Help with the Doing phase of GTD

Hey Guys,

I’ve been doing GTD fairly consistently for nearly a decade and it’s had an enormously positive impact on my life. But, I’m having a pretty serious problem now that I’m sure many of you have dealt with, and I’m hoping some of you can help advise me.

TLDR; I’m bad at the “doing” phase as there’s a continual line of people who need my involvement in something timely which prevents me from focusing on things on my list.

Some context:

I’m an entrepreneur and my business is growing rapidly. My time is at a premium and I’m having trouble executing things on my list.

  • I’m confident in my ability to collect all my open loops, I process my GTD inbox twice a day, and I review to make sure projects are actionably defined.
  • I am a good delegator, and I make liberal use of waiting for and agenda contexts. I’m also good at recognizing what I shouldn’t be doing and delegating those to others.
  • I have an amazing team that, generally speaking, dependably executes the things delegated to them with acceptable results. I don’t spend much time chasing people down.
  • I have a fantastic executive assistant who handles all of my scheduling, most of my email and lots of other misc. stuff that shows up.

All in all, I think I do a pretty good job of identifying what I should be doing and what others should be doing.

The problem:

The “doing” phase. My work is collected, planned and reviewed, but doesn’t get done as effectively as it should. I know I’m dropping the ball, and I know what I’m dropping the ball on, but I just can’t find time to sit down and work the list.

I have a hard time focusing on the things I have to do, as the business around me is constantly churning. As we grow, that churn also continues to grow. I find my day naturally being taken up with 5 min conversations to “ask a quick question” or “update me on a situation” for things that require timely feedback. Anything else is dealt with asyncronously at the end of the day.

I’ve tried to fix this myself in a few ways:

  • Isolating myself. This works for temporary moments when I have an emergency to go heads down on, but when I peek back up afterwards there’s a line of people waiting for me.
  • Delegating more responsibility to my leaders. This is my biggest room for improvement in my own eyes, but I find myself delegating too much responsibility. There are things only I should do, as the owner, that can’t really be delegated in my eyes.
  • Coming in earlier. About 6 months ago I started working at 5:30 in order to get some alone time at the beginning of the day. This has worked, but it feels like a band-aid on the situation.

Surely this is a solvable problem as people with much more responsibility are able to handle it. Does anyone have experience with this that can lend me some expertise?

Thanks for your advise,




I recognise the problem, not because I’m an entrepreneur, but because as my areas of responsibility and perhaps more importantly accountability grow, I need to delegate more. I need to make sure those I delegate to are fully accountable.

There are only so many hours on the day and without more hands sharing the working you are never going to break the cycle, in fact I’d say you are more likely to make yourself ill first.

The important thing is to make sure those you delegate to are clear as to their areas of responsibility and accountability, they need to be rewarded well but also very aware of the consequence of not delivering.

You have to surround yourself with trusted people.

I hope this helps


This sounds so much like my day its untrue :( I’ve even been doing the early starts for over 12 months now in an attempt to get some alone time to get on with tasks. However once everyone else arrives I get pulled inside out all day. When I finally get some alone time at the end of the day, I see all the things on my list that I’ve missed the opportunity to complete or progress in some way. So I end up moving them on to tomorrows list and try again. I’m don’t feel like I’m moving forward and in reality I’m probably slowly sinking with a huge build up of uncompleted tasks.

I sometimes wonder if the failing is with GTD its self, as I’m very good at doing the collecting and processing… review and never forget the tasks. If I hadn’t done GTD I would never have logged the action and it would definitely have slipped out of my mind and may never have reappear. Unfortunately with GTD the review reminds me all the time so I think the tasks are more in my thoughts than they ever used to be. David Allen says Get it out of your head and into your trusted system. I sometimes wonder if its just better to let somethings go out of your head completely.

My way of dealing with this usually works: at the beginning of the day, I select those tasks that I absolutely want to complete before the end of the day, and PRINT THEM OUT. That piece of paper sits on my desk by the phone, where I cannot help but see it all day long. When I go out, I take it with me.

I found that having a Perspective of these things on the computer screen is helpful, but it’s way too easy to not see that Perspective for most of the day. Without the unignorable visual reminder of a print-out right in front of me, I can get all wrapped up in other things. So the print-out sitting all day in plain sight is a valuable tool for me. It is a constant reinforcement of what my priorities are, and when people call or drop by and interrupt the workflow with distractions that are actually lower priorities, it reminds me to tell them I’ll get back to them as soon as I’ve finished these things.


iwaddo thanks for the input. Ultimately I believe you are right on here. I have too much to do in a finite amount of time. One of my key leaders is new and I haven’t been able to fully empower him yet. I think focusing on that will let me delegate many of the items which only I can do at this point.

@cypher thanks for assuring me I’m not alone! I hope you’ll update this thread if you figure this out. I’d love to compare notes.

@rogbar That’s a great idea! My assistant and I sit down each morning and map out the day, but printing off a couple copies and putting them in our face may help keep my attention focused.

I’m thinking it might make it visible to others who interrupt me as well, and make them less likely to tap me on the shoulder. I’ll try this for a few days and let you know how it goes.

Thanks guys!

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It sounds like your problem isn’t procrastinating or choosing certain tasks over others–sounds more like you just aren’t left alone enough. Maybe establish 30-60 mins. during which you can’t be bothered by anyone barring some emergency, and work on the most important stuff then when you have time to focus before having to answer a question, etc.


Thanks @Mjmottajr I think there is some truth to that, but honestly I enable these interruptions more than I should, and I’m still learning what the appropriate way to handle those situations should be.

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I used to block out a section of my day and close my office door so I could concentrate on one of my tasks for a period of time, even occasionally putting a fake note on more door saying I was on a conference call or something, but at the end of last year my boss decided to relocate us into an open office environment and its been a complete nightmare ever since. I mange the department but now have 4 direct reports in the same office and a continual queue of visitors all day. I also have 12 other reports who are basedin the same building and often come in with updates and such as well as outside visitors arriving through out the day. These interruption my sometimes be for one of the other people but if they aren’t there I end up get disturbed. My problem like yours Josh, is I just get sucked in to helping people and find it hard to say NO, but I am learning.

I also spend time out of the office dealing with the interruptions and my other tasks. Its during this portion of my day that I find it hard to look back at may lists, as I’m usually busy doing the thing I’m out of the office for. I’m also using windows at work so don’t have omnifocus on my computer so I carry a paper notebook and document my day as I go but I still find it hard to look back on my list when things are hectic. I do carry and iPhone but I have found it next to impossible to keep opening omnifocus when I’m out on site. I am good at writing down new actions usually in the notebook not on the iPhone but I’m not good at looking back at what I should be doing when I’m busy.

Recently I have also started using Microsoft Onenote as a way of collecting everything together and journaling my day, I normally copy most of my notebook notes over to one note once I’m back in the office at the end of the day or when I get home. At home I normally plan the following day in one note. This is helping and it also gives the benefit of being searchable which has come in very handy. Onenote is now available on the Mac and iOS which really helps and is why I’ve recently started using it again.

In my one note and paper notebook I also usually writing down the main 5 tasks I want to complete that day and I often leave important actions as post it notes on my keyboard so when I get back to the office I get a quick reminder of what I was doing before I left. This is definitely helping. I just need more time in a day :)

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I don’t mean for this to come off rude or trying to be a smart butt, but seems like you are putting false due dates on things. Kind of saying to yourself I want to get this done by a certain date which could be adding stress to your day. I know this doesn’t help your situation but could improve mood knowing what actually has to get done.

More to your task of getting stuff actually done, is it people who actually need stuff physically in front of you or people sending emails? Because if it’s emails and stuff like that you could just keep email closed for say an hour or so if you knew something you wanted to do. With people being in front of you, maybe use the executive assistant to filter people if they simply have a question have her take the question down and place in your physical inbox. That way they can go back to work and get something else done while you are not interrupting your own flow.

Again, I don’t know if any of these suggestions apply to your situation but just some thoughts.


If I was dealing with your challenges, I’d focus on three things.

First, you don’t need to rethink how you organise, you need to change some fundamental thinking habits, which requires slowing right down at key moments. The only time a cigarette smoker needs to not have a cigarette is when they want one; the rest of the time, quitting looks after itself. Whenever you are “available”, you need to pause and recognise that being available all the time is the problem. The solution is not about remaining available, it’s about developing comfort with being unavailable. You must learn to walk away. When you don’t think it’s wise. You have to try it, which is going to involve feeling uncomfortable.

Second, you’re going to need regular time to yourself. Plenty of research points to 90 minutes being a good amount of focusing time. If you have an open plan office, get out of there. Find a local library (or similar) and don’t tell anyone that you go there. Make CALENDAR appointments - not to do items - with yourself. Treat them as appointments with your most important client, and honour them. One, or two, or three times per day, go to your appointment with yourself at the library.

Third, do the math. Say you work a nine hour day, typically. Take out two x 1.5 hour appointments. That’s three hours. You’ve got six hours left to be available to everyone else. At the moment, you’re not getting your three hours of focused time to yourself. Those two appointments with yourself will get you 15 hours per week. And you’ll still be available to everybody else for 6 (six) hours every day. How many bosses have you ever had who were available six hours of every day?


@mrlikeable. That is some serious hardcore wisdom that I want to digest and try out. Thanks so much for sharing.

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My advice isn’t from personal experience, (I’m an independent freelancer), but from reading. Take a look at the part of the 4-hour Workweek where he talks about delegation & automation, Tim Ferriss lays out some good systems to reduce the amount of 5-minute “updates” and “quick questions” that you have to deal with all day.

Look at making a rule-based system for the questions. I don’t know your business, but it could include stuff like “If it makes a customer happy, and costs less than $x, do it.” (That’s from the book - the rules can and probably should be much more complex in many situations). Over time add to the rules to make it so your input is needed less. It would be helpful to log every question you get asked and try to develop a rule for everything that repeats more than 3 times.

For “updating you on a situation” do you really need to updated right then or would an E-mail you can read at your leisure suffice? If the E-mail would be fine then your co-workers need to be told that you want updates by E-mail, not in person.

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Thanks @johnbeales. I’ll have to read this again, it’s been a while. We do have some rules like this in place, but I’ll look to reinforce that.

Most if my “updates” are done asynchronously, but the 20% or so that are done in real time are a distraction. I’ll be more diligent in ignoring those in the moment.

@joshwalsh I have been doing a lot of thinking around similar themes myself lately, and here are some of the things I’ve come up with for myself that I thought I’d share:

  • Assuming that your “done” list is, on a daily basis, a relative constant, an ever-growing todo list is a good sign! It means you’re aware of the world around you, catching on to new opportunities, new things that could be accomplished, and new goals. The key is to recognize that finite attention is a truism, and so I actively ebb and flow projects in and out of on hold states to make sure that only the best things are on my active radar (the weekly review helps with the judgment of what’s in or out)

  • I hear what you’re saying about limitations of delegation, given that you are the owner, but here is my challenge statement (that I try to challenge myself with): as owner (or leader or captain or emperor, whichever applies), the responsibility is to make sure the best work for the company/team/organization gets done. There may be legal issues that limit work to you (signing authority, etc.), but every other limitation is a perception based on a decision. Can you change that decision?

  • More hours is a temporary solution; something will always find a way to take your time if you offer it up. The key is limits. Rather than thinking “here is what I need ot do, how long will this take?”, think: “I have 9 hours. What’s the best way to allocate it today, based on the factors around me?”. If you are solid with collection, processing, and organization of actionables, you’re in a strong position to be able to do this. Remember that there will always always always be more to do than you can do, and you will never ever ever be done. If you can accept that and set bookends for your time, you can get more comfortable with the things you aren’t doing.

  • Maximize every interruption’s value in creative ways:

  • Use it as a chance to educate on independence to relieve future pings

  • Use it to get to things on your lists you might need that person for (either you get more accomplished or you teach people that coming to you earns them more work, and they learn independence)

  • Use it to teach people how you are best accessed (“You know what? why don’t you shoot me an email about this and I’ll let you know by end of day.” or “You know, why don’t you book a 30 minute thing in my calendar, and we can go over this and any other q’s that might be piling up.”

Your mileage may vary, but I have found these approaches and strategies are helping me govern my time and action. Interested to hear what you think.



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@joshwalsh You’re definitely not alone in this particular arena! About a year and a half ago, I began to notice that while my inbox was always dutifully processed, tasks were continually getting postponed or losing relevance due to the burden of workload coming in or interruptions. My OF would basically get out of sync with my life and I would have to go through a significant culling.

TL;DR: I ultimately ended up wrapping GTD with Agile Results, a heavy dose of defensive calendaring and perpetual journaling.

You, sir, need to be come a scheduling powerhouse! Like @mrlikeable and @deturbulence mentioned, calendaring can teach people how to interact with you in a way that maximizes the value of both your time and their time, and rather than learning to say no… think of it as finding a better way to more reliably say “yes” and better handle time sensitivity of issues. Defensively blocking your calendar for your own work and allowing people to make appointments first-come, first-serve guarantees both work time for you and accessibility by others. You’ll also get a realistic and reviewable look at where your time is actually spent during the day (and who doesn’t love performance metrics?)

Speaking of metrics, Henry Ford did studies in the early 1900s and found ~40 hours to be optimal for a work week. 60 hour weeks can provide a short term burst for up to a month or so, but productivity levels drop precipitously afterwards. Over the long haul, you’ll get more work done if you stick to shorter (normal) work days and give yourself plenty of time to rest, recuperate and actually go do something fun to take your mind off work and let that part of your brain rest! To this point, the only thing I would add to previous comments is to not undervalue the benefits of ritual and apply it wherever possible (The Checklist Manifesto is a great read on this). Consistently repeating the repeatable will reward you by highlighting efficiencies and deficiencies, and allow your personal processes to scale and adjust accordingly to only the most important tasks or items.

To your point of focus, Agile Results ( became the necessary framework (for me) around GTD that helped me maintain vision, create focus and generally allow the rest of the world to churn without responding to every interruption at the exact moment it comes in. Some things just have to wait. Keeping a journal of your weekly vision, daily goals, efforts towards them, and an end of week reflection really pay off in the sense that they are a perpetual, gentle reminder of what is important.

Aside from the rule of 3’s, I also try to 80/20 my work day with the latter being dedicated to rituals (ends up being roughly 90 minutes per day, not including lunch) and my daily ritual is pretty much as follows (anything with a time is defensively scheduled):


  • 30m: review last journal entry, calendar and tasks, set 3 goals for the day (If Monday, GTD review and set 3 higher level goals that the dailies work towards), jump start administrative tasks in the next block
  • 30m: administrative (non-project or other ritual) tasks… update those HR records, backup your documents, floss


  • full attack mode: work towards goals, accomplish tasks, attend meetings, be generally awesome, journal
  • 60m: lunch… force yourself to take an hour, you’re still going to easily get 4-6 hours of work on either side of this block. Your brain needs the break and you need the fuel.
  • back to full attack mode


  • 30 minutes: review day’s progress towards morning goals, schedule future work, answer those quick emails that didn’t warrant meetings

Of course your ritual may vary, but like GTD, it is important to commit to it and work out your own balance. Everyone deserves your time, even you.

Best of luck!



@gantbd thanks for the info, this is great. I’ve never dug too deeply into Agile Results, so I’ll have to give that a try.

@gantbd Zow, great post! I will definitely look in this agile results - interesting. Bonus marks for Checklist Manifesto, too - loved that book.



Very interesting thread. Nice tips.

A while ago, while doing my MBA, I attended a seminar in my school, by a professor and neurosurgeon called Patrick Georges, titled “The Manager’s Handbook” which came accompanied with the handbook itself. Even though there are some redundant and even some times conflicting tips, I found it very useful.

I’m sharing his website with you, where you will find some of his handouts. I hope you find them helpful, as they certainly have been for me.

I actually have a different suggestion that’s unrelated to GTD itself. I brought this exact problem to my peer executive coaching group and received a variety of tactical suggestions. Then the chair of my group, a seasoned, no-nonsense leadership coach with a background in management consulting said, “Oh, that’s easy to solve.” She said, “Every time someone comes to you with a quick question, respond with, ‘I don’t know, what do you think?’” It’s amazing how well it worked. People exhibited some frustration at first, but soon they realized if they applied their own reasoning skills they normally would arrive at a solid conclusion. Every time you give them the answer you’re incentivizing them to come back to you and ask questions without first reflecting themselves. After all, you’ll just give them the answer. Ultimately, your job as a leader is to create more leaders, and getting people to answer their own questions first is a great step in that direction.

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