My Moleskine GTD System

by Mike Shea on 9 May 2012

Note: This article has been updated from the original version written on 1 October 2009.

For many years, Getting Things Done has helped me manage the chaos of everyday life. GTD has made me happier, more relaxed, and more productive in the things that interest me most in my life.

I've used half a dozen different physical systems for GTD and always look for opportunities to simplify my GTD system.

Over the years, I found a way to contain my entire GTD system into a single Moleskine pocket notebook. Today we'll look at this system through the component parts of GTD: the inbox, project lists, next actions, and the weekly calendar.

This process refines Getting Things Done down to a system contained in single Moleskine notebook without modifications. I wanted a complete GTD system in my pocket, on paper.

Physical layout

Before I discuss each section and how it is used, I wanted to describe the actual physical layout of these sections within my Moleskine.

Moleskine GTD system sketched in a Moleskine (how meta)

My inbox, calendar, and next actions all reside together in the main bulk of the notebook. After each weekly calendar, I fill a number of pages each week with action lists and loose note pages used as an "inbox". I average about eight to ten pages used each week. Writing these pages out in-line lets the notebook grow naturally without wasting pages by breaking things out into sections before they're written. When a new week comes on, I write in a new calendar on the next available two-page spread and continue onward until the notebook is full, which takes about three months.

Project lists reside on the last six pages of the notebook broken out by "work projects" and "home projects". I give about three pages for each of these so they have some room to grow over the three-month period that each Moleskine usually covers.

On the top spine of the Moleskine, I write the starting month and year. When the notebook is full, I write the end month. This way its easy for me to reference each notebook among my growing stack of archived Moleskines.

Here's a more detailed look at each section ordered by their appearance in the notebook.

Life goals and calendar

Moleskine GTD life goals and calendar

I keep my current week's calendar on a two-page spread that I hand-write each week during my weekly review. On this spread I also have my daily checklist with ten goals I like to track each day. This helps tie my larger 7 Habits style goals to actual daily activities.

Below the checklist, I write out my calendar beginning with Monday and Tuesday on one page and Wednesday through Friday on the other. Saturday and Sunday, my least busy days, share the bottom of the second page. I don't over-format my calendar, I simply write the time, name, and location of the appointment in the blank area below the day. In general, I only format as much as I absolutely need to.

In the Moleskine, I never bother to review my week more than one week out. I use an electronic calendar like Outlook or Google Calendar as a master calendar for future scheduling and copy over the appointments to my weekly calendar during my weekly review. My Moleskine never contains a calendar further out than a week.

These weekly calendar pages clearly segment my Moleskine into weekly chunks, making it easy to reference and look up appointments and notes months, and even years, later.

Action lists

Moleskine GTD action lists

After my calendar pages, I write my next action lists broken out by @work and @home. I use a whole page for each context. The physical limitation of a single page forces me to triage, refine, and eliminate actions no longer important. If I have too many actions to fit in a page, I'm trying to do too much and need to cut back. The physical constraint of the page helps me constrain the number of actions I try to take on.

As I go through my week, I might end up re-writing the list to keep it clean. I simply write the next action list on the next available page and ensure I've transferred any outstanding actions from the previous list to the new one. I make sure to mark or cross off transferred action lists so I don't get confused and look at the wrong one.

Inbox pages

Moleskine GTD inbox pages

The concept of an Inbox and ubiquitous capture — a single place to capture unprocessed stuff — is critical to the GTD system. A Moleskine works perfectly for this. Anything that jumps into your life can be quickly jotted down in the Moleskine and processed when you have a free moment. I process incoming action items with a small check mark next to notes that I have "processed", either eliminating the need to do anything with it or turning it into a project or next action. This way I can easily see what inbox notes have been and haven't been processed. When an entire page has been processed, I put a check in the upper right corner to note that the whole page has been processed. I also date each section of notes so I can easily see when things came in.

I don't worry about crudding up my notebook with stickers, sketches of ninjas, phone numbers, or whatever. Grabbing up unprocessed random stuff is what the inbox is for.

Project pages

Moleskine GTD project pages

In the back of the Moleskine, I reserve about six pages for project lists. I break these out into three major categories: home projects, company projects, and client projects. Again, I try to keep the number of project categories small so I don't over-categorize. Three has worked perfectly for years. These project lists can get large and messy over a three-month period so I leave about two to three pages for each large category.

Really only two sections

While it looks like I'm breaking the Moleskine up into many sections, it is really only two: the main section which takes up all but the last few pages of the book and the six or so projects pages in the back.

My calendar, life goals, and action lists are written in sequentially as the weeks roll on. Since I only write up next week's calendar during my weekly reviews, they simply go on the next available two-page spread. New action lists get written in on the next available page, mixed in with the notes. Their clear formatting makes the easy enough to differentiate between the notes. This way I'm using every page in the Moleskine without a bunch of blank pages in between multiple sections.

Eliminating someday / maybe and waiting-for lists

The GTD purists among you may notice that I have no "someday / maybe" lists and no "waiting for" lists. Over the years I've eliminated a few of the standard GTD tools, finding they had a higher overhead for their limited usefulness. You can read more about this in Simplifying GTD.

The Weekly Review

Each Friday afternoon, I conduct a weekly review with the following steps:

  1. Go to the next available two-page spread and write out my daily goals checklist.
  2. Write out next week's calendar and sync it with my Outlook calendar.
  3. Write out a new @home and @work action lists.
  4. Review last week's calendar for any outstanding actions.
  5. Go over last week's notes for any outstanding actions.
  6. Review my project lists, eliminating those I no longer care about, and recording new next actions.
  7. Spend a few minutes staring out a window, pondering the question "What is on my mind that I have not captured?"
  8. Get back to work.

All of this will seem extremely obsessive compulsive to some, but I see it as almost the exact opposite. Instead of obsessing about undone commitments all the time, I only consider them once a week. The rest of the time I'm focused on fulfilling those commitments most important to me and re-negotiating or eliminating those that are not. This isn't about obsession, this is about being relaxed and happy without obsessing about what we think we've forgotten.

Moleskine GTD vs. Omnifocus

Recently I've begun to use Omnifocus to manage project lists and actions, using the Moleskine strictly as an inbox, calendar, and daily goals checklist. While the Moleskine GTD system works just fine, it doesn't include two features of Omnifocus that make my life even easier: delaying actions until I need to remember them and re-occurring actions that I perform regularly. Read more about these key features in my Omnifocus vs. Moleskine article.

A Simple Life

Why would someone spend so much time pontificating the details of a system like this? To make my life simpler, to make my life easier, and to help me focus my limited time, attention, and energy on the things that are most important to me. Getting my system streamlined down to a single pocket notebook has made my life easier and because of this, I am a happier person.

Now I'm off to go fly a kite on a beach.

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