How I Use Wunderlist to Get Things Done

If you don’t know GTD and you are an attorney, you ought to. GTD stands for Getting Things Done, a method founded by David Allen to handle task management. The premise of his method might be described as “out of sight, out of mind,” that is to get information and ideas out of your head quickly and into a reliable system to alleviate stress and facilitate a clear focus on the present. In the age of uber connectedness and remote possibilities, multitasking is more than just tempting, but it’s not productive. Indeed, studies even suggest against it.  GTD aims to prevent that urge to multitask.

I highly recommend GTD; a method that can be applied almost anywhere, using any system. What’s important is that you create a system that works for you. It doesn’t need to mirror the traditional GTD system as proposed by Mr. Allen in his 2002 publication, but the core concepts should be present: collect, process, organize, review, and do.

With electronic task management systems now aplenty, many systems are well suited to accommodate GTD. I’ve chosen to address just one in particular: Wunderlist. I’ve written previously on how to use the tool, which you can read here. In this post, I will describe how I use Wunderlist for GTD. Of course, I don’t purport to suggest that this is the only method or that it is the right way to use Wunderlist with GTD—only that it has worked for me. My hope is that by exploring my techniques, you can further develop and refine your own methods.

Organization

Let’s talk first about organization. It took me a few tries to get the organization right. Here is what I ended up with, and I’ll explain why in a bit. I chose to display two Wunderlist default groups: “Inbox” and “Starred.” Those lists reside at the top of my Wunderlist. Then, I have “Next,” “Later,” “Someday/Maybe,” and “Reoccurring” lists. Thereafter are my lists for specific projects. Below is a sample screenshot.

wunderlist-organization

Now, let’s apply David Allen’s five core concepts to my system.

Application

Collect. As soon as I know I have something I need to do that cannot be delegated or done immediately, I put it in my “Inbox.” Typically, I’ll add an entry to my Inbox from my iPhone or iPad, or I’ll forward an email to my Wunderlist email address.

Process. I make it a habit to check my “Inbox” first thing in the morning to process my tasks. I then decide what to do with those tasks. First, I need to convert the “Inbox” tasks into actionable items. That is particularly true if I’ve forwarded myself an email, say, for example, regarding an article I agreed to write. I need to break that up into actionable items, such as research, outline, draft, and finalize.

Organize.  This is where the rubber meets the road. After I’ve defined my actionable tasks, I need to sort them into the right groups. There are a few options here. A task might go directly into my “Next” group, if I know that I want to tackle it next. Or, if it can wait, I’ll drop it into “Later.” If it’s not something I’m interested in addressing anytime soon—or ever—I’ll move it to “Someday/Maybe.” If it is associated with a specific project, then it goes into that group.  Here is a visual of my workflow.

WunderlistLTT-workflow-infographic
When handling projects, Wunderlist helps me organize the tasks associated with that project, but I don’t find that it is robust enough to act as a full project management tool. For that, I use Evernote. For each of my Wunderlist project lists, one of the items is a link to my Evernote notebook for that particular project.

Here is a sample project list in Wunderlist that follows the foregoing protocols:

wunderlist-project

Do. Now, if you’ve been following closely, you’ll notice that I don’t have a grouping for tasks that need to be handled today. For those items, I use Wunderlist’s flag feature. This relies heavily on my daily review (more on that below). After I’ve finished processing my “Inbox,” I’ll move to my “Starred” list. That’s what I work from on a daily basis. It is essentially my daily to-do list.  If I’ve sorted properly, the flagged items will be sorted by project or action. All flagged items (with one exception mentioned below) should come directly from my “Next” list or a project list.

Now, there are a few unique items that I need to deal with, which include reoccurring actions and those with due dates. For reoccurring items, I place them all into my “Reoccurring” list. I set the due date to repeat and then set a reminder. The reminder notifies me to work on this task. When I receive that reminder, I then flag the task. When I finish with the task, I’ll check it off, unflag it, and then reset the reminder for the next week, month, or whatever time period it may require. Because the due date is set to repeat, the task doesn’t disappear when I check it off as complete for that time period.

For tasks that have a specific due date, I add the due date and then set a reminder for when I want to be notified to start work on the task. When I receive the reminder, I then flag the task so that it appears in my “Starred” list.

wunderlist-starred

Review. This entire system is dependent upon regular reviews.  Each day I begin by processing and organizing my “Inbox.” After that, I conduct my daily review. My daily review consists of a look through my “Starred” and “Next” lists. If I trust the system, I should have everything I need for that day in those two lists (and will be notified via reminder of anything else time sensitive).

Weekly reviews are also essential to the process. This is where I review not only my “Starred” and “Next” lists, but also my project lists. I might flag a certain task within a project to start work on it next week or I might decide to set a reminder for a project task. This process helps ensure that nothing falls through the cracks. Typically, I’ll also take a quick glance at my “Later” and “Someday/Maybe” lists and decide whether any of those tasks can be moved up to “Next” or deleted altogether.

I like to set a reoccurring task for my weekly review. That way, I don’t forget to do it.

A Final Note

For those who follow GTD, you’ll notice that I have drastically modified David Allen’s traditional method. I would argue that the GTD provides basic task management concepts that can—and should—be altered to fit your work and the tools that you use to manage, organize, and complete your work. It took me several attempts to develop my GTD system with Wunderlist, and I’m constantly redefining it.

Wunderlist has additional features that I have experimented with and may integrate into my system overtime. The way I have described above is, to me, a simple and usable system. I’m interested in hearing from you with thoughts on my method and about your own GTD methods.

Please provide comments in the space below.

 

(Image Credit: ShutterStock)

About Heidi Alexander

Heidi Alexander
Heidi S. Alexander, Esq. (@heidialexander) is a Law Practice Management Advisor at the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program (MassLOMAP), where she advises lawyers on practice management matters and provides guidance in implementing new law office technologies. She frequently makes presentations to the legal community and contributes to publications on law practice management and technology. Follow her on Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+.

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  • Jeff

    This is a really interesting article. I’m also grappling with setting
    up a GTD system using Wunderlist and Evernote. I considered just
    Evernote, but I really like the fluidity and simplicity of adding and
    processing tasks in Wunderlist. You mentioned that you use Evernote to
    handle project management – how do you then integrate those tasks back
    into Wunderlist? Also I noticed you don’t have a “waiting for” category
    – any particular reason?

    • hsalexander

      Jeff, Thanks for your comment! The way I integrate Wunderlist with EN is through EN’s note linking feature. For each Wunderlist task that references an EN project, I include that specific EN note link. That way, when I need to access more info from a Wunderlist a task, I click on the link and it brings me to my EN note.

      In response to your second question, I tried using Wunderlist’s tagging feature for “waiting for” items (“#wf”), but it didn’t seem to work for me because I didn’t like having to search for #wf each time I wanted to review my “waiting for” items. Plus, those items still need to be located on some list, and it didn’t make sense for them continue to reside on a “NEXT” list or some other. It would have been more appropriate to add another list for “waiting for” items, and then to add items directly to that list or to move items from other lists when they become “waiting for” items. There are GTD folks out there using Wunderlist with the hashtag feature. I could see using the hashtag feature for contexts (if you use them; I don’t) – i.e. tagging for phone, home, office, computer.

      Generally, I like the combination of Wunderlist and EN for the reasons you’ve mentioned. However, I have also setup a GTD system using only EN, which works quite well. Send me an email (heidi@masslomap.org) and I’ll tell you more about it.

      • Adam Taylor

        Great article, I wanted to shared how I use contexts because I also didn’t like searching for a hashtag each time. What I do is setup a new list called “Contexts” and in the list I add new items with nothing but the hashtag, this allows you to click on the hashtag versus searching each time. So if I have #office, #home, #ipad as my contexts I would have three items in my “Contexts” list that I can easily click on to search.

        • hsalexander

          Thanks for sharing, Adam! That’s a great idea.

      • Erol Diener

        Hey Heidi,
        I like the way you use the list instead using the tagging feature.
        Anyway, what work fine for me is a dedicated list of tasks called like the tags. Each task also includes the corresponding tag. This way you can simply open the list and click on the tag and instantly get the search result.

        e.g.
        List: Tags
        -> Task: Waiting for #wf
        -> Task: Next #next

        now simply klick on #wf and you will get those tasks in a search result.

        Erol

  • Sandro Fasola

    Hi, great help for GTD & Wunderlist. How about the setup for GTD, now with the new feature in Wunderlist with the folders ?

    Best regards, Sandro

    • Sandro – Thanks for pointing out this new feature! I think it could be of significant benefit to GTD disciples. I’m thinking of using folders to store projects and differentiate between my work and personal tasks. Lookout for a new post from me describing this new feature and how it might be used for GTD (I’m working on it).

      • Sandro Fasola

        Hi,
        Sounds great. Will for sure wait on your post.

        I just started a few weeks a go reading GTD books. Configuring now for my official work MS Outlook 2010 based to David’s document the GTD technic. At home privately I am using Wunderlist because its very simple kept (from my personal point of view) and I can have it as app on my MAC/iPhone/Android/Website. So no too many different inboxes and you can print them also easely out. I am very curious about your post :-) Thanks again and best regards, Sandro

  • Oleg Yaroshevych

    The biggest showstopper for me is that you can’t complete a project in the Wunderlist. If you’re using lists for projects, the only thing you may do is to delete the list completely, with all tasks and notes.

    • Oleg – I agree with you. My workaround is to link my Wunderlist project tasks to Evernote, where I store and then archive most of the content for my projects. Wunderlist reminds me I need to work on the project and Evernote is where I do the work. Not a perfect system, for sure, but it seems to work well enough for my needs.

    • Erol Diener

      Oleg, I have a folder called “Archive” where I move all the completed projects (lists), into it. Once collapsed my Archive folder, I don’t see them anymore ;)

  • Erol Diener

    Heidi, I also struggle managing complex projects in Wunderlist. But I guess that’s why Wunderlist is still a very user friendly and effective tool. Would it be as complex to fit all users need, well, I would probably stop using it.

    However, what I’m currently testing regarding project management is this:

    According you, I’m also creating lists for all projects.
    I add a task to each list which I name according the list (which is the project name, e.g. “_Project A”). I call this the Project Header.
    I use the note section of this task to:
    – describe the project. Just a few lines.
    – maintain a list of all actions needed to complete this project.
    You probably wondering why I do not simply create all tasks within the project list. Well, I like to only create the very “Next Action/s” as a task/s within my project lists. “What can I do as the next action/s so the project moves on?” Everything else remains in the list until it’s time to process it. I now, it probably sounds weird, but I give it a try. A simple list allows me to better visualize main-, sub-task and even sub-sub-tasks if needed. In my Project Header task I don’t use the build in sub-task. Mainly because I can’t set a due date, flag it, nor assign it to my colleagues. I don’t have this limitation if I simply maintain my structured action, and only create the next few actions needed in the project list. In this way it does also not bother my that the task structure within my project list is flat.
    But I figured out another nice benefit of the build-in sub-task within my Project Header task. What I do, is to add the mile stones of my project as a sub-task. Whenever a milestone is reached, I check it off. In this way all my Project Header tasks show up with a handy progress bar. See second picture below. And as I flag all my Project Header tasks with #IT_Project, I can easily create a list of all active project including a progress bar.

  • Erol Diener

    Heidi, I also struggle managing complex projects in Wunderlist. But I guess that’s why Wunderlist is still a very user friendly and effective tool. Would it be as complex to fit all users need, well, I would probably stop using it.

    However, what I’m currently testing regarding project management is this (also visualized in the first picture below):

    According you, I’m also creating lists for all projects.
    I add a task to each list which I name according the list (which is the project name, e.g. “_Project A”). I call this the Project Header.
    I use the note section of this task to:
    – describe the project. Just a few lines.
    – maintain a list of all actions needed to complete this project.
    You probably wondering why I do not simply create all tasks within the project list. Well, I like to only create the very “Next Action/s” as a task/s within my project lists. “What can I do as the next action/s so the project moves on?” Everything else remains in the list until it’s time to process it. I now, it probably sounds weird, but I give it a try. A simple list allows me to better visualize main-, sub-task and even sub-sub-tasks if needed. In my Project Header task I don’t use the build in sub-task. Mainly because I can’t set a due date, flag it, nor assign it to my colleagues. I don’t have this limitation if I simply maintain my structured action, and only create the next few actions needed in the project list. In this way it does also not bother my that the task structure within my project list is flat.
    But I figured out another nice benefit of the build-in sub-task within my Project Header task. What I do, is to add the mile stones of my project as a sub-task. Whenever a milestone is reached, I check it off. In this way all my Project Header tasks show up with a handy progress bar. And as I flag all my Project Header tasks with #IT_Project, I can easily create a list of all active project including a progress bar (see second picture below).

    • Erol – Thank you for sharing! The new folder feature seems to be a huge advantage to your system. I’m currently working up a follow up post. I’ll certainly incorporate some of your thoughts – with credit of course! Thanks again.