Actionable Book Summary: Getting Things Done by David Allen

The Book In Three Or More Sentences:

Getting Things Done aims to help us become more productive and organized by asking ourselves the right questions and arranging our surroundings to serve us better. In GTD, David Allen shares proven methods and tricks from his years of experience as a management consultant. And these tips will supposedly aid us in handling unexpected work better, help us keep our sanity, overcome feelings of anxiety and most importantly, remain focused on our long-term goals.

The Core Idea:

A practical approach for maximizing productivity. Getting things done is all about setting the right priorities and accomplishing tasks that will move you closer to your desired long-term future life. By clearly stating what you want to achieve, you’ll focus all of your energy on doing the right things and skipping everything else. In short, GTD focuses on getting stuff done with less effort and stress.


  • Getting Things Done is not simply about getting things done. It’s about clarifying what you want from your life and pursuing it;
  • The quickest way to increase your productivity is by organizing your workstation;
  • While we now have access to lots of tools and apps that will supposedly save us time, you should neglect most of them to get things done;

Key Lessons from Getting Things Done:

Lesson #1: Lack of Clarity is The Real Reason You’re Not Getting Things Done, Not Lack of Time

Do you know why there are so many things on your mind? Why you feel like you don’t have enough time in your day to finish your tasks?

It’s not what you think.

As the author says in the book, “Things rarely get stuck because of lack of time. They get stuck because what “doing” would look like, and where it happens, hasn’t been decided.”

Let me expand on this: If you’re like most people, you probably have dozens of things on your to-do list. But in a lot of occasions, simply writing “I need to write a new article” or “I need to work on project X” is not enough. It’s simply too broad definition to give you a good perspective about what you need to do. The lack of specifics makes the project look overwhelming, thus you do your best to avoid the task and probably even procrastinate.

So, the real reason you’re not moving forward with your projects is not a lack of time; the real problem is a lack of clarity and defining the required action steps.

To get things done, you need to do the following two things:

  1. Clearly defining the outcome: I need to have one new article written by Tuesday.
  2. Clearly defining the actions: First, research ideas about the topic of the article; Pick up a headline; Pinpoint the main paragraphs; Write the draft;

In training and coaching many thousands of people, I have found that lack of time is not the major issue for them (though they may think it is); the real problem is a lack of clarity and definition about what a project really is, and what associated next-action steps are required.” David Allen

Lesson #2: There are 5 Concepts To Control Your Daily Workflow

According to David Allen, there are 5 practical concepts that need to work together in order for you to gain control of your daily workflow:

  1. Capture: This step is about collecting and categorizing different things in some kind of containers. For example, creating an email forwarder to store emails of a certain category. Or, using physical in-tray to collect papers, if you’re still into papers. The idea is to create systems that collect information by category, automatically if possible. Still, the author suggests having as few as possible capture locations. Less information captured, means less information processes later by you.
  2. Clarify: Once you start collecting piles of things to do (emails), you need to quickly process them. To do so, ask the following question: “Is it actionable?” If no, you should either save it for later or immediately delete it. If yes, you should group the item with other related actions. But don’t yet do it, you can decide from the following 3: Do It, Delegate It, or Defer It.
  3. Organize: Once you have piles of stuff, you need to sort them. The organize section helps you group similar things/tasks into projects. And each project should have its own end goal. For instance, one project can be, “Publish a book” or “Starting a podcast”. Respectfully, all tasks related to this task should enter this particular project board. The idea here is to have everything related to a certain task stored in one place.
  4. Reflect: A step to review your current goals, your current tasks, and to ask yourself, “Should I be doing this?” The Reflect stage is about reminding yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Also, to update your projects, your systems and to ditch things that don’t help you reach your ultimate goal in life. The idea here is to do this weekly.
  5. Engage: Here the author talks about making the right choice depending on the circumstances. For instance, if you have a meeting in five minutes it’s better to check your email – sort, delete, reply – than to draft your new book. Or, if you’re really tired and you simply don’t have enough energy, it’s better to do something easy than to reply to your boss’s proposal. In other words, do things depending on the context, available time, available energy and priority – the ones below:

Lesson #3: Make Choices Based On Four-Criteria Model

Your progress depends solely on your decisions. And to make the right choices, you should consider the following criteria:

  1. Context: Use your time productively. You should do things based on what you could possibly do at the current moment. For instance, sort tasks in a category called “Less Than 5-Minute.” This way every time you’re waiting, you can execute on something and get a quick win.
  2. Time available: This one is simpler. This factor basically tells you to choose your action based on the available time you have before doing something else. Or in other words, if your meeting is starting in ten minutes, you’ll most likely select a different action to do right now than you would if the next couple of hours were clear.
  3. Energy available: Knowing yourself here will surely help you. If you’re more productive in the morning, it’s better to schedule the most complicated stuff first thing in the morning.
  4. Priority: Obviously, you should perform tasks based on their importance. Ask yourself the following question once deciding what to do next: “Out of all my remaining options, what is the most important thing for me to do?”

At the end of the day, in order to feel good about what you didn’t get done, you must have made some conscious decisions about your accountabilities, goals, and values.” David Allen

Lesson #4: Interruptions Are Unavoidable in Life

How often something disturbs your workflow while writing an important email or when you’re thinking about your next blog post? Too often, right? Well, that’s what happens in real life. No matter how well you plan, or how much you pay for project management software, you can’t predict situations that require your immediate attention. At some point, a you-should-do-it-right-now kind of task will knock on your door.

“Don’t worry,” says David Alen. As long as you can quickly get back to your in-tray you should be fine. That’s why the author advices the following: “Do unexpected work as it shows up, not because it is the path of least resistance, but because it is the thing you need to do vis-à-vis all the rest.”

The idea here is to train your body and mind so it can switch between tasks rapidly. Or in other words: While holding on the phone check your emails; While driving check your voice mails. You should organize your working space for solitude but be prepared for interruptions and get back to what you were doing when disturbed immediately.

People often complain about the interruptions that prevent them from doing their work. But interruptions are unavoidable in life. When you become elegant at dispatching what’s coming in and are organized enough to take advantage of “weird time” windows that show up, you can switch between one task and the other rapidly.” David Allen

Lesson #5: Follow The Six-Level Model To Keep Working On Your Dream

Another lesson and another multiple-level system.

This final lesson is uberly important. It’s not only about work, it’s also about your life. About finding what’s important in it so you can master the art of stress-free productivity.

Here’s the system in short:

  • Horizon 5. Life: The only way to be really productive and fulfilled in your life is by deciding the following: “Why you’re here on the planet?” Figure out what kind of life and work will suit you best. Once you know, to get to that dream state, continue doing the rest.
  • Horizon 4. Long-term visions: Create long-term projects based on the above step. Each project will be like a north star, showing you the way. Of course, each project should be clearly defined. A good idea here is to have two different sections: Professional and Personal. As you probably guessed it, the Pro section will list things that will help you advance in your career where the Personal section is all about you and your family.
  • Horizon 3. One- to two-year goals: Things you need to achieve in the rather short-term that will help you accomplish the long-term goals. You’re basically chunking the big tasks into smaller projects.
  • Horizon 2. Areas of focus and accountability: You should always be 100% aware of what you’re doing. Use the two focus lists created above: Professional and Personal, and depending on what you’re doing, write down the projects associated with these lists. For instance, things included in your Professional list might include: project management, customer service, etc. In contrast, your Personal list might have things like parenting, learning how to code, working on X project. The idea is to be aware of what are your obligations.
  • Horizon 1. Current projects: Consider each project like a folder on your desktop. When you open the folder, all files related to the project should be in place. When you’re working on project X, you should be aware of everything related to this plan. That’s why you should set a system to collect and sort incoming information.
  • Ground. Current actions: This section is about your immediate priorities. The things you should do on a daily basis to get to the top-level horizon. Nothing fancy here. Decide which project you’ll be tackling today, tomorrow, now, and define what should be your next actions.

Though the author suggests a bottom-up approach. Meaning, starting with Ground > Horizon 1 > etc., I do believe that a top-down approach is better. Because only by figuring our your place on the planet Earth you can set good long-term goals and prioritize your current tasks.

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Actionable Notes:

  • Write down your desired outcome when doing something: When facing a dilemma-like situation, or you’re simply wondering how to act in a particular situation, describe what should happen in a single sentence. Or in other words, write down the required actions on a piece of paper that will help you resolve this. Don’t postpone this, take a pen and brainstorm your next step.
  • Set a vision: You must have a clear picture in your mind of what success would look, sound, and feel like. Basically, to know what will happen when you achieve success. How your world will change when you’ve achieved your vision.
  • Setup your workspace: You must be fanatic about your workspace. Choose a physical location and call it your office. Restrict the access and don’t let others use your desk. It should be your sacred place. The place you focus and the place you create. When you’re behind your desk, the only thing that should cross your mind should be tasks that will move the needle closer to your goal.
  • Create a system for collecting info: Whether you’ll have a physical place where you collect information about your different project, a digital one, or both, a system to gather and collect info should be in place. Consider the email forwarder mentioned above. The reason you need this is simple: When everything is organized and easily accessible the likelihood of you procrastinating will significantly decrease.
  • Frequently purge files: I suppose you clean your house at least once a month, so why not take the same approach about the files you collect? Cleaning your house and files keeps you sane and helps you focus on the essentials. So, don’t just pile junk in drawers or folders on your computer, schedule purge days and remove things you don’t use from both your office desk and your personal computer.

Commentary And My Personal Takeaway

I was disappointed. Getting Things Done is quoted by online gurus around the world and mentioned in different sites about productivity. The GTD method is considered the best approach to become ultra-productive. A way to transition from a lazy snail to a blazing doer. Unfortunately, even though it was revised and updated, I can’t say that Getting Things Done is even close to being the best book about organizing your life and becoming more productive.

The book gravitates – too much – around arranging your desk and about what you should remove and about what you should put as decorations in your office. There are more than 100 pages about organizing your cabinets, your shelves, and your desktop. But in the 21st century, as you probably know, you need simply a laptop and access to the internet, you don’t need supplies or in-trays to collect paper. You new fewer things on your desk.

Overall, the main lessons of this book could have been condensed in a page or two. The major takeaway for me is about grouping things into projects. It’s much easier to do something when you have everything in one place.

Notable Quotes:

And if you’re not totally clear about the purpose of what you’re doing, you have no chance of winning. Purpose defines success. It’s the primal reference point for any investment of time and energy, from deciding to run for elective office to designing a form.” David Allen

There are no interruptions, really—there are simply mismanaged occurrences.” David Allen

Getting things done, and feeling good about it, means being willing to recognize, acknowledge, and appropriately engage with all the things within the ecosystem of your consciousness. Mastering the art of stress-free productivity requires it.” David Allen

When you’re not sure where you’re going or what’s really important to you, you’ll never know when enough is enough.” David Allen

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