Getting Things Done by David Allen

Toward the end of last year I felt the need to take stock of everything I was doing (or, more likely, supposed to be doing) and get on top of things. Given that half the people I read online these days were raving about Getting Things Done (not least 43 Folders of course) I thought I’d give it a go. On the downside, it would be hard to write any kind of American, self-help, business-oriented book without coming across as a bit of a jargon-crazed maniac. But Allen doesn’t do too badly; despite the occasional lapses I was surprised how practical and pragmatic about his ideas he was. Along the lines of “some of this will work for you, but some of it won’t.”

You could sum the book up in two words as “be organised”, which isn’t much help: Anyone would feel more organised if they set some time aside every week to get on top of things (the Weekly Review) or were as punctilious about recording their actions as GTD (as it’s known) requires one to be. I’m not convinced this or any other system will help the perpetually scatterbrained and illogical.

Some of the specifics get a bit blurred for me among the complex arrangements of lists, folders, calendars, etc: I still don’t understand what one should do with all the Actions that make up a Project, or when/if they should be transferred to the “Next Actions” list. Seeing examples of how others manage their lives using GTD would help greatly.

But it’s definitely inspiring, and it does contain enough tricks and tips to make me think it’ll make a difference. Hopefully I can keep some of this going and I’ll definitely be returning to the book in a few months to see what I’ve forgotten, looking for more tips.

1. A new practice for a new reality

5 Knowledge work — no edges to most of our projects — nothing will ever be perfect no matter how much time is spent on it. Too vague.

8 PDAs etc and calendars / to do lists are inadequate for today’s volume and variable nature of tasks. On the other hand, focusing on high level goals and values doesn’t help.

12-13 To get a clear mind you have to capture all the nagging issues you have some level of responsibility for. Anything that needs starting/finishing, that you’re waiting for, etc.

  • Clarify what your commitment is and what needs to happen to progress toward fulfilling it.
  • Once you’ve decided on actions, keep reminders organised and review regularly.

17 Most to do lists are lots of brain-cluttering “stuff”, not actions.

20-21 Must manage actions: horizontally (all the things that crop up during the day that need dealing with) and vertically (looking at a bigger project that crops up and fleshing out the details of how to handle it). [I’m not really sure what the difference is here.]

23 Your mind is always reminding you about things, even when you’re in no position to do anything about them. Get everything out of your mind. Empty the RAM.

2. Getting Control of your life: The five stages of mastering workflow

25 People often try to do all phases at once — doesn’t work.

Collect

Collect everything that commands our attention.

29 Collection success factors:

  1. Every open loop must be in your collection system and out of your head.
  2. You must have as few collection buckets as you can get by with.
  3. You must empty them regularly.
Process

31-35 Is this item actionable? If not, trash it. If so, if it’s a larger project, note it down for review later. What action is required? What to do with the action: Do it now (if it’ll take less than 2 minutes; Delegate it (if best done by someone else); or Defer it (add to a list).

Organise

37-8 Projects — any result that requires more than one action. A compilation of finish lines. One list. Project support materials — stuff you’ll need to complete projects. Store (usually out of sight).

39-41 Next actions. Calendar — there are three kinds of time specific things: Time specific actions (appointments); Day-specific actions; and Day-specific information (things you’ll need to know on a particular day).

Daily to do lists are a waste of time — calendar should be used only for things that must happen on a certain day/time.

41 Next action lists. For any longer than two minutes, non delayable action. For 20-30 actions, one list. May have 50-150 items, so subdivide into categories (calls, questions to ask Mr Bloggs, etc).

41-44 Non-actionable Items Three places:

  • Trash
  • Incubation. Two places: Someday/Maybe list(s) (list(s) of things you might want to do someday, probably in categories, review it occasionally); or “Tickler” file for reminding yourself on a certain day to look at something.
  • Reference material. Requires no action, but file for future reference.
Review

45-53 A weekly review of your lists so you know what’s outstanding and can make sure nothing’s been missed. Use intuition to decide which appropriate action to do at any moment. Three models:

  1. Four-criteria model. Context is first criteria (which actions can be done where/when you are?). Time available — some actions require more time than you have right now. Energy — some actions require more energy than you have now. Priority — Given the above three, which action will give the highest pay-off?
  2. Threefold model — Three kinds of activities you do each day:
    • Predefined work off your Next Actions list
    • Doing work as it shows up — Surprise, ad-hoc things happen.
    • Defining your work — sorting, processing email, in-box, etc.
  3. Six-level model for reviewing work. Six perspectives for defining your work:
    • 50,000+ feet: Life (why do you/company exist?)
    • 40,000 feet: 3-5 year vision.
    • 30,000 feet: 1-2 year goals.
    • 20,000 feet: Areas of responsibility.
    • 10,000 feet: Current projects.
    • Runway: Current actions.
3. Getting projects creatively under way: The five phases of planning

54-80 We subconsciously plan things a certain way. But rarely do it consciously and methodically for a project. We should:

  1. Defining purpose and principles — Why are you doing it?
  2. Outcome visioning — Imagine and define the success of the project.
  3. Brainstorming — Ideas and issues.
  4. Organising — Identify sequences, components, priorities. Detail.
  5. Next actions — Who needs to do what?
4. Getting started: Setting up the time, space and tools

85-103 Get a filing cabinet, file folders (no hanging files), labeller, paper trays, calendar. Organise files in one A-Z filing system — no multiple categories.

5. Collection: Corralling your “stuff”

104-118 Gather your in-box — everything lying around that needs doing, sorting, changing, filing, passing on. Throw away anything you no longer need. Papers, equipment, things on the wall, things from current to do lists, notes, post its, messages, voicemails, emails in your inbox. Anything that’s intangible or too big — write it on a sheet of paper and put in the in-box (but better to leave emails in your email application of course). Go through everything on your mind, and write it all down, put in in-box. Everything incomplete.

6. Processing: Getting “In” to empty

119-137 Go through flow chart for each item one at a time, from the top, clearing your in-box. [There is a simple flow chart in the book, that helps you identify what to do with an item. There’s a more complicated PDF version here.] Don’t put anything back. Work out the next action (the next physical thing to do, ie, “call John about meeting”, not “arrange meeting”) for each item (or throw it, incubate or file in reference). Once action is decided, do it, delegate it or defer it. If the item is something you’re waiting to hear back about, add to a “Waiting For” list. Ditto if you delegate an action. Add deferred items to a Pending stack for the moment.

7. Organising: Setting up the right buckets

140-1 Be rigorous — put everything on a list (paper notes, list on paper/file, etc) or in a folder. Don’t blur the categories from “Organise”, above.

142-3 Only put actions in your calendar if they must be done that day.

143-4 Organise Next Actions lists by context: Calls, At Computer, Errands, At Office, At Home, Agendas (lists of things needed for particular meetings or to talk to a particular person about), Read/Review.

152-3 Email: Have folders for @WAITING FOR, @ACTION for things you’ve asked people or need to reply to. Keep Inbox empty. [It was worth reading the book just for this, which now seems blindingly obvious.]

155 Lists of projects are for occasional review to keep them out of your head. Not things to be acted on [I’m not sure where their actions go…]

156 Someday/Maybe list — for things you want to do/buy/learn/research/read etc at some point in the future. Review your Projects list and see if any current commitments should realistically be here.

173-5 Tickler file — 43 folders [aha!], one for each day of the next 31 days, and one for each month. A perpetual daily filing system. Put things in that will be needed in the future (schedules, tickets, directions, etc). Transfer today’s items to Inbox each day. Review ahead before you go on holiday!

176-180 Keep checklists to remind yourself of personal values, responsibilities, tasks etc, especially if in a new situation (eg, a new job).

8. Reviewing: Keeping your system functional

181-190 Review things weekly: Loose papers; Process your notes; Previous calendar data; Upcoming calendar; Empty your head; Review “Projects” (and Larger Outcome) lists; Review “Next Actions” lists; Review “Waiting For” lists; Review any relevant checklists; Review “Someday/Maybe” list; Review “Pending” and support files; Be creative and courageous.

Friday afternoon is a good time — the week’s still fresh and there’s time to catch people while they’re still at work if you need to. Some time you’ll need a bigger picture review re life, work, future, etc.

9. Doing: Making the best action choices

191-210 Elaborating on the three methods of deciding what to do now.

10. Getting projects under control

211-215 We should (informally) plan projects more. Brainstorm, organise, notes and support materials, set up meetings, gather info.

215-222 Capture ideas whenever you can. Make it easy. “Where is your closest pad? Keep it closer.” Whiteboards. Outliners.

11. The power of the collection habit

226-231 Feelings of being anxious and overwhelmed come from breaking agreements, not having too much to do. Including agreements with yourself — things you need to do. Three ways to prevent this:

  • Don’t make the agreement — when you know precisely all your existing commitments you know when not to take more on. Otherwise you can’t do things to the standard you want.
  • Complete the agreement — feels good to cross things off lists, but there’ll always be more, so…
  • Renegotiate your agreement — lower your standards, do the action or write it on a Someday/Maybe list.

233 You must capture every nagging action from your head so you’re free to think productively about things, not just repetitively thinking of them.

233-5 When everyone in a group (company, family[!], etc) collects 100% of their actions you never have to worry about something slipping through the gaps.

12. The power of the next-action decision

236-248 Work out the next action for each thing you have to do, or you end up putting off a project that sounds too vague. “What’s the next action?” empowers people. Stops them complaining — what do they need to do to fix it?

13. The power of outcome focusing

253 “What does this mean to me?” “What do I want to have be true about it?” “What’s the next step required to make that happen?”

Comments

  • Implementing 152-3.
    Greetings and a peaceful 2005.
    xx Bettina

  • The best thing about modern mobile phones isn’t the useless cameras they contain but their personal organisers that you key in reminders tied to personal dates, which I find invaluable (even if I’m then too disorganised to go for that particular event).

  • Great review. I recently re-read GTD, and am in the early days of trying to implement it in my daily life (again). However my notes weren’t anywhere near as helpful as yours. Thanks for the great help!

  • There’s one —and only one— useful premise in the book: Honour your personal commitments. If you can’t, manage them to the best of your ability. The rest is useless, silly metaphors, sometimes trying to borrow from fareast philosophies, but most of the time failing at that.

    Why do we create, re-create, and pro-create false prophets and make bibles of convoluted books is beyond me. Or why we try to “robotize” ourselves, for that matter.

    We don’t need books, prophets, 21st century bibles and cults. We need ourselves. The salvation is within. Always was, always will be.

  • GTD offers some of the best ideas I’ve come across in a long time. I have three businesses going at this point, and I was finding it impossible to keep all my jobs and responsiblities organized. GTD has finally given me a way to handle it all. I was using the stupid Franklin/Covey ideas before this and all they did was make things worse. The “two-minute” rule has been a revelation. And the tickler file concept was one of those, “Why didn’t someone tell me about this before?” kind of things. All-in-all, a great system.

    Ignore the naysayers. Forge ahead. GTD will help you GTD.

  • “I still don

  • Yes, I understand that initial processing. But some things can’t be tackled there and then and need to be put on a list. Allen talks about having different context-sensitive lists of actions. And he talks about having lists of projects. But my confusion is over how the two relate to each other.

  • You’re not alone, Phil. A lot of ink and server space is spent on connecting Projects and Next Actions. The simplest way to think of it I’ve found is: a Project includes a bunch of actions you need to take to make it work. You take the single Next Action and put it on your list. When you’re working on the Project, you knock off that action (and maybe a couple or a dozen or a hundred more, depending on your time). Assuming your Project didn’t just finish up, it’s still on your list to remind you to keep doing Next Actions for it until you’re done.

    There’s more to Projects—for example, making sure you keep going toward your actual goal instead of going off on some weird tangent—but that’s the basics.

  • Great book and a great review, thanks a million for putting this together, it really helps me remember the book content

  • What to do with bits and pieces? When I gathered all my ‘stuff’ together I had a bunch of tools and cellphone accessories and no where to put them, how does the filing of physical bits and pieces fit together with the paperwork, has anyone figured out how to file ‘things other than paper’ thanks for any ideas

  • Excellent summary! This is food for thought before I buy the meal. Thanks Phil!

  • I have started reading the book and I have already found information I can use to take action now! I highly suggest GTD for everyone wanting to gain better control of their lives.

  • Thanks for your notes! Some Random Comments ;-)
    12 - One writer called this concept a “grass catcher”. (A lawnmower metaphor, I guess.) I had implemented it very simply with a small notepad I kept open where I would jot random thoughts down to keep free of distraction from my task. I still carry the book with me, but when I’m at my desk my random thoughts go into my “journal” where I keep all of my phone calls and meeting notes, etc.
    20-21. An example of “vertical” would be a “project”. You start at the “top” (the goal) and drill down into the sub-goals and actions supporting its achievement. An example of “horizontal” would be the “bits and pieces” collection — things that just “come up”. “Get some milk.” “Buy new shoes.” “Change the oil on the car.” You COULD change horizontal to vertical by making a PROJECT containing the bit and piece, but why would you? Just do it. Of course if car maintenance were a high enough priority to you it MIGHT make sense to make a project of it and have “change the oil” as a repeating action so that you never forgot to do it on time.
    155. Project actions go in the project folder. In a paper system, you’d work out your project actions and list them in order as they could be done – a PERT/CPM thing. Then you do the “next action” thing for the list. When you get to the point where you can no longer work on the project, you put it away and pull it out for work next time. Each time you pull out the file, you have your list of actions there and the next action is ready to be started.
    215-222. This is covered by the “grass catcher” idea (above). You have ONE book where every single thing goes. I found that keeping a daily “journal” where all of my meeting notes, phone calls, TO DO lists, and random thoughts went served well. SOMETIMES it is best to have a subject area notebook, when working intensively on a large project, for example. But ordinarily it is best to just put everything in one book. It is easy enough to set it up so that things can be found.
    Someone (on 43 folders) pointed me to using MindManager and the Add-In Result Manager implementing GTD templates. It is a very slick system for those who use a computer consistently. There is a bit of a learning curve but slogging through it is great exercise and forces a detailed review of everything that you are doing. When it is all set up, you can produce lists of next actions by context, area, person, due date, etc. Very nice.

    Thanks again for the good review.
    Mike

  • I agree about the lists. The idea of what to put on lists and where is confusing to me. I have a lot of “projects” and actually a very big portion of the things I need to do are multi-step whereas the book seems to assume that 80% of work isn’t “project” stuff.

    So do I make lists of projects actions and then move the stuff from the project lists to context-sensitive lists like “Phone Calls” or what? Or do I keep them on the project lists and only look at them when I’m focusing on that “project”? This didn’t seem well defined to me and didn’t seem to offer a satisfactory working example or idea of how to do this and keep track of everything. Or am I just supposed to look through 10 different project lists anytime I need to work on things?

    Also, for filing, he suggests a straight alphabetical system, which seems weird to me. Does this mean that “Bank of America” goes next to “Bob Banks” in the “B” folder or what? He seems to assume that people know exactly what he’s talking about when he doesn’t give enough detail to explain things adequately. Do people agree with organizing alphabetically, and if so could they explain it in any meaningful way? I’ve been trying to organize my filing system and most everything I’ve seen online seems to suggest a category-based system with general nouns for the categories like “Bank” or “Credit Card” or “Children” or things. What do you all think really works for you and what is he talking about in the book?

  • This is a great review/summary. About the next actions vs. projects — I have had the same trouble. It’s pretty clear that the intent is to separate the planning from doing. In some of the video clips I’ve seen, David Allen uses the example of someone who has a job “cranking widgets.” Lots of job satisfaction because things are getting done, and very little thinking about cranking widgets after leaving work. He says that the idea behind the planning in GTD is to get to that “cranking widgets” situation with your own projects. You’re essentially lining up all of your tasks with the next actions list so that you can plough through them.

    I think that’s a good goal to shoot for, but I don’t necessarily agree that everything has to be cued up in one master list to achieve it. I keep my actions with their individual projects. When I get to work, I’ll decide what projects I’m going to work on that day and take them one at a time. Each time I open a project, I see a set of actions and start cranking. I still feel productive doing things this way.