Update Oct 28, 2007: Check out my Free Stuff page for a free, “as is” version of my GTD System for Excel. Use at your own risk. Read all warning and usage texts in the Excel sheet itself. You have been warned! NO SUPPORT for this version. Updates and more stable, commercial versions may follow. Feedback is appreciated.

Update Aug 03, 2007: I’ve stopped using my Excel sheet for GTD about 3 months ago as I’m using a PDA with ListPro as the core of my GTD system at the moment. I’ve decided to release a free, “as is” version of the Excel sheet. I need to brush it up a little first. If you don’t see it appearing for download on my site in, say, a couple of weeks, then remind me nicely :)

Update Mar 18, 2007: This article describes my current GTD system in words and pictures. At this moment there is no downloadable Excel sheet! If this changes, my blog readers will be the first to know. See the comments section of this post for further discussion.

It is perfectly possible to implement GTD in Excel. In fact, I think Excel is a perfect tool for many purposes. Using a combination of built-in Excel formulas and my own custom made VBA code, I have implemented a basic GTD system for myself. It is in fact an ongoing project, but I am using the system successfully every day.

These are my requirements for any useful GTD system:

  • flexible
  • easy to use
  • fast
  • working the way I want it to!
  • intuitive grouping, sorting and filtering of actions and projects
  • overview and details separated
  • configurable
  • compatible with PocketMod

I have been playing around with quite a few GTD tools, but none of them has satisfied all of these requirements. My own GTD system satisfies all my requirements and more. The most important property of any tool is that is easy and fun to use, otherwise the tool will not be used properly and certainly not regularly. Instead of conforming my ideas to other GTD tools, I have created my own GTD tool that conforms to my own ideas.


So what does it actually look like?

First, let me show you the overview and data entry screen, the “dashboard” screen if you will. Please note that I have taken the liberty of blurring certain parts of the following screenshots to protect my own privacy :) .


GTD – dashboard (click image for larger version)

The dashboard is used to get a quick overview of how many actions and projects are active or finished. It also shows the oldest and newest 5 actions (this doesn’t work properly yet and I am starting to doubt the usefulness of this information anyway). One thing to bear in mind is that all the information on the dashboard is generated automatically and dynamically from the other sheets.

The righthand side of the screen is used for data entry. Actions, projects, someday/maybe’s and other data are entered here.
Some more details about adding a new action: you simply type a description of the action, optionally select a project from the list, optionally select a context from the list and optionally enter a due date for this action.
If the action is actually a “waiting for” action then check the appropriate checkbox. Finally, click on the Add button to actually add a new action.

Actually, with some Excel magic, I have been able to construct dynamic pull-down lists for projects and contexts. No manual editing or maintenance required whatsoever!
The following screenshot shows part of the projects pull-down list:


GTD – dashboard – detail of projects list (click image for larger version)

The next sheet shows a detailed overview of (all, or part of) the list of next actions. Using standard Excel tools, like autofiltering and sorting, it is very easy and convenient to show e.g. unfinished actions for a certain context (or project). This is what the screen looks like:


GTD – next actions (click image for larger version)

Note how finished next actions (tasks, if you will) are automatically greyed out and waiting for actions are automatically highlighted.

Example: Using Excel’s autofilter it is easy to show only the next actions that are unfinished in the context of @Calls:


GTD – next actions – detail of filtered list (click image for larger version)

Actions can be manipulated directly on this sheet by using the 3 buttons in the upper-right corner of the screen: Finish Action(s), Unfinish Action(s) and Mark deleted. Just select any number of actions and click one of the buttons to perform the corresponding operation.

The next sheet shows an overview of your GTD projects (in GTD terminology a project requires more than just one physical next action):


GTD – projects (click image for larger version)

Just like the list of next actions, the list of projects can be filtered and sorted by using standard Excel tools. Projects can be (un)finished or marked deleted similarly to next actions by selecting one or more projects from the list and clicking the appropriate button. Finished projects are automatically greyed out.

Syncing Excel to paper

Perhaps the most important requirement that I put on any GTD system (which, perhaps, is why many of them are not suitable for me) is the ability to flawlessly sync the next actions, projects, et cetera to paper. My offline GTD system consists mainly of a pen and one or more (usually two) PocketMods. If you are unfamiliar with a PocketMod, I suggest you visit www.pocketmod.com to find out how wonderfully ingenious one single sheet of paper can be :) .

The final sheet I want to show you from my Excel GTD system formats the underlying data (next actions, waiting for, projects, someday/maybe’s) into one giant list by executing some custom made VBA code. It can even add manual pagebreaks if needed.


GTD – pocketmod (click image for larger version)

Note how some next actions are automatically labeled with project numbers. This makes it easier to find the corresponding project in the numbered list in my pocketmod.
By simply adjusting the font size and page margins it is very easy to make Excel print this aggregated list into a PDF with a maximum of 8 pages (which is the maximum allowed for a pocketmod). I create the PDF straight from Excel by using PDFCreator, but other solutions are readily available. One of the pages in the resulting PDF file looks like this:


Excel printed to a PDF file (click image for larger version)

Next actions are sorted and grouped (by context). Projects and someday/maybe’s are numbered for easy reference. Each page contains a footer with the current page number, my name and telephone number and the creation date.

You are now one step away from taking all of the information from the Excel GTD system and carry it with you on a single sheet of paper, folded into a small booklet (pocketmod). The (maximum) 8 page PDF just created is transformed into a pocketmod by using a small program from the PocketMod website, called PDFtoPocketMod:


PDFtoPocketMod program (click image for larger version)

The transformed PDF (actual pocketmod) looks like this:


Final pocketmod PDF ready to be printed (click image for larger version)

Printing and folding this single sheet of paper will actually allow you to carry an up-to-date, simple to use, lightweight, paper-based GTD system with you in your pocket! I have used everything from laptop to PDA, from paper notebook to index cards (hipster PDA!), but nothing -in my humble opinion- compares to the simplicity, portability and flexibility of a pen/pencil and a pocketmod!

Actually, I usually print a fresh pocketmod every day or every other day. The back of the pocketmod is used for collecting notes and new actions or projects. On a regular basis (typically daily) I “sync” the (changed) information from the pocketmod back to the Excel GTD system. This is what the resulting pocketmod looks like:


Photo of the final pocketmod (click image for larger version)

There is one more thing left to show you from my Excel-based GTD system. The sheets to the right of the red “divider sheet” actually contain all the underlying information of my GTD system:


GTD – remaining sheets (click image for larger version)

This is the “workhorse” part of the system that makes everything I showed you above possible. It is beyond the scope of this blog entry to show you the inner workings or contents of these sheets…

Conclusion

To me, Excel has proved to be a valuable tool for implementing a GTD system that is actually easy and fun to use, does exactly what I want it to do (since I created it! ;) ) and allows flexible syncing to paper (pocketmod).
In other words, I have created an environment that is perfectly suited to my (GTD) needs, therefore making it easier to use and keep using Getting Things Done to successfully organize my personal and professional life!