Canadian Contractor

How smart contractors are ‘Getting Things Done’

The 'GTD' method of juggling a seemingly-impossible workload was popularized by David Allen's 2001 business self-help book. Many contractors we have spoken to, swear by it.

March 29, 2016
By Steve Payne

“You can’t do it all yourself.” That’s one of the topics we repeatedly return to as we look at ways to improve your profitability as a pro builder. We have had a number of columns from Mike Draper, contractor coach at, in which Mike has talked about the importance of building systems into your business. If you try to grow without systems, making every decision yourself and doing it all yourself – and flying by the seat of your pants – you will burn out. 80- to 100-hour weeks will do that to you.

In this article, I thought I would talk about a different kind of system: a personal productivity system. It’s called Getting Things Done (known by its many loyal fans by the initials GTD). The (almost) cult of GTD began in North America after a book by that name was published in 2001 by a man called David Allen.

Over its 15-year history, GTD has spawned online tools, videos, productivity software, apps and a lucrative personal appearance schedule by David Allen himself. It’s easy to dismiss all this as so much “self-help” garbage. After all, there have been tens of thousands of such books published over the years. Very, very few have stood the test of time. GTD is, however, one of them.

I’ve talked with a number of Canadian contractors about GTD recently. One of them, Neil Damackine, the owner of ND Construction – a homebuilding and renovation firm in Terrebonne, QC, near Montreal – showed me how he uses GTD on his phone, tied in with OneNote software. He told me that GTD literally transformed his business. It taught him how to juggle multiple projects, thousands of details on dozens of projects, and how to not lose track of his big picture goals and values in the midst of the “chaos” (until you get a system!) that residential construction entrepreneurship can lead to.


I don’t have room here to give a detailed description of how GTD works. But you can Google it and have a look at the basic principles for yourself (before you invest in the book and all the other products that it has spawned).

If there was a single sentence summary of GTD, it would be to stop using your brain to store “to do’s” and, instead, record them on some external storage device: on paper, electronically – just get them out of your head.

If this sounds pathetically simple to make a man (David Allen) rich, so be it. There is a lot more to the system than that, but getting rid of your “open loops,” as Allen calls them, will free up your brain for concentrating on the task at hand, for creative thinking, for developing relationships with customers, with relaxing more and being more efficient.

GTD starts with a mind-dump, in which all the things that are bugging you, nagging for attention, undone, overdue, to be scheduled, etc. are emptied out onto a notepad so that you can free your mind… sort of like erasing files on a hard drive to make a computer run faster.

This “open loop” emptying gives you what Allen calls an In Box: it’s all the stuff that’s been taking up your attention – and making you inefficient, stressed out, and – if the open loops are far too numerous – depressed.

Then, there are only 8 different places for each of those “open loop” In Box items. Once a week, at a minimum, or once a day at a maximum, the GTD contractor will sit down to review all that “stuff” and place it in one of the following categories.

  • (1) Immediately done, or done as soon as possible, if the item will take less than 2-minutes
  • (2) Delegated to someone else
  • (3) In the trash
  • (4) On a ‘someday/maybe’ list
  • (5) Filed away in a neatly referenced filing system
  • (6) On a ‘next action’ list if there is only one step to complete the item
  • (7) On a ‘projects’ list is there are multiple steps to complete the item, with the next action listed there
  • (8) On your calendar as an appointment.

If this sounds complex, it really isn’t. GTD is simply a way of forcing you to get all that “stuff” out of your mind, where it is nagging for attention and taking up “bandwidth,” so that you can get clear and focused on what you are doing at any one time in your contracting business – or in your personal life for that matter.

Though this is not a paid infomercial for GTD, I thought I would end with this quote from the high-traffic ContractorTalk website (affiliated with Bosch power tools, but refreshingly independent and opinionated) from Houston, TX home builder Allan Edwards:

“GTD is not some psycho-babble BS, religion, or cult, it is a very well respected time and task management method, embraced by many of the Fortune 50 companies. I have been a follower of it for several years, it really helps me stay focused on the important things in my company. At any one time I have 7-9 very large (8,000-10,000 sq. ft. and larger) custom homes under construction, I have an unbelievable amount of detail and information to manage daily. My company is only me, an experienced project manager, a newbie building superintendent, and a semi-part time person in the office. That’s it. I have to be extremely organized to make my building program work, not only the construction part but the marketing, accounting (I do in-house), client interface and communication, and the entire business side of the operation. GTD has helped me immensely, I could not do the volume I do without the methods espoused by David Allen, founder. I went from doing $4 to $5 million a year to $10 million and higher in annual business. Many things contributed to this. Right at the top of that list has been the following and implementing of GTD for task management. I would encourage anyone who wants to step up their efficiency and production to take a look at this.”


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