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How to: get to ‘inbox-zero’

With Getting Things Done, a work/life management system, an empty inbox – and more time to spend achieving your purpose – can become a reality. Get ready to say goodbye to overwhelm forever

26 January 2023

James Harwood is a coach for Chelsea-based company Next Action Associates, which shows people how to work smarter and live better with Getting Things Done (GTD), a leading productivity methodology. 

Self-confessed organisation-obsessed Anya Hindmarch is a fan. When she opened the AH Stationery shop at The Village last year, she asked James to give several presentations on this life-changing process to her shoppers, who left saying that the talk alone had revolutionised their way of working. 

Here, James tells us about the GTD method and how it can revolutionise your life, too. 



The bestselling book by David Allen, Getting Things Done – The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, was first published in 2001 and has evolved into the GTD method, which is now taught by certified coaches, like me, around the world.



Anyone who needs more time in their lives because they’re drowning in emails or overwhelmed by to-do lists. Professionals, entrepreneurs, busy parents, students…

Ask yourself: what would you do if you had more time? Spend more time with your family? Travel? Learn a new skill? Or just unwind and stop stressing?

The good news is that the GTD can absolutely give you more time, by getting more things done more quickly with its fool-proof system. In fact, many of the large clients we work with report increased staff productivity averaging 40-50%, and as high as 80% in some cases.



Getting Things Done is about getting the right things done – right for you, for your company, for your colleagues, your family, your goals, visions, mental and physical health, and your happiness.

One of the key outcomes of practising the GTD method is trusting your choices about how you spend your time and resources. 

If you can trust that what you are doing in each moment is what you should be doing, you get myriad benefits, including a decrease in general stress because you’re not worried about work when at home, or home when at work. You can reclaim a sense of balance; increased self-esteem – and even better sleep.



A friend of mine gave me a copy of Getting Things Done when I was juggling being an actor and working as a corporate trainer, as well as trying to be a good husband, son, friend, etc. Keeping all the balls in the air was overwhelming. Looking back, I wasn’t as busy as I am today, although I always felt on edge, with something about to blow up.

I read the book and it changed my life. Rather than waiting for the phone to ring for acting jobs, I was more proactive; rather than hoping for corporate training work to be offered, I set up my own company. And was able to keep all the different balls in the air, even when we had a daughter who takes up a wonderful amount of my time, focus and energy herself.  

[With GTD], you can reclaim a sense of balance; increased self-esteem – and even better sleep.


When first coming to the GTD method, most people use a model called the five steps of mastering workflow. This gives control and stability with all the new inputs coming at you and all the demands on your time: emails, DMs, WhatsApps, thoughts, meetings, children and family. It provides clarity on what you have to do about things and helps track the larger moving parts of your world so that you can spend time on the most meaningful things to you. 

The five-step process:


Gather all the new stuff that comes into your life into trusted places, so you know you’ll deal with it soon. This stops you from worrying about overload from too many new things showing up, and prevents things from ‘slipping through the cracks’. My main Capture tools are my email inbox, a single notebook, a physical in-tray and a portable in-folder and an app on my mobile phone. These few places allow me to Capture wherever I am, and I know where I need to look for new items when I have time.


This is when you deal with all the new Captured stuff. You do this by deciding what each new item means to you and what you intend to do about it, either immediately or long term. 

We aim to Clarify all the new stuff every day or two, meaning that all our Capture tools, including our email inboxes, are empty every 24/48 hours. That doesn’t mean we’ve finished everything – it means we have decided what we need to do about everything and put reminders in the right place. I tend to Clarify all my Capture tools to empty several times a day.


Everything should be where its location matches its meaning. So, an email that has just arrived and hasn’t been Clarified should be in your email inbox. An email that has been Clarified and actions identified shouldn’t be there any longer. 

We build an ‘external brain’ or ‘GTD system’, so that we can keep track of all our commitments without having to try and remember everything we need to do. Many of our commitments are kept in lists and so we recommend a good list-keeper. I use OmniFocus, a Mac-based app designed specifically for GTD, although we don’t have a strong preference for where people keep their systems, as long as it isn’t in their heads – as this is inefficient and causes a lot of stress.


Daily reviews of the system and calendar for what you can be doing now, moment to moment. Once you have also started to track bigger-picture items, you can also review these on a weekly, monthly, or quarterly basis. 

We have recommendations on the best timings and ways to Reflect at all these different levels. My most important review is a weekly review, which involves looking at everything I have on my lists and also the larger projects I’m planning to complete this year, to make sure they are all on track.


When the time comes to simply ‘do’, we want you to be able to review all the options available to you and make a great intuitive ‘gut’ choice. Our brains are brilliant at that. What our brains are useless at is presenting us with all our options. We need the ‘external brain’ to show us our options and use our human brains to decide what to do.



Gaining control at the ‘ground level’ is where to start. This can be having your email inbox empty at least once a day, everything in your world in the right place so you can find it when you need it, having enough time in your calendar to do what needs to be done and trusting that what you are doing is what you should be doing.



You can start with David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done – The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, which is still in print and still a bestseller. Or you can join us for a GTD seminar to get a quick start. We also offer one-on-one coaching to help people set up their systems, as well as workplace training. 


Next Action Associates are the UK and Ireland’s only certified partner of the David Allen Company. For more information, please visit

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