Book Review: Getting Things Done by David Allen

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Table of Contents

Buckle up for a book review and summary on one of the most popular books on productivity: Getting Things Done by David Allen.

About

  • Title: Getting Things Done
  • Sub-title: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
  • Author: David Allen
  • About the author: David Allen is one of the oldest and most well-known proponents of personal organization. His books, “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” and “Getting Things Done: For Creative Types” focus on self-management and offer a collection of methods that can help people get control over their lives. He has been recognized as one of Forbes’ top 5 executive business coaches in the U.S.
  • Pages: 352
  • Published: 2015 (Revised Edition)
  • Link to book

High-Level Summary

In his book, “Getting Things Done“, David Allen discusses the importance of productivity and how to achieve it.

He argues that the best way to become productive is by clearing your mind of any distractions and focusing on the task at hand. To do this, you need to create a “to do” list and then break down each task into smaller, more manageable steps.

As expected, this book is about getting things done, but also has a greater purpose than that. This book is about helping you be appropriately engaged with your work and life. Allen’s goal is to help people remove stress and anxiety from their personal lives, so they can pursue what they most like to pursue.

In this book, you’ll find insights and strategies on how to…

  • Have more energy
  • Be more relaxed
  • Have more clarity
  • Be present in the moment
  • Get a lot more accomplished with less effort

You’ll find that Getting Things Done is extremely practical. Anyone can apply all, or a portion of, the lessons shared. The components of the system are modular and can be adapted to one’s perfect use.

The book is divided into 3 parts:

  • Part 1: Brief overview of the GTD system and methodologies
  • Part 2: A step by step on how to implement the system and apply the models
  • Part 3: A deeper dive into the subtler, more profound results you can achieve within your work and life.

Recommendation

5/5

If you are someone who is trying to organize your life so you can achieve what you want, Getting Things Done is a book you want to read. Since its original publishing in 2001, it has been a top-recommended book for productivity.

This book can benefit complete beginners as well as productivity veterans that are looking to improve their methods.

There is so much value within the pages of this book. If you take away just 10% of the lessons David Allen shares, I believe your life will drastically change.

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Top 35 Takeaways

I’ll break down these top 35 takeaways into the 3 parts of the book. You’ll read 15 takeaways from Part 1, 15 from Part 2, and 5 from Part 3.

Part 1: The Art of Getting Things Done

1. The methods I present here are all based on three key objectives: (1) capturing all the things that might need to get done or have usefulness for you in a logical and trusted system outside your head and off your mind; (2) directing yourself to make front-end decisions about all of the “inputs” you let into your life so that you will always have a workable inventory of “next actions” that you can implement or renegotiate in the moment; (3) and curating and coordinating all of that content, utilizing the recognition of the multiple levels of commitments with yourself and others you will have at play, at any point in time.

2. A calendar, though important, can really effectively manage only a small portion of what you need to be aware of to feel on top of your world.

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

4. Most often, the reason something is on your mind is that you want it to be different than it currently is, and yet: you haven’t clarified exactly what the intended outcome is; you haven’t decided what the very next physical action step is; and/or you haven’t put reminders of the outcome and the action required in a system you trust.

5. Research has now proven that a significant part of your psyche cannot help but keep track of your open loops, and not (as originally thought) as an intelligent, positive motivator, but as a detractor from anything else you need or want to think about, diminishing your capacity to perform.

6. The substantive issue is how to make appropriate choices about what to do at any point in time. The real work is to manage our actions. It’s extremely difficult to manage actions you haven’t identified or decided on.

7. In training and coaching many thousands of people, I have found that lack of time is not the major issue for them (though they may think it is); the real problem is a lack of clarity and definition about what a project really is, and what associated next-action steps are required.

8. Horizontal and vertical management. 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, development, and coordination of individual topics and projects.

9. THE CORE PROCESS for mastering the art of relaxed and controlled engagement is a five-step method for managing your workflow—the ever-present ingestion and expressions of our experiences. We (1) capture what has our attention; (2) clarify what each item means and what to do about it; (3) organize the results, which presents the options we (4) reflect on, which we then choose to (5) engage with. The quality of our workflow management is only as good as the weakest link in this five-phase chain.

10. Capture: Gathering 100 Percent of the “Incompletes.” In order to eliminate “holes in your bucket,” you need to collect and gather placeholders for, or representations of, all the things you consider incomplete in your world—that is, anything personal or professional, big or little, of urgent or minor importance, that you think ought to be different than it currently is and that you have any level of internal commitment to changing. In order to manage this inventory of open loops appropriately, you need to capture it into “containers” that hold items in abeyance until you have a few moments to decide what they are and what, if anything, you’re going to do about them. Then you must empty these containers regularly to ensure that they remain viable capture tools.

11. The Capture Tools. Funnel all potentially meaningful inputs through minimal channels, directed to you for easily accessed review and assessment about their nature. Physical in-tray. Writing paper and pads. digital. Let’s examine the three requirements to make the capturing phase work: Every open loop must be in your capture system and out of your head. 2 | You must have as few capturing buckets as you can get by with. 3 | You must empty them regularly.

12. The final success factor for capturing should be obvious: if you don’t empty and process the stuff you’ve collected, your tools aren’t serving any function other than the storage of amorphous material.

13. Critical Success Factor: The Weekly Review. All of your Projects, active project plans, and Next Actions, Agendas, Waiting For, and even Someday/Maybe lists should be reviewed once a week. The Weekly Review is the time to: Gather and process all your stuff. Review your system. Update your lists. Get clean, clear, current, and complete. You have to use your mind to get things off your mind.

14. THE KEY INGREDIENTS of relaxed control are (1) clearly defined outcomes (projects) and the next actions required to move them toward closure, and (2) reminders placed in a trusted system that is reviewed regularly. One of the most powerful life skills, and one of the most important to hone and develop for both professional and personal success, is creating clear outcomes.

15. The Natural Planning Model. 1| Defining purpose and principles 2 | Outcome visioning 3 | Brainstorming 4 | Organizing 5 | Identifying next actions.

Part 2: Practicing Stress-Free Productivity

1. Setting Aside the Time and Space. I recommend that you create a block of time to initialize this process and prepare a workstation with the appropriate space, furniture, and tools. An ideal time frame for most people is two whole days, back to back. Implementing the full capturing process can take up to six hours or more, and clarifying and deciding on actions for all the input you’ll want to externalize and capture in your system can easily take another eight hours. Dedicate two days to this process, and it will be worth many times that in terms of your productivity and mental health.

2. The Critical Factor of a Filing System. You will resist the whole process of capturing information if your reference systems are not fast, functional, and fun.

3. Coralling your “stuff.” The first activity is to search your physical environment for anything that doesn’t permanently belong where it is, the way it is, and put it into your in-tray. Once you feel you’ve collected all the physical things in your environment that need processing, you’ll want to collect anything else that may be residing in your mental RAM space.

4. The cognitive scientists have now proven the reality of “decision fatigue”—that every decision you make, little or big, diminishes a limited amount of your brain power.

5. You have three options once you decide what the next action really is: Do it (if the action takes less than two minutes). Delegate it (if you’re not the most appropriate person to do the action). Defer it into your organization system as an option for work to do later. If the next action can be done in two minutes or less, do it when you first pick the item up.

6. The rationale for the two-minute rule is that it’s more or less the point where it starts taking longer to store and track an item than to deal with it the first time it’s in your hands—in other words, it’s the efficiency cutoff.

7. This last step in getting to the bottom of “in” requires a shift in perspective from the single-action details to the larger picture—your projects. Again, I define a project as any outcome you’re committed to achieving that will take more than one action step to complete.

8. HAVING A TOTAL and seamless system of organization in place gives you tremendous power because it allows your mind to let go of lower-level thinking and graduate to intuitive focusing, undistracted by matters that haven’t been dealt with appropriately.

9. A complete and current Projects list is the major operational tool for moving from tree-hugging to forest management. The Projects list is not meant to hold plans or details about your projects themselves, nor should you try to keep it arranged by priority or size or urgency—it’s just a comprehensive index of your open loops. Remember, you can’t do a project; you can only do the action steps it requires. The real value of the Projects list lies in the complete review it can provide (at least once a week), ensuring that you have action steps defined for all of your projects and that nothing is slipping through the cracks.

10. Some of your projects will likely have major subprojects, each of which could in theory be seen as a whole project. If you’re moving into a new residence, for instance, and are upgrading or changing much of what’s there, you may have a list of actionable items like “Finalize the patio,” “Upgrade the kitchen,” “Set up home office space,” and so on, all of which could in themselves be considered separate projects. How you list projects and subprojects is up to you; just be sure you know where to find all the moving parts and review them as frequently as needed to keep them off your mind.

11. Checklists can be highly useful to let you know what you don’t need to be concerned about. Many times you’ll want some sort of checklist to help you maintain a focus until you’re more familiar with what you’re doing.

12. Reviewing your system on a regular basis, reflecting on the contents, and keeping it current and functional are prerequisites for that kind of clarity and stability. All of this means your system cannot be static. In order to support appropriate action choices, it must be kept up-to-date.

13. The “Bigger Picture” Reviews. Yes, at some point you must clarify the larger outcomes, the long-term goals, the visions and principles that ultimately drive, test, and prioritize your decisions. Yes, at some point you must clarify the larger outcomes, the long-term goals, the visions and principles that ultimately drive, test, and prioritize your decisions. What are your key goals and objectives in your work? What should you have in place a year or three years from now? How is your career going? Is this the lifestyle that is most fulfilling to you? Trying to create goals before you have confidence that you can keep your everyday world under control will often undermine your motivation and energy rather than enhance them.

14. Remember that you make your action choices based on the following four criteria, in order: Context, Time available, Energy available, Priority

15. Getting projects under control: You need to set up systems and tricks that get you to think about your projects and situations more frequently, more easily, and more in depth.

Part 3: The Power of the Key Principles

1. The Source of the Negative Feelings. The sense of anxiety and guilt you feel from your to-dos doesn’t come from having too much to do; it’s the automatic result of breaking agreements with yourself.

2. The Magic of Mastering the Mundane. The challenge is to marry high-level idealistic focus to the mundane activity of life. In the end, they require the same thinking.

3. In 2008 a fascinating paper, “Getting Things Done: The Science Behind Stress-Free Productivity,” was published in a professional journal by two researchers in Belgium who analyzed my methodology specifically from the perspective of verifiable data and working theories from cognitive science. but suffice it to say that its thesis is profound: your mind is designed to have ideas, based upon pattern detection, but it isn’t designed to remember much of anything! Because of the way the mind developed, it is brilliant at recognition, but terrible at recall.

4. GTD IS ACTUALLY a lifelong practice with multiple levels of mastery. It is very similar to playing an instrument like the violin, a sport like tennis, or a game like chess. GTD mastery involves learning and incorporating its various best practices, and then integrating them in a holistic manner, which results in a much more dynamic experience than simply the sum of its parts.

5. An Integrated Total Life-Management System. The third aspect of this stage of mastery is that your system will have become not just a conglomeration of various lists, information, applications, and tools but rather a cohesive “control room” with all its components working together to engage effectively with whatever circumstance arises.

What I Liked

Directions that leave nothing to the imagination

David Allen’s system has been through decades of use. Because of that, you as the reader can be confident that he has thought of everything at this point.

He’ll offer solutions so the system can be implemented for all aspects of your life and his instructions are very clear.

Current with the times and works for physical and digital tools

The original publishing of this book was in 2001, when we didn’t have a lot of the digital tools and apps we have now.

While the author still promotes using physical in-trays and filing systems, the book is current with the times and David will let you know how you could use digital tools as well on your desktop, tablet, or mobile phone

Author takes into consideration that we are all human and imperfect

The author knows that this book can be overwhelming to a reader the first time through. He doesn’t expect you to learn everything on the first try and he doesn’t expect you to implement the system 100% according to the book.

He understands that we are human and he works in buffers to allow readers to benefit even if they are going at a slower pace and implementing bits and pieces at a time. This relieves the reader of the pressure to implement this system perfectly.

Benefits To Your Life and Career

Get your entire life together and in alignment

David Allen often mentions the phrase “open loops” in the book. These refers to any outstanding tasks or projects that still have items that need to be completed. Hence, it is an open loop.

Getting Things Done will help you get your entire life together. You’ll identify all your open loops and will know how to set the next action items to make progress.

Drastically reduce stress and overloading of the mind

So much stress comes from being disorganized and not having faith that you are remembering everything that should be on your to-do list. By having a system in place to organize all your “stuff,” you’ll have peace of mind knowing that nothing is slipping through the cracks.

Once I implemented this myself, it felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I was no longer worrying and double-checking things over and over. The system I had in place (and the confidence I had in that system) put me at ease.

Learn to break down high-level goals and aspirations into projects and next actions that will get you there

The author mentions looking at the forests and looking at the trees. This refers to the idea of seeing things at a high level and at the detailed, nitty-gritty level.

Getting Things Done will teach you how to connect your higher level goals and aspirations into projects and actions. Once your goals are set, you’ll break down what projects need to be completed to achieve your goals. 

Then, you’ll break down those projects into individual tasks that you complete.

15 Actions You Should Take

1. Get in the habit of keeping nothing on your mind. Anything you consider unfinished in any way must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind, or what I call a collection tool, that you know you’ll come back to regularly and sort through. You can use a physical in-tray, pen and paper, or a digital app like Google Keep

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.

4. Exercise: I suggest that you write down the project or situation that is most on your mind at this moment. What most bugs you, distracts you, or interests you, or in some other way consumes a large part of your conscious attention? Got it? Good. Now, describe, in a single written sentence, your intended successful outcome for this problem or situation. In other words, what would need to happen for you to check this project off as “done”? Now write down the very next physical action required to move the situation forward.

5. Start from the bottom-up when working on your personal productivity movement. While it seems counterintuitive, you want to start with the ground-floor level activities and commitments and later work up to your overall purpose and vision.

6. Only include three things go on your calendar: time-specific actions; day-specific actions; and day-specific information. Time-Specific Actions is a fancy name for appointments. Day-Specific Actions are things that you need to do sometime on a certain day, but not necessarily at a specific time. Day-Specific Information are things you want to know about on specific days—not necessarily actions you’ll have to take but rather information that may be useful on a certain date.

7. It’s a good habit, as soon as you conclude an action on your calendar (a meeting, a phone call, the final draft of a report that’s due), to check and see what else remains to be done. Review whatever lists, overviews, and orientation maps you need to, as often as you need to, to get their contents off your mind. Projects, Waiting For, and Someday/Maybe lists need to be reviewed only as often as you think they have to be in order to stop you from wondering about them.

8. Prioritize having a weekly review. The Weekly Review is the time to: Gather and process all your stuff. Review your system. Update your lists. Get clean, clear, current, and complete. You have to use your mind to get things off your mind.

9. Define your purpose. By defining your purpose of doing something (e.g. a project), it creates decision-making criteria. Given what you’re trying to accomplish, are these investments required? if there’s no good reason to be doing something, it’s not worth doing.

10. You will resist the whole process of capturing information if your reference systems are not fast, functional, and fun. A simple and highly functional personal reference system is critical to this process.

11. You can categorize your actions based on where you can complete them. Work, home, waiting in an office, while walking, etc.

12. Use the two-minute rule. The rationale for the two-minute rule is that it’s more or less the point where it starts taking longer to store and track an item than to deal with it the first time it’s in your hands—in other words, it’s the efficiency cutoff. You’ll be surprised how many two-minute actions you can perform even on your most critical projects. That said, you shouldn’t become a slave to spending your day doing two-minute actions. This rule should be applied primarily when you are engaging with new input; for example, processing your in-tray, interacting with someone in your office or home, or simply dealing with some random intersection in the hallway.

13. Objectives like “Maintain good physical conditioning” or “Keep my team motivated” may still need to be built into some sort of overview checklist that will be reviewed regularly.

14. Reviewing your system on a regular basis, reflecting on the contents, and keeping it current and functional are prerequisites for that kind of clarity and stability. All of this means your system cannot be static. In order to support appropriate action choices, it must be kept up-to-date.

15. Goal-Striving/Attainment Via Implementation Intentions. Goals (desired outcomes) are a vital part of life, and GTD can serve to facilitate both personal and professional goals. Gollwitzer and Oettingen have conducted a major line of research on goal achievement, incorporating the idea of “implementation intentions.” In a nutshell they argue that the best way to ensure goal striving (taking actions toward a stated goal) is to create a cause-and-effect link in your mind about when certain goal-relevant actions will be taken. When you make plans (implementation intentions) ahead of time and decide what actions will be carried out in which contexts, the proper behavior is nearly automatically enacted instead of being drawn from your limited reserve of willpower. In other words, if you can trust that something you will more or less do automatically will provide sufficient direction and juice to move you toward your outcome, you’ll have that juice when needed. It won’t be depleted by your constant worrying or thinking about what you should do and when.

Resources

Getting Things Done can be found on Amazon at this link here if you are interested in reading.

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Author: Brandon Hill

Brandon is the creator of Bizness Professionals and author behind each post. He is currently a working professional, primarily in finance, and looks to provide resources to aspiring or current young professionals for well-rounded professional and personal development. Find out more on the About page.

There may be affiliate links on this page, which means I may receive a small commission for any purchases made through links in this post. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Products that are linked are ones I highly recommend and have used/tested myself.

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