“Getting Things Done” by David Allen: Book Summary

1 Line Summary

“Getting Things Done” by David Allen is a book that teaches you how to organize your tasks and projects in a way that reduces stress and increases productivity. It tells you how to simplify, understand, arrange, reflect and do your work easily and quickly.

What Will You Learn

You’ll learn how to:

  • Clear your mind of clutter and distractions,
  • Organize your tasks and projects into a simple and effective system,
  • Focus on the next action that will move you forward,
  • Review your progress and adjust your plans as needed,
  • Enjoy the satisfaction of getting things done.

Best Quotations from the Book

  • If you don’t pay appropriate attention to what has your attention, it will take more of your attention than it deserves.
  • 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.
  • Much of the stress that people feel doesn’t come from having too much to do. It comes from not finishing what they’ve started.
  • Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax.
  • Most people feel best about their work the week before their vacation, but it’s not because of the vacation itself. What do you do the last week before you leave on a big trip? You clean up, close up, clarify, and renegotiate all your agreements with yourself and others.
  • The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.
  • Thinking is the very essence of, and the most difficult thing to do in, business and in life. Empire builders spend hour-after-hour on mental work . . . while others party. If you’re not consciously aware of putting forth the effort to exert self-guided integrated thinking . . . then you’re giving in to laziness and no longer control your life.
  • You’ve got to think about the big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.

Book Summary

One reason why we feel more stressed is that our work is very different from what we learned to do. In just the last half of the twentieth century, work has changed from making and moving things to using our brains.

The winds and waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators.

The Basic Requirements for Managing Commitments

Managing commitments well requires the implementation of some basic activities and behaviors:

• First of all, if it’s on your mind, your mind isn’t clear. Anything you consider unfinished in any way must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind, that you know you’ll come back to regularly and sort through.

• Second, you must clarify exactly what your commitment is and decide what you have to do, if anything, to make progress toward fulfilling it.

• Third, once you’ve decided on all the actions you need to take, you must keep reminders of them organized in a system you review regularly.

Think like a man of action, act like a man of thought. Vision is not enough; it must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps; we must step up the stairs.

Horizontal and Vertical Action Management

The aim for managing in two ways is the same: to clear your mind and get things done.

Good action management lets you feel calm and in charge as you go through your wide range of work and life, while good project focusing helps you understand and follow the things you need.

“Horizontal” control keeps everything in order across all the things you do. Imagine your mind always looking around your surroundings like a police scanner; it may find any of many things that want or need your attention in any day: the pharmacy, the cleaner, the big plan, lunch, a dying plant in the office, an angry customer, shoes that need polishing.

You may be amazed at how many things you actually think about and deal with in just one day.

You need a good system that can remember as many of them as possible, give you the information you need about them when you want, and let you change your focus from one thing to another quickly and easily.

“Vertical” control, on the other hand, manages thinking about each topic and project. For example, you and your boss have to make some choices about the new changes in your department you’re about to start. Or you just need to update your thinking on the customer you’re about to call. It’s zooming in on a single thing, situation, or person and filling out whatever thoughts, details, order, and steps may be needed for you to handle it, at least for now.

The Five Stages of Mastering Workflow

There are five stages that we go through as we deal with our work. We

  1. collect things that command our attention;
  2. process what they mean and what to do about them;
  3. organize the results, which we
  4. review as options for what we choose to
  5. do.

This constitutes the management of the “horizontal” aspect of our lives—incorporating everything that has our attention at any time.

The knowledge that we consider knowledge proves itself in action. What we now mean by knowledge is information in action, information focused on results.

The Collection Tools

  • Physical in-basket
  • Paper-based note-taking devices
  • Electronic note-taking devices
  • Voice-recording devices
  • E-mail

The Collection Success Factors

  • Get It All Out of Your Head
  • Minimize the Number of Collection Buckets
  • Empty the Buckets Regularly


Three things go on your calendar:

  • Time-specific actions: This is a fancy name for appointments.
  • Day-specific actions: These are things that you need to do sometime on a certain day, but not necessarily at a specific time,  and
  • Day-specific information: The calendar is also the place to keep track of things you want to know about on specific days. This might include directions for appointments, activities that other people will be involved in, or events of interest.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

Non-actionable Items

  • Trash: Throw away anything that has no potential future action or reference value.
  • Incubation: There are two kinds of “incubate” systems that could work for this kind of thing: “Someday/Maybe” lists and a “tickler” file.

The Weekly Review

The Weekly Review is the time to:

  • Gather and process all your “stuff.”
  • Review your system.
  • Update your lists.
  • Get clean, clear, current, and complete.

The Four-Criteria Model for Choosing Actions in the Moment

There are four criteria you can apply, in this order:

  • Context
  • Time available
  • Energy available
  • Priority

The Threefold Model for Evaluating Daily Work

There are three different kinds of activities you can be engaged in:

  • Doing predefined work: You’re making the calls you need to make, drafting ideas you want to brainstorm, or preparing a list of things to talk to your attorney about.
  • Doing work as it shows up: Every day brings surprises—unplanned-for things that just show up, and you’ll need to expend at least some time and energy on many of them. When you follow these leads, you’re deciding by default that these things are more important than anything else you have to do.
  • Defining your work: Defining your work entails clearing up your in-basket, your e-mail, your voice-mail, and your meeting notes and breaking down new projects into actionable steps.

The Six-Level Model for Reviewing Your Own Work

To use an aerospace analogy, reviewing has a lot to do with the altitude.

  • 50,000+ feet: Life
  • 40,000 feet: Three-to five-year vision
  • 30,000 feet: One-to two-year goals
  • 20,000 feet: Areas of responsibility
  • 10,000 feet: Current projects
  • Runway: Current actions

The Five Phases of Project Planning

The most experienced planner in the world is your brain. Your mind goes through five steps to accomplish virtually any task:

  • Defining purpose and principles
  • Outcome visioning
  • Brainstorming
  • Organizing
  • Identifying next actions

The Value of Thinking About “Why”

Here are just some of the benefits of asking “why?”, it:

  • defines success,
  • creates decision-making criteria,
  • aligns resources,
  • motivates,
  • clarifies focus,
  • expands options.

Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behavior.

Natural Planning Techniques: The Five Phases

  • Purpose: To know and to be clear about the purpose of any activity are prime directives for clarity, creative development, and cooperation.
  • Principles: A great way to think about what your principles are is to complete this sentence: “I would give others totally free rein to do this as long as they …”— what?
  • What policies, stated or unstated, will apply to your group’s activities? “As long as they stayed within budget”? “satisfied the client”? “ensured a healthy team”? “promoted a positive image”?
  • Vision/Outcome: Purpose and principles furnish the momentum and monitoring, but vision provides the actual blueprint of the final result. This is the “what?” instead of the “why?
  • Clarifying Outcomes: One of the most powerful skills in the world of knowledge work, and one of the most important to hone and develop, is creating clear outcomes. We need to constantly define (and redefine) what we’re trying to accomplish on many different levels, and consistently reallocate resources toward getting these tasks completed as effectively and efficiently as possible.
  • Brainstorming: When you identify with some picture in your mind that is different from your current reality, you automatically start filling in the gaps, or brainstorming.
  • Ideas begin to pop into your head in somewhat random order— little ones, big ones, not-so-good ones, good ones. This process usually goes on internally for most people about most things, and that’s often sufficient.

Brainstorming Keys

Many techniques can be used to facilitate brainstorming and out-of-the-box thinking. The basics principles, however, can be summed up as follows:

  • Don’t judge, challenge, evaluate, or criticize: A good way to find out what something might be is to uncover all the things it’s probably not. It’s just wise to understand what kinds of thoughts you’re having and to park them for use in the most appropriate way. The primary criterion must be expansion, not contraction.
  • Go for quantity, not quality: Often you won’t know what’s a good idea until you have it. The greater the volume of thoughts you have to work with, the better the context you can create for developing options and trusting your choices.
  • Put analysis and organization in the background: Making a list can be a creative thing to do, a way to consider the people who should be on your team, the customer requirements for the software, or the components of the business plan. Just make sure to grab all that and keep going.


A “project plan” identifies the smaller outcomes, which can then be naturally planned.

The Basics of Organizing

The key steps here are:

  • Identify the significant pieces.
  • Sort by (one or more): components, sequences, priorities
  • Detail to the required degree.

Getting “In” to Empty

Getting “in” just means identifying each item and deciding what it is, what it means, and what you’re going to do with it. When you’ve finished processing “in,” you will have:

  • trashed what you don’t need;
  • completed any less-than-two-minute actions;
  • handed off to others anything that can be delegated;
  • sorted into your own organizing system reminders of actions that require more than two minutes; and
  • identified any larger commitments you now have, based on the input.

The best way to learn this model is by doing. But there are a few basic rules to follow:

  • Process the top item first.
  • Process one item at a time.
  • Never put anything back into “in.”

What If There Is No Action?

It’s likely that a portion of your in-basket will require no action. There will be three types of things in this category:

  • Trash
  • Items to incubate
  • Reference material

Once You Decide What the Action Step Is

You have three options once you decide what the next action really is.

  • Do it (if the action takes less than two minutes).
  • Delegate it (if you’re not the most appropriate person to do the action).
  • Defer it into your organization system as an option for work to do later.

The Four-Criteria Model for Choosing Actions in the Moment

You make your action choices based on the following four criteria, in order:

  • Context: At any point in time, the first thing to consider is, what could you possibly do, where you are, with the tools you have? Do you have a phone? Do you have access to the person you need to talk with face-to-face about three agenda items?
  • Time available: The second factor in choosing an action is how much time you have before you have to do something else. Obviously, it’s good to know how much time you have at hand (hence the emphasis on calendar and watch). A total-life action-reminder inventory will give you maximum information about what you need to do, and make it much easier to match your actions to the windows you have.
  • Energy available: Although you can increase your energy level at times by changing your context and redirecting your focus, you can do only so much. It is recommended to keep an inventory of things that need to be done that require very little mental or creative horsepower. When you’re in one of those low-energy states, do them.
  • Priority: The obvious next criterion for action choice is relative priority: “Out of all my remaining options, what is the most important thing for me to do?”

The Threefold Model for Evaluating Daily Work

During the course of the workday, at any point in time, you’ll be engaged in one of three types of activities:

  • Doing predefined work
  • Doing work as it shows up
  • Defining your work

How Do You Prevent Broken Agreements with Yourself?

You have three options for dealing with them and eliminating the negative consequences:

  • Don’t make the agreement: Maintaining an objective inventory of your work makes it much easier to say no with integrity.
  • Complete the agreement: Another way to get rid of the negative feelings about your stuff is to just finish it and be able to mark it off as done. You actually love to do things, as long as you get the feeling that you’ve completed something.
  • Renegotiate the agreement: If you’re holding something only internally, it will be a broken agreement if you’re not moving on it in the moment.

 All of these can work to get rid of the unpleasant feelings.

As an expert in whole-brain learning, Steven Snyder, put it:

There are only two problems in life: (1) you know what you want, and you don’t know how to get it; and/or (2) you don’t know what you want.”

If that’s true, then there are only two solutions:

• Make it up.

• Make it happen.

In conclusion, if you want to achieve more with less stress, you need to read the book Getting Things Done by David Allen; trust me, you won’t regret it!

Refer Related Content:

  1. How to Be More Productive in Work and Life: 8 Proven Ways
  2. How to Delegate Tasks as a Leader
  3. How to Increase Confidence & Self-Esteem-A 5 Step Formula
  4. Eat that Frog
  5. Extreme Ownership
  6. Code of the Extraordinary Mind

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