A Summary of "Getting Things Done"

OK, so here’s my quick summary of the book “Getting Things Done” by David Allen.I’m glad this book was written. I’m glad my co-worker had it sitting in a stack of papers. I’m glad I picked it up and read it. I wrote this because he’s very busy and I hoped it would help him.

[Mr. Allen, if you’re reading this, sorry for this next part]
Let’s start with this: don’t read this book. Why? Frankly, the book contains far too much filler information. Here are a few examples of things in the book you don’t need:
  • A long explanation of how your life would be better if you got more things done.
  • A long explanation of how organizing would help you get more done.
  • A description of how organizing can ease your stress. Duh.
  • A description of the ideal inbox.
  • An explanation of what a calendar might be like.
Frankly, if you were talking to most intelligent people you could simply tell them the major headings from this book and answer a few follow up questions and you’d be golden.
This is not to say that the system is not good. It appears to be very good. In fact, if you’re one of those people who needs to have put in some effort on something in order to commit to it, then by all means, read away. But you shouldn’t need to.

To begin, the simple and guiding principle appears to be this: our mind wastes a lot of energy trying to remember all the things we need to get done. Because of this, we do ourselves a lot of good by collecting everything we need to get done somewhere reliable so that our brain doesn’t need to retain it. Once it is collected, we can use our brain cycles on actually getting the things done.
One more note: don’t be surprised if you do a lot of this already. One of his basic premises is that this is a codification of the natural way a lot of people organize. Some of this just validated the way I already did things, but it also augmented my processes as well.

There are 3 parts of the book:

  1. The Art of Getting Things Done (The “Why”) – I will basically skip this. Read above for the broad strokes. (I just saved you 80+ pages)
  2. Practicing Stress-Free Productivity (The “How”) – This is the important stuff. This is where I will concentrate.
  3. The Power of the Key Principles (The philosophy and psychology) – My take on this section is that the publisher felt like the book was too thin to command a $16 price tag, so they tacked this on to “fill it out”. Some of it is interesting, but not necessary to get more productive.
Key Objectives
  • Document everything you need to accomplish in a system other than your memory.
    • You’re going to put these in different “files” depending on when you’re going to work on them, or what project they are related to.
    • You have to make sure to get everything out of your head–this includes work and personal stuff.
  • Go through your lists weekly to make sure you’re working on the right stuff.

If it were up to me, you’d divide this book into 2 parts: Getting Started and Maintenance. They are really 2 different things, though they are related.

Five Stages of Managing Workflow
  1. Collect Inputs
  2. Process Inputs
  3. Organize Results
  4. Review Options for Next Steps
  5. Do a Next Action
Collect Inputs
Basically, to get started, you need to collect everything you need to do. The book assumes you have a lot of paper to collect. I’ll assume you have a little paper and a lot of email. It doesn’t really matter, collect both. If you already have some todo lists scattered about collect those together. If you have some junk in your head that you need to get done, put each item on a piece of paper and throw it in the pile. We’ll consider your email folders as “piles”.
Some of the inputs:
  • Your calendar
  • Your email
  • Your notebooks
  • Your digital notebooks (OneNote/Evernote)
  • Flyers about upcoming events
  • Magazines you’re saving to read
  • Books you’re saving to read
  • Anything in a stack of papers somewhere in your office, home, car
Processing Inputs

This is the heart and soul of the system. You’re going to look at each item and determine an action that can be taken with that item. If it is a flyer for an event, the action is “sign up”.
You’ll end up with the following files:
  • Next Actions List – I use a notecard for this because I find it cathartic to cross things off of a physical list. I also consider read items in my Outlook Inbox to be part of this list. Use technology if you like, but I think that this should be portable, so choose a list that you can access on your smartphone, if you go digital. I also have a few special next action lists in Evernote:
    • Stuff to pick up next time you’re at Home Depot
    • Stuff to pick up next time you’re at the Grocery Store
  • Calendar – I use Outlook exclusively. No paper calendar for me, because it wouldn’t pop up reminders.
  • Waiting For – This is a list of things you’re responsible for, but the next action belongs to someone else. You have this list so you can refer back to it regularly and make sure you don’t have to follow up.
  • Someday/maybe List – This I keep only in Evernote. I actually have several of these including:
    • Work projects to potentially tackle
    • Side-job projects to potentially tackle
    • House projects to do (when we can afford them)
    • Pipe-dream life stuff (bucket list kinda’ stuff)
    • Web sites to visit
    • Book Priority List
    • Movies I’d Need to See
    • Stuff to discuss next time I talk to my boss
    • Next staff meeting
  • Project Folders – I keep these in Evernote (and use the Evernote add-in for Outlook to pull emails into the appropriate project for reference. Others will probably just want to leave them in Outlook, in project-specific folders or maybe some combination of the two.
  • Reference – I have paper reference files and keep the rest in Evernote. I use the add-in to pull emails into Evernote.
  • To Read/Review – This is a stack of stuff you’ll read when you have time. Put magazines, books, technical papers, articles you’ve printed out in this stack to take with you when you have a few minutes (like before a meeting starts, on a plane or, at the doctor’s office).
The author says that if you use Outlook to organize your emails into these buckets, he suggests that you create folders called: @Action, @Waiting For, @Reference, @Projects so that they appear at the top of the list.
First determine whether you even need this thing and/or plan to take any action upon it ever. If not Trash it.
If action needs to be taken then:
  • Determine only the next action required. This should be something like “call to schedule tire change” or “investigate tire prices online” and not “car tires”.
  • Now select one of the following options:
    • Do it. – if it can be completed in 2 minutes or less, do it right now.
    • Delegate it. – and put a note in your “Waiting for” list.
    • Defer it – in this case, you put it in one of three places
      • Your calendar (so you will be reminded when you need to do it)
      • Your “next actions” list
      • Your “someday” list
If it requires no action, but you need to keep it for reference, put it in your “reference” files.
Organize Results

Put each item into the appropriate place (as described above).
Review Options for Next Actions

Here’s the thing, he basically advocates using what he calls the “Natural Planning Model” to get this done. This is worth reading as it is foundational to this whole thing. It starts on page 56 and goes for a few pages.
Practices to Adopt

  • All the time (habits)
    • Have paper and pen with you to write stuff down. Write down ideas and new inputs there ASAP so they aren’t lost and/or clogging up your brain. (I count Evernote on my Smartphone as satisfying this requirement)
    • Bring stuff from your to read/review stack whenever you’ll have a little time to knock something out.
  • Daily
    • Work off of your calendar and when you have “spaces” from your next action list.
    • Follow the do it, delegate it, defer it as inputs come in.
  • Periodically
    • At least weekly, review all incomplete items in your next action list and flag the ones that are highest priority
    • At least weekly, review your projects, waiting for and someday/maybe lists to see if anything in them needs to be addressed soon. Add items to your calendar or next action lists as necessary.
    • At least once per year, review the content of all the folders in your reference filing system and throw out irrelevant stuff.
Deciding What to Do Next

Ultimately, the author says to use your instincts and just trust them to guide you to what to do next. Or, you can use one of these not-so-helpful systems.
Four-Criteria Model for Choosing Actions in the Moment
  1. Only consider actions that can be performed in your current context (defined by your location and the set of resources available).
  2. Only consider actions that can be completed in the amount of time you have available. Actions should be defined as small as possible and not require multiple steps.
  3. Only consider actions that can be addressed given your current energy level.
  4. Decide between the remaining actions based on their priority or payoff.
Threefold Model for Evaluating Daily Work

  1. Do an action from your “Next Actions” list.
  2. Do work as it shows up if it is more important than anything on your “Next Actions” list.
  3. Define additional work (adding to your lists) based on new inputs in your in-basket, email, voic-mail and meeting notes.
Six-Level Model for Reviewing Your Own Work


There are six perspectives from which to view tasks is order to assign priorities to them. Consider how completing a given task will help to achieve the following.

  1. life goals
  2. 3-5 year goals
  3. 1-2 year goals
  4. areas of responsibility
  5. current projects
  6. current actions

This was one of the more interesting sections of the book. I suggest reading these pages (176-180) for more information, but the summary is below.
If you need help determining priority, it might help to spend a few minutes making a checklist of your commitments and making sure you’re fulfilling them all as best you can. Here are the author’s suggestions:
  • Family
  • Career
  • Relationships
  • Community and Service
  • Health and energy
  • Financial resources
  • Creative expression
He also advocates drilling into some like so:
  • Career
    • Team morale
    • Processes
    • Timelines
    • Staff issues
    • Workload
    • Communication
The Power of the Principles

The author of the book did us all a solid and saved all the touchy-feely psycho-babble for the end of the book. Is some of it interesting, I’ll let you decide (I found some of it interesting). FYI, this part is hard to summarize. If you want to know more, read the pages noted below.
  • People who get things done are careful about the agreements they make. They know what they have to do, so they only make agreements that fit their priorities. This means saying “no” to a lot of things. However, getting more done means, well, you’re completing a lot more of what you agree to do. (pages 227+) * One of my favorite parts
  • How this system is different than traditional time management (pages 231+)
  • What happens to people and organizations that have “the collection habit” (pages 233+)
  • Why the “next action” technique works (pages 236+)
  • Why bright people procrastinate the most (pages 240+) * Interesting
  • Why focusing on the outcome works (pages 249+)

So, what do you think ?