How to Get and Remain Organized During Chaotic Times

Chaos causes stress, and increased stress leads to reduced productivity. At times of unavoidable chaos, what can you do to stop the heightened stress levels from tarnishing your productivity?

Get organized.

Getting Things Done (GTD) is a productivity method developed by David Allen that is broadly accepted as one of the most efficient personal organization methodologies around. In this article, I’ll take a closer look at what GTD is and identify its key concepts so that you can start taking actionable steps to mitigate stress and stay organized during chaotic times.

GTD: A reliable external system for our memory

In his book, David Allen states that our memory is inefficient. He often uses the example: How many times has our memory reminded us of something at a time when we couldn’t do anything about it?

Getting Things Done is an organizational system that you can trust to remind you of what needs to get done at the opportune moment. It is a system external to your memory that allows you to remember the things that you need to remember at the exact moment you’d like to remember them.

By practicing GTD, your mind can take comfort in knowing that nothing is going to escape it. The phrases “I forgot” or “I’ve double-booked” can be well and truly banished from your vocabulary. GTD allows the mind to dedicate itself to doing what it’s made to do: Work on concrete actions, creatively and efficiently.

GTD as philosophy: Mind like water

Mizu no Kokoro [mind like water] is a Japanese phrase meaning to have a state of mind that is similar to water: Flowing, reflective, and adaptive. Mizo no Kokoro means to adopt a state of calm by trying to keep the mind transparent and clean, like water. By keeping your mind Mizu no Kokoro, you allow yourself to be calm and able to focus on the important things that need your attention.

“In karate, there is an image that’s used to define the position of perfect readiness: “mind like water.” Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact…Anything that causes you to overreact or underreact can control you, and often does.” David Allen, Getting Things Done

Having a clear mind is one of the key components of David Allen’s GTD. Water can take the form of any shape; it is adaptable. It is this adaptability that when put into practice can bring real value into our lives.

Using a method like GTD, where you externalize your mind’s thoughts, plans, and to-do list allows you to keep your head clear. The clarity and calm state of mind this produces means you can fully focus on each of your tasks without interruption. You are externalizing the chaos.

GTD: The productivity method

Getting Things Done is the productivity method that actually works. Why? Because it is based on simple principles, rather than complex rules. It is a simple enough method that anyone can apply it, but complex enough to ensure that tasks are not forgotten.

The mind is working non-stop, taking action, performing, creating, and ensuring that you function at your full capacity as often as possible. However, while the mind is perfect for thinking and creating, it does not serve to remind us what to do all of the time. Depending solely on the mind to do this is a sure way to cause you stress and worry and ultimately lower your capacity for achieving your full potential.

That’s why the GTD method is so useful: It is based on deciding which future actions will receive your attention and when they will receive it. GTD also means that you prioritize what tasks you dedicate your time so that chaos and stress can’t seep in.

A former Capterra project manager Rachel Burger spent years searching for a productivity method that actually works. She tried Don’t Break the Chain where you mark the days you work toward a specific goal and compete against yourself to make the longest “chain” of days; Eat the Frogs First where you prioritize the hardest stuff first and do the easy stuff later; and Timeboxing, which involves marking off specific time in a calendar to work on dedicated tasks.

None of them worked.

Fortunately, after being gifted David Allen’s book, Rachel then went on to try implementing the GTD method.

She loved it:

“I do know that this productivity method has been a life and career-saver for me.”
Rachel Burger, How ‘Getting Things Done’ Changed My Life: 5 Lessons I Learned

What is the most important thing about GTD?

Unlike other theories related to personal organization, GTD does not work in a top to bottom framework, but rather from bottom to top. The other top-down methodologies focus on trying to know, seek, and fulfill your purpose in life, and go down the level defining objectives, projects, and so on from there. The top being your guiding purpose in life and the bottom being what you wish to achieve on the day to day, your current tasks.

On the other hand, the GTD method works from the bottom up. You start by clarifying and defining what your current task is so that when you have control of the tasks at hand, you will then be able to focus on your long-term purpose, plans, and tasks. The fundamentals of the GTD methodology are structured around two key elements: Control and perspective.

GTD proposes workflow management as the answer to self-organization and re-gaining control over our lives. The objective of the control element is to take everything out of your head and outsource it. In other words, take everything from plans and commitments to remembering a friend’s birthday, out of your mind and onto an external and reliable system that you can trust (I’ll go into more detail about the system itself in a moment). This can be a journal, or a digital jotting down tool, such as Microsoft Word or Notes for Apple users.

GTD’s workflow management process has five stages which you can think of as the philosophy behind the method. All of the stages are equally important if you want to maintain control of your external system, embody Mizu no Kokoro (mind like water) , and be able to work as efficiently as possible.

The 5 stages are as follows:

Collect or capture: Consists of collecting or capturing everything that’s in your mind, like worries, ideas, tasks, and thoughts, and putting them into your trust system. Jot them down, add them to a digital notepad, externalize your thoughts in whichever way suits you most.

Clarify: Everything you have collected and jotted down needs to be processed and clarified into tasks. By processing and clarifying you turn everything you have collected into actions.

Organize: Take everything you’ve collected and clarified and distribute it according to its objective. If what you have jotted down does not require any action then there is no need to form a task from it. When organizing your tasks consider using a calendar for all your deadlines; create a folder for any useful material that may support a task. If you have multiple tasks relating to the same topic, create a project for them and store all the tasks together.

Reflect: Allow time to reflect on what you decide to do and when you decide to do it, both after processing/organizing and periodically as you make your way through your workflow. It’s also useful to go back over your tasks every now and then and ensure that all completed tasks are filtered out and tasks that are no longer actionable are trashed.

Engage: The objective of the entire control process is to end up efficiently carrying out all of your commitments and tasks in a calm, flow like manner. With your trusted system complete, you are now ready to execute and fulfill your organized tasks with minimal risk of chaos.

Once you master the element of control and are able to enter the state of Mizu no Kokoro, it is time to reflect on your long-term purpose, tasks, and goals. Within the GTD method this process is called perspective.

Perspective is what encourages you to prioritize your tasks in a way that helps you work towards your overall life goals or long-term tasks. To achieve this perspective David Allen proposes a 6-level altitude model which he calls the “6 Horizons of Focus”.

These are:

Ground floor: Calendar/actions
This is the ground floor — everything you have gathered in the control process needs to be gathered. This includes looking over and organizing everything, including emails, calls, memos, errands, stuff to read, stuff to file, things to communicate with others, and so on.

Horizon 1: Projects
This is the inventory of your tasks and concerns all the tasks that take more than one action or step to complete.

Horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountability
They define what we are committed to in our day to day, that is, they show us the commitments we have made, both with ourselves and with other people.

Horizon 3: One to two-year goals and objectives
Where do you see yourself in a year? These are the type of questions you should be asking for this horizon. Define where you want to go and how you plan on getting there.

Horizon 4: Three to five-year vision
This is where you consider your life through broader eyes and consider the larger entity within which you operate.

Horizon 5: Purpose and principles
What do you consider to be your purpose? A purpose is the definition of why we do what we do and the principles and behaviors that govern us and the values ​​that we want to respect in any situation.

In GTD, each of the six altitudes has to align with the higher levels (or horizons), this means that you mitigate the likelihood of working on projects that do not help in achieving your overall goals. This means that you avoid tasks that are not in accordance with your vision, purpose or principles.


According to GTD, the way to plan your workflow is to use the natural method of project planning. The first step in project planning is to define the result you hope to achieve. Defining your purpose and visualizing the result you want to achieve is an essential step to take before organizing your projects. As per the GTD method, good planning relies on 3 review processes which you incorporate into your routine: Daily, weekly, and in general.

The first two review processes are fairly self-explanatory. Daily reviews involve reviewing your tasks on a daily basis to ensure you get done what needs get done (at the appropriate time) and weekly go through the same review process, but on a weekly basis. A general review involves periodically checking to ensure you are on track and aligned with your overall objectives, vision, and purpose.

Get organized and implement GTD yourself

So there you have it.

By now you should feel well versed in the GTD method and know how to take action and stop chaos from taking over your life. Follow the process of GTD to get organized, reduce your stress levels, avoid the chaos, and, most importantly achieve the calm state of Mizu no Kokoro!

Originally published at

The Ultimate Solution to Get Things Done.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store