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How to Be a GTD Person in a Waterfall World | LiquidPlanner

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How to Be a GTD Person in a Waterfall World

I’ve been with the same cell phone carrier for over 10 years. My money has been kept in the same bank since I moved to Canada many years ago. By all accounts, I am a very loyal person to any product, service or system that works for me. Project management and all of its principles—like Waterfall—is one of the systems that works for me, and I’m loyal to.

So when I first picked up the book “Getting Things Done” by David Allen, I wasn’t ready to change my approach. However, the more I read the book, I felt like Mr. Allen was speaking directly to me. His principles, which are based around a personal productivity system, made so much sense that I begrudgingly had to give it a try.

At first glance, GTD and Waterfall seem like opposing strategies for getting things done. GTD is a personal system that tackles incoming items one at a time; Waterfall is a way for teams to manage a sequential process. Instead of being in opposition, I believe they beautifully complement each other. Applying both GTD and Waterfall into a powerful system will let you manage whatever comes your way; they will help you deliver outstanding projects and deliver on your promises.

Let me outline how this can work.

Can GTD and Waterfall coexist?

To break it down in simple terms, GTD is something you do alone; Waterfall is something you do with other people. The faster you understand that GTD is for you and that Waterfall is for your project, the faster you’ll see how perfectly they fit together.

GTD allows you to quickly collect and give order to every item, or input, you receive as you go about life. These items can include an email, a text message, a request from your boss, a piece of snail mail, or even a thought you have in the shower. You later process these items and classify them in different ways. Some of these pieces of input will require you to take action, and they have a required result that will demand that multiple steps are taken to achieve it. David Allen calls these results “projects.”

Moving projects forward in GTD style

In the GTD world, a project is simply a desired outcome requiring more than one task to complete. In that context, the planning process is to simply think of the subsequent action. When that action is taken, then you think of the next action after that. This process is repeated until the project is complete.

If you’re a trained project manager, you might be twitching as you read this. You and I know that it takes much more than simply thinking of the next action to properly plan a complex project. Interestingly, David Allen knows that as well. He often explains that his system was created for every type of person; he says that folks who actually need better tools for planning complex projects already have them. In my opinion, he’s talking about you and me, project management professionals (and anyone managing projects), our methodologies, frameworks, and information systems.

This is exactly where Waterfall—and virtually any other project management approach—fits in. I postulate that if you’re a trained project manager, you can substitute Mr. Allen’s project planning approach with Waterfall. Instead of thinking of the desired result and simply planning the next action, clarify your requirements and plan it like a project.

In other words, GTD is a horizontal system for your life. The waterfall is a vertical system for a single desired outcome or deliverable.

Although Waterfall is much more involved and complex to pull off than GTD, in my view it can be seen as a subset of it. Many people master project management approaches. Many people master GTD. Not as many people can couple GTD and waterfall in this powerful combination.

Cross-pollinating GTD + Waterfall systems

GTD and waterfall are complementary but they also cross-pollinate. For example, as the result of a team meeting, you may end up with a number of new items in your inbox. They may be related solely to one particular project. But you as a singular person will have to process them. The result is that these items will compete not only with other project work but with other dimensions of your life as well.

Try not to fall into the trap I call “system sprawl,” which is when you have multiple places and containers for your tasks and to-dos, and end up trusting none of them.

The context of the project will also provide you with many opportunities to flex your GTD muscles. For example, most project management information systems (PMIS) will provide you with a location for project documentation; and most project management software lets you attach documents to work items. This is a great way to store and file materials for reference. Project management tools also typically let you create tasks and tag them. Using the GTD approach, you can tag items as “next action,” “on hold,” or “someday/maybe,” following David Allen’s nomenclature. If you’re concerned about having documents and items outside of your personal GTD system, some systems will allow you to create URL links to documents inside of it that you can reference from your own personal GTD system.

A word on meetings

In meetings, when discussing a particular aspect of the project, always direct the conversation towards “next actions.” Ask yourself and your team:

  • What is this we are talking about?
  • Does it require action by anyone? If so, by when?
  • Who will act on this?
  • What is the next action to be taken?

When you ask these questions, you’re training your team to apply a GTD methodology that incorporates itself into a Waterfall process. You will also find that meetings take less time when these questions are asked frequently about the topics covered.


GTD and Waterfall make a powerful combination. If you master the art of stress-free productivity as proposed by David Allen in a broad, horizontal way, and then use your project management knowledge to tackle individual projects in a vertical way, your project will deliver on its promises. And, you won’t lose your mind in the process.


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