28 December 2011

My GTD Set Up - David Popely - Guest Post

Well, the passing comments on Philofaxy about GTD setups seem to have generated a great deal of interest, so I asked Steve if he would like me to come forward with some detail of my own....so here it is.

Please be aware, though, that this is only ‘my’ setup – and, in fact, is only my setup at the moment – I can and do change setups quite regularly, as those who know me and/or follow my comments on the site will know!

If anyone is interested in starting with the ‘received version’ of how to set up a paper planner for GTD, there is a very good white paper available from David Allen himself via his website. It’s a free download, although you have to register to get it, but that’s not likely to be a problem to anyone who has more than a passing interest in implementing GTD.

And so, to my own set-up, which is really a modified form of GTD, both in setup and in underlying principle. I’ve made these changes because they suit me temperamentally, and I think we tend to underestimate the role of temperament in what will work best for us. You, dear reader, may like a lot of structure (as I do), or you may prefer a freewheeling system which just captures everything you need to do and then leaves it to you to regularly review those tasks and make choices out of the whole range of available to-dos. That doesn’t work for me – I’m an accountant (CPA if you’re in the US) and time management consultant and have anything up to 120 ‘live’ deadlines for filing stuff with various Government agencies (or just delivering to the client) at any given moment, and each of those deadlines has sanctions, usually fines and penalties, attached, so it’s important that I keep on top of all of them, all the time.

Firstly, my go-to binder. As regular readers will know, my first choice is a Personal Malden in Ochre. I love this binder, for the combination of weight, style and accessibility. I’ve tried using my A5 Finsbury, but it weighs enough to make it undesirable as a travelling companion, most especially when I’m in London on business, as I am quite often. I have enough papers, files and overnight stuff to carry without 6-8 pounds’ weight of organiser to add to the load. One of my underlying principles is, ‘One life, one organiser’, so I don’t split my stuff between binders, or use different binders for different aspects of my life. I want it ALL together in ONE place – which also happens to be one of the underlying principles of GTD. I know that when I pick up that binder I’m going to have everything I need, all together, in one place.

Firstly, inside the front cover I have my most used plastic cards (the rest live in card-holder inserts at the back of the binder, plus my own business cards, plus postage stamps, train tickets if I’m travelling to/from London, etc. What I really like about the Malden (apart from everything else about it!) is the way the pockets are arranged here. This setup means that I can flip the binder open in the supermarket, at the cash machine, etc, and have all the plastic cards I need, right there. There is a larger pocket behind the card slots, and I use that to capture the receipts I’m picking up through the day as I move around. Because I’m self employed, I just capture everything, and then decide later, on a daily basis, what needs to be kept and what can be thrown. The ones I’m keeping them get entered into my accounting software and ‘cold filed’ away, again on a daily basis. If anyone who is self employed wants to know more about this they can get in touch and I’ll elaborate.

Now into the main Filofax areas. As you will see from the accompanying photos, at the moment I’m using a basic 1-6 divider set, but I’ve added the diary tab from a standard set of dividers at the front. I’ve cribbed this idea from Gerard (many thanks), and it works really well for me. This is my first real departure from the ‘received wisdom’ of GTD, which has the notes/capture section in first place – however, as I say, this work for me.

Diary-wise, my current plan for 2012 is to use a Day on 2 Pages diary/to do list setup, which I’ve bought from the French Filofax website, backed with a standard 2012 year planner. I can only get 3 months’ worth of daily sheets in the binder, but it’s a compromise I’m prepared to make. The year planner will give me perspective on the rest of the year (as well as on the 3 months I’ve got in as daily inserts), and pretty soon I plan to have a 2013 year planner as well, behind that, for anything truly long-term which needs noting. Generally the year planner only tells me geographically where I’m going to be at any given point – there isn’t much room for detail, but the place reminder is usually enough to prompt me.

After the diary section, I’ve currently got a makeshift index page to the other six sections. I plan to replace this with a printed sheet pretty soon, once the whole thing has bedded in for 2012.

Section 1 is my notes/capture section. This is my one concession to colour (once the index sheet has been replaced)....I’m currently using yellow lined here, it gives me the ‘feel’ of a yellow legal pad, which is what I used before I decided to unify everything into the Filofax. These notes are sorted daily, and the resulting next actions, projects, etc are transferred to the relevant sections. This is really the most important section I use daily.....the GTD ‘system’ of capturing everything in one place and sorting it later enables me to keep a clear head and to stay focused in a way which would be impossible otherwise.

Section 2 is my Next Actions, divided into home, work, personal. If the ‘work’ list in particular starts to get out of hand I create separate lists for London (when I’m there, so this is in part an ‘errands’ list), phone, email, etc. I also have my ‘waiting for’ list in here, so that i can always be ahead of the game when it comes to keeping tabs on slow-responding clients.

Section 3 is my Agendas section. I don’t use this a great deal (I no longer have that many face to face meetings, and I don’t have staff), but what do use it for is notes for my client meetings with those whom I see on a regular basis when I’m in London. That way I don’t forget anything I mean to raise when I’m in the meeting.

Section 4 is my Project Lists. These are divided into work, home and personal. These, together with the Next Actions lists, form the core of my weekly review, which I try to carry out on a Friday afternoon, last thing, so that I can start the weekend knowing I have everything ‘nailed down’ for the coming week. I don’t like using my weekend time for this, even though some of it is personal stuff. As an adjunct to this, I also confirm any appointments for the following week, by email.

Section 5 is my Project Plans section. I try to have a plan for everything which is in the Project List. Also in here are my 2012 goals, and a summary list of my Areas of Focus – again, all concepts taken from Getting Things Done and Making It All Work (which deals more with perspective than with just getting control). These also get reviewed in with the weekly review.

I reckon I can do the weekly review adequately in around an hour....not much time invested, given the payoff.

Finally, section 6 is my information section. In here I have various bits and pieces of often-accessed information. If I find I’m not accessing something on at least a monthly basis, it gets thrown, provided I have the information electronically somewhere, or I know how to find it easily.

I don’t have a contacts section. All my contacts live on my mobile phone, and are far easier to access that way. Also, I have an Outlook-based address file as backup (which in turn gets backed up in my thrice-weekly overall data backup).

I used to keep notes of my expenses in the ‘Financial’ tab of the standard dividers when I was using them, but since I dropped them (and the note-taking with it) I find that capturing the receipts and processing them into my accounting system (where they would end up anyway) is good enough.

So that’s my system. You’ll see that I mostly use plain white ruled paper (or plain for printing) and I really don’t need a lot of different forms. Presently I’m using ‘To Do’ forms for Next Actions, but these could equally well be kept on plain white. I just happen to have them lying around so I’m using them. I think this entire system can be run using shop-bought plain white ruled paper, with some unlined for printing the odd sheet.

Good luck with your planning for 2012, and have fun!


Thank you David for an excellent article and insight on your GTD set up. 


  1. Fabulous post - thanks for sharing :o) this could work for me, if I only I could wean myself off all my binders...

  2. Nice one, David. I'm convinced the Filofax is an underappreciated business tool, not only for personal organisation but also for knowledge management, customer relationship management and staff management.

  3. @LJ I really do believe that the 'one life, one organiser' principle is fundamental. Like Most people, from time to time I've tried 'splitting' between binders, and it always ends in chaos. Whether this is inherent, or just me, I don't know, but I'd recommend it as a New Year's Resolution - unify all binders into one.

    @Ray I very much agree - I think early adopters of tech solutions eventually come to realise that there are things a smartphone can't do nearly as well as a paper based planner - and as I never tire of reminding the nay-sayers, a FF won't delete, duplicate or 'swallow' my data overnight or run out of battery at a critical moment. Also, I can access my diary faster than a smartphone, in any given situation I've ever found myself in. Plus, it just plan looks smart!

  4. @Ray Incidentally, Ray, I *love8 the DIY stuff you're doing for your A5....DIY usually looks a bit homespun, but not yours! I urge everyone to check out Ray's blog at http://mylifeallinoneplace.blogspot.com/ if you're not doing so already

  5. This looks brilliant, David. I originally used to think my life is not needing any organising but of late am not so sure and thinking of giving it a go from 2012. Your setup gives me a good starting point and thanks for sharing. Also, I am self employed so any input about the expense receipt organising would be instructive too.
    My only suggestion about a single binder to hold them all would be to keep the rest of the binders empty and move the whole setup from one binder to another every week or month! Assuming all of them are same size! That would keep the addiction monster sated while keeping the organisation intact..

  6. David - very nice - thanks for going into all the details.

  7. David, like the Man says, "we need to manage at the level of mundaneness, with sophisticated elegance ...".

    Your setup is very elegant, and allows for managing your 100 plus commitments.

    I like it very much and use a very similar one.

  8. @ The Liar - Oooh, I like your style :o)

  9. Yep - The Liar is on the money with that suggestion. I hauled out an unexpectedly large stack of binders on St. Stephen's Day and decided that I'll rotate through them monthly throughout 2012.

    Giovani, who is this Man that you're quoting?

  10. Gerard I think he means St David Allen :)

    Using the period betwixt Christmas and the New Year to get all my loose ends tied up prior to my return to 'real' work on Tuesday of next week. I've always found this to be a *great* time for planning....trust you are all having a great break and will return to the fray fully refreshed next week.....

  11. I love this, David! I also agree with the 'one life, one organizer' principle. But maybe that is just because we have both fallen in love with the Malden!

    I'm pretty much set with my 2012 set up, but may have to borrow some of these ideas for tweaks in the coming days!

  12. @J borrow away!.....What's your current 2012 setup? I'd be interested to know, and I think we should be encouraging others to share theirs as well...

  13. David-
    Excellent! I've been waiting for this. Thank you for sharing.

    My question is how do you keep on top of all the lists? Do you review them all daily to prioritize for the day?

  14. Hi Gerard,

    Mr. P's guess is correct!! ;))
    The other day I watched a video where the Saint, like Mr. P calls him, said that.

    Check the link http://bvo.com/programmes/david-allen-full-interview

    How are you? Your post the other day was excellent!


  15. Great story. I think I have been convinced to use my personal Finchley as my one and only binder for 2012. I hope I can get used to the smaller page size.

  16. @savannah The simple answer is, you have to do the weekly review, it's the central focus which makes GTD work, in my opinion. As you can see, my use of the Day on 2 Pages (which includes a to-do list per day) is really a departure from the GTD 'purists', so some of my next actions go straight onto the diary to-do lists. Other, if they're not deadlined and /or urgent, go on the next action lists in the rlevant section and then get brought forward later. I tend to bring my to-dos forward in weekly batches, from the back sections to the diary to-do lists, always being careful not to overload each specific day....something I've learned through long and painful experience!

    @cgarsnrealest8 I think the page size is the real downside of the Personal 'choice', but its something I've had to face up to. I'd *love8 to have the page space of the A5, but the upside is the portability, and over the past few months I've come to see that the portability is what matter more to me. I learned this when lugging my excessively heavy bag around London on multiple business trips....not pleasant.


  17. I really enjoyed this, David. Thanks for opening up your GTD system; I'll use some of it to help me with mine!

  18. Great post David its good to have such a detailed insight into a GTD setup. I’ve been using GTD with FF for the last few months & my set up has similarities but some differences & might be of interest to the bloggers & readers here as an alternative imlpementation.

    I use an Ochre Personal Malden (sound familiar?!) for my home & personal life, which goes everywhere with me, and a Dark Chocolate Personal Osterley for my professional life (I’m a lawyer), which stays primarily at my desk (but goes with me to meetings as well).

    I also use a black & orange Personal Domino for my sports-related info (I do bike racing & triathlon). There’s no way I can fit all that into one organiser nor would I want to as I prefer keeping them separate.

    The “personal” one is set up for (mostly) plain vanilla GTD as follows (at least this is the current version - (I’ve tweaked the order/layout a few times but seem to have settled on this, for now):

    1. Personal Info sheet & customised contents/index behind clear plastic fly leaf, followed by
    2. List of current personal projects, with (1) several pages of “project support” notes, (2) several pages of Someday/Maybes, and (3) a list of the current month’s completed projects
    3. Cream Tabbed Divider containing “Agendas” listed on To Do Sheets for the 5 “nearest & dearest” and a lined page for notes for each Agenda Person
    4. Cream Tabbed Divider containing To Do sheets for all next actions & waiting fors, sub-divided by write-able coloured post-its categorised by context (e.g. @Calls; @Home; @Mac etc). I have around 24 sheets in there right now.
    5. Cream Tabbed Divider containing To Do sheets for NAs I must or want to do on a particualr day (using 2 pages for one day). I keep the current day plus others for the remainder of the week and one for the next week - anything longer term goes onto the calendar or the NA context list
    6. Behind the To Dos I maintain a list of “magic moments and accomplishments” for each day of the current week.
    7. Cream Tabbed Divider containing Personal Finance pages. This was one of the main reasons for switching from Device to FF. I never found a decent personal finance manager fo Galaxy, iPad Touch etc that was as quick & easy to use as the FF finance pages have proved to be
    8. Cream Tabbed Divider containing pages for daily capture/in, which is processed 2-3 times a day.
    9. No tab but my 2PPW diary section follows (containing all personal and professional appointments & day-secpific info, but I have too many day-specific NAs to keep on the claendar hence the section for daily NAs) and like you I only have 3-months at a time but I also have a year’s worth of monnths on 2 pages behcind the diary pages
    10. Final Cream Tabbed Divider section containing various notes & reference material. I’ve a lot of NAs and Project stuff so I keep this slim - most long-term notes & reference I store in Evernote.
    11. I have a clear plastic flyleaf & top-opening clear envelope at the back for loose paper, receipts etc.
    12. I use 3 rulers/page dividers - one at the daily NA pages, one at the capture/in page, and one at the calendar.

    I am planning to set up a blog and will post pictures and more details on it (and details of the set upfor the others) if this has not put everone off!

  19. Giovani, alles klar - wunderbar!

    Hi Next Action Hero, aka Mark. Let us all know when you get the blog post up - some images would be great.

  20. Hi David. Loved this post. Just one question, having 1 binder do you find it frustrating flicking around from one area to another? I think this is the root of my desire for a 2nd binder to allow me to work between them. Any thoughts?

  21. Thanks David - a really interesting insight - both into your latest organiser/planner thinking and giving much food for thought to those of us not previously familiar with GTD.

    Whilst some posts (dare I say, such as on different coloured Filofax leathers!) may only be of passing interest to some of us, your article is motivational and at a time when most of us are reviewing our set-ups for 2012.

    I've already downloaded the suggested pdf article to read on a 6 hour train journey to Aberdeen tomorrow!

    Regarding size, a bulky 23mm ring in a Personal wouldn't work at all for me, as a left-handed person. (The rings always get in the way!) I've now fitted a very slim (18mm) ring to my A5 Holborn in an attempt to overcome the A5 weight and bulk problem, whilst leaving room to write. I think it might work - it certainly looks good! Tim

  22. hi Next Action Hero....that's a really interesting setup. I have a lot of respect for people who manage to run a two-binder system, but it just doesn't work for me. Like Gerard, I'd love to see some images.....

    @livermac69 Good question, but I honestly don't find I'm doing a lot of flicking around. Because all my tasks come out of the planner into the diary during the weekly review, I generlly don't need to. If I need to 'firefight' a late-breaking action, I just put it straight into the to-do pages of the diary section, without it goign through the Next Actions section on the way. Of course, if it has a project attached to it, it has to go in the back, but I put it in the notes section and each day I gut the notes out and into the Projects/Next Actions, at least as a header, and then it again waits for the weekly review. Overall, I find that discipline in carrying out the reviews means I don't have a lot of problems (except finding the discipline!)

    @Tim - you just have to love those long train journeys, don't you! I don't know why people get so concerned about the time it takes...for me, it's three hours each way (from Swansea to London, which I do twice-monthly) when *no-one* can get to me! I watch the people with their mobiles, their laptops, and all their paraphernalia, and I think....I can use this time for uninterrupted reading, in a way I absolutely can't when I'm 'in contact' the rest of the time. I just wish people would respect the 'quiet carriage' rules....I've had everything from mobiles to DVD players to small children to contend with....

    You idea of the larger binder with the smaller rings really made me think...I don't think I'm about to change right now (goodness knowws its taken me long enough to arrive at this setup!), but there is definitely something there. I know Alison reeves is a big fan of a slimline A5 she has (I was in the shop with her in Conduit St when she bought it). Maybe she could comment further on how she sets it up...although I'm pretty sure she runs at least one other binder alongside. I'd be interested to know if that's now your *only* binder, and what your setup is.....

    Like you, I'm less interested in the Filofax binder-du-jour trends as I am in what we can actually get the system to *do* for us....

  23. Tim - are you fitting the 18mm rings to your A5 Holborn as a DIY job or are you getting someone to do it for you? Have you sourced the rings from filofax?

    Please excuse the questions but I've not come across anyone doing this before and I might be interested in doing osmething similar.

    Best Wishes

  24. "Unknown" David - if I get time I'll try to write something for Steve to use here, (if anyone is interested).

    In brief: -it's pretty easy to remove a Filofax ring (gently ease back the rivet metals and lift off mech) and substitute another. I had intended to buy a cheap Adelphi purely to use the 20mm ring. However, none has come up at a sensible price, so I've used a Time Manager compact mechanism, which has 18mm rings. This was slightly more fiddly to fit as the method of attachment is different. It also means my ring spacing is now TMI and not Filofax A5. However, by punching some Flex pages with TMI holes and using some of the huge pile of Time Manager pages I have in stock, the problem has been solved! The Holborn binder looks much slimmer when closed and I defy anyone (other than a Filofax "anorak") to tell it's not a professional job! Tim

  25. Tim - many thanks for your swift response. Much appreciated. I'm sure an article with pictures would be much appreciated at some time too.

    Best Wishes

  26. I am a massive believer in the 'one life, one organiser' system. I get totally lost if I think beyond one diary!

  27. Your binder looks so neat and organized. Oh yes, I also love having all my stuff compiled in one place to avoid clutter and save more time. Your binder set-up is truly admirable. I'll definitely use it for my next business meeting.

    -Darcy Grubaugh

  28. @Darcy Thank you for the kind comments! Despite appearances of being 'settled' it really *is* a work in progress, all the time :)

    Good luck with your own efforts.....

  29. Awesome post. Been heavily into iPad+Omnifocus for my gtd-life, but you inspired me to get my old Filo out again... A simpler way without all the bells and whistles of the tech-version....

  30. Thank you foe the kind comment...I do think that technology can often complicate more than it simplifies, and for me, the comfort of knowing I have 'everything in hand' is worth more than the ability to move data quickly between devices (which I recognise is a strength).

    Although this was posted in December 2011, I find I am still using substantially the same set-up, which leads me to think I may have finally 'cracked it'. Good luck with your own set-up!

  31. Thanks again David for this fab post - so far this year I have stuck to the principle of one life one filo, inspired by this post back in December. I do have a couple of binders for putting other things in, but they are not for planning or organising, just things that I want to keep, eg. my happiness binder. :o)

  32. This really is amazing, to still be getting comments this far on from the original post - thank you! I'm glad it's working out for you....it's certainly working for me. The only real 'upgrade' I have done this year is to change the whole thing over the cotton cream. I'm running everything on ruled paper *only* - no forms (you can only get to-do forms in cotton cream anyway), and it looks, and works, pretty well.

    Might have actually got this right, for once!

  33. Hi just found this site and would love to see some more recent photos of GTD setups as just starting and trying to set my own Filofax (A5 Ochre Malden) up to work for me

  34. 6 years later from the last comment and still equally relevant and inspiring. Thanks!