Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

How to Set up GTD on a Palm

by Andre · 16 Comments

You’ve read David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity. You’ve got religion. You’ve even got a Palm organizer. You’ve put “Set up GTD system on Palm” on your Project list. So what’s your Next Action?

While there are many excellent aftermarket list management and datebook solutions available for the Palm (any Palm OS device: Tungsten, Clie, Treo, Zire, etc.), the “plain vanilla” approach of using the device’s native resources for managing projects and actions is really all you need to begin with. When starting out, less is more, and you may find that the simplicity of the Palm’s built-in applications scales better over the long run than more specialized productivity applications.

All that’s required to set up a trusted personal management system is an appropriate configuration of Tasks, Calendar and Memo applications.


Home ListCategories need to be mapped to corresponding contexts where you’ll execute your next actions. Put simply, each context list is a Category in Tasks (“To Do” on older Palm OS devices). In addition to context lists assigned to categories, you will create at least two more categories: Projects and Someday/Maybe. Some PDAs allow for an effectively unlimited number of categories. The Palm OS’ current limit is 15 categories. Few people in practice feel genuinely constrained by an upper limit of 13 contexts (plus one category for Projects and another for Someday/Maybe). Those beginning their GTD implementation will likely overestimate the number of contexts they’ll need to actively manage, and over time these lists will probably be consolidated. If the number of lists becomes a problem in the beginning, try exercising some discipline on the front end and minimize your categories. For many, eight or nine well chosen contexts will suffice.

A typically array of lists might look like the following:

  • @Home: Actions that require or are facilitated by being at home, such as:
    • Vacuum floor
    • Install shower curtain
    • Watch rental DVD
  • @Computer: Actions that must be done at a computer, such as:
    • Email spreadsheet for June budget to Rachel
    • Enter receipts into Quicken
    • Draft presentation
  • @Computer-Online: Optional. Useful if internet access for @Computer actions cannot be taken for granted:
    • Look up Wikipedia article on Laffer Curve
    • Download new Beck single from iTunes
    • Upload article revisions to website
  • @Calls: Phone calls to make:
    • Call Karen: Happy Birthday!
    • Call John: confirm dinner at 7:30p
    • Call Verizon: clarify charges on October phone bill
  • @Office: Actions that require being in the office:
    • Create purchase order for PBX phones
    • Complete Jeff’s performance review
    • Fax payroll to San Diego HQ
  • @Anywhere: Actions that can be done anywhere:
    • Brainstorm list of possible birthday presents for Karen
    • Test trial version of PDA software
    • Create checklist for desk purchase
  • @Errands: All of the things or people to see, pick up or take care of while in transit:
    • Replace rear tires
    • Pick up Mike from school
    • Evaluate work desks at Ikea
  • @Agendas: A list of persons who need to be addressed, with a note attachment for each person/item containing a list of topics to cover with that person. This is slightly more complex in its structure than the other lists, but procedurally, it’s still fairly simple, since it’s only a three-step process (note: these are process steps, not examples):
  1. Create the list of persons to be addressed
  2. Add a note attachment to each person listed
  3. Within each attachment, create a list of topics specific to the person
  • @Waiting For: A list of people and the actions they need to complete before a project can proceed:
    • Omnicode 2/17: registration code for software purchase
    • Anne 6/23: proposal for Whittinger project
    • Susan 10/15: confirmation of dinner plans for Friday

Finally, we need two non-action categories, denoted by their lack of the @ symbol:

  • Projects: Any outcome intended for completion within a few months that takes more than one action step to accomplish:
    • Get home equity loan
    • Buy Treo
    • Write novel
  • Someday/Maybe: Anything you might want to accomplish at some point, but have consciously decided not to engage with for the moment, due to lack of resources, motivation or what-have-you:
    • Buy Prius
    • Vacation in Morocco
    • Enroll in graduate school

Don’t be afraid to customize the lists if you have a unique context that serves as an effective action trigger. For instance, I once had an @Treo context for PDA-specific actions (“Test screenshots with Snap”) when the number of actions warranted it. Now they just go on @Anywhere.

I have an @Reader list for the books and articles I want to read next on my Sony Reader. A common practice in GTD is to maintain a “Read and Review” folder in which the collection of physical documents effectively serves as a list. With an electronic reader, the tendency to accumulate material at a rate beyond which is practical to read made me realize that I needed to carefully monitor how much reading I was committing to. Keeping a written list of titles makes my current reading load even more explicit than a physical pile.

@Notebook is another less standard list. This is a list of writing, flowscaping, checklisting and mindmapping actions related to corresponding projects. I keep two small notebooks in my back pocket – one for article writing and journaling, one for brainstorming – so I can write anywhere, under any conditions. Some GTD practitioners have an @Writing category. I prefer to confine my labelled categories to physical locations that queue me to review the corresponding list.

Notice that several contexts could be amalgamated into a single list. @Calls, @Treo and @Notebook all leverage ubiquitously available resources, so they could theoretically all go on an @Anywhere list. This is precisely what I did for a long time. Now I limit my @Anywhere list to actions that do not fall into these categories (except @Treo), and choose to identify the appropriate context by the particular tool used to the action. Later I may find that this is folly, but for now I find that managing two or three short lists incurs less overhead than reviewing a single long list. Experiment until you find a style your brain can track easily.

Implementation Issues

Though Getting Things Done mentions a few implementation issues specific to the Palm, the general thrust of the book is presenting the overall framework of the system in platform-independent terms. The GTD framework works equally well on a Filofax or Outlook.

One of the first reservations that comes up is the lack of an explicit link between Projects and Next Actions. Many people would like to lay out their lists in an hierarchical fashion in which the NAs are subset directly under the project heading.

Controversially, David Allen does not recommend the hierarchical approach, which is certainly popular in project management practice, where Gantt charts are the order of the day. His reasoning is twofold. It’s easier to refer to a few contexts as action triggers (@Computer, @Home, etc.) than to review a list containing dozens of projects. He also argues that blending actionable and non-actionable items in the same list blurs the focus of an action list. Projects, as they are defined in GTD, are in themselves non-actionable. “Write article on John Smith” sounds like a reasonable next action, but unless all dependencies have been resolved first (interviews, online research, outlining), the task is actually a series of tasks for which writing the article is the outcome. The concept behind a next action list is to avoid rethinking your outcome each time you need to look up the next task. Each action list is a set of blinders designed to limit your focus to what you can actually do.

The action lists should hold the results of your thinking, not the thinking itself, so it’s critically important to maintain a disciplined Weekly Review, where the thinking happens. The reward for the hour or two invested during this review time is the opportunity to use the rest of the week to execute straight off the action lists while largely avoiding having to rethink them (except when surprises occur). By making action decisions for the week up front in a single session, you can spend the rest of the week executing those decisions. Sometimes “once a week” oversimplifies the review process. With some projects you’ll need to review them during the week. But the once-a-week protocol prevents your projects from getting out of hand.

To be effective, Next Actions should have no dependencies. It’s often the case that you’ll think of an action that needs to be done, but requires completion of another action or deliverable first. Place these actions in your project support folder, or, on the Palm, in a note attachment in the Project listing. “Complete application to Stanford” is not a next action unless you actually have the application ready to fill out (and all other relevant information, like transcripts), so you can either put “Complete application” on your project list (understanding that it’s actually a subproject of your enrollment project) or put it the note field, along with other dependent action steps, of the project listing.


CalendarFormatting calendar entries for GTD is a straightforward process. If you have an appointment, put it down for the appropriate day and time. Two other types of entries go on your calendar: tasks that must be completed by or on a specific day, but at no particular time, such as sending in a bill; and optional events that take place at a specific day and time. For day-specific entries that aren’t time-specific, use the “No Time” button when creating the event in Calendar. Untimed events are sorted above timed entries.

One calendar practice that distinguishes GTD from time management disciplines is this: To Do’s (i.e. Next Actions) do not go on the calendar unless they have a time dependency. That is, you don’t use the calendar for the things you would like to get done today; it’s reserved for items that can only be done either at or by the specified time. A call that need to be deferred because the person being called is out of the office until Thursday at 9:00 am would be entered in Calendar rather than in Tasks. If, instead, the person is available anytime, the entry would be entered as a Next Action in Tasks (@Calls). An important principle in GTD is filtering out from view any items that aren’t specific to that view. Just as you wouldn’t want to see your phone calls in your @Computer list, adding items into Calendar that aren’t time-dependent reduces its effectiveness as a focus tool. Keep your calendar as uncluttered as possible, so that when you put something on it that really belongs there, you’ll be more likely to pay appropriate attention to it.


Memo_ListMemo lists are categories of checklists, project support, notes and reference material. Because it’s easy for these lists to get out of hand, especially since Categories in Memos face the same limit of 15 as they do in Tasks, it’s a good idea to set up a couple of important categories first: Reference and Lists.

Reference is the memo list for potpourri like software registrations, flight confirmations, driving directions, email snippets, or whatever else you define as reference.

Lists is a memo lists of lists. That is, it’s a category in Memos in which each memo contains a list. This is a great category for storing creative checklists, Christmas shopping lists (or shopping lists of any kind), website URLs, films to rent, restaurants to try, and many or lists.

The Lists category is adequate for items that need no additional support material, since a single item within each memo cannot have its own attachment, nor can the entire memo itself. For lists with items requiring more detail, create a new category altogether. For instance, if you have a memo list of currently playing films to see, the advantage of having this list as a separate category is that each entry supports a full memo’s worth of detail. For each film listing with its own memo, the title goes on that top line, which makes it the only line visible when viewing the whole list category. But when the individual record is viewed, the memo can include showtimes, synopses or reviews. A record from a memo list of products you might want to buy in the future can hold prices, product reviews, serial numbers, or addresses of websites from which the product can be purchased.

Note Attachments

Waiting-ForNote_with_URLWhile many functions of PDAs have their equivalents in paper-based organizers, one of the biggest advantages of digital platforms is their ability to take information copied and pasted from the desktop into Memos or as note attachments.

You can look up directions for an item on your Errands list, then highlight, copy and paste the results into the Note field for that entry. If you’re purchasing a printer, you can look up the product on the store’s website, then paste the product information into the Note field of the @Errands listing. You can paste relevant snippets of email or forum posts, URLs, serial numbers or other appropriate data into these fields. It often beats printing out the information or copying it by hand and carrying printouts.

Note attachments are by no means limited to content from the clipboard. Note fields are a great place to store checklists for action and project support. For a next action like “Evaluate printers at Staples,” you may want to store a checklist of criteria and considerations informing your purchase decision:

  • Price
  • Cost of replacement cartridges
  • Output in pages-per-minute
  • Laser vs. inkjet
  • Primary application (e.g. text documents rather than photo printing)
  • Size
  • Driver support for operating system
  • Aesthetics
  • Warranty

Collecting, Processing, Organizing, Reviewing and Doing

On virtually all PDAs and smartphones, data entry is most often done directly on the handheld device via keyboard or stylus. Another approach is to jot notes on paper, then process them at a later stages as intray content, entering data the computer by typing the information into the Palm Desktop. While direct-to-device data entry avoids double-entering, most people find that capturing notes on paper is faster and easier when mobile, assuming that paper is reliably close at hand. Jotting notes on paper for later processing provides the luxury of entering data on a full-size keyboard and monitor, and tends to be a more relaxed and focused experience. Being removed from the action trigger, there’s less pressure to make outcome and action decisions on the fly.

For the paper approach, some people keep a stack of 3” x 5” index cards in their back pockets; some people keep a sheaf of small Post-Its in their wallets. One of the most elegant solutions is to use a jotter wallet – a pocket sized folio that looks and functions like a wallet but holds a small notepad. As a wallet it takes no extra pocket space but is always available. The most popular version is the David Allen Company’s Notetaker Wallet, with separate models available for men and women.

Reviewing calendar entries and action lists can be done directly on the device, but when deskbound it’s easier on the eyes to manage lists from a desktop client like Outlook or the Palm Desktop, especially since most new inputs for collection and processing tend to arrive directly at one’s workstation via fax, email or phone.

Keep in mind that the method described in this article is just one of many ways to set up a Palm, and it may not even be the best way for your purposes. Some Palm/GTD aficionados prefer managing actions and projects with third-party software solutions, typically structured around some outlining function in order to see the relationship between projects and actions. Popular tools in this vein are commercial applications like Bonzai and LifeBalance, or free/open source programs like HandyShopper (which functions well as an all-purpose list manager, despite its name) and Progect Manager. The latter two are free. The former two are free to try as trial versions, so if the plain vanilla approach doesn’t work for you, know that you have options.

Tags: GTD


  • RobNo Gravatar // Feb 2, 2008 at 10:10 am

    Great article. Probably the best I have seen on GTD and Palm. What software are you using on your Palm to change the appearance and fonts?

  • Andre KibbeNo Gravatar // Feb 4, 2008 at 10:47 pm

    I use 3GX Software’s PalmRevolt for the Aqua-themed eye candy. The fonts are handled by Alex Pruss Software’s FontSmoother. I actually keep the amount of third-party software I use on my Centro to a minimum, but consider the above titles indispensible.

  • LiamNo Gravatar // Apr 19, 2008 at 11:11 pm

    This has greatly enlightened me. I have read David’s book and found the whole picture provided here of how all the different parts interact to be even more useful. Great work!

  • SethNo Gravatar // Aug 22, 2008 at 9:02 pm

    Andre, I am stumbling on setup of the Agendas. Where do you create the list of people? Is each person a task assigned to the @Agendas category? Then the text details of the task would be a list of topics to be discussed? I think that would work. I was confused by the term “list” which you later define specifically a the content of a memo.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Aug 22, 2008 at 10:50 pm

    Hi Seth,

    (1) The “@Agendas” heading refers to the category name in Tasks (or To Do on older Palms), (2) each person is a “task” on that list, (3) each “task” has a memo attachment, and (4) you have to write the list inside the attachment.

    In other words, you won’t have checkboxes you can tick off inside off the attachment. Granted, this isn’t an elegant way to handle Agendas, but the alternative with the built-in app is having a separate Task list category for each individual. On a Windows Mobile device, that’s not a problem, since the number of categories aren’t limited, but you only have 15 maximum categories on the Palm.
    With third-party software, like Bonsai, HandyShopper or LifeBalance, you can create nested lists with an unlimited number of items. This would definitely work better for Agendas, since you would expand or collapse the list associated with each person directly underneath that person’s name. But it wasn’t a big enough issue for me to want to transition from the native task list.

  • JohnNo Gravatar // Aug 25, 2008 at 11:22 am

    Really helpful GTD summary, filled in some gaps in my knowledge. Thanks

  • Jose RiveraNo Gravatar // Oct 8, 2008 at 7:20 am

    I have been trying to use an old Palm Tungsten E for GTD and had a lot of questions that were answered here. Excellent job. Keep up the good work.

  • ErikNo Gravatar // Dec 10, 2008 at 8:42 am

    Well done. Great summary!

  • Inner PropNo Gravatar // Jan 14, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    I hope this post still gets checked for comments. I have a problem. When I put a task in Palm Desktop with no date it goes in fine, but if I go back into it and edit the note, Palm Desktop assigns it a date of 12/31/2031. This will cause it to disappear if I have the view set for Due Today.

    I have a lot of recurring tasks and I think one of the strengths of an electronic system is to remind you later and repettitively. I lose that if I can’t put a repeating event. The problem is, when I have a repeating task and the view is set for View All, the event shows up. If I then check it off, it remains, but the due date is changed. If I’m not careful, I’ll check it off again and again.

    If the view is not set for Due Today, that automatically-re-dated task will go to the bottom of the list, negating it’s usefulness.

  • YackoNo Gravatar // Oct 30, 2009 at 4:06 am

    “While direct-to-device data entry avoids double-entering, most people find that capturing notes on paper is faster and easier when mobile, assuming that paper is reliably close at hand. Jotting notes on paper for later processing provides the luxury of entering data on a full-size keyboard and monitor, and tends to be a more relaxed and focused experience.”
    One other advantage is the luxury of sitting on an idea for a brief period of time and editing. Not all ideas should make it to electronic GTD, some may be redundant, have a effect on some other idea or can be folded into other notes. Then there are thoughts that are pointless. Seemed like an interesting idea 2 hours ago, but is too weird or no longer relevant. Can’t tell you how many times that has happened to me. Some notes only have a shelf life of 2 hours or less. That URL you wrote, that total you wanted to look up, that food you wanted to buy, that topic you researched and concluded has no relevance for you. No reason to commit it electronically if you will do it in the short term, although if you want a record of what you did, then you may want to enter it anyway. Typically just under half my paper notes are substantive enough to make it into my GTD system

  • SheriNo Gravatar // Nov 11, 2009 at 10:36 pm

    OMG! This article is great! I would love a printer friendly version… but, until then, clicking File, Print!

  • NewtonizerNo Gravatar // Dec 3, 2009 at 7:55 pm

    I’m currently using the system discussed in this article and its helped a lot. Using the Built-In Calendar and To Do/Tasks. Interestingly, I figured out whats described in this article on my own when I studied the very basics of David Allen’s GTD.

    I figured out how you can use @contexts in Tasks/ToDo’s and also do the same for meetings and events in Palm OS 5′s Calendar which also gives you categories.

    I have also invested in Agendus but find myself sticking with the basics with the built in apps. Much like a computer (of any platform) you can end up complicating the process and just twiddling with the fancy app if as a sub-conscience procrastination if you will!

    The fundamental problem with going GTD using a computer’s OS is that you are stationary, you can only do limited contexts:

    and maybe @Home but you may get distracted.

    The Palm is fantastic for being very flexible and always being your partner. I tried Moleskins but that was just a status-y type system that ended up being messy and not as quick to jot down or do things.

    ANd you dont have to use a very sophisticated or newer model Palm. You can really just use a 10+ year old model. In fact, it may actually be more beneficial as you can remain focused on just your GTDs. You can also use other platforms from before like the Apple MessagePads and so on, but they are rather large.

    Whatever you chose, think flexibility, simplicity and if the gadget allows you to focus. Which is why when I tried using an iPhone, my GTD-ing failed. Its a social-tech-toy, not a productive pro-tech like the Palm.

    Great article, I hope people discover how great a Palm can be for Getting Things Done.

    Oh and as an additional tip for Projects – I use Checklist by Guy Waguespack which is freeware and very simple and effective. Life Balance is also very GTD and works great too.

  • GriffNo Gravatar // Jun 6, 2010 at 2:19 pm

    I use a Handspring Visor. About 10 bucks on ebay, does all I need.

    I was using Life Balance (Windows and Palm) which is excellent, but then I sort of had an epiphany of going back to doing it as shown in this article because of the sheer simplicity.

    Life Balance used to take a while on my old pda to fully recompute the list when I ticked things off, plus I never used the pie charts, plus (as David Allen says) the whole “prioritised list” thing is really something you can probably never automate fully.

    Where LB really was invaluable was
    - having contexts that include other contexts (eg “@Computer” could include @web and @ email)
    - having contexts that are only “live” at certain times. (eg I’m in the UK – my calls to the USA don’t show up on my todo list until 2pm).

    But these are really just “nice to haves” and you can easily live without them.

    Simplicty is always the best policy…

  • CarinaNo Gravatar // Aug 30, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    Hi there,
    I am considering the purchase of a pda and what ever software may be necessary. I would like to upload checklists onto the pda and be able to check items off as I complete tasks for my customers as well as be able to write additional information next to the given task. Can anyone make a recommendation as to what pda/software combo would best suit my needs?

  • Ken SchimpfNo Gravatar // Oct 7, 2010 at 10:37 am

    I have used Palm OS for since Palm first launched and have used it succesfully with GTD for years. One of the best features was the ability to manage the tasks, (to-do’s), on the desk top as well as having the same information on the hand held.

    Now that I have the Pre, I havenot found a way to accomplish this and the tasks does not seem to have the flexibility that earlier versions do.
    Is there a work around that anyone is aware of?

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Jan 7, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    I also had a Pre, but couldn’t find a synchronizable, categorized tasks list solution that worked for me. I use an Android phone with gTasks, which syncs in the cloud.