Book Summary — Getting Things Done by David Allen.

Written by on 27.07.2016

Getting Things Done

The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

by David Allen

In Getting Things Done, David Allen introduces his famous productivity system aimed at helping people work on multiple projects at once – and to do so with confidence, clear objectives and a sense of control.

The Getting Things Done method has been specially designed to make it easier for you to work effectively and enjoy life in the meantime.

Learn how to Get Things Done without losing your cool.

Built on simple concepts such as outcome thinking and defining your next actions, the Getting Things Done (GTD) method can be used to plan projects of all shapes and sizes. Whether you’re organizing a work presentation or buying Christmas presents for everyone in your family, the GTD philosophy forces you to start by identifying a clear goal and then continuously asking yourself: What’s the next concrete action I can take to come closer to achieving my goal?

Therein lies the true art of getting things done: by keeping every task small enough that you can take care of it in a short period of time, a lack of time or motivation won’t be able to hinder you from doing what you need to do. And, step by step, this approach will help you work towards achieving all your goals in life and avoid stress along the way.

When you organize your projects using the GTD method, you’ll always be prepared to work on tasks at short notice, regardless of what else is going on or where you are. GTD makes it so easy for you to take the next step that you won’t postpone it.

This book presents a few simple tools you can use to work effectively and keep a cool head at the same time, and talks about what kind of attitude is necessary for putting the GTD philosophy into practice.

You will find the key messages of the book.

Your brain is a thinking tool, not a storage device. In this day and age, to be successful in your work is to be a good organizer. Especially among knowledge workers, whose everyday reality involves juggling dozens of tasks and projects at once.

Almost every minute we’re bombarded by new tasks and to-dos. A typical morning at work might look like this: you’re in the middle of writing a document when an email comes in telling you to update your antivirus software. Just as you’re about to do this, your aunt Sheila calls to say you should RSVP to her wedding, and, as you hang up, your boss marches in demanding you start working on a new document.

In order to keep all the complex information of our lives in check, many of us end up treating our brains like an all-in-one filing cabinet, calendar and to-do list. We misuse our brains by packing them with all different kinds of information as though they were portable data storage devices. When’s aunt Sheila’s wedding again? And where were you in that document before you got interrupted?

By stuffing our heads with information about unfinished assignments, appointments and other miscellaneous obligations, we’re squandering our brains’ capacity to think. And this eventually leads to our inability to concentrate fully on our actual work.


Because, whether we want them to or not, our brains are forever trying to work out our unsolved problems and reminding us about them at the most inopportune moments ­– even if we’d rather deal with them later.

In order to work as efficiently as possible, we have to keep our minds from dwelling on anything unrelated to the task we’re performing at any given moment.

In short, if you want to work efficiently, you should take it one step at a time: use 100 percent of your mind’s capacity to focus on the task at hand. Focus on the work document first, then on aunt Sheila’s wedding gift, or the other way around, but not on both at once.

If you want to think clearly, you need a trusted “collection bucket” outside your mind.

In an ideal world, you’d always be able to focus entirely on whatever you were doing at any given moment, whether you’re writing an email, talking to a colleague or mowing the lawn. You’d always be fully present and focused on just that one thing.

In reality, however, our brains have an irritating way of never quite letting us forget what else we still need to take care of. We all have nagging thoughts like “Remember to buy toilet paper on the way home” and “Pay this month’s electricity bill” even when we’re not in a position to do anything about them.

To make matters more complicated, we’re constantly bombarded with new information that also takes up space in our brains: “Oh, an ad for eco-friendly toilet paper; gotta remember that brand!”

In order to avoid this, you should always use a collection bucket, i.e., a place outside your mind where you can deposit any piece of information or idea that’s bound to distract you. With a receptacle like this, you’ll know exactly where you can find the information later on when you have time to deal with it.

This means if you’re writing a work email when you remember you should pay the electricity bill, you can just jot the task down on a piece of paper and keep focusing on your work. Or if someone brings in an invoice, you can plop it in a physical inbox. This way those tasks will have been duly noted, but they won’t distract you in the moment.

Your collection bucket can take on various forms: notebooks, lists on your computer or even physical boxes where you can put objects and papers. You can also use a combination of these tools, as long as this doesn’t muddle things up more. In other words: keep it simple.

The key here is to have your collection bucket(s) close by so it’s easy to call up the information they contain.

Take out the trash – empty all your external collection buckets weekly.

Having reliable external collection buckets frees up your mind so you can concentrate fully on your actual work. This system allows the mind to rest assured that it won’t lose or misplace any important information.

However, the system only serves its purpose when you make sure to process and clean out the contents of your collection buckets on a regular basis.

If your collection buckets aren’t up to date, they’re no longer reliable, and your brain will begin to distrust them. Once that happens, your subconscious mind will start being distracted by unsolved problems and unfinished tasks again: “Are you totally sure you shouldn’t pay that invoice now so you don’t forget?”

To prevent your brain from losing faith in your collection buckets, you should make a habit of completely emptying all of them once a week.

This doesn’t mean you have to cross everything off your list right then and there; all you have to do is look closely at what needs to be done and put things in order. Here are some guidelines to abide by:

  • If, upon review, the item is unimportant, take it off the list immediately (or, if it’s a physical reminder you intended to follow up, throw it away).
  • If you can take care of it very quickly (e.g., in two minutes or less), do it immediately.
  • If it’s important information, file it away in the correct place.
  • If it’s an appointment, project or concrete task, transfer it to the appropriate list (see next chapter for details).

Going through this procedure regularly (ideally once a week) is the only way to guarantee reliable, stress-free productivity.

When emptying your collection buckets, put your “stuff” away in the right places.

External collection buckets are ideal for collecting all the “stuff” you don’t want in your head.

If you put all the things that catch your attention and distract you into one reliable collection bucket outside your mind, you know they’re in a safe place so you can come back to them later. That way, as you’re amassing stuff, you don’t have to classify and store it in a particular category at the time.

It’s only when you empty your external collection buckets each week that you have to make decisions: What kind of stuff do I have? What should I do with it?

Most to-do lists tend not to work because they become a hodgepodge of tasks, thoughts and information. In theory, we should take pains to include only concrete, practicable tasks on these lists, but in reality we write down projects, appointments, tasks and bits of information without distinguishing between them – which makes it too easy to lose track of the individual actionable tasks.

When you organize the items in your collection bucket, you should do the following:

  • As discussed before: remove anything unimportant, take care of small tasks immediately and put appointments or deadlines into your calendar.
  • If it’s a complex activity (i.e., if it requires more than one concrete task), turn it into a project with a clear goal.
  • All other tasks should end up on a “Next Actions” list.

But before we go into more detail about a “Next Actions” list, let’s take a quick detour to see what your “Projects” list should look like.

A “Projects” list provides an overview of all your current projects.

Projects are a key component of every productivity system. Allen defines a project as a desired result that necessitates taking more than one action step. Hence, writing one email is not a project, but organizing a meeting or planning a vacation is.

In order to define a project, you have to think about results: How will your world look when the project is finished? How can you describe the intended result in one sentence? For example, you could say: “When this project is done, my boss will be convinced that we need to hire two new employees to support me” or “When this project is done, I will have booked all the flights and accommodations for my vacation.”

Outcome thinking makes it a lot easier to formulate the concrete tasks that will bring you closer to achieving the goal of your project. It’s one of the most important tools that will aid you in realizing your dreams.

Once a project is identified by its desired result, it must be stored on the “Projects” list, which should be reviewed and updated regularly. The “Projects” list is where you should notate all projects that need to be completed in the near future.

The point of this list is to help you keep track of all your current projects. Everything you want to change in your world at the moment should be on this list.

When we know that such a list exists, we feel a sense of control, which helps us boost our productivity and relax at the same time.

During your weekly update of the list, you should always make sure that every project has a next task that finds its way onto the “Next Actions” list, because concrete tasks are what make it possible to achieve every goal.

Instead of keeping a daily to-do list, try a calendar and “Next Actions” lists.

Daily to-do lists are inefficient not only because of their often imprecise nature but also because they provide a warped view of time. They delude you into believing that you could actually know in advance what you’re capable of completing in a given day. Hence, they lead to unrealistic planning, frustration and time wasted working on something that was doomed to fail before you started.

A far more effective method is to work with a calendar and one or multiple “Next Actions” lists. The calendar serves only one purpose: to keep appointments. You should treat it as a holy territory that provides a fixed structure for planning the rest of your activities. Anything bound to a certain day or hour – like a meeting or a doctor’s appointment – should be on it.

All other tasks or concrete actions should be put onto your “Next Actions” list. This list lets you decide quickly what task is the most urgent whenever you have time to take care of something.

Regardless of where you are, you should always have your “Next Actions” list on your person. This will give you the flexibility to choose which task it makes the most sense to tackle next.

When it’s time to choose, you should always listen to your gut. If you’ve planned and pre-selected your tasks well, you shouldn’t have too much trouble deciding which one it makes the most sense to perform. Imagine you’re at the airport and your flight is delayed for an hour. In this situation, ask yourself,

  • Which task can I accomplish in my current situation?
  • Which task can I finish in the time available?
  • Which task do I have enough energy for at the moment?
  • Which has the highest priority?

Depending on the number of tasks you have on the list, sometimes it makes sense to have multiple “Next Actions” lists and distinguish them according to the context (e.g., “on the phone” or “on the computer”). If you sort out your tasks by place, you’ll know what you can do when at your desk, at a meeting or while waiting at the airport.

“Waiting For” lists can be very helpful when you work with other people.

All current projects should be listed on the “Projects” list. When using the “Next Actions” list, you can ensure that you’re consistently working on tasks that are taking your projects closer to their conclusion one at a time.

More often than not, you also need to rely on other people who are responsible for other parts of each project. For example, you may need to wait for input from a colleague for your presentation or hear back from a hotel regarding room availability. This doesn’t mean, however, that you have to relinquish all control over the progress of any of your projects.

Whenever you’re dependent on other people’s work – e.g., you’re waiting for your colleague to send you some data for your presentation – it’s worth keeping a “Waiting For” list. This is where you note everything that other people have to deliver to you, along with their deadlines.

If you review and update this list each week, you will notice when someone hasn’t kept his or her promise to take care of a certain task within a certain period of time. In this case, you now have a new concrete task: you must remind that person. This reminder could take the form on an email, a short phone call or you swinging by your colleague’s office to gently remind her about the data she was supposed to send.

If doing so would take less than two minutes, do it immediately. If not, write it on the “Next Actions” list (or on one of your more specific context lists), so you can give that colleague a friendly reminder that you’re still waiting for their report.

Save day-specific information on your calendar or in a tickler file.

Although you can plan a whole lot in advance, sometimes you have to wait on certain information before you can turn items in your collection bucket into concrete tasks or appointments.

For example, when there’s a trade show you’re interested in, you might want to wait to see who’s exhibiting there before you know whether it makes sense to go or not. And, if you’re not privy to such information in advance, you’re best off shelving the decision.

In these cases, when we have no choice but to plan things at the last minute, the following strategies come in handy:

Write yourself reminders on certain days on your calendar. This way, you know you’ll have to make a decision soon (e.g., about attending the trade show).

Keep a tickler file, which can help you access the information you need at the right moment.

The tickler file is a very precise and logical system. It’s made up of 43 files: 31 for the next 31 days and 12 for the next 12 months. As you reach the threshold of the first month folder, you transfer the notes from there into the 31 daily folders. The idea is that every day you can check the documents, reminders or items you “sent” yourself for that specific day in the future.

The tricky part – and the crux – of this system is that you must use and update it religiously; i.e., every day.

All ideas with potential future relevance should be put onto a “Someday/Maybe” list.

Another important component of the GTD method is the so-called “Someday/Maybe” list.

So what goes onto this list? Simply put, everything that doesn’t qualify for the “Next Actions” or “Projects” lists but shouldn’t be buzzing around in your head either. The “Someday/Maybe” list contains all things you haven’t been able to translate into concrete ideas or tasks just yet.

Even though the name might make it sound like a list of less important things, don’t underestimate the advantages of the “Someday/Maybe” list. It helps you keep track of project ideas that might be extremely important in the future.

The “Someday/Maybe” list can also be split into sub-lists where you can keep ideas about your personal interests, such as

  • Trips I’d like to take
  • Wines I’d like to taste
  • Music I’d like to listen to

Similar to the “Next Actions” lists, these lists help you locate the right information at the right time. After all, lists are generally a whole lot more dependable than your own memory.

As with all of the GTD lists, the “Someday/Maybe” list has to be reviewed and updated regularly if you want to make effective use of it.

A structured workplace and a weekly review of your system are indispensable for working productivity.

Setting up a workplace for yourself where all relevant materials are available is a must. By doing so, you create a cockpit of control where you always feel comfortable working.

For many of us, it’s also important to have a functional mobile system so that we can access our information wherever we happen to be. That’s why it’s extremely important to create a system of lists and files you can take with you anywhere you go, so that you can be productive even if you’re stuck in an airport or a snowstorm.

In addition to emptying your collection buckets once a week, you should be reviewing and updating all the lists in your productivity system just as often.

The goal of the GTD method is to feel relaxed and in control of all your current projects: to keep track of them and make sure that they are moving forward.

It’s essential that your productivity system is up-to-date and complete at all times. Your mind will only be at ease and able to concentrate fully on the task at hand if you trust your system.

By reviewing all your lists weekly, you’ll make sure that your system stays functional – each current project should be associated with at least one “Next Action” on an up-to-date, easy-to-find list. You will also have a bird’s-eye view of everything that’s going on. Reviewing helps you see the forest without losing sight of the trees.

The amount of time you spend on your weekly review depends on how much time you need in order to feel safe and trust your system.

It’s a good idea to plan your weekly review on, say, a Friday afternoon. This will allow you to close up shop for the weekend with a clear head and a sense of control.

Natural planning clarifies the goals and next concrete steps of your projects.

In general, project planning is a pretty unnatural and illogical process. The aim is to think out and schedule all the steps in advance, but you may not even have a clear goal in mind yet. Enter the natural planning method, which mirrors the way you perform your everyday actions.

An example of an everyday action might unfold like this: you feel hungry, and so you form a vague goal (“I gotta eat something”), and then specify it (“I’m craving pizza”), at which point a couple of ideas pop into your head about how to achieve this goal (“I can either bake a pizza myself, order in, or go to a restaurant”). Whatever steps you need to take in between become self-evident.

Now apply this way of thinking to your real projects: begin by identifying your goal as precisely as possible (note that it never hurts to invest time in addressing your goal because all the actions that follow will depend on that). Once the goal is clear, let your mind automatically start to brainstorm. This is how you’ll come up with ideas for the steps you need to take in order to come closer to achieving your goal. It’s a good idea to brainstorm “externally”; e.g., write down and store your ideas on paper.

As soon as you’ve collected all your ideas, you should organize and group them, and then figure out the concrete actions necessary for bringing your project closer to its goal.

In this way, natural planning not only creates more clarity for people in their work, but it’s also fun, quick and intuitive.

Final Chapter

In order to devote ourselves fully to our tasks, our minds need space. That’s why we should bundle all important information in a reliable productivity system outside our own heads.

This book answered the following questions:

What do you need to do to work effectively with a clear head?

  • Use your brain for thinking and leave information storage to external collection buckets, like notebooks and physical inboxes. * This way, you don’t need to worry about all the tasks and ideas that pop in your head throughout the day.

What simple tools make up the GTD method?

Implement a rigorous data management system where you have separate lists for projects with clearly defined outcomes, next actions and things that you might be interested in later on. Use your calendar or a separate “tickler” file to store ideas and tasks that are connected to specific days.

What kind of attitude is necessary to put the GTD philosophy into practice?

Use the natural planning method to define the steps you need to take to execute your projects. Start by thinking about the end goal of the project and then let your mind brainstorm all the different steps needed to get there. Jot them down on a piece of paper and organize them so the concrete actions you need to take become clear.


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