Getting Things Done by David Allen: Summary & Notes

Rating: 10/10

Available at: Amazon

Related: Atomic Habits, The Power of Habit


The single best productivity book I have ever read.

This book will teach you how to capture and create action items (aka tasks), organize all your projects and reference information, and keep it up-to-date.

Pair this with Tiago Forte's PARA system, start using progressive summarization, and you'll be in the top 1% of organized people. It will change your life.


Part 1 - The Art of Getting Things Done

1: A New Practice for a New Reality

There are three key objectives:

  1. Capture all the things to get done, or that have usefulness for you, outside your head (and therefore off your mind).
  2. Decide about what "inputs" you allow into your life, which dictate your list of "next actions".
  3. Continue to curate and coordinate all that content, so you can access it at any time.

If it's on your mind, your mind isn't clear. Anything unfinished must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind.

To manage commitments, you need:

  1. A system for capturing anything unfinished.
  2. To clarify what the commitment is, and decide what you have to do to make progress.
  3. To have regular reminders of the things you need to accomplish.

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.

2: Getting Control of Your Life: The Five Steps of Mastering Workflow

The five steps of mastering workflow:

  • (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.

Capture: you need somewhere to put everything (physical tray, digital tool, etc.).

  • Minimize the number of capture locations
  • Empty the capture tools regularly

Clarify: be clear about what is required, and how it's going to get done.

  • Is it actionable?
  • What's the next action?
  • Do it, delegate it, or defer it.

Organize: make sure things are where you expect them to be.

  • For non-action items: trash, incubation, reference.
  • For action items: add to project, a calendar, a list of reminders.

Projects: any desired result that can be accomplished within a year, that requires more than one action step.

  • You should have an index of projects where you capture relevant information and tasks.
  • Your calendar should contain: time-specific actions, day-specific actions, day-specific information.
  • For actions: they should go on a Next Actions list (not your calendar!).

Reflect: step back and review the whole picture of your work and life.

  • You should review your projects, next actions, and inbox once every week.
  • This is critical for success.

Engage: you need to make choices about what actions to pursue next.

  • One model is to choose based on: context, time available, energy available, and priority.

3: Getting Projects Creatively Under Way: The Five Phases of Project Planning

The key ingredients in 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. This is what I call horizontal focus

The Natural Planning Model

  • Your mind goes through five steps to accomplish virtually any task:
  • 1 | Defining purpose and principles
  • 2 | Outcome visioning
  • 3 | Brainstorming
  • 4 | Organizing
  • 5 | Identifying next actions

Natural Planning Is Not Necessarily Normal

  • Have you clarified the primary purpose of the project and communicated it to everyone who ought to know it? And have you agreed on the standards and behaviors you’ll need to adhere to in order to make it successful?
  • Have you envisioned success and considered all the innovative things that might result if you achieved it?
  • Have you gotten all possible ideas out on the table—everything you need to take into consideration that might affect the outcome?
  • Have you identified the mission-critical components, key milestones, and deliverables?
  • Have you defined all the aspects of the project that could be moved on right now, what the next action is for each part, and who’s responsible for what?

Part 2: Practicing Stress-Free Productivity

5: Capturing: Corralling Your “Stuff"

The key processing question: "what's the next action?"

  • If there is no action, it's likely: trash, items to incubate, or reference material.
  • The action step needs to be the absolute next physical thing to do.

If the next action requires less than two minutes, do it right away.

If the next action requires more than two minutes, ask, "Am I the best person to be doing it?" If not, delegate.

7: Organizing: Setting Up the Right Buckets

There are seven primary types of things you'll want to keep track of:

  • A Projects list
  • Project support material
  • Calendar actions and information
  • Next Actions lists
  • A Waiting For list
  • Reference material
  • A Someday/Maybe list

These all need to be kept separate.

The most common categories of action reminders:

  • Calls
  • At Computer
  • Errands
  • At Office (miscellaneous)
  • At Home
  • Anywhere
  • Agendas (for people and meetings)
  • Read/Review

Be careful about dispersing action reminders. You need to make sure all the areas you have them are reviewed regularly.

The Projects List(s)

  • A complete and current Projects list is the major operational tool.
  • 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.

Some Common Ways to Subsort Projects

  • Personal/Professional
  • Delegated Projects: if you're an exec or manager, for example.
  • Specific Types of Projects (example: keynote speaker with many presentations)

8: Reflecting: Keeping It All Fresh and Functional

What Is the Weekly Review?

  • Very simply, the Weekly Review is whatever you need to do to get your head empty again and get oriented for the next couple of weeks. It’s going through the steps of workflow management—capturing, clarifying, organizing, and reviewing all your outstanding commitments, intentions, and inclinations—until you can honestly say, "I absolutely know right now everything I’m not doing but could be doing if I decided to."
  • From a practical standpoint, here is the three-part drill that can get you there: get clear, get current, and get creative.
  • Getting clear will ensure that all your collected stuff is processed.
  • Getting current will ensure that all your orienting “maps" or lists are reviewed and up-to-date.
  • The creative part happens to some degree automatically, as you get clear and current—you will naturally be generating ideas and perspectives that will be adding value to your thinking about work and life.

The Right Time and Place for the Review

  • I recommend that you block out two hours early in the afternoon of your last workday for the review.

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.
  • 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? Are you doing what you really want or need to do, from a deeper and longer-term perspective?

9: Engaging: Making the Best Action Choices

The Six-Level Model for Reviewing Your Own Work

  • The six levels of work may be thought of in terms of altitude, as in the floors of a building:
  • Horizon 5: Life
  • Horizon 4: Long-term visions
  • Horizon 3: One- to two-year goals
  • Horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountability
  • Horizon 1: Current projects
  • Ground: Current actions

It's recommended that you start at the Ground, get your action lists complete, and then work your way up.

10: Getting Projects Under Control

I’ve discovered that the biggest improvement opportunity in planning does not consist of techniques for the highly elaborate and complex kinds of project organizing that professional project managers sometimes use (like Gantt charts).

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.

What Projects Should You Be Planning?

  • There are two types of projects, however, 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 ad hoc.
  • The first type—the projects that you know have other things about them that must be decided on and organized—will need a more detailed approach than just identifying a next action. For these you’ll need a more specific application of one or more of the other four phases of the natural planning model: purpose and principles, vision/outcome, brainstorming, and/or organizing.
  • The second type—the projects for which ideas just show up, ad hoc, when you’re on a beach or in a car or in a meeting—need to have an appropriate place into which these associated ideas can be captured. Then they can reside there for later use as needed.

Tools matter for supporting project thinking. Some tips:

  • Make sure you always have a method of capturing ideas and information on hand.
  • Keep good writing tools around all the time.
  • Have whiteboards around where you can.

Part 3 - The Power of Key Principles

11: The Power of the Capturing Habit

  • When people with whom you interact notice that without fail you receive, process, and organize in an airtight manner the exchanges and agreements they have with you, they begin to trust you in a unique way.
  • More significantly, you incorporate a level of self-confidence in your engagement with your world that money cannot buy.
  • It noticeably enhances your mental well-being and improves the quality of your communications and relationships, both personally and professionally.

How Much Capturing is Required?

  • When will you know how much you have left in your head to capture? Only when there’s nothing left.
  • When the only thing on your mind is the only thing on your mind, you’ll be “present," in your “zone," with no distinction between work and play.
  • This doesn’t mean that your mind will be empty. If you’re conscious, your mind will always be focusing on something. But if it’s focusing on only one thing at a time, without distraction, you’ll be in your “zone."
  • I suggest that you use your mind to think about things, rather than think of them.

12: The Power of the Next-Action Decision

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.

"The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one."—Mark Twain

13: The Power of Outcome Focusing

As Steven Snyder, an expert in whole-brain learning and a friend of mine, put it, "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."

If that's true then there are only two solutions:

  • Make it up.
  • Make it happen.

15: The Path of GTD Mastery

The Three Tiers of Mastery

  • Over the many years of engaging with people who have adopted the GTD methodology, I have noticed generally three stages of maturity they have demonstrated in using the model:
  • 1 | Employing the fundamentals of managing workflow;
  • 2 | Implementing a more elevated and integrated total life management system; and
  • 3 | Leveraging skills to create clear space and get things done for an ever-expansive expression and manifestation.

Mastering the Basics

  • Other basic practices, which, even if implemented initially, easily regress into incomplete, out-of-date, and therefore dysfunctional usage, include:
  • Avoiding next-action decision making on "stuff to do"
  • Fully utilizing the "Waiting For" category, such that every expected deliverable from others is inventoried and reviewed for follow-up in adequate timing
  • Using Agenda lists to capture and manage communications with others
  • Keeping a simple, easily accessible filing and reference system
  • Keeping the calendar as pure "hard landscape" without undermining its trustworthiness with extraneous inputs
  • Doing Weekly Reviews to keep one’s system functional and current

Graduate Level–Integrated Life Management

  • The hallmarks of this next level of maturity with Getting Things Done are:
  • a complete, current, and clear inventory of projects;
  • a working map of one’s roles, accountabilities, and interests—personally and professionally;
  • an integrated total life management system, custom tailored to one’s current needs and direction and utilized to dynamically steer out beyond the day-to-day; and
  • challenges and surprises trigger your utilization of this methodology instead of throwing you out of it.

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