Getting Things Done


“It is possible to be effectively doing while you are delightfully being, in your ordinary workaday world.”

Getting Things Done: The art of stress-free productivity is by David Allen originally published in 2001 and the second edition was released in 2015. We’ll be looking at the second edition for the purposes of this summary.

Getting Things Done operates using three principles:

  1. capture everything (stuff),
  2. focus on outcomes (the desired future state), and
  3. define next actions to achieve desired outcomes.

The continuous activity or practice is processing your stuff and, well, getting things done.

Stuff can be seen as an agreement with yourself, others, or both. To avoid the psychological baggage of breaking an agreement then:

  1. the agreement shouldn’t be made in the first place,
  2. the agreement should be completed, or,
  3. the agreement should be renegotiated.

The problem

Section titled The problem

Allen opens the book by describing the problem context:

A paradox has emerged in this new millennium: people have enhanced quality of life, but at the same time they are adding to their stress levels by taking on more than they have resources to handle.

Resources could mean just about anything used as input to the system of getting something to done; time, money, tools, practices (habits), focus, and so on.

One of the problems, Allen points out, is the lack of boundaries between work and life.

Back in the day, the work was self-evident and had defined boundaries; I till the fields, when it’s done, I’m done working, or, I go in to the factory, make a certain number of widgets and leave for the day. If I’m not in that specific context, I’m not working. In the modern era, however, the boundaries are unclear; I’m always in the context of work or can be in a matter of moments, if not seconds.

Another problem Allen brings to the table is the idea that our responsibilities for our jobs are also amorphous and constantly changing; raised by the question, “Which of you are only doing what you were hired to do?” This repeats the lack of boundaries sentiment.

A third problem Allen points to is a lacking in the practices and tools available prior to the 21st century. When time was linked to work, calendars became a paramount feature; however, are inadequate in capturing everything we want to accomplish.

The fourth, and final, problem outlined by the opening of the book is the battle between big-picture and the nitty-gritty; what some refer to as strategy versus tactics. Allen breaks this problem into three sub-problems:

  1. Too much happening at the day-to-day and hour-to-hour level that we don’t feel we have the resources to even take on the project of big-picture thinking and planning.
  2. Ineffective organizational systems, from the tangible (file and folders) to the intangible (thoughts, ideas, and relationships).
  3. Loftier values and goals rase the bar for our standards; a quality dilemma. “Focusing on values does not simplify your life. It gives meaning and direction—and a lot more complexity.”

Focusing on values is an important exercise, however, it doesn’t mean there is less to do or fewer challenges to getting them done.

Allen closes defining the problem context with the following observation:

There has been a missing piece in our new culture of knowledge work: a system with a coherent set of behaviors and tools that functions effectively at the level at which work really happens. It must incorporate the results of big-picture thinking as well as the smallest of open details.

Here, the book turns to the promise, the desired state or outcome, which is a “ready state.” Can you become productive when needed?

Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact.

The book returns to the idea of commitments when Allen states:

A basic truism I have discovered over twenty years of coaching and training is that most of the stress people experience comes from inappropriately managed commitments they make or accept.

These commitments may be to ourselves or others.

Allen lists three basic activities and behaviors to implement:

First of all, if it’s on your mind, your mind isn’t clear. Anything you consider unfinished in any way must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind, or what I call a collection bucket, that you know you’ll come back to regularly and sort through.

Second, you must clarify exactly what your commitment is and decide what you have to do, if anything, to make progress toward fulfilling it.

Third, 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.

Exercise: Allen recommends, at this point to take the time to perform an exercise. What project or thing is taking up your mental capacity. In a single sentence, write down the desired outcome. Now, write down the next action you would need to take in order to get closer to having that outcome achieved. Sometimes, the next thing you come up with isn’t actually the next thing. For example, the outcome for you might be new tires on your car. You may have identified that next step as taking the car to the shop. However, maybe you’re in a new living situation or context and don’t know who to take the car to; so, that becomes the next action. But, even then, there might be something you will do before that, which is to post a question to an online forum or text your friends and family for recommendations. As you go through this exercise you may find that the very next thing you need to do is something very small, less than two minutes, and you can do it right then. If you send recommendation requests to forums, friends, and family, you create another action which is: Waiting for recommendations. There’s no need to continue thinking about getting the tires changed because you’re in a holding pattern around the delegated (and crowdsourced) activity of compiling a list of recommendations.

The book states that the reason things are often on your mind is because you want the thing to be in a different state than it is right now. Allen says defining the outcomes (the future state) is the key activity, at least for knowledge work. The next piece is identifying the actions required in achieving that outcome.

You cannot fool your mind into thinking something is fine if it really isn’t. These items are taking up space in your mind; what Allen calls “stuff.” Stuff, in this context is defined as:

anything you have 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.

Your mission is to transform the stuff in your mind into outcomes and action steps, which will clear up psychological space and resources. This moves you from managing “stuff” to managing actions.

Allen says:

I have discovered over the years the practical value of working on personal productivity improvement from the bottom up, starting with the most mundane, ground-floor level of current activity and commitments. […]

You need to control commitments, projects, and actions in two ways—horizontally and vertically. “Horizontal” control maintains coherence across all the activities in which you are involved. […] “Vertical” control, in contrast, manages thinking up and down the track of individual topics and projects.

The goal for managing horizontally and vertically is the same: to get things off your mind and get things done.

The major change Allen goes on to described can be summed up as: Capture everything. Little or big, personal or professional, urgent or not—get it out of your head and into a system you trust and check regularly.

The process

Section titled The process

You will collect all the stuff in your head in a way that is convenient to you at the time and possibly transferred to something else at a later date. Getting Things Done identifies a high-level, five step process:

  1. Collect things that command your attention.
  2. Process what those things mean (outcome) and what to do about them (actions to take); the key processing questions is: What’s that next action? Note: Emergency scanning (looking for urgent things) is not processing.
  3. Organize the results.
  4. Review options for what you choose to
  5. do.

Exercise: Gather all your incomplete stuff and put it into “in.” Any time you attach “should,” “need to,” or “ought to” to something in your mind, it’s an incomplete. It doesn’t matter how you capture things, it’s an evolutionary process; physical index cards, digital device, whatever works for you. With that said, Allen does recommend reducing the number of collection buckets citing:

You should have as many in-baskets as you need and as few as you can get by with. You need this function to be available to you in every context, since things you’ll want to capture may show up almost anywhere. If you have too many collection zones, however, you won’t be able to process them easily or consistently.

Once you feel like you’re running out of steam on collecting things, it’s time to start processing them. Processing the stuff in the in-baskets should be done regularly and as completely as possible. Grab something in the in-basket:

  1. What is it?
  2. Is it actionable?
    1. No: trash it, put it on a someday maybe list (hold for review), or file it away as reference.
    2. Yes:
      1. What’s the next action? If there’s more than one action, you have a project on your hands, capture all the actions and determine the very next action.
      2. Will it take less than two minutes to complete?
        1. Yes: Do the thing!
        2. No: delegate it to someone or something else (create a waiting for action) or defer it (calendar if it needs to be done by a certain time or a next actions list that is more context-based).

The first step is identifying the thing. The second, opening step, is determining if there are actions needed to get the thing to done. Sometimes it’s just that the thing isn’t in the right place; it needs to be thrown away, held for review at a later time, or filed away somewhere.

The two minute rule reenforces the bottom-up style of this approach. If you can do it in two minutes, just get it done. This will free up time and clear the mental decks for the larger and longer actions you’ve identified.

Getting Things Done separates the next actions list from the calendar. The calendar is held as sacred territory and holds three types of stuff: time-specific actions (a “fancy name for appointments), day-specific actions, and day-specific information. If the thing can be done sort of whenever, then it’s not on the calendar. The calendar is the hard landscape; if I don’t do this on or around this time, it will not be done at all—speaking to someone before they go on vacation or seeing a concert on a given day. Further, just like the calendar is sacred territory, the next actions list is similar in that it’s not a list of all the things, just the very next thing; any subsequent actions can, and probably should, be on a different list.

As you’re going through the exercise you might get reminded about other “stuff”—capture it and process it (sometimes the end of the process is to put it into an in-basket).

At this point you should have a healthy backlog (represented by one or more lists), some things have been completed, things are getting filed or thrown away, and possibly some events on your calendar.

There are two contexts for reviewing. The first is pretty much whenever you find you have time; in the moment. The second is a deliberate weekly review.

During the weekly review you want to:

  1. Gather and process all your “stuff.”
  2. Review (and improved) your system.
  3. Update your lists (backlogs).
  4. Get clean, clear, current, and complete.

When it comes to doing things, Getting Things Done offers three models:

  1. The four-criteria model for choosing actions in the moment.
  2. The threefold model for evaluating daily work.
  3. The six-level model for reviewing your own work.

The four-criteria model uses context, time available, energy available, and priority to determine what to do next; this is a method for filtering next actions. If you need a phone, and don’t have one, you shouldn’t consider making phone calls. If you need 30 minutes, and have 10, you shouldn’t consider actions that will take more than 10 minutes. For many of us, tying our shoes is a low energy task, however, solving complex math equations is a high energy task; if you are level 1 energy on a scale of one to 10, take solving a complex math equation of the list of possible next actions. If there’s more than one thing left after filtering through to this point, pick the one with the highest priority.

The threefold model for evaluating daily work identifies three types of activities: doing predefined work, doing work as it shows up, and defining your work. If you’re working from your backlog(s), you’re doing predefined work. If something comes up and decide to participate in that activity instead, you’re doing work as it shows up; an unexpected phone call you decide to take, for example. If you’re capturing more actions, you’re defining your work.

The six-level model uses different heights to describe the levels of both strategy and tactics:

  1. 50,000 or more feet; life.
  2. 40,000 or more feet; three to five year vision.
  3. 30,000 or more feet; one to two year goals.
  4. 20,000 or more feet; areas of responsibility.
  5. 10,000 or more feet; current projects.
  6. Runway; current actions.

Taking on the bottom-up approach espoused by Getting Things Done, if you’re fighting fires on the runway, it might be difficult, if not impossible, to see the other levels; the vertical. It’s not that they aren’t there, just that they may not be intentional or captured. As you go through at the runway level, you can use it to define and describe the current projects, assign them to your areas of responsibility, and determine short-term goals and long-term vision; eventually punching through to the level of your life in general.

Projects and planning

Section titled Projects and planning

Most things we want to accomplish will require more than one action; this is the definition of a project for Getting Things Done. Allen identifies five steps in what he refers to as “The Natural Planning Model”:

  1. Define purpose and principles; why?
  2. Outcome visioning; what is the desired future state?
  3. Brainstorming; how might we achieve the outcome?
  4. Organizing; a natural result of brainstorming.
  5. Identifying next actions; what path do we think we’ll take?

Allen contrasts this with what he refers to as “The Unnatural Planning Model,” which he summarizes in the following retort to writing outlines before writing a paper: “Outlines were easy, as long as you wrote the report first.”

Allen goes on to describe various methods, approaches, and tools for naturally creating a project plan. Stating that the unnatural planning model is so formal and restrictive that most of us simply do not plan:

The unnatural planning model is what most people consciously think of as “planning,” and because it’s so often artificial and irrelevant to real work, people just don’t plan. At least not on the front end: they resist planning meetings, presentations, and strategic operations until the last minute.


Section titled Practicing

In part two of the book, Allen goes into much more detail on setting up your stress-free productivity system.

  1. Don’t share space; it sucks if someone else’s stuff is mingled with yours, especially if they’ve moved something of yours to get to something of theirs.
  2. Have a physical space (one you can go to) and a transient space (one you can take with you).

If you’re doing this for the first time, Getting Things Done recommends setting aside a day or two to begin practicing the habits from the exercises outlined above.

Identify the tools you’ll use to create and maintain your system; Allen provides recommendations and details of various tools, including:

The key principles

Section titled The key principles

The book closes with an in-depth analysis of the power behind the three overarching principles.

Read my personal reflections on Getting Things Done