Setting Up a GTD-Based Hipster PDA

I think many first-timers to this site trip across something very confusing. They want to learn how to set up a Hipster PDA using the D*I*Y Planner templates, but the forms are so flexible (or, if you would, “non-exact”) that such a thing isn’t immediately obvious. This is by design, I’m afraid: I believe in trying to create templates that allow people to create hPDAs to suit their own lifestyles and system. And therein lies the problem… how can people get started if they have no idea how to use the cards or build a stack in the first place?

So look at this post as a little guide to implementing a simple Hipster PDA that might be used for David Allen’s Getting Things Done productivity methods. And simple is the operative word here. As you use it, you’ll find quite a number of ways to modify the system for your own use and circumstances. So don’t take this as gospel, only a starting point.

First of all, get yourself up to speed. Read Merlin’s seminal post about the Hipster PDA. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Now, notice that the most striking thing about the system is its inherent simplicity: it’s just a stack of cards and a clip. I want you to remember this: when you start making things too complicated, scale things back. The more complex your system, the less you’ll use it. Got it?

Now, you might ask… why use the templates at all? Well, there are a number of reasons (and I outlined a number of them on a 43 Folders post with the clever name The D*I*Y Planner Hipster PDA Edition), but the chief reason –in my mind– is our need for structure. Not everybody is a free-form thinker. Look at it this way: which is more efficient in your bedroom — a dresser with separate drawers for socks, underwear, pants, t-shirts, and so forth, or a huge pile of clothes (some of which might be less than clean) teetering on the corner edge of your bed? By compartmentalising things, allocating things in their rightful places for storage and retrieval, we’ll always know what is what and where it is. Well, as long as you’re diligent.

If you don’t already have them, go and download the Hipster PDA templates. (There are some other odds and ends, but we’ll concentrate on the main pack for now.) If you think your printer can handle printing single index cards, go grab the 1-up version and a bunch of blank cards. If not, grab the 4-up version, some letter-size (or A4) card stock, and either a paper trimmer and some scissors. I’m not going to tell you how to print and cut them, since you can read about it in our Beginner’s Guide. For now, don’t worry about it. Just call up the PDF file in Adobe Acrobat Reader so you can look at it while you read this article. Flip through its pages first so you get a sense of what you have to work with.

First things first: you need a cover with personal information for your stack (“stack” being somewhat a term of endearment for one’s hPDA). After all, if you lose this, you’d like someone to return it, right? There’s a nice little cover template there that you can fill out. In the Template Directory you’ll find some alternate covers, or you might even choose to create your own, one which reflects your personality, but let’s keep it simple for now: use this template for a quick-and-easy cover.

Since we’re putting together this Hipster PDA for GTD usage, you might as well print the GTD Quick Reference Card on the back of the cover. Many people then like laminating this card, so it holds up longer and is weather-resistant.

Now, let’s review some basic GTD precepts. I’m not going to précis the book here, just summarise a few basic points to remember while setting up our stack.

  1. Collect everything in your inbox for processing.
  2. The calendar is your “hard landscape”: if something must be done on a certain day, then mark it down for that day.
  3. Day-to-day tasks get marked down in Next Actions (or NA) lists. These should be short, doable tasks, to be done as soon as possible. I keep mine to 15 minutes or less. People often divide these into various contexts, say @Calls, @Errands, @Office, @Home, @Project One, and so on.
  4. Items that you’ve delegated, or for which you’re awaiting a response, get put in Waiting For (or WF) lists. Again, these can be contextualised, such as @Office or @Home.
  5. Agendas are for those items that –when chatting with a particular person or attending a meeting– you’d like to address. You might have one for your boss, another for your landlord, and another for the staff meeting.
  6. Tasks or projects that you might like to do at some point in the indeterminate future get put in a Someday/Maybe (or S/M) list.
  7. Ongoing projects are kept separately from the immediate day-to-day items in the NA or WF lists, but are used to populate these lists. This might be a report to be written, a series of home renovations, or a vacation to set up.
  8. References (for our discussion here, at least) are those things which don’t fit into the immediacy of the above, and are there for occasional lookups or use. Examples are important contact numbers, shopping lists, read/review items, and exercise charts.

Looking at this list, and comparing it to the templates, you’ll see that you can use calendar, ActionsWaiting ForPotentials Quicklist, and Project cards, among others. We’re going to take each one of these in turn, but for now let’s keep a few things in mind.

First, it’s tempting for beginners to have huge stacks, sometimes 50 cards or more, including several of each of the templates. Resist the urge. The more cards you have, the harder it is to locate your information. Also, when possible, make your cards two-sided. For example, there’s no reason why you can’t have a double-sided Potentials Quicklist card.

Second, I want to mention the spread. This is when you fan out your cards to find something. There are two ways to quickly hone in on something: location and colour. We’ll discuss location later, but a judicious use of colour can prove invaluable. If you separate sections using brightly coloured cards, or use a marker to put a splash of colour on the edges of certain cards, you can certainly find items more rapidly when spreading.

Third, besides the cards, you’ll need two other pieces of equipment. You’ll require a pen or pencil with a thin stroke (0.5 or less), such as a Pilot G2 0.5 or a mechanical pencil. It’s almost impossible to use thick lines and still be legible, since the lines are 0.15″ apart. Some people much prefer smaller writing utensils, such as a Fisher Space Pen or one of those new Pilot G2 minis. Also, you’ll need some way of keeping the cards together. Most people will recommend a binder clip of some type, but some advocate carabiners, elastic hair ties, sliding folder snaps, or other ingenious (or bizarre) solutions.

Lastly, one of the most important concepts in GTD is about implementing a system that you can trust. It’s about being able to empty your mind into the system, and not feel the stress of possibly forgetting something. A proper GTD setup enables you to capture and retrieve your productivity-related information at a moment’s notice, and achieve a certain fluidity in your processes (leading to, as David Allen says, a mind like water). Ultimately, this means you have to trust in and use your system for everything. The more complex it is, or the more obstacles you throw in your way, the less effective it is, and the less you can trust it. Keep it as simple as possible, and you’ll be amazed by the results.

Now, let’s jump into the layout and usage of a beginner’s GTD-based Hipster PDA.

The Inbox

The inbox is probably best served as a half-dozen or so blank cards. Yup, blank. When you get a call, or a colleague comes into your office to discuss a project, or you have a board meeting, or you’re chatting with a contractor, whip out your blank cards and take notes. After you’ve taken your notes, you must process your cards (your inbox) by moving details to the appropriate places. If you’ve already read the book, then check out your reference card for a quick recap of how to do this. If you don’t have the book yet, well… shame on you: hie thee to Amazon.

The order of your cards is fairly important. The ones closest to the front and the back are the easiest to retrieve and use. I personally keep my inbox cards near the back so I can grab one quickly. I also put a hot pink index card in front of it, so I can easily find it in the spread.

Next Actions

Now, since GTD is about getting things done, and that usually entails ploughing through a plethora of tasks, the Actions cards might be best to find at the front. I only keep two Actions cards at the moment: @Work (double-sided), and @Home backed with @Errands. Whatever you choose for your contexts, I’d suggest keeping it to five or less to prevent the constant need to shuffle. If you’re just getting started, prime the cards with a half-dozen actions or so, remembering to keep them doable and 15 minutes each. (If they’d take longer, break them down into separate tasks.)

When you process your inbox, or review your projects, remember to keep populating the NA lists. This is what keeps you forging ahead. Consult this list several times daily, and add or check off items as necessary.

The Hard Landscape

Following that, I’d suggest your calendar cards. Since I have more tasks than appointments or meetings, the monthly cards work just fine. I carry the “flip” version, with three weeks on one side, and two weeks plus notes on the other. If you’re using the monthly cards, fill out the dates for the next two months. You can also choose weekly or daily cards, if your time-table insists. The goal here is to carry the minimum amount of cards and still be efficient in your scheduling. Several people I know carry two double-side weekly cards (giving them four weeks), and a monthly card for slotting appointments in advance. (If someone proposes a get-together several months in advance, jot it down on a blank card for now, and process it later.)

Add items to your calendar only when something absolutely must be slotted for that day, like a firm deadline or an appointment. Other items can go into your NA or Project lists. Review your calendar at least three times per day –morning, noon, and at the end of the work day– and you’ll always know what’s coming up.

Waiting For

Somewhat less immediate than either NA or calendars are your Waiting For lists. I personally only carry one card, doubled-sided with @Work and @Home.

When you have to pass off a task for someone else to do, jot down the item, the delegate’s initials (colleague, spouse, employee, etc.), and the date. Review this daily. If you’re waiting too long, then give that person a buzz and see what you can do to push things along.


As mentioned, the Agenda cards are for those people or meetings for which you have to remember topics to discuss. You should have a section (basically, a half-card) for each person you work with. For example, for each of your ongoing projects, you might have a Agenda section for the point-person you deal with, and your might also have one for your landlord and another for your spouse. I carry another card for “significant” upcoming meetings.

When you think of topics you have to bring up with that person, or during that meeting, jot them down. That way, when you’re on the phone or sitting at the boardroom table, you can haul out the right card and recall all the important things to discuss.


Thoughout the day, we often encounter ideas or projects which make us say, “Hmmm… I’d like to give that a go, when I get the time.” Unfortunately, most of us also forget those things when we do have the time. That’s why we have Potentials Quicklist and Potential Project cards.

I carry two cards: a Potentials Quicklist (basically, a bunch of to-do items where I can jot down quick things), and a Potential Project Card (for bigger, better ideas).


I suggest carrying a Project card for each of your major ongoing projects, essentially a quick summary of the project, its objective, some notes (deadline, budget, etc.) and the items to be completed.

Each morning, review your project cards and populate your NA, WF and calendar cards as needed. These help keep you focussed and your project on track.


Here is where I include information that isn’t essential to day-to-day tasks, but which proves handy to carry around. The Shopping, Finances and Contacts cards can all be helpful to have on hand, for example, and a few MatrixChecklist and Notes cards can round out the necessary forms. You might want to keep a Matrix to track your exercises, a Contacts list of important numbers, and a Checklist of CDs you’re looking to buy.

Anything goes, but remember that one of our objectives is not to carry too much.

Setting Up the Stack

Okay, the moment of truth. You’ve printed the templates, cut them up, gathered your clip and pen, and are ready to roll.

Based on the above, here’s a possible spread:

  1. Cover, backed with GTD Quick Reference Card (laminated, if you can)
  2. Action cards – 2-5, depending on your contexts
  3. Calendar cards (suggest two monthly, to begin with)
  4. Waiting Form cards – 1-3, depending on your contexts
  5. Agendas cards (suggest 2 double-sided, to begin with)
  6. Colour card
  7. Potentials Quicklist cards (suggest one double-sided quicklist, to begin with)
  8. Project cards for each major project – 5 max, with blanks or Notes on the back of each for taking notes
  9. Colour card
  10. Reference items – suggest Shopping: Groceries, possibly Finances, and one each of Matrix, Contacts, Notes , Important Numbers and Checklist for starting your references
  11. Colour card
  12. Inbox (6 blank cards)
  13. Yearly calendars – 200x-200y double-sided (as back cover)

In total, that will give you a nice handy stack of about 30 useful cards, dedicated to implementing David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

Holding Patterns

A final set of supplements you might be yearning for soon: a holder and a storage system. Many people never need these, so don’t worry too much about them.

Various ways of holding up cards while you work have been suggested on this site, from the expensive (*Levenger Card Bleachers* *cough*) to the truly D-I-Y (got a table saw?), but one of the most practical and easiest to find has got to be the tile-holders from a Scrabble game.

As for storage, most dollar stores and department stores carry index card boxes, often labelled “recipe card boxes”, so you can generally pick these up for a dollar or three. While you’re there, pick up a set of A-Z or blank tabs to set up your filing system. But that’s a topic for another time.

And Away We Go…

Let’s be honest here: this system won’t work perfectly for everybody. My own stack is different from that above, but that’s okay: there are certain cards I use that aren’t in the above list (such as the ones from the Plot Pack), and I don’t use certain of the above-mentioned cards (like Finances — that’s what my online banking is for).

But one of the beautiful bits about the Hipster PDA system is that it is very flexible in terms of setup, usage and physical construction (see the Kit Photographs Gallery for some inspiration). You’ll probably find that you’ll come up with a dozen ideas for improving things.

What’s important, though, is that you start with something basic, and build from there. It’s far better to have too simple a system than one that’s too complex and difficult to use. As you discover shortcomings in your systems –say, you need more calendars, less NA lists, a couple more references– go ahead and make those changes incrementally. But keep the tweaking to a minimum each time, since a complete overhaul just starts you at ground zero again. Think about the Japanese notion of Kaizen, continuous but gradual improvement, where each minor modification contributes to the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the project.

Take it step by step, and you’ll find yourself with a system completely customised to your own needs, and no other. That’s the goal.

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