Life gets busy. Has Getting Things Done been gathering dust on your bookshelf? Instead, learn the key ideas now.
Getting Things Done identifies how you can maximize your ability to plan and actualize tasks and projects. GTD has now become a popular approach to professional and personal tasks within the management realm. However, Allen’s approaches are meant to be generalizable to all facets of your life.
About David Allen
David Allen is an author, consultant, international lecturer, and founder of the David Allen Company. Forbes recognized David Allen as one of the top five executive coaches in the United States. Similarly, Leadership Magazine quoted him as one of the “Top 100 thought leaders.” Finally, Fast Company hailed David Allen, “One of the world’s most influential thinkers” in the arena of personal productivity.
Get in Control of Your Life
“Use your mind to think about things, rather than think of them. You want to be adding value as you think about projects and people, not simply reminding yourself they exist.” – David Allen
An out of control life will make it impossible to think strategically or plan effectively. Therefore, Allen recommends obtaining control of your daily tasks before focusing on the bigger picture. Getting things done is a bottom-up approach to productivity. The goal of this approach is to establish a sense of control over your work. This control will free up the mental energy required to think about lifelong goals.
Define Your Perception of Finished
To get things done, you have to understand your own definition of finishing something. Most people have a list of to-dos that don’t even have a clear vision of what a finished task looks like. This approach does not align with your natural tendencies. Your brain is designed to solve problems where you understand what the endpoint is. Subsequently, you should always seek to establish a clear stopping point. If you are struggling to make progress, ensure that you are still aware of what done looks like.
The Five Phases of Effective Work
Your work is considerably more effective if you have all your required resources in one place before you begin. Additionally, you will make better use of your available inputs if all your resources are together. Therefore, engage in collecting. Collecting is the act of gathering resources, knowledge, and tasks.
As well as gathering all relevant resources, you must also establish what you can do with the resources at your disposal. Allen calls this processing. Separate and allocate your resources to prioritize what you are planning on doing next. This can be done by task, project, or plan. Processing means emptying the box or drawer and defining the next executable action for all items you’ve collected in the first step. Most people find it difficult to act on a specific task because they do not know what they need to do next. Without defining, the chore is nothing more than an abstract idea and will keep popping up in your thoughts.
After processing, you then have to take your results and place them into a system you trust. The importance of this system is that it means you won’t have to remember all the processing results. Organizing allows you to place these results in a useful format. Allen recommends placing tasks on to-do lists and projects on project lists. Then, place future plans on a tracking system, and reference information in a file or database.
‘Doing’ is simply the process of taking action on the plans you have already established. Hence, ‘doing’ means working through the tasks you can accomplish right now.
After taking action, you need to examine the results of your work. After examining, revise your strategy accordingly and improve your systems for better results. In this step, you regularly confirm you have defined the right tasks and have included everything that needs to be done. This reviewing phase should take about one or two minutes for a daily review. Comparatively, spend ten minutes for a weekly review.
Stop Storing Things in Your Head
People tend to attempt and store everything in their minds. However, our brains are not optimized for memory storage. Instead, our brains are optimized for quick decision-making. Therefore, try to avoid juggling information within your head. To achieve maximum efficiency, the brain must focus 100% on the task at hand, without dwelling on pending projects or other unrelated concerns. One way to do this is to stop for a moment and place all the important stored information down onto a piece of paper. Some people prefer to write this information while others prefer drawing. Either way, you want to get your stored information out of your brain. Once you have done this, you will find it far easier to make decisions based on this information.
This approach complements our brain, but it should also prevent stress. If you reduce the friction, you experience when capturing ideas, you’ll naturally capture more of them. Another solution highlighted by Allen is to start using buckets.
“Everything you’ve told yourself you ought to do, your mind thinks you should do right now. Frankly, as soon add you have two things to do stored in your RAM, you’ve generated personal failure, because you can’t do two things at the same time. This produces an all-pervasive stress factor whose source can’t be pin-pointed.” – David Allen
Projects and Tasks Are Different
A common mistake is tracking projects and tasks in the same way. Plus, conflating projects and tasks within the same review process. Conflating the two is a surefire way to overwhelm yourself. Including long-term projects alongside your daily tasks will make you feel like a failure. In your eyes, you will fail this long-term project for the months or years it takes for you to complete it.
Due to the difference in time frames between projects and tasks, you should track them differently and in a different space. For example, using post-it notes for tasks and a journal for your projects.
Always Seek the Next Action
“You don’t actually do a project; you can only do action steps related to it. When enough of the right action steps have been taken, some situation will have been created that matches your initial picture of the outcome closely enough that you can call it “done.” – David Allen
Big projects can quickly become overwhelming due to their complexity. Therefore, instead of focusing on the distant past goals, you should simply focus on the next action required to move forward. Building on this point, only ever focus on actions you can do right now. If a task is impossible at the moment, then there is no point worrying about it.
Utilize the 2-Minute Rule
Allen recommends tracking tasks; however, this rule does not apply to your small tasks. Tasks that take two minutes or less should never be tracked. If you start tracking these short tasks, you will spend more time writing down tracked times than actually acting. Delegate when you feel another person could do the task faster and/or better than you. All remaining chores should be organized in a system. The system can include different types of lists. People to call, people to write an E-mail, and a list of actions for different projects you are working on. Immediately plan tasks into your calendar that are time-bound.
Use Reference Files for Long-Term Actions
Long-term tasks shouldn’t be placed in your active daily task tracking system. Allen recommends utilizing reference files to store information about long-term tasks you don’t have to act on right now. You can choose whether you want these reference files to be physical or electronic.
Keep Track of Your Commitments With Buckets
The primary purpose of buckets is to store information important enough to be a potential distraction. The crucial part of these buckets is they are close enough for access. There are seven types of buckets which help keep the system clean and clear:
- A list of active tasks – Actions you’ve committed to accomplishing in the next few days.
- A list of active projects – 4-20 projects you’ve committed to accomplishing in the next few weeks.
- A calendar – Commitments to meet with other people in the near future.
- A someday/maybe list – Ideas you’d like to explore, but not right now.
- Reference files – Information or documents you’ll need to refer to in the future.
- A capture device – Some way of capturing ideas or next actions as you think of them.
The bucket system is extremely efficient, but this is only the case when it contains useful up-to-date information. Therefore, you need to consistently ‘take out the trash.’ Clean your buckets regularly. Allen quotes a minimum of one bucket clearance per week. The buckets’ content needs to be reviewed, reordered by priority, and any irrelevant or outdated items need to be discharged.
Schedule Non-Negotiable Time for a Weekly Review
Time moves so swiftly it can be challenging keeping track of whether you are attaining the results you expect. Therefore, Allen suggests you schedule time for a weekly review. He offers a selection of things you could include in your weekly review:
- Process and organize anything you’ve collected but haven’t handled yet.
- Review the active tasks that you can add to, delegate, defer, or delete.
- Review your active projects and consider whether there are any to add, delegate, defer, or delete.
- Review your calendar and identify whether there are any meetings to add, delegate, defer, or delete.
- A Someday/Maybe section that includes anything you can add or promote to an active project.
- Reference Files can include anything you need soon or anything to add or update.
- Goals that you have developed. These goals show whether you are moving in the right direction or changes are necessary.
Create a Comfortable Workplace
It is crucial you structure your tasks. However, it is also crucial that you optimize the structure of your workplace. Firstly, your workspace should include all the materials you require to work productively. Plus, you must ensure you are comfortable within your workplace.
The Goal of Getting Things Done
You will not obtain instant gratification from getting things done. Instead, it will take considerable time for you to get everything under control. Therefore, you should cut yourself some slack. Getting things done is about developing a collection of habits. Habits take time to develop. As getting things done is associated with a wide range of habits, you should incorporate one habit at a time. Once this habit becomes effortless, focus on installing the next habit.
The primary goal of getting things done is to make it easier to do the work that matters to you. Hence, getting things done helps you to effectively tackle procrastination by endlessly improving your system. These improvements are usually far simpler than you think. In fact, Allen explains the most effective systems utilize the most straightforward approaches that work. When in doubt, err on the side of doing less.
Utilize Natural Planning
“It is a tricky business to know when you should set goals and objectives to achieve a focus, and when you would be better off dealing with the acceptance and management of your current reality so you can later step into new directions and responsibilities with greater stability and clarity. Only you will know the answer to that, and only in the moment.” – David Allen
Project planning tends to be characterized by an unnatural non-structured process. Allen describes natural planning as a quick and fun way to identify concrete steps. These steps will lead you closer to accomplishing your long term goals.
First, start with your accomplished goal in mind. Once you have this in mind, you can start brainstorming. Avoid brainstorming in your mind and ensure you brainstorm externally. For example, write down your ideas and draw mind maps. Once your ideas are organized, you start finding concrete steps to accomplish them and get closer to your goal.
Prioritizing Your Tasks
“If you don’t pay appropriate attention to what has your attention, it will take more of your attention than it deserves.” – David Allen
The priority of tasks can help you define what to do first. Allen outlines six levels of prioritization that you should consider when planning your work:
- Your 3-5 year vision
- Your 1-2 year vision
- Current responsibilities
- Current projects
- Current defined actions
- These actions directly influence the other five levels
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