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Book Summary: Getting Things Done – The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

“Reflect for a moment on what it actually might be like if your personal management situation were totally under control, at all levels and at all times. What if you had completely clear mental space, with nothing pulling or pushing on you unproductively? What if you could dedicate fully 100 percent of your attention to whatever was at hand, at your own choosing, with no distraction?” – David Allen

In Getting Things Done (2001), David Allen introduces his famous system for stress-free productivity. With this system, you can face an overwhelming amount of things to do, but still be productive, creative and relaxed as you tackle them.

Why you should care: Learn to do more and stress less.


When you throw a pebble into a puddle of water, how does the water react?

The answer: completely appropriately to the mass of the pebble and the force with which it was thrown. The water doesn’t over- or underreact.

Book Summary: Getting Things Done - The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

But when we encounter stressful events in life, we often let them control us by provoking a reaction that is disproportionate to what is required. For instance, if you’re already buried under a mountain of tasks, and an email comes in adding one more thing, you might feel overwhelmed and respond brusquely. But wouldn’t it be great if you had a state of mind like water, not over- or underreacting to the email or any other events you encounter, but always just responding appropriately?

To get there, you need to attain a sense of control over all your work, and this is where the Getting Things Done (GTD) method comes in.

Built on simple principles like maintaining a comprehensive system of external lists and always defining clear and tangible next actions for your undertakings, GTD frees up your brain to solve problems and keeps all your projects – both personal and professional – moving forward.

In this book summary, you’ll not only discover how to use GTD to better organize your work, you’ll also arrive at some fundamental questions about your purpose in life.

Once you have this sense of clarity and control, you’ll not only find yourself more productive, but your stress levels will also plummet as you feel calm and in control of all your work.

In this summary of Getting Things Done by David Allen, you’ll also find out

  • how you’re probably misusing your brain;
  • what to do with your long-term ideas and dreams like climbing Everest; and
  • why being exhausted is no excuse for not being productive.

Here’s How: Build a trusted system (an external brain), and actively capture, clarify, and remind yourself of whatever you need to do at the time you need to do it. Here is my GTD (Getting Things Done) system and the three habits that allow my GTD system to be successful:


“There is no reason to ever have the same thought twice, unless you like having that thought…Anything you consider unfinished in any way must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind, or what I call a collection tool, that you know you’ll come back to regularly and sort through.” – David Allen

Cue: Think of an idea, or action item.

Action: Capture the idea or action item in Evernote by using the Evernote app on smartphone.

Note: I use Evernote, but you could use any other list-making app on your smartphone. If you don’t carry a smartphone, carry a small notepad and pen to capture items. The tool you use doesn’t matter. What matters is how fast you can capture items. Capture ideas and actions in their undeveloped form. You’ll decide what to do with them during the next phase: processing.


“You must clarify exactly what your commitment is and decide what you have to do, if anything, to make progress toward fulfilling it…You must use your mind to get things off your mind.” – David Allen

Cue: Receive a daily calendar notification at 4pm.


1. Open capture list within Evernote, look at one item at a time (starting from the top), and ask: “Do I want to act on this soon?”

2a. If No: add item to the someday/maybe list or reference folder. If completely useless, delete it.

2b. If Yes: convert item to a next physical action, determine the outcome, and add outcome to the project list if it requires more than one action to complete. Then complete the next action item in 2-minutes or less OR move it to an appropriate location (see table below).

Where I put my processed items

Reference List

  • Location: Evernote
  • Thought process: “This idea might be useful one day but it’s not actionable at this time.” I keep all documents and reference files in Evernote with the appropriate tags so I can find them when I need them.

Someday/Maybe List

  • Location: Evernote
  • Thought process: “I might want to do this, but not now…and I’d like to be reminded of it periodically.”
  • Examples: Books to read, recipes to try, movies to rent, weekend trips to take, web sites to surf.


  • Location: Calendar iOS App
  • Thought process: “I need to do this at a certain time on a certain day. Otherwise I’ll miss my opportunity.” The calendar is sacred space. ONLY put time specific items in the calendar, otherwise, you’ll devalue all items.

Follow-up List

  • Location: Email
  • Thought process: “It’s out of my hands but I should follow-up on it soon.” I use boomerang in Gmail to send an email to myself in the future for all follow-ups.

Next Action List(s)

  • Location: Reminders iOS app
  • Thought process: “Not time specific but should get done as soon as possible or when possible (in the right context).”
  • Item format: action – item – detail. Create separate lists for different contexts: @home, @office, @store.

Project List

  • Location: Reminders iOS app
  • Thought Process: “This is an outcome that requires many actions to be completed and I can’t forget that.” Project = something that requires many actions to be completed in a year or less.

Note: Never spend more than 2 minutes on any one item; clarify or complete each item in 2 minutes or less.


“The more complete the system is, the more you’ll trust it. And the more you trust it, the more you’ll be motivated to keep it…(each week) Get clean, clear, current, and complete.” – David Allen

Cue: Receive a weekly calendar notification on 3pm each Friday.


  1. Spend 5 minutes writing a 3‐5 year vision: “What does a typical day to look like 3‐5 years from now?”
  2. Review project list – delete complete or unnecessary projects, then prioritize the top 3
  3. Review next action lists – delete completed or unnecessary actions, then prioritize the top 10

Your brain is great at thinking but terrible at remembering things.

These days, work can be hectic. A typical morning might look something like this: You’re in the middle of writing a document when an email comes in telling you to update your antivirus software. Then, 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.

Now, what were you doing again?

Knowledge workers in particular spend their days juggling dozens of tasks and projects at once, while being constantly bombarded by still more. To survive this onslaught, most people cram everything into their heads, trying to keep important information, appointments and upcoming tasks “on their mind.”

Unfortunately, this approach squanders the brain’s wonderful capacity to think by cluttering it up with a jumble of information.

What’s more, trying to remember everything eventually leads to an inability to concentrate fully on the work at hand, because your brain will still try to work out all the unsolved problems and undone tasks that you’ve stored in it.

These are open loops – they haven’t been brought to closure – and your brain will constantly remind you about them, whether you want it to or not. This is distracting; you can’t possible focus properly when thoughts like “Remember to pay this month’s electricity bill” keep interrupting your flow.

So what can you do to master the modern workplace’s web of tasks, meetings and information so that you can truly focus on what you’re doing?

This is where GTD comes in.

Through a specific and powerful five-stage workflow, you can get back in control of everything on your plate:

  1. Capture your thoughts. Instead of keeping all those ideas, to-dos, decisions and so forth in your head, you need to capture them in some external platform, whether on paper or digitally.
  2. Clarify what each item is and what you can do with it.
  3. Organize the outcomes into a structure of lists.
  4. Reflect on what is important to you and review the items in your system.
  5. Engage your tasks. Pick which action you wish to undertake at this time and do it.

It’s as simple as that. GTD enables you to feel a greater sense of control over your work, which produces a sense of relaxed control, better decisions and more flexibility when faced with changing circumstances. But before diving into the details of each step in the GTD process, let’s get your workspace and tools set up.

To fully implement the GTD system, you need the right workplace, tools and filing system.

A great place to get started with the GTD system is by setting up a workplace for yourself where all relevant materials are available. By doing so, you create a cockpit of control where you always feel comfortable working.

You’ll also want to set up identical workspaces at home and in the office so you can be equally effective in both. If you spend a lot of time in transit, you may want to think about a mobile setup that lets you get things done even while on the road. Never share workspaces with anyone, not even your partner, because you don’t want to have to spend time setting up your workspace to your liking every time you arrive at it.

The bare minimum you need is a writing surface and room for a physical in-tray. Some basic required physical tools are paper-holding trays to serve as your in- and out-trays, paper, pens, Post-Its, paper clips, tape, a stapler, a labeller, file folders, a calendar and a wastepaper basket. These are in addition to any digital devices you currently use to capture and organize tasks, like your phone or computer.

These tools are important for setting up your general reference filing system, where you can store things like documents, articles, notes, tickets, keys, membership cards, and so forth. You should have both a physical and – where appropriate – digital version of this filing system, where you keep reference information.

Buy good filing cabinets for this purpose and have plenty of empty folders at hand that you can easily label and plop in. In general, if it takes you more than a minute to file something away, it’s taking too long.

A simple A-Z filing system where you file things under certain letters either by the topic, person, project or company is an efficient and easy-to-use solution. That way you limit the places where you need to search for things. For example, if you want to find something you filed about the Quality 2.0 project you’re doing for XYZ Inc, you only need to check the letters Q and X to find it.

Of course, in your digital system, you can also search for the information, but it still makes sense to have the information organized in a way that is helpful.

Last but not least, make sure you purge your files at least once a year to avoid the system becoming a bloated mess.

This purge not only makes the system more usable, it also gives you peace of mind since you know that you can file things away even if you’re not sure you’ll need them, because you’ll be doing some house-cleaning later when you can throw things away.

Now that your cockpit is ready, let’s dive into the five-stage workflow of GTD, starting with the capture phase.

Capture all your tasks, ideas, reminders and more in trusted external collection tools.

We’ve established that these days our attention is under attack, constantly yanked around by a never-ending stream of incoming requests, questions, tasks, invites, and so forth.

To deal with this, the first crucial step in the GTD workflow is capturing all of them in collection tools, meaning places outside your mind where you can note down information and ideas.

Think of them as your “in” pile, where you jot down everything that you need to do or make a decision about in the future, without thinking about it. This covers a huge range of items like a business idea you had on your lunch break, finalizing a project at work, buying a friend a birthday present, a desire to read up on modern art and fixing your broken watch.

Don’t worry about how important or sensible the items are when you write them down – the important thing is that they all need to be captured in a place where you know you can find them later.

The great benefit of the external tools is that if, for example, you’re writing an email when you remember that you need to pay the electricity bill, you can just make a note of the task and keep focusing on the email, completing it effectively. The same is true when someone brings you an invoice or you decide that you want to see a play tonight.

Your collection tools can take various forms depending on what works for you: 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; the main idea is to keep it simple. A good rule of thumb is to have as few collection tools as possible, but as many as you personally find are necessary.

However many you have, make sure to always keep your collection tools close by, as you’ll need to be able to access them wherever you are.

Also, ensure that you use your collection tools comprehensively. They should be strong enough to hold every snippet of information, and not even the smallest task should be left drifting around your brain.

If you’re not there yet, a great way to start is to go through all your current to-dos, ideas, thoughts, plans and materials and plop them into your collection tools. This may take quite a while the first time around, but being comprehensive will help your brain trust in the system, meaning it won’t nag and distract you with open tasks anymore.

Clarify: empty all your external collection tools weekly.

Have you set up your collection tools and populated them with all your tasks, ideas and reminders?

If so, congratulations!

You’ve gotten off to a good start, but the GTD system only works if you also periodically empty your collection tools.

Otherwise, they’ll just end up a bloated dump of unorganized items, and your brain will rapidly begin to distrust them. It will then revert to fretting about them and distracting you with impulses like: “Maybe I should stop what I’m doing to pay this bill, because I may miss it in the collection tool with all those other items.”

And then you’re back to square one.

That’s why you need to empty the collection tools once a week by doing two things: clarify what each item is and organize the items into the right places. Let’s first look at the clarifying stage.

Remember how in the previous book summary you learned that in the capturing stage, you don’t need to think about the items you jot down?

Well now you do.

Start by looking at each item in your collection tools and simply asking yourself: “What is it?” The most important thing to ascertain here is whether the item is actionable or not, meaning whether you need to do something about it.

If the item isn’t actionable, there are only three possibilities:

  • It’s no longer needed, meaning it’s trash.
  • No action is needed right now, but you may need to do something about it later. An example would be an invitation to a future event that you’re not sure you’ll be able to attend.
  • It’s information that you may need later, like the budget for a project you plan to undertake.

But if the item is actionable, you need to ask yourself what the desired end result is.

If it will take several actions to attain this outcome, then this is a project. For instance, a project would be “Set up birthday party for Carl.”

You then need to ask yourself what the next action for this item or project is. This is the next physical, visible thing you can do to further the matter. So, for example, “Call David” or “Buy paint” are concrete next actions, but “Research and present findings on customers” is not.

Once you’ve identified something as a next action, you have three options:

  • If the action takes less than two minutes to complete, do it immediately, before moving to the next item. It will actually be more time-consuming to store and organize such small items than to just do them right away.
  • If the action takes longer than two minutes, think about whether you’re the right person to do it. If not, delegate it to the right person.
  • If you are the right person to perform the action but it would take longer than two minutes, defer it. We’ll learn more about this in the next few book summary.

That’s the clarifying stage! The rules are simple, but regularly emptying your collection tool in this fashion will help you attain reliable, stress-free productivity.

Organize: empty your collection tools and put things in the right place.

So now that you’ve clarified what each item is, it’s time to move to the organizing stage of the GTD method. This is where the magic happens.

Most traditional to-do lists don’t work because they lack organization and quickly become a hodgepodge of tasks, reminders, thoughts and information where it’s impossible to find the truly actionable items.

Each step of the organizing stage of GTD will be covered in more detail over the book summary that follow, but consider this an overview:

Let’s first look back to the choices made in the clarifying stage.

As stated before, items with no future value are deleted or trashed, whereas actionable items that can be completed in two minutes or less should be done immediately.

But what about all the rest, where do they end up?

Well, if an item…

  • …is actionable and attaining the desired outcome takes more than one step, it is a project and goes onto your Projects list. Projects can vary greatly in size, from “Write novel” to “Fix lights in living room.”
  • …is a single action that you delegate to someone else, it should go on a Waiting For list, like if you need to hear from a contractor before choosing tiles for your bathroom.
  • …is a single action that you defer, you have two new choices: either it goes into your Calendar or onto a Next Action list.
    • Your Calendar is meant for time-specific or date-specific actions or information, like “Dentist’s appointment 9 AM” or “Belinda going on holiday tomorrow; ask if everything is ready.”
    • Next Action lists are where all your to-dos end up. Since it’s not practical to have one long list with hundreds of items, you can split these lists up by context. For example, items like “Email Jeff” or “Look up price for cruise” could go onto a On The Computer list, whereas calls to be made could be assigned to an On The Phone list.

If an item…

  • … is not actionable but you may need to do something about it later, it goes onto a Someday/Maybe list, which is reserved for items that you don’t want to engage in right now but also don’t want to forget about, like “Learn Spanish” or “Fix outdoor deck.” You can also have similar lists with more specific topics like “Movies to watch” or “Books to read.”
  • … might become useful reference information later, it goes into storage as reference material. This could mean sticking a take-out menu from your favourite restaurant into your filing cabinet or saving a performance review from your boss onto your hard drive.

These lists form the backbone of the GTD system, so before diving into stage four of the GTD process – reflection – let’s look into them in more detail.

Use a Projects list to keep track of your current projects and always insist on clear next actions.

Good project management is a key component of every productivity system.

In GTD, a project is defined as a desired result that necessitates taking more than one action step. Hence, writing one email is not a project, but organizing a big meeting or planning a vacation is.

We’ll dive into how to define your projects in the following book summary, but for now you just need to know that projects are stored on a Projects list, which should be reviewed and updated regularly. This list is where you should note all projects that need to be completed in the near future.

When you review this list each week, you should always ensure that each project has a clear, concrete next action, because they are what move the project toward completion.

Always insisting on defining a physical, visible next action can be a profoundly powerful habit that sets your projects moving forward at surprising speed. The reason is that if you see a vague next action like “have my car serviced” on your list, some part of your brain feels that clarity is missing and gives up.

But if you ask “What’s the next action?” within mere seconds you figure out that it’s “research auto repair companies online,” which is much easier to tackle.

Once you’ve identified an action to take, it should be stored in your Calendar or Next Action lists, which we will dive into in later book summary.

Defining next actions is such a powerful habit that you can even use it outside of project management. For example, you should make it standard practice at meetings. After each discussion point, ask this question to clarify what the next step is, who will take it and when.

No interaction should end without a clear answer to this question. Try this approach for a bit, and you may be surprised at the productivity leap you’ll witness.

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

Planning big projects can be a daunting task. After all, the aim of planning is to think out and schedule all the steps in advance, but what if you don’t have a concrete final goal in mind yet? How can you plan your project then?

Enter the natural planning method, which is meant to mirror the way you plan things in your everyday life.

For instance, how did you plan your last meal out? You probably didn’t pay much attention to the process, but let’s say you first had an intention of some kind, like to satisfy your hunger. This was your purpose for your “project.”

You also likely had some principles about what kind of food and service you deem acceptable, though may not have been consciously aware of them.

At this point, you envisioned outcomes about how you could fulfill the purpose, like “Order pizza,” “Cook a meal” or “Eat at Gennaro’s restaurant.”

Once you’d found a suitable vision, your mind started naturally brainstorming ideas and questions around this vision, like “Should I make a reservation?”, “Is it open?” and “How will we get there?”

Then, probably without even noticing, you began to organize these ideas. For instance, you may have realized that you first needed to check if the restaurant was open, then make a reservation and then sort out transportation.

From this followed a concrete next action: calling the restaurant to check their opening times and making a reservation.

This process was natural and easy, right?

So how come planning more formal projects at work is so hard?

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be if you just apply the very same five-step process:

  1. Begin by identifying why you’re undertaking a project. What’s its purpose? For example, why do you need to create a business plan? Answering this question has many benefits down the line. If you understand that the reason for writing a business plan is to secure funding, then you can make more informed choices as to what to include to interest investors. Also, understand your own principles to adhere to in the course of a project. Perhaps, for instance, you have the principle that your team must not feel overworked, or that the outcome must be ethically as well as financially sound. It’s good to acknowledge these boundaries so you can work within them.
  2. Envision the outcome you wish to attain by asking yourself what the project will look like when it’s done. An example of a well-defined outcome could be to increase your company’s sales by 5 percent. Defining the goal in this way helps you focus on it, and the focus will help you attain it.
  3. Brainstorm ideas for how to get there. Once you understand your goal, ideas will automatically start popping into your head. Don’t stop to judge them yet, just let them flow freely, but be sure to capture all of them. In true brainstorming fashion, go for quantity, not quality. This maximizes the chances that some of the ideas you come up with will be good.
  4. Organize your ideas. Identify the most significant ones and sort them. Possible ways to sort are either by which things naturally belong together, the order things need to happen or according to priorities. For instance, you may group together all the ideas connected with market research, or all the ones that need to be clarified before the others can even be considered.
  5. Define the next physical, visible action that will move the project forward. If your project has many components, ask yourself for each whether you or someone else could be doing something about it now, and create next actions based on it. For instance, if your project is to grow your revenues by 5 percent, a next action could be to “Email Dave for the current revenue breakdown.” This gets your project off the drawing board and chugging along.

The power of this simple five-step process often amazes people when they first use it.

Want to give it a try? Think about a project you’d like to undertake, grab a pen and paper and start by thinking about why you’re undertaking this project.

You’ll know your project plan is ready when you feel confident about it and it no longer intrudes into your thoughts. If you still have doubts about the outcome or the next actions, you’ll probably find yourself still thinking about these, which is a sign you’re not done yet.

Instead of a daily to-do list, maintain a Calendar and Next Action lists.

Many people rely on daily to-do lists for managing their productivity, but this approach leaves much to be desired. Such lists tend to fail because you can’t truly 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 Action lists.

Let’s start with the Calendar. It 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, and it should only contain the following types of items:

  • Time-specific actions, like doctor’s appointments.
  • Day-specific actions, like calling a colleague at some point during her last day before she goes on vacation.
  • Day-specific information, like the files you need to bring with you to the doctor’s appointment.

No other to-dos may go on the Calendar, because they will just dilute the importance of the items that are truly time- or day-specific.

All other tasks or concrete actions should be put onto your Next Action list, which is at the heart of managing which tasks you’ll undertake. This is where you put all items that take longer than two minutes to complete.

Depending on the number of tasks you have on the list, it may make sense to categorize it into multiple lists according to the context (for example, “on the phone,” “when at the supermarket,” or “on the computer”). If you sort out your tasks by context, you’ll know what you can do whether at your desk, at a meeting or while waiting at the airport.

When we get to the Engage step in the GTD process, this list lets you decide quickly which task to do whenever you have time to take care of something.

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

As stated previously, all current projects should be listed on the Projects list. When using the Next Action list, you can ensure that you’re consistently working on tasks that are taking your projects closer to their conclusion one at a time.

But more often than not, you also need to rely on other people. 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 for the related projects.

Whenever you’re dependent on other people’s work – for example, 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’ll 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 of 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 a Next Action list.

All ideas with potential future relevance should be put onto a Someday/Maybe list or a tickler file.

Another important component of the GTD method is the Someday/Maybe list.

Everything that doesn’t qualify for the Next Actions or Projects lists but also shouldn’t be buzzing around your head goes on this list. It contains all the things you haven’t been able to translate into concrete ideas or tasks just yet.

Typically, good fodder from the Someday/Maybe list are things to buy or build for your home, trips you wish to take, skills you wish to learn and so forth, with items like “Climb Everest,” “Learn to play the guitar” or “Become proficient at Japanese.”

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, and you may be surprised to find that, often, you do actually end up doing many of them. But you can’t act on them when the time is right unless you capture them when they occur to you.

You can also split the list into subcategories like movies to watch, wines to taste and things to do with your kids.

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.

Another way to remind yourself of future items you may wish to engage with is by keeping a tickler file, so named because it can be used to “tickle” your memory by allowing you to “mail” information to yourself that you need at the specific moment.

The tickler file is a very precise and logical physical file system that’s made up of 43 files: 31 for the next 31 days and 12 for the next 12 months. The daily folders are placed in front of the monthly folder. Assuming today is the second of May, you’d have the files 3 to 31 at the front of the system, followed by the month folders, starting with June.

In each folder, you can place items relevant for that day or month, like travel documents for a trip you plan to take. Every day, you put the documents, reminders or items you “sent” yourself for that specific day into your in-tray, and then move the day folder so it comes after the next month’s folder. When you reach the threshold of the first month folder, you transfer all the notes you sent yourself for that month into the 31 daily folders according to the relevant day.

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

Similar to the Next Action 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.

Reflect: Constantly reviewing your system is indispensable to working productively.

We’ve now extensively covered how to organize your tasks, projects, reminders and ideas, which means it’s time to proceed to the fourth step of the GTD process: reflect.

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.

But for this to happen, 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. And this means reviewing it consistently and often.

Every day, check your Calendar to get the lay of the land. If you’re in meetings all day, for instance, it will greatly impact what you can do, and you need to know this before you can plan your day.

Then, check your Next Action lists to understand what tasks you could do in the context of that day. If you’re spending all day at the office, you can check what phone- or computer-related tasks you could undertake.

In addition to this start-of-the-day review, you’ll probably be taking a few seconds here and there to review lists when the appropriate context shows up – for instance, if you find yourself waiting somewhere unexpectedly.

But the real crux of the GTD system is the comprehensive weekly review.

To get started with this, tie up any loose ends from the previous week, clearing out your collection tools and capturing any thoughts/ideas that may still be knocking around in your head. Also, go through your Next Action list, marking off completed items.

Then move to reviewing your Calendar. You may realize that you need to prepare something for upcoming appointments, and the previous week’s appointments may bring some ideas to your mind that you wish to capture.

Now look at all your other lists. Is there an item on the Waiting For list that need to follow-up on again?

And how is your Projects list looking? Look through the status, plans and materials for each project and ensure that they all have at least one next action in your system.

Finally, look at your Someday/Maybe list. Have any items become so interesting or relevant that you wish to pursue them now? If so, turn them into projects. But also delete items that no longer match your interests.

You should budget a few hours for the weekly review, but the exact amount of time you need depends on how much you need in order to feel safe and trust your system. As it is critical to the success of the system as a whole, you should build a solid habit of conducting it each week. You could plan your weekly review on, say, a Friday afternoon, which would allow you to close up shop for the weekend with a clear head and a sense of control.

Engage: Choose what to do in each moment based on the current situation and your priorities.

The final stage of the GTD process is where things actually get done.

So how do you choose what to do in each given moment?

Primarily, you should trust your gut, but to break it down more analytically, there are four criteria to consider:

  • What can you do in the current context? For instance, if you don’t have a phone, you can’t make calls. This is where having categorized your Next Action lists is profoundly useful, as you can easily find feasible tasks.
  • What do you have time for? If you only have ten minutes to spare before your next meeting, it probably doesn’t make sense to start a multi-hour budget review.
  • What do you have energy for? If you spent all afternoon on the aforementioned grueling budget review, you’re probably feeling pretty spent. But this is no excuse not to be productive, as you can still do something that’s not too taxing cognitively, like booking flights.
  • Which task has the highest priority? To answer this question, you need to understand your values and goals. We’ll dive into this in the following book summary.

To stay productive wherever you are, keep your lists with you at all times. This will allow you to make use of unexpected waiting time wherever you are, whether at your desk, commuting or stuck at an airport due to a delayed flight.

Understand your own priorities through a bottom-up examination.

To get a grasp of what’s important to you in your work and life, it’s useful to think in terms of horizons, each one progressively further away than the last:

  • Ground – Current actions: This is the lowest level horizon you have, comprising your current tasks to be done, reminders, emails to answer, etc.
  • Horizon 1 – Current projects: These are the projects on your Projects list at the moment, and they generate most of the items on the ground.
  • Horizon 2 – Areas of Focus and Accountabilities: The projects you undertake are based on the accountabilities and roles you have. These are areas where you want to achieve results. At work, these could be things like leadership, strategic planning or market research; at home, they include things like your health, finances and family. You’ll never “complete” these, but they steer the way you operate. If you realize you have a task that is not represented on your Projects list, you may consider adding a project around it.
  • Horizon 3 – One- to two-year goals: Visualize where you want to be in your life in one to two years from now. These goals influence your areas of focus and accountabilities. Attaining a key promotion at work is a good example of something that is on this horizon.
  • Horizon 4 – Long-term visions: This is the three- to five-year timeframe, where you need to consider not only where you want to be in life, like your long-term career or family aspirations, but also what external factors may influence your life, like technological developments.
  • Horizon 5 – Life purpose: This is the ultimate big picture perspective, where you ask yourself why you exist? What is your purpose in life? All the previous horizons are influenced by your answer, and all the tasks you undertake should lead you toward it.

It would seem rational and reasonable to start with your life purpose and work your way down from there, but in practice, a bottom-up approach tends to work better. It allows you to first clear away the more nitty-gritty levels of day-to-day management so you save your creative energy for the more meaningful decisions.

Did you have any thoughts about your own situation when you read this? If so, jot them down. Perhaps some of them could go onto your Someday/Maybe list, or you could decide that you want to create a project around more formally thinking about each level, for example, by drafting a plan of your dream life with your partner or by engaging a personal coach to talk about your life goals.

Of course, even after you have these various horizons defined, you still need to review them at appropriate intervals ranging from daily for ground level and annually for horizons four to five.


The main message in this book:

The GTD system enables you to tackle an overwhelming amount of tasks in a relaxed fashion. It gives you total control over your work. The five crucial steps in the GTD process are:

  1. Capture your thoughts in external collection tools that you routinely empty. This frees up your mind to do what it’s really good at: thinking and solving problems.
  2. Clarify what each item is and what you can do with it.
  3. Organize the outcomes into a structure of lists, like your Calendar and your Projects, Next Actions, Someday/Maybe and Waiting For lists.
  4. Reflect on what is important to you and review the items in your system. This is crucial because it ensures that you continue to trust in the system.
  5. Engage your tasks. Pick which action you can do something about given the context, time and energy available, as well as your priorities.

About the author

David Allen is president of The David Allen Company and has more than twenty years experience as a consultant and executive coach for such organizations as Microsoft, the Ford Foundation, L.L.Bean, and the World Bank. His work has been featured in Fast Company, Fortune, Atlantic Monthly, O, and many other publications.

David Allen is an American writer, businessman and consultant. His coaching company trains executives in the Getting Things Done method. He has written many books and articles on self-management and productivity, and is considered one of the most influential thinkers in the world in these fields.


Skills, Business, Money, Time Management, Self-Esteem, Motivational, Self-Help, Productivity, Personal Development, Psychology, Leadership, Career Success

Table of Contents

part 1 – The Art of Getting Things Done
Chapter 1 – A New Practice for a New Reality
Chapter 2 – Getting Control of Your Life: The Five Stages of Mastering Workflow
Chapter 3 – Getting Projects Creatively Under Way: The Five Phases of Project Planning

part 2 – Practicing Stress-Free Productivity
Chapter 4 – Getting Started: Setting Up the Time, Space, and Tools
Chapter 5 – Collection: Corralling Your “Stuff”
Chapter 6 – Processing: Getting “In” to Empty
Chapter 7 – Organizing: Setting Up the Right Buckets
Chapter 8 – Reviewing: Keeping Your System Functional
Chapter 9 – Doing: Making the Best Action Choices
Chapter 10 – Getting Projects Under Control

part 3 – The Power of the Key Principles
Chapter 11 – The Power of the Collection Habit
Chapter 12 – The Power of the Next-Action Decision
Chapter 13 – The Power of Outcome Focusing


In today’s world, yesterday’s methods just don’t work. In Getting Things Done, veteran coach and management consultant David Allen shares the breakthrough methods for stress-free performance that he has introduced to tens of thousands of people across the country. Allen’s premise is simple: our productivity is directly proportional to our ability to relax. Only when our minds are clear and our thoughts are organized can we achieve effective productivity and unleash our creative potential. In Getting Things Done Allen shows how to:

  • Apply the “do it, delegate it, defer it, drop it” rule to get your in-box to empty
  • Reassess goals and stay focused in changing situations
  • Plan projects as well as get them unstuck
  • Overcome feelings of confusion, anxiety, and being overwhelmed
  • Feel fine about what you’re not doing

From core principles to proven tricks, Getting Things Done can transform the way you work, showing you how to pick up the pace without wearing yourself down.


“The Season’s Best Reads for Work-Life Advice . . . my favorite on organizing your life: Getting Things Done . . . offers help building the new mental skills needed in an age of multitasking and overload.” —Sue Shellenbarger, The Wall Street Journal

“I recently attended David’s seminar on getting organized, and after seeing him in action I have hope . . . David Allen’s seminar was an eye-opener.” —Stewart Alsop, Fortune

“Allen drops down from high-level philosophizing to the fine details of time management. Take a minute to check this one out.” —Mark Henricks, Entrepreneur

“David Allen’s productivity principles are rooted in big ideas . . . but they’re also eminently practical.” —Keith H. Hammonds, Fast Company

“David Allen brings new clarity to the power of purpose, the essential nature of relaxation, and deceptively simple guidelines for getting things done. He employs extensive experience, personal stories, and his own recipe for simplicity, speed, and fun.” —Frances Hesselbein, chairman, board of governors,
The Drucker Foundation

“Anyone who reads this book can apply this knowledge and these skills in their lives for immediate results.” —Stephen P. Magee, chaired professor of business and economics, University of Texas at Austin

“A true skeptic of most management fixes, I have to say David’s program is a winner!” —Joline Godfrey, CEO, Independent Means, Inc. and author of Our Wildest Dreams

“Getting Things Done describes an incredibly practical process that can help busy people regain control of their lives. It can help you be more successful. Even more important, it can help you have a happier life!” —Marshall Goldsmith, coeditor, The Leader of the Future and Coaching for Leadership

“WARNING: Reading Getting Things Done can be hazardous to your old habits of procrastination. David Allen’s approach is refreshingly simple and intuitive. He provides the systems, tools, and tips to achieve profound results.” —Carola Endicott, director, Quality Resources, New England Medical Center

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Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview


Many mentors, partners, colleagues, staff, and friends have contributed over the years to my understanding and development of the principles in Getting Things Done. George Mayer, Michael Bookbinder, Ted Drake, Dean Acheson, and Russell Bishop played key roles along my path of personal and professional growth. Ron Medved, Sally McGhee, Leslie Boyer, Tom Boyer, Pam Tarrantine, and Kelly Forrister contributed in their own ways to my work as it matured.

In addition, tens of thousands of clients and workshop participants have helped validate and fine-tune these models. Particular thanks go to the senior human resource strategists who early on recognized the significance of this material in changing their corporate cultures, and who gave me the opportunity to do that—in particular: Michael Winston, Ben Cannon, Susan Valaskovic, Patricia Carlyle, Manny Berger, Carola Endicott, Klara Sztucinski, and Elliott Kellman. The administrative and moral support that Shar Kanan and Andra Carasso gave me over many years was priceless.

This book itself could not have happened the way it has without the unique energies and perspectives of Tom Hagan, John and Laura McBride, Steve Lewers, Doe Coover, Greg Stikeleather, Steve Shull, and Marian Bateman. And much credit is due my editor, Janet Goldstein, who has been a marvelous (and patient) instructor in the art and craft of book writing.

Finally, deepest thanks go to my spiritual coach, J-R, for being such an awesome guide and consistent reminder of my real priorities; and to my incredible wife, Kathryn, for her trust, love, hard work, and the beauty she has brought into my life.

Welcome to Getting Things Done

WELCOME TO A gold mine of insights into strategies for how to have more energy, be more relaxed, and get a lot more accomplished with much less effort. If you’re like me, you like getting things done and doing them well, and yet you also want to savor life in ways that seem increasingly elusive if not downright impossible if you’re working too hard. This doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition. It is possible to be effectively doing while you are delightfully being, in your ordinary workaday world.

I think efficiency is a good thing. Maybe what you’re doing is important, interesting, or useful; or maybe it isn’t but it has to be done anyway. In the first case you want to get as much return as you can on your investment of time and energy. In the second, you want to get on to other things as fast as you can, without any nagging loose ends.

And whatever you’re doing, you’d probably like to be more relaxed, confident that whatever you’re doing at the moment is just what you need to be doing—that having a beer with your staff after hours, gazing at your sleeping child in his or her crib at midnight, answering the e-mail in front of you, or spending a few informal minutes with the potential new client after the meeting is exactly what you ought to be doing, as you’re doing it.


The art of resting the mind and the power of dismissing from it all care and worry is probably one of the secrets of our great men.

—Captain J. A. Hatfield

Teaching you how to be maximally efficient and relaxed, whenever you need or want to be, was my main purpose in writing this book.

I have searched for a long time, as you may have, for answers to the questions of what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. And after twenty-plus years of developing and applying new methods for personal and organizational productivity, alongside years of rigorous exploration in the self-development arena, I can attest that there is no single, once-and-for-all solution. No software, seminar, cool personal planner, or personal mission statement will simplify your workday or make your choices for you as you move through your day, week, and life. What’s more, just when you learn how to enhance your productivity and decision-making at one level, you’ll graduate to the next accepted batch of responsibilities and creative goals, whose new challenges will defy the ability of any simple formula or buzzword-du-jour to get you what you want, the way you want to get it.

But if there’s no single means of perfecting personal organization and productivity, there are things we can do to facilitate them. As I have personally matured, from year to year, I’ve found deeper and more meaningful, more significant things to focus on and be aware of and do. And I’ve uncovered simple processes that we can all learn to use that will vastly improve our ability to deal proactively and constructively with the mundane realities of the world.

What follows is a compilation of more than two decades’ worth of discoveries about personal productivity, a guide to maximizing output and minimizing input, and to doing so in a world in which work is increasingly voluminous and ambiguous. I have spent many thousands of hours coaching people “in the trenches” at their desks, helping them process and organize all of their work at hand. The methods I have uncovered have proved to be highly effective in all types of organizations, at every job level, across cultures, and even at home and school. After twenty years of coaching and training some of the world’s most sophisticated and productive professionals, I know the world is hungry for these methods.

Executives at the top are looking to instill “ruthless execution” in themselves and their people as a basic standard. They know, and I know, that behind closed doors, after hours, there remain unanswered calls, tasks to be delegated, unprocessed issues from meetings and conversations, personal responsibilities unmanaged, and dozens of e-mails still not dealt with. Many of these businesspeople are successful because the crises they solve and the opportunities they take advantage of are bigger than the problems they allow and create in their own offices and briefcases. But given the pace of business and life today, the equation is in question.

On the one hand, we need proven tools that can help people focus their energies strategically and tactically without letting anything fall through the cracks. On the other, we need to create work environments and skills that will keep the most invested people from burning out due to stress. We need positive work-style standards that will attract and retain the best and brightest.

We know this information is sorely needed in organizations. It’s also needed in schools, where our kids are still not being taught how to process information, how to focus on outcomes, or what actions to take to make them happen. And for all of us individually, it’s needed so we can take advantage of all the opportunities we’re given to add value to our world in a sustainable, self-nurturing way.

The power, simplicity, and effectiveness of what I’m talking about in Getting Things Done are best experienced as experiences, in real time, with real situations in your real world. Necessarily, the book must put the essence of this dynamic art of workflow management and personal productivity into a linear format. I’ve tried to organize it in such a way as to give you both the inspiring big-picture view and a taste of immediate results as you go along.

The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 describes the whole game, providing a brief overview of the system and an explanation of why it’s unique and timely, and then presenting the basic methodologies themselves in their most condensed and basic form. Part 2 shows you how to implement the system. It’s your personal coaching, step by step, on the nitty-gritty application of the models. Part 3 goes even deeper, describing the subtler and more profound results you can expect when you incorporate the methodologies and models into your work and your life.

I want you to hop in. I want you to test this stuff out, even challenge it. I want you to find out for yourself that what I promise is not only possible but instantly accessible to you personally. And I want you to know that everything I propose is easy to do. It involves no new skills at all. You already know how to focus, how to write things down, how to decide on outcomes and actions, and how to review options and make choices. You’ll validate that many of the things you’ve been doing instinctively and intuitively all along are right. I’ll give you ways to leverage those basic skills into new plateaus of effectiveness. I want to inspire you to put all this into a new behavior set that will blow your mind.

Throughout the book I refer to my coaching and seminars on this material. I’ve worked as a “management consultant” for the last two decades, alone and in small partnerships. My work has consisted primarily of doing private productivity coaching and conducting seminars based on the methods presented here. I (and my colleagues) have coached more than a thousand individuals, trained hundreds of thousands of professionals, and delivered many hundreds of public seminars. This is the background from which I have drawn my experience and examples.

The promise here was well described by a client of mine who wrote, “When I habitually applied the tenets of this program it saved my life . . . when I faithfully applied them, it changed my life. This is a vaccination against day-to-day fire-fighting (the so-called urgent and crisis demands of any given workday) and an antidote for the imbalance many people bring upon themselves.”

part 1

The Art of Getting Things Done


A New Practice for a New Reality

IT’S POSSIBLE FOR a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control. That’s a great way to live and work, at elevated levels of effectiveness and efficiency. It’s also becoming a critical operational style required of successful and high-performing professionals. You already know how to do everything necessary to achieve this high-performance state. If you’re like most people, however, you need to apply these skills in a more timely, complete, and systematic way so you can get on top of it all instead of feeling buried. And though the method and the techniques I describe in this book are immensely practical and based on common sense, most people will have some major work habits that must be modified before they can implement this system. The small changes required—changes in the way you clarify and organize all the things that command your attention—could represent a significant shift in how you approach some key aspects of your day-to-day work. Many of my clients have referred to this as a significant paradigm shift.


Anxiety is caused by a lack of control, organization, preparation, and action.

—David Kekich

The methods I present here are all based on two key objectives: (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; and (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.

This book offers a proven method for this kind of high-performance workflow management. It provides good tools, tips, techniques, and tricks for implementation. As you’ll discover, the principles and methods are instantly usable and applicable to everything you have to do in your personal as well as your professional life.1 You can incorporate, as many others have before you, what I describe as an ongoing dynamic style of operating in your work and in your world. Or, like still others, you can simply use this as a guide to getting back into better control when you feel you need to.

The Problem: New Demands, Insufficient Resources

Almost everyone I encounter these days feels he or she has too much to handle and not enough time to get it all done. In the course of a single recent week, I consulted with a partner in a major global investment firm who was concerned that the new corporate-management responsibilities he was being offered would stress his family commitments beyond the limits; and with a midlevel human-resources manager trying to stay on top of her 150-plus e-mail requests per day fueled by the goal of doubling the company’s regional office staff from eleven hundred to two thousand people in one year, all as she tried to protect a social life for herself on the weekends.

A paradox has emerged in this new millennium: people have enhanced quality of life, but at the same time they are adding to their stress levels by taking on more than they have resources to handle. It’s as though their eyes were bigger than their stomachs. And most people are to some degree frustrated and perplexed about how to improve the situation.

Work No Longer Has Clear Boundaries

A major factor in the mounting stress level is that the actual nature of our jobs has changed much more dramatically and rapidly than have our training for and our ability to deal with work. In just the last half of the twentieth century, what constituted “work” in the industrialized world was transformed from assembly-line, make-it and move-it kinds of activity to what Peter Drucker has so aptly termed “knowledge work.”

In the old days, work was self-evident. Fields were to be plowed, machines tooled, boxes packed, cows milked, widgets cranked. You knew what work had to be done—you could see it. It was clear when the work was finished, or not finished.


Time is that quality of nature that keeps events from happening all at once. Lately it doesn’t seem to be working.


Now, for many of us, there are no edges to most of our projects. Most people I know have at least half a dozen things they’re trying to achieve right now, and even if they had the rest of their lives to try, they wouldn’t be able to finish these to perfection. You’re probably faced with the same dilemma. How good could that conference potentially be? How effective could the training program be, or the structure of your executives’ compensation package? How inspiring is the essay you’re writing? How motivating the staff meeting? How functional the reorganization? And a last question: How much available data could be relevant to doing those projects “better”? The answer is, an infinite amount, easily accessible, or at least potentially so, through the Web.


Almost every project could be done better, and an infinite quantity of information is now available that could make that happen.

On another front, the lack of edges can create more work for everyone. Many of today’s organizational outcomes require cross-divisional communication, cooperation, and engagement. Our individual office silos are crumbling, and with them is going the luxury of not having to read cc’d e-mails from the marketing department, or from human resources, or from some ad hoc, deal-with-a-certain-issue committee.


We can never really be prepared for that which is wholly new. We have to adjust ourselves, and every radical adjustment is a crisis in self-esteem: we undergo a test, we have to prove ourselves. It needs subordinate self-confidence to face drastic change without inner trembling.

—Eric Hoffer

Our Jobs Keep Changing

The disintegrating edges of our projects and our work in general would be challenging enough for anyone. But now we must add to that equation the constantly shifting definition of our jobs. I often ask in my seminars, “Which of you are doing only what you were hired to do?” Seldom do I get a raised hand. As amorphous as edgeless work may be, if you had the chance to stick with some specifically described job long enough, you’d probably figure out what you needed to do—how much, at what level—to stay sane. But few have that luxury anymore, for two reasons:

1. | The organizations we’re involved with seem to be in constant morph mode, with ever-changing goals, products, partners, customers, markets, technologies, and owners. These all, by necessity, shake up structures, forms, roles, and responsibilities.

2. | The average professional is more of a free agent these days than ever before, changing careers as often as his or her parents once changed jobs. Even fortysomethings and fiftysomethings hold to standards of continual growth. Their aims are just more integrated into the mainstream now, covered by the catchall “professional, management, and executive development”—which simply means they won’t keep doing what they’re doing for any extended period of time.

Little seems clear for very long anymore, as far as what our work is and what or how much input may be relevant to doing it well. We’re allowing in huge amounts of information and communication from the outer world and generating an equally large volume of ideas and agreements with ourselves and others from our inner world. And we haven’t been well equipped to deal with this huge number of internal and external commitments.


The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.


The Old Models and Habits Are Insufficient

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