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How to Make a GTD System for About $20

20 Dollars

I’ve had several requests come my way for some tips on how to implement GTD on the super cheap. After all, not everybody can afford a super-fancy PDA or even a spiffy Moleskine notebook – especially college students. So, after doing a little research, I’ve figured out a way to make your very own GTD setup for around $20 (USD). Remember – my goal here was to find the absolute cheapest items (and even some DIY solutions), so I’ll be cutting a few corners.

First, there are a few things I’m going to assume you already have (or have access to). If you don’t have these things, well, you may have to adjust the bottom line a skosh:

  1. Writing Utensils – If you don’t have anything to write with, just ask somebody for a pen you can keep. I’ve done this before and people are surprisingly generous. Just don’t expect a Monte Blanc or anything.
  2. Paper – Notebook paper works fine, or even blank printer paper if it’s all you can get. If you’re truly desperate, grab a stack of napkins from McDonald’s.
  3. Desk and/or someplace to work – If you don’t have your own desk/work area, then the local library would be the first place I’d go.
  4. A Copy of Getting Things Done – Tack on an extra $10 for the book, if you don’t already have it. But since you’re reading this, I would assume you’ve either got it or are interested in buying it.

Now, assuming you’ve got all of the above equipment, here’s the rest of the goods you’ll need:

  1. Manila File Folders, 2 boxes of 100 – These will be your filing system and your tickler system. Once these arrive, you’re going to want to keep the boxes, because that’s where they’ll be stored (not the most elegant solution, I know, but we’re going for economy here). Put 43 of the folders into one of the boxes (after labeling them 1-31, Jan-Dec). You now have a tickler – just make sure you use it :)


    The remaining folders should be stored someplace else – on a shelf, in a drawer, whatever – until you need to put something in them. The second folder box will be where your project support folders and reference folders are kept. The folder box may not have the greatest constitution, so don’t be surprised if you have to reinforce it with some packing tape or something after a bit of use.

    And if you want to get really clever, use the top of one of your boxes as your poor man’s in-basket!

    Get these folders here for $5.99/box for a total of $11.98 – only $8.02 left to go!

  2. Calendar – Now, if you have regular access to a computer, I would highly recommend using a web-based calendar, for one simple reason: they’re typically free. There are plenty of them out there, but I recommend 30boxes.com because, frankly, it’s the best calendar I’ve ever used (more on that in a post soon to come).

    If you don’t have a computer or don’t want to use a web-based calendar for whatever reason, you can get a very simple weekly day-planner-style calendar for $6.40 from Staples. Again, it’s pretty bare-bones, but it should suffice for most people.

You might be thinking to yourself “Sir! The David considers a labeler to be an indispensable tool! You haven’t included a labeler in your list of items! Sir!”. Well, yes, a labeler is a very good thing to have (I have 2, actually), but I don’t believe it’s absolutely necessary to implement GTD. If you want to reuse folders, get some White-Out or some other correctional tool and use that to cover up the writing on previously-enjoyed folders. Remember, we’re trying to keep the price tag low here. :)

So far, we’ve spent $11.98 + $6.40 = $18.38 on our supplies (or just $11.98 if you went for the web-based calendar), which leaves us with just over a buck to play with. In my opinion, you should take that last dollar and go to some drug store and buy a package of index cards to keep with you for capturing information. Since starting with GTD, index cards have been a staple of all of the different incarnations of my system and will likely continue to be in the foreseeable future. They’re just too simple and too cheap to not make constant use of, if you ask me.

One caveat about these prices – the Staples website prices things differently for different zip codes, so you may find slight discrepancies between the prices I’m showing here and the ones on the site. But I seriously doubt the differences will be anything but negligible.

So, by way of conclusion, here’s what your GTD arsenal should now include:

  • Paper for maintaining your lists
  • One box with 43 folders in it for your tickler file
  • Index cards for capturing information
  • 100+ folders for your project folders and reference information
  • A paper (or web-based) calendar for your hard landscape
  • The pen you borrowed from Mickey in the bio lab or whatever

There you have it. And if you’re really a penny-pinching sort of person, you can probably find even better deals than these. Sometimes office supply stores will sell their own branded products at a substantial discount to try to move them (I got 100 pendaflex hanging folders for something like $8) – just keep your eyes peeled.

Heck, you might even have some change left over – go get yourself a package of binder clips and use one plus your index cards to make your very own hipster PDA!

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