GETTING THINGS DONE BY DAVID ALLEN
Getting things done by David Allen
This book forever changed my life.
Actually, it’s not really about me but about you.
And I am about to tell you a true story.
I was writing my thesis for my Master’s degree in 2013 when I first read it.
At that time, I remember I attended David Guetta’s concert. It was all crowded and I carelessly put my bag behind me because I wanted to stay closer to my girlfriend.
Little did I know some mischievous people would slowly open the bag and take my glasses, my wallet, my ID card, almost everything, but not this book.
Right at the moment when they took the book, I turned and caught a guy. He smirked then gently put back this book “Getting things done” by David Allen back in my bag.
Was it destiny? I don’t know but reading it made me much more productive than I was before.
When I knew that the English version of this book was published in 2001, I realized how much I was missing.
If you don’t want to miss an opportunity to be more productive, I’d suggest you read this summary.
The GTD Method is a best-seller and it’s also a famous method worldwide. Many resources are available on the internet: articles, videos, applications and software for its implementation.
You’ll discover strategies on how to be more productive, all of this with more energy, more relaxation and with less effort.
It’s not some get-rich-quick scheme; you can truly be much more efficient and relaxed.
As a “management consultant” for the last three decades, David Allen took more than two decades to perfect this system. Getting things done is a compilation of his discoveries, insights and tools.
Part 1: The Art of Getting Things Done
1- A New Practice for a New Reality
Oftentimes, parasitic thoughts, distractions and daydreaming hinder our productivity. But is it possible to fully devote yourself to a task? What would you accomplish if you can do anything without any interruption?
Almost every time, we feel overwhelmed. We have too much to handle. Other tasks keep coming in. It is as if we’ll never have sufficient time to finish everything.
While we live in a world that provides a certain quality of life, stress has never been this high.
Projects after projects, tasks after tasks, we feel like 24 hours are not enough.
To address these problems, we invented organizing tools and time-management models. But none of them offers productivity, relaxation and full-control over the tasks ahead. The good news is that the GTD method does.
“The mind like water” simile
At some point, you might have experienced what martial artists call a “mind like water” or what top athletes refer to as the “zone”. It’s a state where everything is flowing perfectly. Your mind is clear and your productivity is at its best. It is a state both for peace of mind and for performance.
In our busy world however, such a state is rare. We feel more stressed. Distractions wait at every corner.
Yet, it is possible to get back to the “mind like water” state whenever we want. The GTD method teaches you how. With it, you will be freed from all worries and you can focus on the task ahead, the project to be achieved.
How your mind works
Without you realizing it, you have multiple unresolved commitments. We’ve given ourselves those commitments but never really decided what to do with them or how to finish them.
As a result, you get stressed.
Maybe you told yourself: “I have to clean the room”, “I have to call Suzan”, and “I should finish this paper by tomorrow” all of them are now unresolved issues. They constantly tickle your mind and more often than not, they are a source of frustrations and guilt.
It’s important to manage those commitments and you’ll need a system to do so.
– You first need a trusted system to capture everything you have in mind. From the smallest commitment to the biggest one, scan everything and put it into what David Allen calls a “collection bucket”
– Define exactly your next action to advance and make progress in a specific task
– Once you decide on all the actions required, organize yourself and keep a reminder of them. You can do it either with an agenda or a to-do-list that we’ll detail later.
An important exercise to test this model
1- Take a piece of paper and write down a situation or a project that most “bugs” you. What is it that keeps constantly distracting you?
For example, you might want to create a non-profit and do all the paperwork related to that.
2- Do you have it? Now, describe in one sentence the outcome for this project or situation. What would be the end-result so that you can cross this project when it’s finally done? It can be as simple as “Creating a Toastmasters Club” or “Take a vacation to Berlin, Germany” etc…
3- Finally, write down the first physical action necessary to move the situation forward. Where would you go now? Who would you need to call? Do you have to write an email?
Did you do it? How do you feel right now?
When I did this exercise, I remember I started to feel all relaxed as if I already achieved something. And if you’re reacting like most people, you should now feel a little more confident, relaxed and focused. Maybe, you’re also more motivated to tackle the situation.
“If anything at all positive happened for you in this little exercise, think about this: What changed? What happened to create that improved condition within your own experience? The situation itself is no further along, at least in the physical world. It’s certainly not finished yet. What probably happened is that you acquired a clearer definition of the outcome desired and the next action required.”
“But what created that? The answer is, thinking. Not a lot, just enough to solidify your commitment and the resources required to fulfill it.”
Why things are on your mind
The mind remains preoccupied because:
– First, you didn’t clarify the intended outcome,
– Second, you didn’t decide on the first action to be taken,
– Third, you haven’t created a system that would remind you of the outcome and the actions required.
“That’s why it’s on your mind. Until those thoughts have been clarified and those decisions made, and the resulting data has been stored in a system that you absolutely know you will think about as often as you need to, your brain can’t give up the job.”
The brain is a little bit “stupid”
I’m joking; the brain is the most complex and best gift we would’ve received from the Universe. Even if it’s true, it’s somehow really stupid. Let me explain.
Think about it, you’re preparing food and you noticed that there’s no more cooking oil. It’s already night so you wait until the next day to buy another one.
Because you don’t know the GTD method yet, you keep everything in your mind. You do the groceries but as you got back home, you suddenly realized that you forgot to buy the cooking oil.
If your mind “had any innate intelligence, it would remind you of the things you needed to do only when you could do something about them.”
For instance, your brain should’ve reminded you to buy the cooking oil, right at the moment you were in the supermarket. But did it?
The GTD method helps you to never experience that same situation.
Getting things done: A Paradigm shift
You see, the mind consumes a lot of energy. It incessantly reminds you of what you should do, even if you are in the middle of a completely unrelated task. You want to focus on your work but another thought might suddenly cross your mind.
The GTD method frees the brain from these incessant thoughts about our commitments.
Getting things done by David Allen is a method that teaches you what to do (with your time and your focus) for you to manage your actions in the best way possible.
Getting things done is not about managing time, managing information or managing priorities; it’s about managing your actions.
David Allen, in his training and coaching highlighted that people don’t lack time; they lack clarity about what needs to be done. Subsequently, they’re also unclear about the next physical action to move the project forward.
Horizontal and vertical action management
The GTD system is designed to help you monitor everything that crosses your mind and what to do with these tasks.
The vertical part includes different projects in different areas of your life. You might have thoughts about your finances, personal or professional areas. List them all.
The horizontal maintains coherence in one single specific project: for example you want to create an association and you’ll need to identify all of the tasks related to that project.
“There is usually an inverse proportion between how much something is on your mind and how much it’s getting done.” So you need to get everything out of your head.
The GTD method frees the mind from the inefficient need to think about all our commitments. To do this, all you need is:
- Identify all the tasks you have to accomplish – now or later or one day – and integrate them into a coherent and reliable system.
- Make decisions without delay about any new tasks you have to take on.
- With a clear and uncluttered mind, you’ll be able to work more efficiently and stress-free.
2- Getting Control of Your Life: The Five Stages of Mastering Workflow
Getting things done by David Allen is a method that proposes 5 steps for managing your workflow:
a- Collecting the things that command our attention
To free your mind of all the little commitments and concerns, you have to make sure that you captured all of them. You need to identify everything that might represent “something you have to do”. It’s important to revisit this inventory whenever you need it.
All of the incomplete tasks on your mind consist of your “should”, “need to, or “ought to” do.
“Incompletes” include the decisions you still need to make, the things that “you’re going to do” and any other tasks that are pending or in-progress.
If you want to manage this inventory of open loops, you’ll need containers that capture them. You don’t have time yet to work on those items so you need to capture them. When you have a few moments, you can decide later what they are and what to do about them if necessary.
I said “if necessary” because sometimes, we write down an item but it doesn’t require any particular action or we just decide to do nothing about it.
In the end, you’ll need to regularly empty these containers “to ensure that they remain viable collection tools”
The collection tools can be made in any shape or form you like, and it will then accommodate any new tasks.
This first step out of the five is of paramount importance. It is the entry point to the entire system.
To collect your incompletes, you can use: physical in-basket, paper-based note-taking devices, electronic note-taking devices (application, software tools), or any voice-recording devices available.
David Allen mentions 3 success factors for this first step: First, every incomplete must be put in your collection system and out of your head. Second, limit the collection buckets you work with, the goal is to see them as often as possible. And finally, you must regularly empty the buckets.
The process phase can be summarized in the following diagram.
First, you’ll need to collect the items on your bucket. Ask yourself “what this item is”. It’s important because you decide if you’ll do something about it or not.
The second question is: “is it actionable”. YES or NO. If it’s a no, there are 3 possibilities (trash, someday list, you might need it later).
Finally, “what’s the next action”. You need to associate a physical action, a visible activity that you need to take to progress in this project. If you prepare a speech for example, maybe your next physical action is to choose a topic and connect to the internet to make a research on that topic.
Getting things done by David Allen: A tip
One tip is to do this action immediately if it takes less than two minutes (Do it). Otherwise, you can choose to delegate or defer it.
Check the diagram below:
“The outer ring of the workflow diagram shows the eight discrete categories of reminders and materials that will result from your processing all your “stuff.”
At first you can choose the non-actionable items and put them in trash, someday/maybe, or reference.
Then choose the next actions if it’s part of a project.
And finally, choose to wait for a task that needs to be delegated. Or put an item in your calendar if you want to defer it.
It’s one thing to note on your calendar that you have to buy a bottle of cooking oil; it’s another thing to remember right when you’re at the supermarket.
Actually, it’s important to regularly review all of your pending projects. “You need to be able to review the whole picture of your life and work at appropriate intervals and appropriate levels.”
The review phase should be done at least on a weekly basis.
“All of your open loops (i.e., projects), active project plans, and “Next Actions,” “Agendas,” “Waiting For,” and even “Someday/ Maybe” lists should be reviewed once a week.”
Every week then is an opportunity to collect and process all of the items on and out of your mind. You’ll need to review your system, cross and update your lists and finally re-organize everything.
It consists of carrying out the planned actions.
You shouldn’t intuitively decide which action to take and hope it’s the right one. You must be sure that it’s the right choice at the right time.
How can you do that? David Allen proposes a model for making action choices
There are Four-Criteria for Choosing Actions in the moment: The context in which you are, your availability, your energy level (how many out of 10 do you rate? What energy level does the task require?), and your priorities.
3- Getting Projects Creatively Under Way: The Five Phases of Project Planning
“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.”
What David Allen recommends here is the horizontal approach. In most situations, that’s all you need. Sometimes however, you’ll need a more rigorous approach to control a project; the vertical approach just solves that.
In addition to the key ingredients mentioned above, you’ll need to think productively in a more “vertical way”. The step now is to integrate the results into a personal system.
When we say “think productively”, it doesn’t have to be complex. Most of us do it in an informal way and all you’ll need is an envelope and a pencil.
David Allen recommends a natural way that we adopt when we think and plan a project.
The Natural Planning Model
Instead of using complex project management tools such as the Gantt Chart, the author of Getting things done advocates the natural planning model. We use this natural way of planning almost on a daily basis. When we plan something, we don’t necessarily think about it, that’s why David Allen thinks it’s intuitive and effective.
Your brain as he says is the most brilliant and creative planner in the world. You plan your wedding, you plan your holidays, you plan to buy a car, and there are some steps your brain follow to make such things happen physically:
- Defining purpose and principles
- Outcome visioning
- Identifying next actions
If you organize a restaurant outing with friends for example, you’ll follow those 5 steps.
You were motivated by a purpose, maybe to socialize, to celebrate something or to have a special moment with your loved ones. That’s your purpose. Why did you want to go to the restaurant in the first place?’ (WHY)
Second, you visualize the results, you define an outcome visioning. Maybe it’s going to a French restaurant, how to go there and how much you would spend. It is important to visualize the end goal. Begin with the end in mind so that you can focus and be motivated for its achievement. (WHAT)
With your vision, you start to brainstorm. How to go there, what’s the rating of the restaurant, are there any bad reviews? What time should you go? Etc. (Beginning of the HOW phase)
Once you brainstormed several ideas, you’re likely to organize the thoughts and the ideas you just generated. “Once you’ve generated various thoughts relevant to the outcome, your mind will automatically begin to sort them by components (subprojects), priorities, and/or sequences of events.” (Still in the HOW phase)
Finally, you identify the next action that you need to take. Maybe you want to connect first on the internet, and then check on Google Map where the place is located.
Respect a few principles
As you’re planning something, be clear on the purpose. Ask yourself why. Clarity is power. And the more you ask why, the more it will motivate you. Be as clear and as specific as possible.
There are always two steps in every creation. First, it’s in your mind, and then it manifests in the physical world.
“Be clear of what success would look, sound, and feel like”.
Top athletes and high performers all highlighted the power of visualization. “Something automatic and extraordinary happens in your mind when you create and focus on a clear picture of what you want.”
Oftentimes, you’ll need to make it up in your mind before you can manifest it in your life. Take some time to visualize the outcome.
When you brainstorm, you can also use a mind-map. Read my article on mind map as it’s one of the best ways to capture your ideas.
Part 2: Practicing Stress-Free Productivity
From Chapter 4 until chapter 9, we will give you tips, tricks and methods to clear your head and to decide which action to take for the best outcome.
4- Getting Started: Setting Up the Time, Space, and Tools
While we’ve seen mostly theories and conceptual framework in part 1, Part 2 will be more about full implementation and best practices.
The GTD method requires step-by-step procedures and logical sequences of things to follow.
It’s all a matter of tricks. You can implement the GTD method without fully following all the steps described here. Yet, you’ll discover some tips that will help you gain more control of your life.
The high performance people are those who implemented the best tricks to many areas in their lives.
For example, you want to do the groceries tomorrow so you put a big grocery bag in front of the door. As you have many preoccupations, you’re unlikely to remember it the next day. Only the day after, as you’re about to leave your house, you see the grocery bag and suddenly remember that you actually have to do the groceries. That’s one trick. It allows you to switch certain actions into an auto-pilot mode. You free your intelligent self and rely on your non-intelligent self.
David Allen puts it this way: “The smart part of you the night before knows that the not-so-smart part of you first thing in the morning may barely be conscious. “What’s this in front of the door!? Oh, that’s right, I’ve got to take this with me!”
Setting aside the time
Preferably, you can block one hour or two to initialize the process. David Allen maintains that most people usually take two whole days to implement the whole system.
“Implementing the full collection process can take up to six hours or more, and processing and deciding on actions for all the input you’ll want to externalize and capture into your system can easily take another eight hours.”
Two days can be a bit long but the results in terms of productivity will be worth it. The Pareto Law states that 20% of the cause can create 80% of the effect. The power law even says that a minimal cause can produce hundred, thousand times the results. Those two days might change your life.
Read my article “Atomic habits” by James Clear to know more about the Pareto Law and the Power Law
Setting up the space
It can be a desk or an office space where you can set up your work. All you need to start is a writing surface and a container (room for an in-basket).
A dedicated space is critical, don’t just improvise. At the same time, you’ll probably need a work space both at home and at work and preferably when you transit (for people who travel a lot).
For married couples, David Allen recommends having one’s own space and not to share it with one’s spouse or husband.
Getting the tools
To implement the Getting things done system, you’ll need some basic processing tools including:
- Paper-holding trays (at least three)
- A stack of plain letter-size paper
- A pen/pencil
- Post-its (3×3s)
- Paper clips
- Binder clips
- A stapler and staples
- File folders
- A calendar
- Wastebasket/recycling bins
5- Getting things done: Collection
It’s about corralling your “stuff”. This chapter talks about how to deal with all of your incompletes. At the end, you’ll get all of your “stuff” into one place, into “in”.
This is a critical step if you want to get the mind like a water state.
In your office
Start with your desktop and pile everything on your desk into your basket/container. Next would be the desk drawers, the countertops, inside the cabinets, shelves etc…
In your mind
You just collected all of the material things that need to be processed. It’s now time to empty your psychic RAM. “What has your attention that isn’t represented by something already in your in-basket?”
Write down each thought, each idea, each project or thing that has your attention on a separate sheet of paper.
To scan everything in different areas, you can use the following trigger list:
Professional: Projects started, not completed Projects that need to be started; Commitments/promises to others, Communications to make/get, Other writing to finish/submit, Meetings that need to be set/requested, planning/organizing, banks, administration…
Personal: Projects started, not completed; Projects that need to be started; Commitments/promises to others; Upcoming events; Home/household; Health care
You see, the idea really is to empty your head of everything. It’s a non-exhaustive list and you can create your own over time.
6- Getting things done: Processing
Get “In” to Empty. At the end of this step, you’ll have:
- trashed what you don’t need;
- completed any less-than-two-minute actions;
- handed off to others anything that can be delegated;
- sorted into your own organizing system reminders of actions that require more than two minutes;
- identified any larger commitments (projects) you now have, based on the input.
- Process the top item first.
- Process one item at a time.
- Never put anything back into “in.”
7- Getting things done: Organizing
Set up the right buckets. It consists of establishing the right categories.
“There are seven primary types of things that you’ll want to keep track of and manage from an organizational perspective”:
- A “Projects” list
- Project support material
- Calendared actions and information
- “Next Actions” lists
- A “Waiting For” list (To make progress in a project, who are you waiting for, which tasks need to be done before carrying on?)
- Reference material (Information that you want to keep in case you’ll need it in the future)
- A “Someday/Maybe” list (things to buy, hobbies to take up, skills to learn …)
8- Getting things done: Reviewing
Keep your system functional. This step ensures that the system works well. You’ll have to review the system on a regular basis.
For instance, you’ll have to review your calendar and your action lists every hour. You do this to remind you of the tasks ahead and not to miss anything important.
Make a weekly review of the whole system. Once again, you’ll need to empty your head and go through the five phases of workflow management (collecting, processing, organizing, and reviewing).
9- Getting things done: Doing
It’s about making the right and the best action choices.
In chapter 2, we talked about the four criteria model for choosing actions at the moment.
You make your action choices based on the following four criteria:
- Time available
- Energy available
But mostly, you have to trust your gut and your intuition to decide what to do at any given point.
10- Getting Projects under Control
From chapter 4 until chapter 9, David Allen shared tips and strategies to handle the horizontal landscape of your life. Those are the tasks that capture your immediate attention.
The vertical approach though digs deeper in your environment. That’s why we need to refine project planning.
“You need to set up systems and tricks that get you to think about your projects and situations more frequently, more easily, and in more depth.”
As we’ve seen earlier, the Getting things done by David Allen is a method that recommends a natural, informal planning process. What follows are tips to facilitate its implementation.
Which Projects Should You Be Planning?
“There are two types of projects that deserve at least some sort of planning activity:
(1) Those that still have your attention even after you’ve determined their next actions, and
(2) Those about which potentially useful ideas and supportive detail just show up”
The ones that need planning
For this kind of project, you’ll need a more detailed approach. Determining the next actions won’t be enough so it’s better to go through the four phases of the natural planning model (purpose, vision/outcome, brainstorming, organizing).
The second type of project
These are the projects that could be potentially useful. Oftentimes, we have ideas that pop out but we can’t work on them right away as the place is inappropriate. For example, you’re in the middle of a work out and suddenly think of a better way to be productive at work. Or maybe you’re cooking pasta and suddenly remember tips to get a better rank on search engines. These projects need to be captured first and organized later when the time is more appropriate.
To capture and get your projects under control, you can use different writing and thinking tools such as paper and pads, easels and whiteboards or just use a computer with a word processor. There are also apps and software available.
Part 3: The Power of the Key Principles
11- The Power of the Collection Habit
The Getting things done method is composed of simple techniques and models that will revolutionize your life. We talked a lot about productivity but implementing the GTD method will also spill over into other areas of your life.
It will not only make you more efficient, but in the long term, people will trust you more. You’ll be known as a person who gets things done. By honoring your commitments, your collaborators will begin “to trust you in a unique way”.
“It noticeably enhances your mental well-being and improves the quality of your communications and relationships, both personally and professionally.”
Now that people trust you more, there is one last thing that you need to handle: preventing broken agreements with yourself. When we break agreements, it creates a lot of frustrations and negative feelings.
To respect our words and live up to the commitments we made, there are 3 choices possible:
- Don’t make the agreement.
- Complete the agreement.
- Renegotiate the agreement.
You will need to learn how to say no without feeling guilty
12- The Power of the Next-Action Decision
There is one key that will greatly enhance your productivity. Get a habit of asking “what’s the next action?”
In decades of research, David Allen found out that this technique “never fails to greatly improve both the productivity and the peace of mind of the user”.
“Employing the next-action decision-making results in clarity, productivity, accountability, and empowerment”
He learned that from his mentor and friend Dean Acheson. Dean is a management-consultant and he used this technique for over thirty years. “The results were so immediate and so profound that Dean continued for years to perfect a methodology using that same question (what’s the next action) to process the in-basket.”
“When a culture adopts “What’s the next action?” as a standard operating query, there’s an automatic increase in energy, productivity, clarity, and focus.”
When you have a task, a project or an idea, always ask yourself “what’s the next action to be taken”. It will quickly clarify things.
13- The Power of Outcome Focusing
Should you really believe in the power of mental and imagination? If you direct your mental and imaginative processes, would they manifest your desires? According to David Allen, the answer is a resounding yes. We can produce what we want to have with less effort.
The Getting Things done method not only gets your personal productivity go through the roof; it also makes you more conscious, more focused to achieve whatever you set your mind to.
David Allen’s friend; Steven Snyder is an expert in whole-brain learning. According to Snyder, there are only two problems in life:
(1)”You know what you want, and you don’t know how to get it; and/or
(2) “You don’t know what you want.”
To these two truisms, David Allen recommends two solutions:
1- Make it up
2- Make it happen
Master the mundane
The GTD method is composed of tedious steps and boring tasks. That’s why David Allen calls it “master the mundane”. It might be boring to work through all the papers, what to do with them, should we take actions now or delegate; that’s understandable.
But think about the other side, you will feel much more relaxed after. “You will know the release and relief and freedom that sit on the other side of dealing with these things”. It’s not boring, it’s a great work to do.
“What’s unique about the practical focus of Getting Things Done is the combination of effectiveness and efficiency that these methods can bring to every level of your reality.”
Summary: The 5 steps you need to follow
To sum up:
– It’s important to write down everything you want to do or just anything that crosses your mind.
– Above all, it’s crucial to get everything out of our mind and put it into a system: the getting things done system.
To do that you have to:
Collect everything: Whenever a thought crosses your mind, write it down, record it depending on the type of container you use. It can be as simple as a notebook, an application, just anything that helps you get more organized. What you don’t want to do is to say: “I will add it later”. Remember that your mind doesn’t have an innate intelligence, you will forget that task later.
Process: You’ll need to decide what to do with the task. You might want to trash what you don’t need. Complete the task if it takes less than 2 minutes (this simple tip changed my life, highly recommended!), delegate, put it in your agenda etc…
Organize: Sort out which actions need to go to which category, under which priority. You also may want to include a task in your someday list.
Review: Keep your system functional: It includes reviewing your to-do-list and scan through all the other ongoing projects. The key is to review your system on a weekly basis.
Do: Make the best action choices: you are supposed to intuitively know which task to work on next. It depends on the context, the time available, the energy available and the priority. Remember: “The difference between what you want and where you are is called action, take action now.”
Getting things done by David Allen is a very good read and remains an essential reference in terms of organization and working methods.
It will help you learn how to organize yourself using simple lists and structures.
I believe it is a powerful and reliable system because it frees our mind for a long list that we often carry in our heads. In the end, you’ll become less stressed out and more motivated to get things done.
The results are immediate when we follow the principles: peace of mind and clarity on what to do next.
I found some repetitions in the book and think that it could’ve been shorter, especially at the end. But overall, there are reasons why it’s arguably one the most popular time management books ever.
It leads us to reflect on our own life, to eventually adjust and change our habits.
“If it was a life-changing book to me” you might ask? Definitely yes!