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Summary of Getting Things Done by David Allen

In this book summary of Getting Things Done, we will break down the GTD methodology outlined by David Allen.

GTD is one of the most popular productivity systems out there today and with good reason; it’s a very effective system for clearing your mind of all inputs. So you can focus on the things that are truly important, which in turn is going to allow you to do your best work.


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What is the book about?

Have you ever been in a situation at work where the number of things you could do, should do or have agreed to do are filling your brain to its capacity? An act of desperation you may have put some of your appointments in a calendar, some of your actions on a post-it note and some of your ideas on a notepad.

Your mind can’t keep track of all the things you need to do but can’t do at this moment. For most of us, it kind of feels like a character flaw and we’re ashamed to admit that we can’t keep track of everything. But it’s not a character flaw; it’s simply a fact about being human. Our brains weren’t designed to function this way.

As author David Allen says your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them. With over 30 years of executive coaching and validation from the latest cognitive science, author David Allen has proved that by relying on our calendars and our notepads at all times, not just when we’re in a crisis, we can experience stress-free productivity.

By getting all things that we can’t result at this moment into an external brain, we can free up mental space, be fully engaged with the current task we’re doing and be fully present with the people in our lives.

David’s getting things done system (GTD) leverages a nice brain hack; the fact that we can relieve the brain of the anxiety of unresolved items by simply capturing them appropriately.

You see when we think of could do, should do or things we’ve agreed to do, and we haven’t appropriately captured them or completed them, there’s a part of our brain that actively thinks about them.

It’s like opening up multiple programs on our computer and allowing them to run in the background. After you open up enough of these programs, your system starts to slow down and it eventually crashes.
By capturing everything in a trusted system we can rely on. We give our brain permission to close those programs and free up. Mental processing power allowing ourselves to be fully engaged with what we’re doing at this moment; so we can be fully present effective and creative.  

About the author 

David Allen is president of The David Allen Company and has more than twenty years of 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 CompanyFortuneAtlantic MonthlyO, and many other publications.

Getting-Things-Done-summary
Summary of Getting Things Done

Book Summary of Getting Things Done

 If you constantly feel overwhelmed, Getting Things Done central concept of capturing everything into a trusted system has the potential to revolutionize your life. However, GTD can be a bit intimidating when you’re trying to get started with it.

Getting Things Done workflow chart
Getting Things Done workflow chart

If you’re like a lot of people you’ll take one look at this and decide it’s just not for you; just look at how complex this thing is! You may have even seen this before and decided that it’s just way too hard to get started with this.

That’s one of the biggest problems with GTD. the steep learning curve. Later on, in this book summary of Getting Things Done, we’re going to break this flow chart down step by step for you and accelerate the learning curve. So you can get up and running with GTD.

If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed and unable to keep up with everything coming at you, then this book summary is just for you. By the end of this summary, you’ll have a strategy for taking back control of your life and achieving tranquility and clarity instead of chaos and disorder.

“Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax.” 

How GTD works?

GTD is built around the concept that you have a lot of different inputs. These are things that enter your consciousness and you must decide what to do with them.
The problem is that most people just put them off. For example, reading an email that requires some action but just leaving it in your inbox and hoping you’ll remember to do something with it later.

Five basic steps to the GTD methodology

1- Capture: collect what has your attention

Have you ever had a great idea but we’re too busy to write it down and then completely forgot about it later. That’s because your brain is for having ideas not storing them.

The central tenant of GTD is to capture everything and put it into a trusted system so that you can make appropriate decisions about what to do when.
David Allen says you can’t feel good about what you’re not doing unless you know what you’re not doing. If you don’t capture the things that have your attention you’ll get stuck in emergency scan modality by default.

Many people live their lives, constantly reacting like this, trying to put out fires that spring up. Because they’ve forgotten about things they needed to do or at least they’re worried about what they may have forgotten; so they can’t focus on any one thing for very long.

You need to capture everything that has your attention to an inbox, notepad and apps just make sure that you get everything. It’s important to identify them all so you can routinely process them.

For example you may have a paper tray, your email inbox, you may capture random thoughts or notes to an app. If you’ve never taken the time to identify the inboxes that exist in your life, do this now.

“If you don’t pay appropriate attention to what has your attention, it will take more of your attention than it deserves.”

2- Clarify; process what it means

Once you have everything collected in your inbox or inboxes, only then can you begin to process it and make decisions about what to do with all those inputs.

This is actually the easy part as once you have everything captured and you have a plan in place, for processing all those pieces of information it only takes a few seconds to decide where they belong in your trusted system.

You have to do this regularly you can’t just let your inboxes pile up. You have to do something about them and you have to do it regularly.

3- Organize; put it where it belongs

Once you identify what something is you have to put it in the appropriate bucket. for example, if it’s something actionable, put it in your task management system.

If it’s not actionable but it’s reference material you might need later, put it somewhere you can easily recall it.

If it’s time-sensitive like a meeting or an appointment, put it on your calendar.

If it’s not important you may decide just to trash it and not worry about it anymore.

This is also where the idea of contexts comes into play. A context is basically just a tool, thing, place or person you need to get something done.

For example, a list of phone calls you have to make would be grouped under the phone context; or a list of grocery items under the grocery store context.

“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.” 

4- Reflect; review frequently

This is the number one mistake people make and it’s the biggest reason why GTD doesn’t work for people. By failing to review consistently they just let things pile up. They can get the system in place but then they try to set it and forget it and they don’t maintain it.

When it comes to your productivity though, you constantly have to be reviewing and making adjustments.

It’s important to clean up and update your lists to dump any new loose ends in your trusted system and to clear your mind. At agent efficiency, we recommend that you do this every week. Yes! It takes a little bit of time, but the benefit of feeling like you’re finally in control of your life far outweighs the cost.

“You must use your mind to get things off your mind.” 

5- Engage; simply do

These steps sound simple and it is. If you’ve set up your system correctly if you’re on top of your tasks and know what you need to get done each day, it’s easy to just pull up your list and execute the plan.

The most productive people we know are the ones who either the night before or first thing in the morning, sit down with their task lists and identify the top things they need to do that day. Then spend the rest of the day just executing the plan.

This only works though if you’ve followed the first four steps and you can really trust that everything you need to do, is on your list and in the appropriate containers.

“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.” 

GTD workflow

So let’s take a look at how to actually apply this Throughout your day you’re constantly bombarded with information, such as things you have to do. All of these things are constantly vying for your attention in your in the basket.

When information like this comes at you the first question you have to ask yourself is what is this piece of information? Once you decide what it is, you can then answer the question is it actionable. If it’s not actionable it can go one of three places:

1- it could go in the trash. A surprisingly high amount of information we try to hang on to actually belongs here. Many people have a tendency to be a digital hoarder, but the reality is that you don’t need all the stuff you say you need. don’t be afraid to delete things that you don’t think are important anymore.

2- If you decide it actually is important, the second place you could put it is a someday maybe folder.

3- If it will be important to review at a later date or the third-place you could put it is a reference file; so you can access that information easily when you actually need it.

“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.” 

What’s the next action?

If you can’t complete the activity in one step then it’s actually not an action, it’s a project and it needs further planning.

A project is anything that contains multiple steps in order to complete it. Chances are you’ll have several projects active at any given time. So in addition to the initial planning phase of the project, it’s also very important that you regularly review the project to see if there are any additional steps.

The 2-minute rule

If the information is not a project and you can actually finish it in one step, the next question you need to ask is will this take less than two minutes?

If it will take less than two minutes to complete the activity, just go ahead and finish it. It will probably take more time and effort to decide on a follow-up plan than it will to actually just complete the activity.

If it will take more than two minutes to complete you can do one of two things:

1- You can delegate it to someone else, in which case you need to make sure that it ends up on a waiting list for you to follow up with. Make sure that you don’t just hand it off and forget about it; especially if you are the one ultimately responsible for the completion of the activity. Make sure that you follow up and make sure that the task gets finished.

2- You could defer it. When you defer a task you’re pushing it out into the future for one of two reasons: Either you need to complete the task at a specific time or you need something else to be finished before you can get to that task.

If you’re deferring the task because it is time-based -like a meeting- make sure it ends up on your calendar. If it’s not time-based and you’re waiting for something else to be finished before you can get to this task, make sure it ends up on your next actions list.

The secret to making GTD or any task management methodology work is to make sure that you can trust your own system. One aspect of this is knowing what applications you’re going to use and what role they’re going to fill.

You could apply Getting Things Done with our favorite productivity platform, ClickUp.


What did you learn from the book summary of Getting Things Done? What was your favorite takeaway? Is there an important insight that we missed? Comment below or tweet to us @storyshots.


Implement GTD with our favorite productivity suite, ClickUp.


To learn more, get the audiobook for FREE.

New to StoryShots? Download our top-ranking free app to access the PDF/ePub, free audiobook and animated versions of this summary.

Comment below or tweet to us if you have any feedback.


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Getting Things Done summary
Summary of Getting Things Done
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