Getting Things Done by David Allen: Summary & Notes

Front cover of Getting Things Done by David Allen.

In short

Getting Things Done is the classic book on personal productivity with advice on how to organize yourself, your tasks and your workflow. While it does contain a lot of good information, it unfortunately suffers from the same fault as many books in this genre: it’s too long and repetitive, and could have used a cut of (at least) 100 pages. So useful as a general guide, but feel free to skim a large part of it.

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Book Summary & Notes

All text between quotation marks is taken directly from the book.

The two key objectives of Allen’s methods:

  1. “Capturing all the things that need to get done – now, later, someday, big, little, or in between – into a logical and trusted system outside of your head and off your mind”
  2. “Disciplining yourself to make front-end decisions about all of the “inputs” you let into your life so that you will always have a plan for “next actions” that you can implement or renegotiate at any moment.”

Stress comes from unmanaged or mismanaged commitments that people accept. We all make a lot of agreements with ourselves that Allen calls open loops: “anything pulling at your attention that doesn’t belong where it is, the way it is”

How to manage commitments:

  • “If It’s on your mind, your mind isn’t clear”, everything needs to be recorded in a system outside your mind – somewhere that you’ll come back to to frequently.
  • “You must clarify exactly what your commitment is and decide what you have to do”.
  • One you know what to do, you have to set reminders in systems that you frequently review.

Commitments and actions need to be managed horizontally and vertically. Horizontally means across all the different things you’re involved in, vertically is more like project planning: the individual steps and actions for each topic or project.

Five-stage method for managing workflow:

“We (1) collect things that command our attention; (2) process what they mean and what to do about them; and (3) organize the results, which we (4) review as options for what we choose to (5) do. This constitutes the management of “horizontal” aspects of our lives – incorporating everything that has our attention at any time.”

To make anything happen follow the same five steps (the planning scale) as your brain does when it needs to accomplish something: “1. Defining purpose and principles, 2) Outcome visioning, 3) Brainstorming, 4) Organizing, 5) Identifying next steps”

The important thing when brainstorming is to get things out of your head and into something that’s easily reviewable (i.e. index cards, paper, or an app). Allen calls this distributed cognition, and not only can it help capture ideas, it helps to generate new ones as well.

If something is not clear enough, Allen recommends to change your thinking up the planning scale: from action to organizing things first, from organizing to new idea generation (brainstorming), et cetera.

Once you know what to do, you need to get it done. There are three options about what you really need to do:

  • “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.”

Keeping track of things

To keep track of things, Allen recommends to separate these things into seven categories that need to be managed: “A “Projects” list, Project support material, Calendared actions and information, “Next Actions” lists, A “Waiting For” list, Reference material, A “Someday/Maybe” list.” Each category is unique and cannot overlap with others, in order to avoid confusion and double work/thinking.

It’s also a good idea to collect to-dos in buckets: for example calls, at the office, at home, making agendas, reading, reviewing, et cetera. This way you can batch actions which is more time efficient because it usually takes some energy and time to get out of one behavior and into the next (i.e. from making calls to start reviewing).

To keep your workflow system up to date a weekly review can be very useful. In this review, you can go through the workflow steps (from collecting, processing, organizing, and reviewing) to clear out any papers, notes, updating calendars, reviewing to do lists & waiting for lists.

Doing the work

How to choose which action to do at the current moment? It should be based on four criteria: context (do you have all the requirements available?), time available (do you have enough time to complete the action?), energy available (different tasks require different energy levels, physical or mental), and prioritization (what is the most important thing to do).

In your daily work, you are engaged in one of three activities: “doing predefined work, doing work as it shows up, defining your work.” Most people spend most of their time on the second task, while focus lacks in doing predefined work or defining the work – which are critical if you want to accomplish a goal.

“You must learn to dance among many tasks to keep a healthy balance of your workflow. Your choices will still have to be calibrated against your own clarity about the nature and goals of your work. Your ability to deal with surprise is your competitive edge. But at a certain point, if you’re not catching up and getting things under control, staying busy with only the work at hand will undermine your effectiveness. And ultimately, in order to know whether you should stop what you’re doing and do something else, you’ll need to have a good sense of what your job requires and how that fits into the other contexts of your life. The only way you can have that is to evaluate your life and work appropriately at multiple horizons.”

“Getting things done, and feeling good about it, means being willing to recognize, acknowledge, and appropriately manage all the things that have your consciousness engaged. Mastering the art of stress-free productivity requires it.”

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