Josh Kaufman

Bestselling Author, Business & Self-Education

Getting Things Done - David Allen

This post contains my personal notes about the big ideas in David Allen’s Getting Things Done. My book notes are different from many of the book summaries you’ll find on the web. Instead of following the structure of the book in question, we’ll isolate and examine the key ideas and themes that make the book useful. Along the way, I’ll tell you how I actually apply the ideas. Enjoy!

If you’re ready to stop stressing and start accomplishing your goals, David Allen’s Getting Things Done can help you create a simple, effective personal productivity system.

About David Allen

David Allen is the author of the Personal MBA-recommended book Getting Things Done , as well as Ready For Anything , and Making It All Work. For more information about his work, check out the David Allen’s website.

Here are 10 big ideas from David Allen’s Getting Things Done

1. If your day-to-day life is out of control, it’s almost impossible to think strategically or plan effectively.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed about how much you have to do (and who isn’t, really?), it’s difficult to focus on ensuring your life and work is moving in the direction you want to go. That’s why it’s important to get control of your daily tasks before working on your big-picture life planning.

GTD is a “bottom-up" approach to productivity. The goal is to establish a sense of comfort and control over the work that’s on your plate right now, so you can free up some mental energy and space to think about the big stuff.

2. Define what being “done" looks like.

Most of the tasks people keep on their to-do lists are “amorphous blobs of undoability" - commitments without any clear vision of what being “done" looks like. That’s a huge problem - your brain is naturally designed to help you figure out how to do things, but only if you know what the end point looks like.

Everything you’re working on should have a very clear stopping point - a point where you know you’re done. If you don’t know what that point looks like, you’ll find it very difficult to make any progress at all. When you’re having trouble making progress, first clarify what being done looks like.

3. Mental work has five distinct phases: Collect, Process, Organize, Do, and Review

Not all work is the same. There are five separate phases of effective work:

  • Collecting is the act of gathering inputs: resources, knowledge, and tasks. You’ll have a much easier time making use of your available inputs if they’re all in one place before you begin.
  • Processing is the act of examining your inputs: what you can do with the resources at your disposal. This is where you start separating things according to what you’re planning to do next: tasks, projects, future plans, and reference information.
  • Organizing means taking the results of your processing and putting it in a system you trust, so you don’t have to remember it all. Tasks go on your to-do list, projects go on a projects list, future plans go into a tracking system, and reference information goes into a file or database you can access easily.
  • Doing means working through the tasks you can accomplish right now.
  • Reviewing means examining the results of your work, revising your strategy, and improving your systems for better results.

Keep the phases deliberately separate, and you’ll get a lot more done.

4. Get everything out of your head.

Many people try to keep track of everything they need to do in their mind, which is a big mistake. Our brains are optimized for fast decision-making, not storage. Trying to juggle too many things in your head at the same time is a major reason we get stressed out when there’s a lot going on: we’re using the wrong tool for the job.

The best way to stop mentally thrashing and start being productive is to spend a few minutes putting everything on your mind onto paper. You can write or draw - whatever works for you, as long as you can see it when you’re done. Once the information is out of your head, it’s far easier to figure out what to do with it. Even 10 minutes of Externalization can help you feel less freaked out about your workload.

Of course, it’s better not to be freaked out in the first place, so make it easy to capture what you’re thinking on paper. I carry a wallet that has a space for 3x5 index cards and a pen - whenever I have an idea, it’s easy to capture it, even if I don’t have my notebook or computer with me at the time. If you reduce the Friction you experience when capturing ideas, you’ll naturally capture more of them.

5. Projects and tasks are two different things: track them separately.

A major mistake that most people make when keeping track of things to do is conflating tasks and projects. That’s a good way to feel overwhelmed fast - many things can’t be accomplished in one sitting.

For example, I just finished the book I’ve been writing for a little over a year. If I had “write the book" on my to-do list, I’d quickly be overwhelmed - the project was just too big. Instead of “failing" to accomplish that to-do for a year, it’s far better to treat it as a project - something that takes more than one task to accomplish. I can’t “write the book," but I can complete a small section of the book in one sitting.

Since projects and tasks are two different things, it’s best to keep track of them separately. Personally, I carry a small notebook with me to record active tasks with 3x5 index card inside that lists my active projects. The index card is just the right size to list 4-8 active projects - if I have more than that, I know I’m spreading myself too thin.

6. Focus on the Next Action required to move forward.

Big projects have many steps, and can be overwhelming in their complexity. The key to handling these projects is not to focus on everything that has to be done - that’s a great way to freak yourself out.

Instead, just focus on the very next physical action you need to do to move the project forward. It may be looking up a piece of information, making a phone call, or accomplishing a small task. Whatever it is, it’ll move you closer to completing the project, so don’t worry about everything else - focus only on what you can do right now.

7. Use the “2 Minute Rule" for small tasks.

Don’t worry about tracking small tasks - if you can accomplish the task in less than two minutes, just do it! Writing down every little thing you have to do takes more time than it’s worth - if you need to send a 30-second reminder e-mail to someone, there’s no sense in taking 20 seconds to write it down when you could just get er done.

Personally, I expand this to 5 minutes - the principle is the same. Your goal is to get things done, not to flawlessly capture each and every little thing in your perfectly designed system.

8. Use Reference and Someday/Maybe files for things that have no immediate next actions.

There’s no sense in keeping FYI or long-term dreams in your active daily task tracking system. Reference files are great for storing information you don’t have to act on right now. These files can either be physical or electronic - for example, I keep important paperwork and legal documents in a fire-proof safe, and electronic files and websites in a file on my computer or in Evernote.

Someday/Maybe lists are great for deferring ideas that you’d like to work on someday, but you’re not committing to right now. I have ideas about fun new things do to every day - way more than I have time or energy for. Instead of losing these ideas, it’s far better to capture them in a reference file you can look through later, when you have more capacity. When you’re ready to commit to a new project, the someday/maybe gets promoted to an active project.

9. Build a trusted system that helps you keep track of your commitments.

Your mind keeps things in working memory if it thinks you’ll lose them if it doesn’t. That’s why building a productivity system is important - it helps your mind let go of tracking unnecessary details so you can focus on the task at hand. That’s why Externalization works - when you put something on paper in a place you know you’ll be able to find later, you’re freeing mental resources that can be put to better use elsewhere.

An effective productivity system consists of the following:

  • A list of active tasks - next actions you’ve committed to accomplishing in the next few days.
  • A list of active projects - 4-20 project you’ve committed to accomplishing in the next few weeks.
  • A calendar - commitments to meet with other people in the near future.
  • A someday/maybe list - ideas you’d like to explore, but not right now.
  • Reference files - information or documents you’ll need to refer to in the future.
  • A capture device - some way of capturing ideas or next actions as you think of them.

That’s it, really - you can use any number of tools for the above, as long as they cover those basic needs. Personally, I use a notebook for active tasks, a 3x5 index card in that notebook for projects, the calendar on my computer, someday/maybe and reference files in Backpack and Evernote or physical files, and my 3x5-sized wallet for my capture device.

10. Schedule non-negotiable time for a Weekly Review.

Life moves fast - we often have so much to do that’s it’s difficult to take a step back and examine whether or not we’re getting the results we want. That’s why it’s extremely important to schedule some time each week to do a “Weekly Review."

Here are a few things you should include in your weekly review:

  • Process and organize - anything you’ve collected but haven’t handled yet.
  • Review your active tasks - are there any to add, delegate, defer, or delete?
  • Review your active projects - are there any to add, delegate, defer, or delete?
  • Review your calendar - are there any meetings to add, delegate, defer, or delete?
  • Someday/Maybe - anything to add or promote to an active project?
  • Reference Files - anything you need soon? Anything to add or update?
  • Goals - are you moving in the right direction? Are you making progress? Are any changes necessary?

Don’t skip this review - it’s extremely important if you want to decrease your stress levels. Personally, I find it best to schedule my review for the end of the week: Friday afternoon or Saturday morning. It’s a great way to wrap up the week, feel good about what you’ve accomplished, plan for the next week, and set yourself up for a relaxing weekend.

Developing an effective personal productivity system takes time and experimentation.

Many people get frustrated when adopting GTD because it takes so long to get everything under control. Cut yourself some slack: GTD is a collection of habits, and habits take time to develop. Instead of trying to install everything at once, work on improving in one of these areas until it’s effortless, then focus on installing the next habit. In time, you’ll master them all.

Also remember that the goal of GTD is to make it easier to do work that matters - not procrastinating by endlessly improving your system instead of doing productive work. Try to avoid succumbing to “productivity porn" - experiment constantly, but remember that the most effective systems have the same thing in common: they’re usually the simplest thing that could possibly work. When in doubt, err on the side of doing less.

Published: June 25, 2010 Last updated: June 25, 2010

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