David Allen's Getting Things Done

Prior art

  • May 1957 issue of Scientific American describes the discovery of the reticular formation at the base of the brain.
  • Peter Drucker's coining of "knowledge worker" in 1959.
  • Tony Buzan's mind mapping, modelling the brain's associative thinking in a graphical form.
  • The psychological concept of "distributed cognition", where the environment can become an extension of the mind.
  • Steven Snyder's work on whole-brain pedagogy.
  • Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney (Penguin, 2011)
  • Atul Gawande's book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (Metropolitan Books, 2009)
  • The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Daniel J. Levitin (New York: Dutton, 2014)
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper Perennial, 1990)
  • Csikszentmihalyi and J. LeFevre, "Optimal Experience in Work and Leisure," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 56, no. 5 (1989)
  • Clive Fullagar and E. Kevin Kelloway, "Work-Related Flow," in A Day in the Life of a Happy Worker, ed. Arnold B. Bakker and Kevin Daniels (New York: Psychology Press, 2013)
  • Christopher P. Neck and Charles C. Manz, Mastering Self-Leadership: Empowering Yourself for Personal Excellence, 6th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice-Hall, 2012)


J. M. Laurence:

It's not what we have in our life, but who we have in our life, that counts.

Eric Hoffer:

We can never really be prepared for that which is wholly new. We have to adjust ourselves, and every radical adjustment is a crisis in self-esteem; we undergo a test, we have to prove ourselves. It needs subordinate self-confidence to face drastic change without inner trembling.

Nadia Boulanger:

Life is denied by lack of attention, whether it be to cleaning windows or trying to write a masterpiece.

Shunryu Suzuki:

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open for everything.

Henri Bergson:

Think like a man of action, act like a man of thought.

Ralph Waldo Emerson:

The ancestor of every action is a thought.

Kerry Gleeson:

This consistent, unproductive preoccupation with all the things we have to do is the single largest consumer of time and energy.


Rule your mind or it will rule you.

Bill Raeder:

Thought is useful when it motivates action and a hindrance when it substitutes for action.

Greek proverb:

The beginning is half of every action.

Sally Kempton:

It is hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.

Brahma Kumaris:

A task left undone remains undone in two places -- at the actual location of the task, and inside your head. Incomplete tasks in your head consume the energy of your attention as they gnaw at your conscience.

Jean de La Bruyère:

Those who make the worst use of their time are the first to complain of its shortness.

Ayn Rand:

The maintenance of life and the pursuit of happiness are not two separate issues.

Peter F. Drucker:

To make knowledge productive, we will have to learn to see both forest and tree. We will have to learn to connect.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter:

The middle of every successful project looks like a disaster.


Luck affects everything. Let your hook always be cast; in the stream where you least expect it there will be fish.

Mark Twain:

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.

Key facts

Focus has gotten harder

As we've eased access to information, we've also increased the amount of information we're exposed to, placing more demand on our ability to isolate and filter the signal from the noise:

So, not only are work and its cognitive boundaries more ambiguous and ill defined, so are the time and space within which we can (and often should) be engaged with it, along with the continuing explosion of potentially meaningful and accessible data that could add value to our lives.

The nature of work has shifted as a result:

Most of us have, in the past seventy-two hours, received more change-producing, project-creating, and priority-shifting inputs than our parents did in a month, maybe even in a year.

We're not good at remembering

Open loops cause context switching:

Most often, the reason something is on your mind is that you want it to be different than it currently is, and yet:

you haven't clarified exactly what the intended outcome is; you haven't decided what the very next physical action step is; and/or you haven't put reminders of the outcome and the action required in a system you trust.

We can't suppress this subconscious processing:

Research has now proven that a significant part of your psyche cannot help but keep track of your open loops, and not (as originally thought) as an intelligent, positive motivator, but as a detractor from anything else you need or want to think about, diminishing your capacity to perform.

So we should record them outside of our minds -- we write things down so we allow ourselves to temporarily forget them:

You might be surprised at the volume of things you actually think about and have to deal with just in one day. You need a good system that can keep track of as many of them as possible, supply required information about them on demand, and allow you to shift your focus from one thing to the next quickly and easily.

This lets us treat our minds as a computational tool, rather than storage:

Your conscious mind, like the computer screen, is a focusing tool, not a storage place.

We'll still hold on to any loose threads, so we must allow ourselves to fully trust our productivity system:

In order for your mind to let go of the lower-level task of trying to hang on to everything, you have to know that you have truly captured everything that might represent something you have to do or at least decide about, and that at some point in the near future you will process and review all of it.

Managing overwhelm

Many knowledge workers are so accustomed to functioning under stress that they don't consciously identify it as a problem:

Most people have lived in a semistressful experience so consistently, for so long, they don't know that it could be quite different -- that there is another and more positive place from which to engage with their world.

We tend to feel anxiety around tasks we're not actioning:

There is usually an inverse relationship between how much something is on your mind and how much it's getting done.

We can't shake the sense that there's something we're not doing:

Any "would, could, or should" commitment held only in the psyche creates irrational and unresolvable pressure, 24x7.

We must make peace with the idea that we won't be able to follow up on every idea:

You will invariably take in more opportunities than your system can process on a daily basis.

Nor should we:

Ultimately and always you must trust your intuition. There are many things you can do, however, that can enhance that trust.

Research demonstrates humans aren't good at multitasking, but our minds retain loose threads, forcing us to continually context switch:

If your head is your only system for placeholding, you will experience an attempted multitasking internally, which is psychologically impossible and the source of much stress for many people. If you have established practices for parking still-incomplete items midstream, however, your focus can shift cleanly from one to the next and back again, with the precision of a martial artist who appears to fight four people at once, but who in reality is simply rapidly shifting attention.

If something's constantly on your mind, it's probably a sign than you ought to just do it:

I have learned over the years that the most important thing to deal with is whatever is most on your mind. The fact that you think it shouldn't be on your mind is irrelevant. It's there, and it's there for a reason. "Buy cat food" may certainly not rank high on some theoretical prioritizing inventory, but if that's what's pulling on you the most, in the moment, then handling it in some way would be Job One.

Winston Churchill encourages us to use anxiety to our advantage:

Let our advance worrying become our advance thinking and planning.

Creative people catastrophise the most vividly

Creativity cuts both ways:

Bright people have the capability of freaking out faster and more dramatically than anyone else.

Mark Twain:

I am an old man, and I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.

We must address this tendency:

Ceasing negative imaging will always cause your energy to increase.

Keep in mind the Ballmer Peak:

Notice what happens to many people when they get a little alcohol in their brain. It should drop their energy immediately, because it's a depressant; often, though, the energy lifts, at least initially. Why? The alcohol is depressing something -- it's shutting down the negative self-talk and uncomfortable visions that are going on in these folks' minds.

Flow states

We're at our most productive in "flow" states:

You can experience what the martial artists call a "mind like water" and top athletes refer to as the "zone", within the complex world in which you're engaged. In fact, you have probably already been in this state from time to time.

The less we hold in our minds, the more we can focus on the task at hand:

The challenge is not to be creative -- it's to eliminate the barriers to the natural flow of our creative energies.

Rest is part of the productivity cycle

We must give ourselves downtime to recuperate in order to enable optimal focus:

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

Leonardo da Vinci:

Every now and then go away and have a little relaxation. To remain constantly at work will diminish your judgment. Go some distance away, because work will be in perspective and a lack of harmony is more readily seen.

We often make connections when outside of our day-to-day:

Your best thoughts about work won't happen while you're at work.

Albert Camus:

In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.

Interrogate inputs before acting

Dig deeper:

People think a lot, but most of that thinking is of a problem, project, or situation -- not about it.

Challenge automatic responses:

Anything that causes you to overreact or underreact can control you, and often does.


Reacting is automatic, but thinking is not.

Rochelle Myer:

Don't just do something. Stand there.

Complaining is a form of procrastination:

Complaining is a sign that someone isn't willing to risk moving on a changeable situation, or won't consider the immutable circumstance in his or her plans. This is a temporary and hollow form of self-validation.

Curate for action

Don't just collect, curate:

We need to transform all the "stuff" we've attracted and accumulated into a clear inventory of meaningful actions, projects, and usable information.

Closing loops builds trust

Trust is built on reliability:

When people with whom you interact notice that without fail you receive, process, and organize in an airtight manner the exchanges and agreements they have with you, they begin to trust you in a unique way. More significantly, you incorporate a level of self-confidence in your engagement with your world that money cannot buy.

New ideas

Single touch inbox

In order for us to rely on any system, it must document all of our open loops. We must be able to find everything that would otherwise be floating around in our heads in a single place. The moment we can no longer trust that this is the case, we will stop engaging with the system and go back to retaining them in our (lossy) head.

Having everything in one place enables a sense of presence otherwise unattainable:

Getting Things Done is not simply about getting things done. It's about being appropriately engaged with your work and life.

Make the most of available time:

In truth, this book is not so much concerned with getting things done as it is championing appropriate engagement with your world—guiding you to make the best choice of what to do in each moment, and to eliminate distraction and stress about what you're not doing.

David Kekich:

Anxiety is caused by a lack of control, organization, preparation, and action.

Mark Van Doren:

There is one thing we can do, and the happiest people are those who can do it to the limit of their ability. We can be completely present. We can be all here. We can give... our attention to the opportunity before us.

Plan ahead

When planning ahead, use the right tools for the job:

  • Keep your calendar for fixed commitments.
  • Use a task manager for next and future actions.
  • Maybe/someday list for possible future ideas that we're not currently committing to.

Focus on just one tool in each category:

While we now have access to lots of supertools and apps that show up on an almost daily basis and do really great stuff, that plethora of options can easily blow our productivity fuses.

Get to know it well:

Staying on top of and leveraging ever-evolving technologies adds significant pressure to getting one's appropriate workflow methodology right.

Organise resources around projects:

To manage actionable things, you will need a list of projects, storage or files for project plans and materials, a calendar, a list of reminders of next actions, and a list of reminders of things you're waiting for.

Calendars aren't a dumping ground

Calendars have specific purposes:

Three things go on your calendar:

time-specific actions; day-specific actions; and day-specific information.

Keep them focused on commitments, and use other tools for everything else:

The way I look at it, the calendar should be sacred territory. If you write something there, it must get done that day or not at all. The only rewriting should be for changed appointments.

Tools do matter

If you don't love your productivity environment, you probably aren't going to engage with it:

One of the best tricks for enhancing your productivity is having organizing tools you love to use.

Dedicate time during the weekly review to tidy up your tools:

If your reference system is not under control, it creates a blockage in your workflow that causes amorphous content to back up into your world.

Don't let untidy data cloud your thinking:

It's not because the content is so important or strategic -- it's rather that, unmanaged, it inordinately clouds physical and mental space. Random nonactionable but potentially relevant material, unprocessed and unorganized, produces a debilitating psychological noise.

Formats matter:

In addition to good tools ubiquitously at hand, it is productive to have accessible formats into which project thinking can be captured.

Organisation does matter

Some level of organisation is important. I'm sceptical of outliners that treat individual lines of text as the organisational unit:

"I don't need to organize my stuff, because the search feature can find it sufficiently" is, from what I've experienced, quite suboptimal as an approach.

Ascribing names to things gives us a sense of ownership, and should help us locate them later:

Things you name, you own. Collected but unnamed stuff owns you.

Weekly review

The weekly review catches open loops and helps formalise the maybe/someday list into next actions when the time comes.

That's why the rewards to be gained from implementing this whole process are exponential: the more complete the system is, the more you'll trust it. And the more you trust it, the more complete you'll be motivated to keep it. The Weekly Review is a master key to maintaining that standard.


Horizons help direct focus, shaping our thinking around different time windows:

  • Ground: Current actions
  • L5: Current projects => Next actions, current projects
  • L4: Accountability and focus => Present areas of responsibility
  • L3: Goals => Job, short term
  • L2: Vision projection => Vision, long term career progression, net worth
  • L1: Purpose/principles => Life purpose and actualisation

Aligning our present and future to the best of our knowledge helps:

An ambient angst pervades our society -- there's a sense that somehow there's probably something we should be doing that we're not, which creates a tension for which there is no resolution and from which there is no rest.

We need to consciously shift our focus beyond the day to day:

The trouble is, however ,that most people are so embroiled in their commitments on a day-to-day level that their ability to focus on the larger horizon is seriously impaired.

An example of framing thinking around the horizons:

Or, from the other direction, you've decided that you want to be your own boss and unlock some of your unique assets and talents in a particular area that resonates with you (life). So you create a business for yourself (vision), with some short-term key operational objectives (job goal). That gives you some critical roles you need to fulfill to get it rolling (accountability), with some immediate outcomes to achieve (projects). On each of those projects you'll have things you need to do, as soon as you can do them (next actions).

The GTD process

The Getting Things Done process is centred around five steps:

  1. Capture everything
  2. Clarify meaning and actions
  3. Organise: dates, schedules, assignees, delegation, arrange reference material
  4. Review (weekly)
  5. Engage


(1) capture what has our attention; (2) clarify what each item means and what to do about it; (3) organize the results, which presents the options we (4) reflect on, which we then choose to (5) engage with.

Categorising actions

  • Projects list
  • Project support material
  • Calendar actions and information
  • Next Actions lists
  • A Waiting For list
  • Reference material
  • A Someday/Maybe list

Actions are contextual

  • Calls
  • At Computer
  • Errands
  • At Office (miscellaneous)
  • At Home
  • Anywhere
  • Agendas (for people and meetings)
  • Read/Review

Horizontal and vertical control

Horizontal control is concerned with the flow of day to day work; the processing and doing of tasks related to projects:

Horizontal control maintains coherence across all the activities in which you are involved.

Vertical control concerns with alignment of the day to day with our longer term goals:

Vertical control, in contrast, manages thinking, development, and coordination of individual topics and projects.

The goal is to reach a sense of relaxed control:

THE KEY INGREDIENTS of relaxed control are

(1) clearly defined outcomes (projects) and the next actions required to move them toward closure, and (2) reminders placed in a trusted system that is reviewed regularly.

This is what I call horizontal focus.

Formal planning sometimes loses sight of the goal

There's value in crudely recorded, informal planning:

Most of the thinking you'll need to do is informal, what I call back-of-the-envelope planning -- the kind of thing you do literally on the back of an envelope or napkin in a coffee shop with a colleague as you're hashing out the agenda and structure of a sales presentation.

Formal planning and project management tools don't solve the day-to-day for individuals:

Instead, I've found the biggest gap to be the lack of a project-focusing model for the rest of us. We need ways to validate and support our thinking, no matter how informal.

It takes conscious effort to ensure everyone remembers the goal, so ask why:

More formal and structured meetings also tend to skip over at least one critical issue, such as why the project is being done in the first place.

Time spent planning rewards us in the end:

In my experience, when people do more planning, informally and naturally, they relieve a great deal of stress and obtain better results.

George Santayana:

Fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.

Ask why:

Here are just some of the benefits of asking why:

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


  • Proposed process seems very paper centric, and I'm not sure I can organise myself this way:
    • But I can implement digital analogues.
  • I think I prefer Tiago Forte's Building a Second Brain in a few spots:
    • I usually recommend that people store their support materials out of sight seems to be at odds with storing resources are stored alongside projects, arranged for action, except where no project fits.
    • As a rule, it's best to stick with one general-reference system except for a very limited number of discrete topics also seems to be at odds with project-first organisation of resources.
  • People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are is such a chronically privileged take. While opportunity isn't evenly distributed we should be mindful of the opportunities our circumstances afford us.