on

    I found that the WSD “system” alone leads to HZOBOPTYHNCOWTDW (Having Zillions of Bits of Paper That You Have No Clue of What To Do With) Syndrome. That’s why GTD is a lifesaver. I have to quibble with the guest author — the book _Getting Things Done_ explains how to use simple and cheap office supplies for GTD…hardly “beautiful but expensive equipment”.

  18. posted by Peter (a different one) on

    Great read, but I need the GOMA system (Get Off My A**) ie, I need to get off my a** and actually unclutter 🙂

  19. posted by knitwych on

    Love this post! I absolutely hated the GTD book. I found it so ridiculously cluttered with notations and tips in the sidebars and in boxes that I didn’t even finish it. All the jargon was annoying, too. Come to find out, I’ve been getting things done all my life with just two basic steps. My process bears the same acronym as the one in this post, but there’s one word that is significantly different. My WSD/GTD process is this:

    Write s**t down.
    Address the s**t you wrote down (i.e. Do that s**t.)

    I especially loved this author’s snark on the writing surfaces and writing implements. While I drool/lust after luxury notebook p o r n (such as the notebooks given in the wonderful pornucopia list recently published on Unclutterer), and I admit that I carry a Markings notebook practically everywhere I go, and that I am addicted to office supplies (free pens = total squealy giddiness), I have had many a snicker reading comments all over the web about the Moleskine Cult and Space Pens. I almost got sucked into the Moleskine Cult, and while I do fondle them lovingly when I’m in bookstores and office supply stores that carry them, I’m always looking for the better value. I write with what’s handy, and I’m so goofy about pens that I have at least 5 of them in my purse at all times. There are at least 3 pens and 3 pencils in my truck, too, as well as an emergency notepad and biz cards (for jotting down ‘Sorry I missed you’ notes).

    Granted, WSD *can* lead to a zillion bits of paper, but you can train yourself to use a notebook or two (in my case, I have my desk notebook and my field notebook), and still get s**t done.

  20. posted by Laura on

    I have tried everything. I have a big calendar hanging in my laundry room for everyone to write down their appointments/schedules. I have a smartphone. I have a wire-bound 4X6 paper weekly calendar. I have my macbook calendar. And I’m lucky if anything gets written down! My adult ADD is making me way too scattered.


  21. posted by CJ on

    I have a very small moleskin notebook in my pocket. It goes where I go, so I’m always prepared. The REAL trick is ONLY using it – in other words, not having a ton of papers and lists, but only one place. Then you can use Forster’s AutoFocus plan or something similar.

  22. posted by sue on

    2 step system

    1. Put stuff on a list
    2. Get things off the list

    (Rule: never write it down if you can DO right then it in less time than it takes to WRITE it.)

  23. posted by Mary on

    Am I really the only one here that finds joy in a really good pen? I try every pen I can get my hands on and having a good one (or better yet, the elusive perfect one) makes all the difference. Most leak, or don’t start writing right away, or the grips are lousy.

    Know where to get the best pens? Doctor’s offices. Pharmaceutical reps bring them outstading pens and they never mind giving me one when I’m there.

  24. posted by Suchin Rai on

    Great post! I have a National Geographic pocket planner and use that all the time. I also use the Task thing in gmail. That and the occasional piece of paper when I have more than usual works well.

    I also have a small pocket mod to capture the random ideas before they float away, like the name of that flower I saw in a catalogue and would never find again.

  25. posted by Anthony DeRosa on

    I was going to post some comments about this article, but I can’t find the post-it note on which I drafted my thoughts!

    Nice article, Tim.

  26. posted by Another Deb on

    I’m a pen snob and the only pen that satisfies me is the hard-to find Pilot V-Ball extra fine point writer. I had to order them by the box but luckily I have a few left!

    The only trouble with them is if I drive to a higher elevation they tend to leak.

  27. posted by Steve Johnston on

    The only suggestion that I would make would be to avoid the use of random pieces of paper and make sure that everything is in your notebook.

    Paper tends to go missing, and therefore important things become lost. I have one rule: when I commit to a task, I write a contract to myself in my Moleskine (simple, to the point mind you, but a contract nonetheless).

    When the task is done, noted, transferred or whatever, I draw a line through it.


  28. posted by Tabitha (From Single to Married) on

    I’m definitely a believer in WSD. I’ve been making lists for years and feel like they really help me keep organized. I’ve tried several methods of PDA systems and electronics and while I use them for other purposes, I tend to stick to good, old-fashioned paper for making my lists.

  29. posted by Sally on

    The second great step after writing something down is to SCHEDULE IT.

  30. posted by Cecily on

    I agree with Sally, “the second great step after writing something down is to schedule it”. I carry one of those cheap tiny spiral notebooks with me everywhere–also a cheap (or free) pen. One of the last things I do at night is transfer the contents of the notebook page to an excel spreadsheet that has different fields for different types of tasks.

  31. posted by Christina on

    Hallelujah! I have been preaching this for years. Finally, someone said it so clearly and simply. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  32. posted by Linda on

    This is a keeper!

  33. posted by John on

    “GTD also seems to promote beautiful yet expensive implements” Flat wrong. Some GTD practitioners of the digerati promote such things. If you read (and remembered) Allen’s book, I don’t know how you could make such a statement.

    “However I became bogged down in the implementation details.” Everyone does. It’s tough to get the first (or fifth) time. But when you do it’s really really cool. Also, (imo) you need to read Allen’s book at least three times before you can start to understand his system.

  34. posted by Inbox Simplicity « an experiment in simplicity on

    […] To-Do’s, I simply e-mail myself. What could be easier? It’s along the lines of WSD, but with an electronic twist. Whether you’re on your home computer, holding your favorite […]

  35. posted by TuringTestFail on

    It is hard to believe I made it this far in life without having a guru to tell me how to write a list.

  36. posted by Gumnos (Tim Chase) on

    Thanks for all the comments

    @Kay, @Noelle, @Linda, @Michele, @Christina: glad you enjoyed/tolerated my odd sense of humor.

    @Brad, @dad: I try to migrate my scraps/notes in the general direction of the place where they’ll be most useful. Things to research eventually work their way to the computer-desk; grocery lists wend their way to the kitchen; to-do items end up in a pocket or where they need to be done. But getting from “ex-cerebrum” location to final destination can take a while (much to the chagrin of my sweetie). @Sally, for time-based notes, this destination is the calendar.

    @Noelle, @Steve Johnston: yes, I find great satisfaction in crossing out items or tossing the scrap in the recycle-bin

    @Susan: yes, using “WSD” is a bit of a poke at the acronyms/abbreviations used in the realm. But then, I’m a geek, so I eat/breathe/sleep TLAs. 🙂

    @John: while GTD-proper _can_ be done without flashy accouterments, the cult-of-GTD seems to promote the more ornate trappings. And while I understand the system, it’s more overhead than I want in my life.

    @Peter (A different one): THIS is my biggest problem. I need a GOMA system. You write the book, I’ll make sure it gets into our local library.

    I’ve considered using a PDA device of sorts because (1) I’m a geek and (2) I like the searchability & sorting, but I found that too often I wouldn’t have it on-hand, so capturing ideas ends up on paper anyways. And I have this bit of a family battery-curse.

    My little way of uncluttering my brain.

  37. posted by Monica on

    I like this as a beginning step. I also agree that the GTD book uses fairly formal “business” language. It would be nice to have a more family-friendly book to share with older children and college students.

    However, just writing stuff down doesn’t help you get things done. How many of us have an ever growing to-do list with so much stuff on it that we don’t know where to start? I think the concepts of “next actions” and “contexts” are very important because they help you focus on the next step to take. It saves you from deciding to make brownies, only to find that you don’t have eggs for the batter because you skipped the first “next action” of making sure you have all ingredients. My mom does this constantly, and we end up eating some pretty odd meals sometimes. “Make brownies” is a project, and my mom writes it down faithfully. She just doesn’t break it down further to steps like:

    “Find my recipe”
    “Make sure I have ingredients”
    “Buy missing ingredients”
    “Prepare brownies”
    “Frost brownies”
    “Wash dishes”

    So much of this is implied if my mom puts “make brownies” on her to-do list. Yet any one of the actions for the project can throw off her timing if she doesn’t perform them or performs them out of order.

    The context part of GTD is critical too because my mom may go to the store to buy things but might not buy the eggs needed for the brownies because it’s not on her @store or @errands list. She needs the info about buying eggs when she’s at the store with her shopping cart, not at home when she’s trying to make brownies. When she finds she has no eggs, she either has to rush to the store to get some, delegate the rushing to my dad, or try using something different to substitute for the eggs. None of these solutions is what I’d call stress-free productivity. 😉

    So I do like this easy intro to Getting Things Done. The thoughts just need to be fleshed out so a person can use the whole concept easily.

  38. posted by Leslie on

    I love the simplicity. Obviously there is more to being organized – you do have to do something about all the stuff you write down, and if the detailed steps of GTD work for you, fantastic. To me, they seem overwhelming and much too complicated. Write Stuff Down and do something about it sounds good to me – of course, I also have to work on that whole GOMA thing. Then maybe I would have less bits of paper floating around. 🙂

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  43. posted by Sara Verkaik » Get “Getting Things Done” Done with WSD on

    […] today I came across a post on Unclutterer about Tim Chase’s take on it, and his own mini-introduction to GTD: WSD – Write Shit […]

  44. posted by Corrie on

    Why do people think Moleskine Notebooks are so expensive? Yes, it’s about $15, but mine lasts me literally for years, and I use it all the time. So cost per use is really low.

    I have lots of lists in it. I keep a list of things I need to pick up on my next visit to Target in the back. That way, it can be as long as it needs to be and I always know where it is. I use this list a lot.

    Other lists in the front of the book (these are usually just a page or two): the first two pages is a table of contents, then page three is stuff to pack for travel, page 4 is miscellaneous addresses, phone numbers, and other info, and other lists include projects, books to read, things to buy, “Ways to get more done at work”, music to get, things to get at home depot, favorite stores and what I like there, etc. Generally, I keep a separate shopping list in this book for different places I go to regularly (Target, Home Depot, The Container Store, the grocery store), and I carry the book with me so when I am at one of these stores I can pick up everything I need there.

  45. posted by Jason on

    I’ve found the easiest way to WSD is to use Omni Focus, a task management tool I have on my laptop, iPhone and Desktop. Any idea, task, or stray thought can be easily captured wherever you are (and I’m almost always with my iPhone) into a general inbox (i.e. GTD principle) and classified at a later time. Along with my e-mail inbox, I refer to these twin tools as my extended brain.

  46. posted by Jason on

    When something begins to evolve into a list (i.e groceries, shopping, items to obtain) I file them as notes in the Iphone app Awesome Note (comparable to Evernote). While I understand Evernote is better for most people, it does not work as well on pre-OSX.5 MAcs (which mine are). I have a running note for shopping and groceries. Since Awesome Note sync with Google Docs, I have everything I need on whatever screen I’m using.

  47. posted by Amanda on

    WSD is great, but not if you don’t have some kind of system for processing all the random bits.

    Like Jason above – I’m a big fan of Omnifocus.

  48. posted by denise on

    I like to use a $1.00 composition book and divide it into things to do along with ideas and important info and phone nos. Is there anyone else that uses composition books the speckled kind.

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