Ask Unclutterer: Implementing GTD paperlessly

Reader Rachel submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I know you are huge fan of David Allen and after years of “almost” using his GTD system I finally bought the book [Getting Things Done] and am working my way through it. As I prepare for my two day “gather, process and route,” I find myself with some clutter related questions. First some background points:

1. My husband is in the army, so i like to keep everything as modular and portable as possible, 2. I am currently prepping for a move, so I am currently in down-size mode, and 3. I love using my computer.

Okay, now for my questions: David talks a lot about the proper supplies and having a general reference file. I’m kind of resistant to the idea of investing in paper file folders and filing cabinets when there is so much technology and digital recording available that doesn’t take up near the amount of space. What have you found to be the best capture system for your files? Digital or old school?

I would like to start by saying that you’re right in pointing out that I have enormous respect for David Allen. He is able to communicate his ideas about information organizing and productivity better than anyone else writing on these subjects today. This art of communication is a true talent and it is rare. Most importantly it is extremely helpful for those of us looking for guidance and sanity as we work and live. If anyone reading this hasn’t read his books, I strongly recommend them.

That being said (i.e. I’ll stop being an exhuberent fangirl for a moment), I don’t use the GTD system exactly as he prescribes. It’s not that I think his system is flawed or bad or wrong; it just doesn’t completely work for me and my preferences. And, at least in my personal experience, I’ve found that this is the case for most GTD enthusiasts. We gobble up all we can from his advice and then put our spin on it so it will be something we benefit from and use over the longterm.

If you’re like me, a good amount of the information you collect likely comes to you already in digital form or can easily be scanned and/or digitized (images, emails, PDFs, calendar appointments, etc.). To take these out of a digital form during the processing and organizing phases would be a waste of time and resources, and Allen doesn’t advocate you print these out, either. The most important thing to do is to capture this information in a way so you can reliably process, review, and do all the things you need to do to get things done.

I use a couple plugins for my Mac-based email program Mail that are created by the company InDev: Act-On (which let lets you apply rules to incoming messages) and MailTags (which color codes emails with tags). These are nice for adapting GTD processing and organizing actions, as well as helping to creation action items. Even if you didn’t use the GTD system, these are great plug-ins for email management. I incorporate these plugins to work with my personal email filing system, which I’ve outlined in detail in Unclutter Your Life in One Week. In short, I use Archive, Project Folders, and Read Me folders. The Archive folder is where all messages go after I schedule the work on my calendar or in my project management system. The Project Folders are where I stash project-related information until I can move the email to the Archive folder (e.g. where I put Ask Unclutterer emails until I review them and decide which one I will select for the week’s column). And the Read Me folder is for long emails or emails containing links to articles, typically sent from friends or family, that don’t require immediate attention and that I can read in full the next time I’m standing in a line or waiting on hold. Once I read the Read Me emails, they are moved to the Archive folder.

People who use Outlook as their email client might benefit from a GTD-themed add-in from NetCentrics. And, if you’re a Gmail user, I’ve heard good things about using the ActiveInbox plug-in. (A good ActiveInbox tutorial can be found in the article “ActiveInbox Turns Your Gmail Labels Into an Effective GTD System” on Lifehacker.)

As far as my personal to-do list (action items) and calendar, I do keep these in paper form. I like the physical actions of writing and greatly enjoy crossing things off lists. For the past six months, I’ve been using an Arc customizable notebook from Staples for the list and calendar. I’ve tried to do it all digitally, but I always seem to come back to the paper items for these two things. Comfort is a powerful creature. For work, I keep everything in Basecamp so everyone on staff and our clients can see important dates, to-do items, as well as communicate with each other. It’s ridiculously simple to use, which oddly is why some people don’t like to use it. There are hundreds of digital to-do list and calendar programs on the market and a few are probably already installed on your computer — just find one you love and will use and review.

In regards to other digital paperwork (the general reference stuff), I have set up my Evernote account to mirror the GTD workflow. Everything digital is dumped into it and it syncs with all my handheld devices and can be accessed anywhere in the world there is an internet connection. I also back it up to my desktop and back my laptop up to an external hard drive and again to Backblaze (I’m a wee bit maniacal about backing up my data). I save all my documents locally in a document management program (DevonThink), which I’ve discussed recently in “What tools should I use to digitize my paper piles.” If Evernote and DevonThink aren’t your style, check out OmniFocus for Mac and I know many of our readers use OneNote who have the MicroSoft Office Suite (be sure to check out the free, downloadable templates from MicroSoft to save yourself time).

Thank you, Rachel, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope I was able to help you in your pursuit to get things done and adopting Allen’s GTD system for your digital needs. Also be sure to check the comments for even more advice from our readers. I know we have numerous GTD enthusiasts who read the site and are active in our comments section.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

17 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Implementing GTD paperlessly”

  1. posted by Julie on

    Braintoniq has a website called “The Secret Weapon” that shows you how to implement GTD with Evernote in a really powerful way. This can work with the free version, and you and your husband could share a notebook on Evernote for this purpose, allowing you both to sync this across several devices. I have been using this for project tracking at work, and it’s really helpful:

  2. posted by Hannah K on

    NIRVANA NIRVANA NIRVANA! Use Nirvana. It’s free, online, and in its new version, *allows cascading next actions*–where when you click the top action on a sequential list (e.g., “call for third estimate” in the project FIND A PLUMBER), it puts the action under it (“compare quotes and pick someone”) into your Next list automatically. It is incredibly awesome.

  3. posted by Tim Stringer on

    I’m a big fan of David Allen and GTD as well. It’s important to note that GTD is a systematic approach to productivity. Conversely, a “GTD system” refers to an individuals’s specific implementation of GTD that could include a combination of electronics tools and more traditional elements such notebooks and file folders. This is a somewhat subtle, but important distinction.

    My GTD system is, for the most part, electronic and paperless. Space is at a premium here in Vancouver and I enjoy the convenience of being able to access documents from any of my devices, especially when travelling.

    One of the best investments that I’ve ever made is to purchase a Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner. It has made scanning paper documents very convenient and has made it practical for me to capture everything electronically. For those who use Macs and iOS I also highly recommend the “Paperless Field Guide” that was recently published by David Sparks. It’s available on the iBookstore and in PDF format from his website and contains a wealth of practical information.

  4. posted by Robert on

    I agree about getting the Fujitsu ScanSnap 1300.

    Also get David Sparks book called “Paperless” on iTunes.

    The best $5.00 I have ever spent.

    It will take you through the entire process of going paperless.


  5. posted by JM on

    Warning! “Paperless” by David Sparks is only available for iPad using iBooks 2.

  6. posted by Tim Stringer on

    @JM – To clarify, David Sparks’ “Paperless” book is also available in PDF format on his website.

  7. posted by Joanne on

    I’ve been using GTD for a few years, and I do enjoy tweaking my implementation. I did start out with paper, which is great for getting up and running quickly. Now I am mostly paperless, as I think are many if not most GTD’ers. There are so many tools out there. This is what’s working for me now:
    Collection tools:
    1) Email – Lotus Notes (work), Outlook (personal) – both of which I get on my work laptop and my iPod Touch
    2) In-basket on my desk
    3) Plastic envelopes, which I take to my club meetings
    4) The native Notes app on my iPod and blank index cards in my purse
    5) Pads of paper and pens in every room in the house

    1) Lotus Notes on my laptop and the native Calendar on my iPod – they sync with each other.

    Action Lists (organized by context)and Project Lists:
    1) eProductivity template for Lotus Notes – for work items
    2) Toodledo (syncs between my computer and my iPod) for personal items

    Reference Notes:
    Folders and files on my computer, notes in Toodledo, paper folders as necessary or convenient.

    By the way, I was using Evernote for awhile, and then I found that with the free version I could no longer access my notes from my iPod Touch unless I had a WiFi connection.

    I love trying out new tools and ways to make my system cooler and more fun to use. There are so many tools out there. However, from experience, I must say it is best to keep your List places and Calendars to a minimum, otherwise it will get confusing and you will stop trusting your system.

  8. posted by Denny Daugherty on

    One challenge I had in implementing GTD digitally had to do with the tickler file. I finally settled on a combination of an online reminder system and a small expandable wallet file with twelve dividers labeled with each month. The online reminder system I use is Reqall, and I have a Pro account which enables me to have email and SMS reminders. This allows me to set a tickler reminder and forget about it until I get an email. And, if there is any paper-item related to it, then I can refer to the small file.

    My other tools include Evernote and Toodledo. I also use special @FOLLOWUP and @WAITING labels in Gmail to keep track of those items I need to respond to or am awaiting a response.

  9. posted by Iain on

    Great article. Just in time for my next go at incorporating a paperless routine.

    Getting on top of email management is the bugbear at my work. To assist in the process I wrote an add-in toolbar for Outlook 2003 that incorporates the GTD principles. It is available for free at, let me know if you find it of use.

  10. posted by Cyphase on

    I use Getting Things GNOME![1], which is primarily a Linux program, though apparently there’s a Windows version, too[2].


  11. posted by Gilraen on

    Our systems need to be Windows, Mac and Android compatible so we have a combination
    Remember the milk (RTM) and google calender (which work together through a plug in). RTM allows also for shared lists – easy with DH and simple Google calender. RTM works well for me as a tickler file (using the twitter tool).
    For work I use outlook and with a plug in that synchronizes with my calender too. This then means that everything synchronizes between 4 computers and 2 phones.

  12. posted by The Countess of Nassau County on

    Hi there.

    I love GTD but have streamed it down a bit in order to simplify both the paper side and the tech side of the system.

    Honestly I think the two things you can do that will get rid of the most paper is to be consistent about your weekly review and use a tickler file system. During the weekly review a lot of incoming paper can be processed into your calendar or task list, and then be discarded. I have two children in school and the tickler file is GREAT for dealing with date sensitive materials that need to be processed and returned (like permission slips) or date sensitive materials that need to be kept (plan tickets). If you are worried about space I can tell you that my tickler files are kept in a small L.L. Bean tote bag so it is contained and portable. Works great.

    Good luck with the system.

  13. posted by Jason Schramm on

    I too use a modified version of GTD. I put all actions in a todo application on my phone, sorted by context. Right now that means Clear on an iPhone. It’s so easy to use and it easily let’s me manage everything I need to do.

    And I constantly work towards inbox zero in my email accounts.

  14. posted by Lynn Blackmar on

    My health insurance company just invited me to use Mindbloom ( ), and I’m ridiculously impressed. When you complete items for that day, your tree ‘grows’.

  15. posted by Steve on

    @Julie – I second your comments on!

    For me, the best thing about this approach is that it combines GTD with Evernote. I have Evernote on my work PC, home tablet, work mobile and personal Android phone and everything syncs across all these platforms.

    On my mobile phones I have applications that allow me to take photo’s of documents and the app automatically OCRs everything – no separate scanner necessary.

    Because I am always either at my computer or always have at least one mobile, everything I need for the system is always at my fingertips and no paper is required.

    I strongly recommend that you check out Secretweapon…it’s free and they have some great instructional videos to get you started. Good luck going paper free!!

  16. posted by IQTELL on

    IQTELL has a dedicated GTD interface with Evernote, Google, Yahoo, iCloud and Exchange emails and calendars integrated so you’ll be able to work from one centralized spot.

    You can’t implement GTD more paperless than that…

  17. posted by Jack24REn on

    I finally got an Arc notebook for work. I love the flexibility it affords to move/insert pages and divide them accordingly as I work on multiple projects. However, I seem to have already taken a lot of notes (moreso than I would have in a traditional spiral notebook, likely because I’m using the smaller size).

    What do people do with the pages and pages of notes? It’s not feasible to keep them all in there (I did buy the extenders). Scanning each page front and back is not a realistic option. Just curious if others have any suggestions.

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