Nate Crowell 3 Simple Letters

3 Simple Letters To Make Social Workers More Productive

Nate Crowell 3 Simple Letters

I have never heard a social worker say, “I don’t have enough to do. . . things are really slow right now, I get paid too much for the work I’m doing or I love that ‘Let’s make America great again’ guy.” Maybe you’ve had different experiences.

When I talk with a lot of social workers, the conversation sounds more like this:

  • “I have so much to do right now, I can’t possibly do it all.”
  • “I can’t believe I get paid this much.”
  • “American politics are depressing and tragic.”

If you are reading this article, you can probably relate more to the last three bullets, and I imagine you probably have at least one of these three things going on:

  1. You have a full or part-time job.
  2. You are caring for a child, children, or an aging parent or relative.
  3. You are in undergraduate or graduate school for social work.

I’m right there with you:

Like any good social worker, I’m fluent in TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms).

But somehow the acronym for this productivity approach had escaped me.

GTD, short for Getting Things Done.

GTD has been a game changer for the way I manage all the personal and professional commitments in my life.

In today’s article, I’m going to introduce you to GTD and how you can use it to be a more productive and less stressed social worker.

You ready? Let’s do this.

What is GTD?

When I say gettings things done, let me clarify what I’m not talking about:

larry cable guy skitch dropshadow

I’ve been known to yell a “Git-R-Done” in my southern drawl.

**(Interesting sidenote: if you’ve you have hip dysplasia, you may want to check out Larry’s foundation)**

But that is not the GTD I’m talking about. The type of GTD I want you to know about is this one:

david allen gtd skitch dropshadow

Getting Things Done: the art of stress-free productivity is New York Times Bestselling book written by author and productivity consultant David Allen.

An updated version was published in 2015, so an obvious first step would be to buy the book or check it out at your library.

GTD is Allen’s influential text where he outlines his detailed methodology and approach for keeping priorities, to-do lists, projects, and calendar managed and your mind relaxed.

The GTD premise is this: our productivity is directly proportional to our ability to relax.

Allen says this another way:

“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” – David Allen

Allen suggests most stress you experience comes from inappropriately managed commitments.

Commitments to others and commitments to ourselves. When left undone, our commitments become “open loops” in our brains that yearn to be closed.  

I don’t know about you, but this was the story of my life.

Let’s do a quick mental exercise:

Step 1) Grab a paper and pen.

Step 2) Write down a project, problem, or situation that is at the front of your mind right now . . . the one thing you can’t quit thinking about.

For example:

  • You’re working in child protective services and just received a complicated new referral.
  • You’re a hospice social worker with a caseload of 95 patients.
  • You want to must take a week vacation before you have a full-blown meltdown.
  • You’re planning your daughter’s birthday party.

Whatever is dominating your psyche right now.

You got it? Good.

Step 3) Now, in one sentence clarify what a successful outcome would be for that project or situation. Get a clear mental picture of what finished would like. Don’t worry . . . I’ll wait on you.

You got it? Good.

“It does not take much strength to do things, but it requires a great deal of strength to decide what to do.” – Elbert Hubbard

Step 4) What is the next physical action you can take to move the project or situation forward? Jot it down.

For me, it’s usually one of these:

  • Read, write, or send an email.
  • Make a phone call.
  • Type a note or report.
  • Research something online.
  • Meet in person with someone.

If you’re like me, the first time I did that exercise I had one overarching feeling afterward:


Now imagine if you had that feeling with all of the stuff floating around in your head right now:

So let’s look at how you can do that now.

Five Stages of GTD for Social Workers

GTD is based on five simple steps to help you apply order to your chaos.

1. Collect: Capture all tasks, priorities, ideas, commitments, projects. . . in short all the “stuff” in your inbox of life. And I do mean any and every input in your life: phone calls, emails, birthday parties, sports practice, ideas, errands, getting groceries. . . EVERYTHING. If you don’t, your mind starts to say to you, “don’t forget, don’t forget, don’t forget.” The first time you do this it may seem challenging and could take a long time. Do the work and drain your brain of all your stuff; trust me it is life changing.

2. Clarify: Next you need to process everything you captured. You start by asking yourself this question: Is it actionable? 

If the answer is yes and it takes less than two minutes, do it now.

This is called the “two-minute rule” and has been a huge win for me. If not doable in two minutes, delegate it (if possible), or add to a “next action” list (see point 3 below) to do when you can. If the answer is no and not actionable, you have three choices: trash it, incubate it (put on your calendar to review on a specific date), or file as reference.

3. Organize: Many actions won’t fit the two-minute rule. You need to park those next actions on the correct list or it goes back into your psyche. Allen refers to your groups of lists as “collection buckets”. Some examples of your collection bucket lists may include:

  • Calls to Make
  • Emails to Send
  • Errands to Run

If you’re not sure about an idea or project, put it on a Someday/Maybe List.

4. Review: Set a specific time to go through your collection buckets weekly and review. Review your lists to evaluate what didn’t get finished and review as often as you need to feel comfortable. Make the weekly review time sacred. My review time is Thursday at 2:00pm CST.

5. Do: Use your system to take appropriate action with confidence. When you can trust your system to capture and organize “stuff” in your inbox of life, then you can be confident that you are doing the right things at the right time.

It helps to see the workflow visually:

GTDcanonical dropshadow

Source Wikipedia: Getting Things Done

Here’s the deal:

The beauty of GTD is it doesn’t require fancy tools. You can do it with pen and paper.

My friend Josh does an incredible amount of GTD workflow with Post-It notes. I use a combination of pen and paper, smartphone, and a laptop.

Use whatever tools you have and work best for you, but be consistent.


Don’t worry, I get it: GTD is not for everyone. The approach works best when you stick to the principles. I’m not going to pretend I can summarize an entire 250+ page book in one article. The book connects a lot of the details, so again, I highly recommend reading it to get the full picture.

You may be on top of all your projects to-dos, and commitments in life. If so, by all means, keep doing what works. But if you’re like me, and you like a system to help you stay on track and manage all you have going on in life, give GTD a try.

Have you ever tried GTD? Leave a comment below and let me know.

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Nate Crowell

Nate Crowell is the founder of where he writes useful (and occasionally amusing) articles to help social workers find the career and life they want. Sign up for his free newsletter to find out how to build your ideal career and start loving Mondays again. View all posts by Nate Crowell

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