GTD with plain text files

GTD (short for Getting Things Done by David Allen) is by far the best known concept for Personal Productivity and Time Management. After trying to organize my tasks according to those principles I can’t imagine how to get through my days without it.

But not everything is fine and dandy. After attending a session about GTD at a conference I realized, that many of the problems I have with this system are very similar to those of other users.

One of my challenges was that I was always on the prowl for the best software to implement my ToDo-lists (my favourite GTD tool is by the way iGTD). The challenge in this process was that I wasted a lot of time, trying to adjust my process to the software. Never mind the time I wasted switching all my tasks from one great software to the next.

I found it very interesting that this was the same problem for other users, especially Software Engineers, always on the search for the perfect tool. At the above mentioned conference several people mentioned that they finally found the perfect solution: just use plain text files. The advantages seem obvious:

  • Highly adjustable to each individuals needs
  • Never worry about software upgrades or a different operating system. Some kind of text editor will always be available, even after upgrading from Tiger to Leopard. So you will never loose your precious lists, as long as you have a backup system in place (you do, don’t you?)
  • Synchronization with PDAs, dot Mac accounts and what-ever-you-can-think-of is always possible somehow.
  • It’s easy to use Quicksilver to add new items to the list – just use “Prepend to…” from the Text Manipulation Actions plug-in.

So I changed my GTD system to plain text files and never looked back!

As it turned out just one file was enough for my needs and here is an example how it might look like:

Picture of my GTD file

For me – this is all I need. My real file is of course a lot longer (currently approx. 900 lines).

So, let’s look at it in more detail. The file has four sections:

  • CALENDAR (It doesn’t really matter how far in the future your calendar goes, as long as it’s far enough for what you need)

Here is how I usually work with this file:

  • The first thing in the morning is to move all tasks for today from the CALENDAR to TODAY. Now the first day of the calendar should be tomorrow.
  • If I finish a one-time task I just delete it from the file.
  • If I finish a recurring task (like paying the mortgage) I cut-and-paste the task to when it occurs next in the calendar.
  • If I have to wait for somebody else I cut-and-paste the task to FOLLOW UP

That’s it in a nutshell. This handles 99% of everything I need to do.

Now, here are some minor tricks which makes working with this system easier:

  • I named the file “_gtd.txt”.
    Note the underscore in the beginning of the name! The reason for the underscore is that this file will always show up at the top if I list multiple files in alphabetical order (like in the documents list of BBEdit).
  • The “syntax” of my file is something like an over-simplified markdown syntax.
    I chose it this way for one important reason: My editor of choice is BBedit, a text editor that supports code folding. So if I define my file to have a markdown syntax I can fold sections of the file. So even if my calendar goes two years into the future, I can just fold the months and have a neat and small(ish) file.
  • I added an indicator for the start of each “Week” to my calendar. This is mostly to have an easier frame of reference when I’m inserting a new task.
    For example: Adding something for this week’s friday is quick and easy, without having to look at an external calendar to find out which date we have on Friday.

8 thoughts on “GTD with plain text files

  1. Thanks for sharing. I use e text editor for GTD. I really liked the concept of using markdown to keep it more readable.

  2. My method is very similar. I use vim, which also supports folding, so my text file, projects and tasks and calendar and all, runs into some 5000 lines. But when I fold everything up, I only see 10 lines, of which 2 are mottos I want to see at the top

    Mottos, line 1 (sorry, that’s private)
    Mottos, line 2 (sorry, that’s private)

    +- Daily (15 lines)
    +- Now (604 lines)
    +- Review (36 lines)
    +- Tasks (306 lines)

    +- Projects (3204 lines)
    +- In (376 lines)
    +- Goals (51 lines)

    +- Optional (364 lines)
    +- Done (1155 lines)
    +- Scratch (0 lines)
    +- Formatting (5 lines)

    “Now” is just my calendar. It’s much the same as yours, but I don’t have a Today list, I just move the old day to “Done” at the end of each day, transferring any tasks that weren’t done. The idea is to do no task management at all, just have a weekly review be a task, when I also create a calendar entry for next Sunday’s weekly review. Then I just chug along and if the calendar tells me to do something, I do it. I don’t really do “task management”, I just give orders to my future self.

    Glad to see there are still calendar-based (and plain text to boot!) people around! Good luck, mate.

  3. Great post. A quote I really like is Merlin Mann from 43 Folders. He talks about email saying “make sandwiches dont just take the orders”. If you worked in a sandwich shop and spent all day taking orders, playing with the order sheets, moving them around and so on, you’d be fired! I think GTD’s strength is that it can make even the strategic and creative people (like me!) interested in the tactics of getting stuff done and as a result we’re engaged in completer-finisher activities. BUT this is also a weakness if we spend too long perfecting the system. How do you know if you’re doing well with GTD? Measure this based on how little you even think about your GTD system! Now get back to doing something productive!

  4. I use 1 text file per project, 1 text file for all next action lists, 1 text file for the tickler file, google calendar as my family’s calendar, and my email inbox (yes, it is gmail) as my GTD inbox.

    with this system, I just email quick notes to myself to have it dumped into the GTD system, and all real-life emails are there too, ready to be processed.

    And, yes, I use google docs to manipulate the text files (so I guess they aren’t actually txt files, but googled files)

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