A system for getting things done

Moleskine diary on desk

My Moleskine diary for 2018.

I have a working system for getting things done. It wasn’t always that way.

Years ago, going back to work after three years at home with a baby/toddler, I was overwhelmed.

I am widely thought of as an organised person, but being a working parent meant I needed to up my game. I started out with complex task lists in the systems that come bundled with Windows, and added similarly complex calendars that linked to my email and was still swamped (and spending a lot of time just maintaining the lists).

I went looking for help and Google found me Bill Westerman and his GSD system.
He says of his system:

I wrote it up and gave it a name: “Getting Sh-t Done”, or GSD. It’s quick, it’s dirty, and it doesn’t require a lot of preparation, special materials, or rigorous thinking.

Who could resist? I got myself a Moleskine (lacking in the southern hemisphere the Miquelrius he recommended at the time) and got started. Now, years later, I went back and read his method again, and was surprised at how much I have modified it.

Here is my system (and I still think of it as Getting Shit Done).


List items

The three kinds of items on a basic list.

In my Moleskine on the relevant day, I write a list. Next to each item, I draw a little square. When the item is done I put an X in it.

If I haven’t done it, and it needs transferring to a new list, I put a slash in it. If I want to make it a priority, I put a dot in it.

(This is already a refinement of the Westerman system… he uses a tick for done, and an X for “I’m never going to do it”).


List in Moleskine diary

An ititially chaotic master list.

Do what Bill says – make a long, complete list of all the things you have to do, or want to do.

Unlike him, I don’t at this stage “make sure that each item is a task that I can actually do”. I just let it all hang out (on an empty page of my Moleskine, or just on a piece of paper). Items like “take watch to jeweller for new battery” rub shoulders with “declutter books all house” and vague sentences like “birthday party for J” sit alongside “get chicken for Friday night”.

This list, made two or three times a year, can cover two or three pages.

I try to keep work and home separate when I make the initial master list – mostly I draw a line down the middle and put work on one side and personal on the other.

The list then gets broken down in various ways – usually into things that need to get done urgently, on the one hand, and things that can wait for a bit or things that are an ongoing project or a long-term work goal, on the other.

Those two categories get dealt with in two different ways, which are outlined below.


Diary page

A diary page divided into its three sections.

On a Saturday or a Sunday, I make a mini master list – a dump of all the things that are on my mind, and check last week’s lists for anything that didn’t get done. I sit down with my Moleskine, which is a page-a-day softcover diary, and divide each weekday into three sections: one down the side for appointments, and the other half of the page divided horizontally for personal and work items.

Then I fill in the routine events – like my Pilates class, or tea with my mother. Even though I know I am going to do them, and have done them at the same time for months or years, I WRITE THEM DOWN ANYWAY. This is I think the key to the system: Just Write It Down.

I also write down the parts of my daytime routine that will take some time (for instance doing a load of washing will get written down, but getting out my clothes the night before won’t).

All of this gives me a mental map of the week – I can see where there is very little time in any given day to get things done, and which days have lots of time available.

I then go through the weekly master list and, one by one, identify the simple steps that need to get done now, or in the near future.

Then – and this is important – I allocate those tasks to a particular day. So, in my Moleskine, I decide that the chicken will get bought next Thursday (because I will be going past the supermarket on the way home from Pilates). And I write it down, with its little box, in the personal part of the page.


Lists on pages

Lists to live by.

I go about my week. I look at the Moleskine in the morning, put dots in the boxes next to priority items, do those things. As I go, I put a cross next to the things that got done.

If I know the day is going to hell in a handbasket, I look at the list to see if there is anything that has to get done, and then I do only that on that day.

If there are things I didn’t get to, I move them to the next day, or the next week, as I go. Sometimes I forget to do that. But I know that next weekend, when I do my weekly list, I will look back at the week and transfer all the undone things to the coming week.


When I make my Big Master List, there will be things that are “big” – like “declutter books all house” or “find new revenue stream for business”. I decide which ones should get tackled first, and then break them down.

So, for example, the first step for “declutter books all house” might be “go through books on shelf in lounge and make pile for charity shop”.

In theory, the master list for big projects and goals gets consulted often to keep the weekly lists from getting bogged down with the mundane. But this part of my system is still, after all these years, a work in progress. I tend to lose track of the big picture quite easily. At the beginning of 2018 I temporarily took leave of my senses and decided to use Google Tasks for my master list. I can report that it did not work.

I will be back to the drawing board this long weekend, making a master list and coming up with yet another way not to lose track of the big things.

And that’s how I keep things on track. This system probably wouldn’t work for everybody. But if you are looking for something simple and inexpensive, I’d recommend trying the basic GSD method first, and then refining it in ways that work for you.

* And there’s also a system for lists that repeat themselves: read that here.

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