Book: Getting Things Done

  • Read: March 2013
  • Rating: 8.0/10

Getting Things Done by David Allen is the classic “getting things done” book. The entire productivity section in bookstores can be summed up by reading this book. That said, I don’t think it’s a perfect system, it is (probably) very hard to implement (due to having to take so much time to get things going, which just takes a lot of upfront time that we don’t all have the time to do), and you’ve probably already heard or read about most of these techniques before.

The book is divided into three parts:

  1. The Art of Getting Things Done
  2. Practicing Stress-Free Productivity
  3. The Power of the Key Principles

Part 1 focuses on getting control of everything in your life and project planning.

Part 2 is all about the actual techniques you’ll use on an ongoing basis to be productive.

Part 3 introduces a few long-term techniques.

I still recommend reading it thoroughly, but I’d probably just borrow it from the library rather than buy it.

My Notes

2 Key Objectives

  1. Capture all the things that need to get done.
  2. Discipline yourself to make front-end decisions about all of the inputs into your life so you will always have a plan for next actions that you can implement.

A calendar, though important, can really effectively manage only a small portion of what you need to organize.

We fail because:

  1. There is too much distraction at the day-to-day, hour-to-hour level of commitments to allow for appropriate focus on the higher levels.
  2. Ineffective personal organizational systems create huge subconscious resistance to undertaking even bigger projects and goal.
  3. When loftier levels and values are clarified, it raises the bar of our standards, making us notice that much more that needs changing.

Focusing on values does not simplify your life. It gives meaning and direction- and a lot more complexity.

Most of the stress people experience comes from inappropriately managed commitments they make or accept.

Basic Requirements for Managing Commitments

  1. If it’s on your mind, your mind isn’t clear. Anything you consider unfinished must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind, a “collection bucket”, that you know you’ll come back to regularly and sort through.
  2. You must clarify exactly what your commitment is and decide what you have to do, if anything, to make progress toward fulfilling it.
  3. Once you’ve decided on all the actions you need to take, you must keep reminders of them organized in a system you review regularly.

Definition of Stuff: Anything you allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step.

Get in the habit of keeping nothing on your mind.

The real issue is how to make appropriate choices about what to do at any point in time… the real issue is how we manage actions.

There is no reason ever to have the same thought twice, unless you like having that thought.

Five Stages of Mastering Workflow

  1. Collect things that command our attention
  2. Process what they mean and what do to about them
  3. Organize the results
  4. Review as options for what we choose to
  5. Do.

When collecting, gather everything you consider incomplete.

As soon as you attach a “should,” “need to,” or “ought to” to an item, it becomes incomplete.

Collection tools:

  • Physical in-basket
  • Paper-based note-taking devices
  • Electronic note-taking devices
  • Voice-recording devices
  • E-mail


Stuff —> In-basket —> What is it —> Is it Actionable?

  • —> No
    • —> Trash
    • —> Someday/maybe (tickler file; hold for review)
    • —> Reference (retrievable when required)
  • —> Yes
    • —> What’s the next action?
      • —> Multistep projects —> projects folder —> plan and review for actions
      • —> Will it take less than 2 minutes?
        • —> Yes —> Do it!
        • —> No
          • —> Delegate it —> Waiting (for someone else to do it)
          • —> Defer it —> Calendar (do at specific time) or next actions (to do as soon as I can)

A project is any desired result that requires more than one action step.

Three things for your calendar:

  1. Time-specific actions
  2. Day-specific actions
  3. Day-specific information

No more “daily To-Do” lists! Only the three things above are on the calendar and nothing else.

Critical success factor: the Weekly Review.

  • Gather and process all your “Stuff”
  • Review your system.
  • Update your lists.
  • Get clean, clear, current, and complete.

Four criteria model for choosing actions in the moment

  1. Context
  2. Time Available
  3. Energy Available
  4. Priority

Threefold model for evaluating daily work

  • Doing predefined work
  • Doing work as it shows up
  • Defining your work

“Don’t just do something. Stand there.” - Rochelle Myer

Creating a list of what your real projects are and consistently managing your next action for each one will constitute 90 percent of what is generally thought of as project planning.

How much planning to do? Until you get the project off your mind.

Getting Started: Setting Up the Time, Space, and Tools

Basics for a work space is a writing surface and room for an in-basket.

Don’t share space!

You can work virtually everywhere if you have a clean, compact system and know how to process stuff rapidly and portably.

Maintain your own personal, at-hand (A-Z) filing system.

  • Have many fresh folders on hand for new projects available all the time.
  • Label your file folders (not the hangers).
  • Get rid of hanging folders if you can.
  • Use only one file folder per hanger.
  • Purge your files at least once a year.

When collecting…

Put everything into your in-basket. Exceptions:

  • Supplies
  • Reference material
  • Decoration
  • Equipment

After doing physical stuff, do your mental stuff. Give each thought it’s own separate sheet of paper.

“Incompletion triggers” list… see book for this massive list of things that may trigger a project you have to do.

AFTER you have collected everything… PROCESS.

When you finish processing, you will have:

  1. Trashed what you don’t need
  2. Completed any less-than-two-minute actions
  3. Handed off to others anything that can be delegated
  4. Sorted into your own organizing system reminders of actions that require more than two minutes
  5. Identified any larger commitments (projects) you now have, based on the input

Rules to processing:

  • Process top item first (LIFO or FIFO is up to you).
  • Process one item at a time.
  • Never put anything back to “in”.

Key Processing Question: “What’s the Next Action?”

No next action —> Trash, items to incubate (tickler), reference material

Once you decide next action:

  • Do it
  • Delegate it
  • Defer it

7 Types of Things to Keep Track of:

  1. A “projects” list
  2. Project support material
  3. Calendared actions and information
  4. “Next Actions” list
  5. A “waiting for” list
  6. Reference Material
  7. A “someday/maybe” list

Don’t bother creating some external structuring of the priorities on your lists (which will inevitably end up changing)

Most common categories of action reminders (Context for next actions):

  • Calls
  • At Computer
  • Errands
  • Office Actions or At Office
  • At Home
  • Agendas (meetings)
  • Read/review

Most efficient way to track your action reminders is to add them to lists or folders as they occur to you.

For email, create labels/folders such as: @tickler, @waitingfor, @action, etc.

The real value of the “projects” list is in the complete review it can provide (weekly).

Don’t use support material as reminders. Instead, add the project to projects list, then determine next action. Put support material in folder for project.

“Someday/maybe” list is for things you may want to reassess in the future.

NEVER keep a “hold and review” file or pile.

Tickler file should have 43 folders- one for each day of the month (1-31) and one for each month.


  • Great for “fuzzier” items: exercise regularly, quality time with spouse, etc.
  • Clarify the inherent projects and actions from these items.
  • These will generally end up being something more of a core life value (though not always).
  • Be prepared to create and destroy these on the fly.

Keep your system functional by constantly reviewing your system…

Look at your calendar first… then your action lists.

Have a weekly review of your system:

  • Previous calendar data
  • Upcoming calendar
  • Empty your head
  • Review “projects” list
  • Review “next actions” list
  • Review “waiting for” list
  • Review relevant checklists
  • Review “someday/maybe” list
  • Review “pending” and support files

Block out 2-3 hours every Friday afternoon for review.

The constant sacrifices of not doing the work you have defined on your lists can be tolerated only if you know what you’re not doing.

Many people use the inevitably of an almost infinite stream of immediately evident things to do as a way to avoid the responsibilities of defining their work and managing their total inventory.

Feel confident about what you have decided to do.

Getting Things Done, and feeling good about it, means being willing to recognize, acknowledge, and appropriately manage all the things that have your consciousness engaged.

Ensure that you take a high-level look at your life too! (10k feet = projects, 20k feet = areas of focus, 30k feet = goals, 40k feet = vision, 50k+ feet = purpose).

Projects which have some sort of planning activity:

  • Those that still have your attention even after determined next actions.
  • Those which potentially useful ideas and supportive detail just show up.

The sense of anxiety and grief doesn’t come from having too much to do; it’s the automatic result of breaking agreements with yourself.

Not being aware of all you have to do is much like having a credit card for which you don’t know the balance or the limit— it’s a lot easier to be irresponsible.

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” - Mark Twain