Getting Things Done (GTD) for Scientists

When I was in Australia on holiday last year, I started thinking about ways of getting the enormous influx of information and tasks in my life into some sort of structure. I had read on blogs from the US about the ‘Getting Things Done’ (GTD) approach of Dave Allen, but hadn’t come across it much in my daily life living in Europe. Even in Australia, which could almost be considered a state of America these days, I got blank looks when asking at Borders for the book on ‘Getting Things Done’. I did eventually find a copy, and started reading.

Now, it’s important to realize that people outside the US are often skeptical of the latest new wave fad coming from that country, and I’m no different. But some of the bloggers discussing GTD seemed like pretty smart people, so I thought that it must be a little more than the usual Californian clap trap.

That was around 6 months ago. I put GTD into practice, and can say that I am very happy with it, and use it to this day. Furthermore, I think it is a very useful system for scientists to employ to organize the barrage of different projects they have running at time, from research projects, to authoring articles, to writing grant proposals. There is a lot of concurrency in a scientist’s work, and GTD can really help.

The thing to realize is that most people don’t get lessons in organizing themselves at school or college, and they certainly haven’t been prepared for the rapid pace of modern life. GTD is nothing more than a few lessons on how best to organize things. At the center of it all is what could be regarded as a multi-dimensional ToDo list. The idea is to get every project you have, however big or small, out of your head and into the list. That allows you to relax about things, and be more productive at the same time. You’ll need to read Allen’s book, or checkout the 43Folders web site to find out the details, but I can highly recommend it.

To implement the GTD system, you’ll need some software. At the moment, the best solution is probably kGTD with OmniOutliner Pro. kGTD is just a set of AppleScripts that enhance Outliner for use with GTD.

Most of the GTD world is waiting for Omni’s GTD solution: OmniFocus. It was announced some time ago, and has been slated for release in April-May, 2007. If you aren’t already using GTD, you may be better off just reading the book and waiting for OmniFocus, rather than starting with kGTD and switching later. I should also note that other companies are starting to make GTD apps for the Mac; one that looks nice is Midnight Inbox.



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Yes I agree GTD is very

Yes I agree GTD is very useful. People might be interested in the David Allen web site which has an active and useful forum community.


Expand into an Article Series

It might be fun to expand this into an article series. Maybe I'll do just that:

Lifehacks for scientists. :-)

Personally, I haven't used a full GTD system, but a lot of the ideas are good for researchers, whether or not you adopt the whole thing.

Thinking Rock another great GTD Tool

I agree, GTD is a reasonable way to bring back order to your to-do list. I've been using a software called Thinking Rock ( and for me it has worked really well. It follows Dave Allen's GTD very closely and the site hosts a forum with lots of info. The software is free, so you can't go wrong giving it a try

Another useful alternative: Mori with mGTD

For the last moths, I've been living largely inside Mori with the mGTD plugin. Mori is a flexible note taking app with user definable columns and excellent speed. But whatever your GTD setup, I cannot recommend the GTD system enough: it has been absolutely crucial in handling multiple research projects, supervising PhD students, teaching, and having a personal life too. Without it, life would not have been half as nice!


I recently switched from kGTD + OmniOutliner Pro to Actiontastic:

Although it is still in beta I like it and prefer it over kGTD because it feels faster and more robust. I had problems with kGTD when migrating my data to a new computer. I'm also still waiting on OmniFocus!

Actiontastic is super simple and with the final release there will be an online component which will be interesting to investigate. Actiontastic is a very simple app, in many ways is not as powerful as kGTD but might be what we need for getting things done. It's so simple it might be useful!!!


Note: This was originally posted by user AndresGM

I recently switched from kGTD + OmniOutliner Pro to Actiontastic:

Although it is still in beta I like it and prefer it over kGTD because it feels faster and more robust. I had problems with kGTD when migrating my data to a new computer. I'm also still waiting on OmniFocus!

Actiontastic is super simple and with the final release there will be an online component which will be interesting to investigate. Actiontastic is a very simple app, in many ways is not as powerful as kGTD but might be what we need for getting things done. It's so simple it might be useful!!!

My GTD....

Just pasting here what I posted on 43Folders...
Hi there! Well, I guess I fit that double category, being a scientist and a GTDer. The nature of the former puts particular stresses on the latter, that I don't often see around the web, mainly because of the gazillion inbox hogs: sources of data (I happen to be one of those inter-disciplinary guys dipping in a relatively wide variety of specialities), of intellectual input (meetings, conferences, scientific literature, younameit), of nagging emails, mailing lists (mainly in the form of lists of publications, I'd say 2-300 a week), of student management, and so on. As I try to have a life outside of work, I have come to be involved in another set of activities that strangely seem to require similar sets of tricks as those for research, as well as having a liking for IT geekyness (how else would I have hear of GTD?!).
1- A Moleskine notebook divided in (i) an Inbox, where ToDos are written down in the format what @context >project #start_date — end_date :commentary; (ii) Notes, where I take, well, notes, and use as an on-the road brain-dump. The Moleskine lives with a.... oh yes... a Space-Pen!
2- On my Mac, Metadata, or tags if you prefer, with apps like Yep for the pdfs of scientific papers, and Quicksilver/Punakea/DefaultFolderX for everything else simply because nested folders are too one-dimensional. DEVONthink Pro for the processing (DT's AI is my second brain). MailTags and Mail Act-on rules for processing emails (same set of tags as the rest). The Tags I use include, but are not restricted to, GTD Contexts and Projects, plus one called "Current" for which I have a Smart-Folder in the Dock for all the stuff that requires my attention during-this-week. I'm sticking to the @ prefix, not &, for consistency between tagging apps.
3- Kinkless, which receives input from the Moleskine (input via Quicksilver SendToKinkless advanced script), Mail (input via a MailToKGTD script), etc. My contexts: Lab (wet lab, data generation), Mac (everythink that gets done on the laptop including emails), Office (basically at non-lab), Home, Errands, Someday, and a crucial one, Thinking (this is where the digested brain-dump gets slowly distilled into Study Designs and Work Plans, and then gets moved on to the Lab context).
4- Output: this is 99% in the form of writing, papers grant applications, presentations, reports, etc. For complex writing I start in Scrivener (allows me to have pdfs, graphs of the data I generated, etc.), with the help of DEVONthink Pro and Bookends for referencing. When I no longer require having pdfs and figures for writing and when I'm fairly happy with the structure of the paper I export the manuscript to Mellel. For collaboration writing, I anyway use a 'dirty copy' that I hand out, because people always tend to screw up my formatting, auto titles, reference fields, etc. Always. So to avoid beating people over the head with their own bloody limbs, I always keep the 'master document' out of reach of their grubby little fingers. You know what I mean.
All the best, Simon.

ToDo List Item 1

> Even in Australia, which could almost be considered a state of America these days

1. Must remind Americans that Australia will never ever be a state of USofA.
2. Place shrimp on barbie

projects as successful outcomes


I thought you might be interested in a post I wrote about project names. I find it helpful to name my projects in Kinkless the successful outcome for that project. I think it's a useful trick. Check out my post here:

- Chad

Another GTD approach with Mori, and Page Packer

There's a description of an alternative approach to GTD in Mori here (, which I've found to have less "friction" in general than kGTD, and which I like a bit better than Mori's mGTD plugin.

I've also found Page Packer to be useful for calendar-related information ( PP converts PDF documents to a PocketMod ( layout. Daily calendars can be printed to PDF from iCal (1 day per page) and the resulting multi-page document dragged to PP, which lays it out on one page in PocketMod form. Print, snip snip and fold, and you've got a little 8-page book containing your calendar. Subtract a few pages from the calendar and you can add PDF pages with reference information, phone numbers, grids for notes, etc.


Drew McCormack

Re :-)

Although I would remind everyone that the original statement was made by an Australian national, and not an American. So this is really an internal squabble and not an international incident.


Thanks for the tip

Hi Chad,

Nice tip. I'm sure there are lots of ways that I can implement GTD better, but even when you do it as badly as I do, it's still much better than no system at all ;-)

Drew McCormack

project labelling and categories

so I've just started working with GTD last week and all is pretty good. Finally settled on kgtd because of its flexibility and that it hasn't screwed up yet......

i am encountering a problem in organizing my work. a number of projects are parts of persistent, years-long research projects, or classes that I teach. When I look at GTD, it seems like the focus is on actionable items, which are not subcategorized under more abstract - unending projects or classes, like - "Clinical Research Methods" or "Interaction Project". Yet, with all that an academic has going on, there needs to be a way to tag this relationship. Right now I'm making things subprojects under the more abstract titles, but feel uncomfortable about that. Any suggestions?

I agree.

Stick to what works; tweak only occasionally.

- Chad

Make it your own

Personally, I think we should all use whatever organization scheme works best for us.

As you say, GTD is designed most for business people where projects are often much shorter. In my scheme, I keep separate organization files for longer term projects -- I think the key is to make sure I get everything into the file and point towards both the short-term goal and the big-picture goal.

I also use QuickSilver and OmniOutliner to keep files on brainstorms. Got a new research idea? File it quick before it disappears!

Like I said in a different comment, it might be good to branch out into a series of posts/discussions on organization for science, which may not exactly be GTD.

Yes, it's more than mere hype

Drew, that's a good plug for GTD, and about as clear a summary as could be provided in the limited space. It's nice to learn that other scientists are using GTD to good advantage. Besides the sites mentioned, I think the GTD entry at Wikipedia ( is worth highlighting. It provides a succinct description, but also a good set of pointers to some of the better of the many, many GTD sites on the web. For those who would rather listen than read, I'd also like to point to the NPR radio broadcasts by David Allen where I first learned of GTD. They don't go into much detail about the system itself, but rather provide motivation for the general approach. To find the talks (a $7 MP3 download), go to (web site of the Humankind radio show) and search for "relaxed focus".

As Drew noted, the multidimensional to-do list is the "heart" of GTD, but not all of it. GTD is a suite of practices that work together to help you both *get* organized and *stay* organized. It includes suggested practices for collecting and processing various "inputs," as well as for reviewing how projects are progressing. In my own practice, I find its the review steps that are hard to habitualize. And once you get behind in review and maintenance of your system, it rapidly loses its usefulness.

I think of the list that is GTD's heart as a "2DToDo" (2-dimensional to-do). Along one dimension are all the actions comprising what you need to get done, clustered into projects as necessary. But for me the key to GTD is the 2nd dimension, the "contexts" in which actions get done (e.g., for me some contexts include "Coding," "Office," "Home Office," "Online," "Errands" etc.). What's good about this is that good GTD tools let you project your 2DToDo along the context axis. This way, whatever context you are in, you can focus on what's possible *in that context*, without getting distracted by everything else in your to-do.

I use OmniOutliner as my GTD tool, but not Kinkless. I loved the idea of kGTD, but when I first started with GTD (fall 2005), I was running OS 10.3 on my Mac. kGTD stays on Omni's "bleeding edge" and only ran on 10.4. Also, there were aspects of the design that I didn't like. For example, I wanted to maintain my projects/actions in one document, and get the context projection in another. I wanted actions to inherit default contexts from their parent projects. I wanted support of subprojects, and priorities for actions. I thought I'd just modify kGTD to work on 10.3 and do what I want, but I was amazed to discover that its implementation required well over 100 pages of AppleScript---blunt testimony to the frustrating verbosity of AppleScript.

I decided to have a go at a version of kGTD that used Python rather than AppleScript to script OmniOutliner. It only took a few pages of Python to do what I needed. So that's been my main tool---planning in OmniOutliner, with a run of my script to produce the context projection to guide my work through the day. I'm working on a few enhancements to the script, but it's good enough for now.

I love the work of the Omni folks and am looking forward to OmniFocus. But it will have to do exactly what I want if I'm to switch to it. I'm suffering "tool bloat" and would rather not have to learn (and maintain) yet another interface just for GTD.

I would recommend ThinkingRock especially for GTD beginners


I also use Thinking Rock for my GTD implementation:
major advantages:
- platform independant (works on MacOS, *NIX and Windows)
- guides the user and thus teaches him how to use GTD
- it's free!

If you're intersted in more information, read my comment about ThinkingRock here:



There is a new called call iGTD that is really good. I tried kGTD for quite a while, Midnight Inbox for a couple of weeks, and iGTD has them both beat. And it's free.


Link to iGTD

"The Efficient Academic" Discussion and similar info online

Good idea - I'm looking forward to the series. :-)

In the meantime, those who are also interested in those topics might find the following links interesting:

- Google Groups "The Efficient Academic"

Blogs about "hacking academics":
- academhack
- academic productivity
- academic lifehacker



Since writing this article, I have actually moved on to using OmniFocus, which is still being beta tested. But even as a beta app, OmniFocus is by far the best GTD software I have seen. I hope that Omnigroup get it out soon so that everyone can enjoy it.

If you would like to try OmniFocus, you just need to join the beta tests mailing list and wait for an invite:


Drew McCormack

Still at 10.3.9

I am still running mac OS 10.3.9. Does your Python code to do GTD with OmniOutliner work with 10.3? I would be interested in getting a copy of it if it does.

For implementing GTD you

For implementing GTD you might try out this web-based application:

You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
A mobile version is available too.

As with the last update, now Gtdagenda has full Someday/Maybe functionality, you can easily move your tasks and projects between "Active", "Someday/Maybe" and "Archive". This will clear your mind, and will boost your productivity.

Hope you like it.

I too found out about GTD

I too found out about GTD about 8 months ago and have been using it extensively. I found Nozbe and really love it.

As a software consultant, I work on projects with colleagues and I use Nozbe's built in sharing functions to share tasks with others. Since I use Evernote, I find that the integration between the two is really useful as I usually document in Evernote and task in Nozbe.

So between the two software solutions and the good 'ole in basket on my desk, I am much more productive.