Getting Things Done

Getting Things Done is as much a workbook as it is a business text.  Within its 259 pages, David Allen teaches us the advantages and practical tricks that can allow us to take control of our schedules and responsibilities, rather than being slaves to them.

Think back to the last time you took a vacation.  How did you feel during that week before you left?  Most people feel great, and it’s not because of the vacation.  What did you do during that week?  Chances are, you “got caught up”.  You returned phone calls you’d been meaning to make.  You scheduled overdue appointments, and got your desk in order.  You did a lot, even if it was a lot of little things that had been on your mind for a while.  And you felt great.

Getting Things Done is about recreating that feeling every week.  It’s about getting control of the amazing influx of information you have on a daily basis, and putting it into a system that allows you to manage it effectively, and stress free.  In an extremely condensed summary, Allen’s system can be broken into five key components:

Collect: designing and using a minimal number of “inboxes” to gather all the information that enters your life.

Process: What is it, and can it be acted on?

Organize: When can you act on that information?  Now?  In the Future?  Never?

Review: What’s on the horizon?  What do we have time for?

Do: Two minutes or less?  Do it now.  Otherwise:  Delegate or Defer

“I have found it very helpful, if not essential, to separate these stages as I move through my day.”

Getting Things Done, page 25

David Allen spent 259 pages brilliantly articulating this system and, through countless examples and specific directions, teaches very well how to implement it into your life.  With that in mind, let’s focus on a couple truly unique aspects of his teachings.

The Big Idea

Scrap the Daily-To-Do List

Daily To Do lists are great; if you live and work in a vacuum.  When was the last time you made a To-Do list for the day, and then actually completed everything on it?  What about two days in a row?  Things come up.  Life happens.  Emergencies arise (usually when they’re least welcome) and we’re forced to make a choice – the “to do list”, or the “right in front of me”.  Usually the emergency comes in first.

Make no mistake, lists are great.  Planning is essential and anything that is time sensitive must go into your calendar.  It’s the other “stuff” on the list that needs some work.  It’s not that the “Daily-To-Do” list itself is bad (it is certainly better than no list!), it’s simply that it’s not complete, and it’s usually not organized effectively.

Insight #1

Next-Action thinking

As a test, try creating a “Daily-To-Do” list right now.  Not a large one, just jot down 5 or 6 things off the top of your head that you’d like to work on in the next 24 hours.   Seriously, grab a pen.

Ok.  Now take a look at the list, and the various items on there.  Depending on your profession and lifestyle, it may look something like this:

Sales Forecasts

Donation for client’s Christmas fundraiser

Gift for housewarming party host


Prep for meeting with Christie

Follow up call to retailer

Somewhat typical?  Here’s the challenge with a list structured like this – processing it will take a tremendous amount of mental energy.  Why?  Because not all tasks are created equal.  On this list, we’ve got simple, one step projects (follow up call to retailer).  We’ve got ambiguous tasks like “groceries”.  (If this is a “To-Do” list, how do you suggest we “do” groceries? Do we need to check the fridge?  Call a spouse?)  And then we’ve got multi-stage, multi-input tasks like “Sales forecasts”.  The challenge here is that this list is project-centric not action-centric.  Look back over the five key aspects of organization:  Collect, Process, Organize, Review, Do.  It’s called a Daily-To-Do list, not a Daily-To-Process list.  We want the items on our “To-Do” list to be actions; effectively the next step on each of our projects.  So a couple small tweaks to your Daily-To-Do list:

1. All pieces that have to be completed “today or not at all” get moved to your calendar.

2. All other projects get their own file.

3. Ask yourself – “What’s the next thing I could do to move this project along”

4. Put the answer to that question, your “next-actions” on a Next Action list.  You can reference this list after your calendar, and in between emergencies.

Insight #2

Organize by Context, Act by Energy and Time

If you’re doing this exercise properly, you’ll find that your “Next-Action” list will grow very large, very quickly.  As part of the system, Allen suggests breaking your “Next-Action” list down into smaller lists.  Not lists by project or date, but rather by context.  (Page 143) Some examples of context could be:


At Computer


At Home



Items on your “calls” list may be completely unrelated in nature or associated project, but by giving all telephone-actions one central home (your “calls” list), you can be far more efficient with far less mental energy.   Which brings us to our second point:

“I recommend that you always keep an inventory of things that need to be done that require very little mental or creative horsepower.”

Getting Things Done, Page 194

There are times when we simply do not have the energy to tackle some of the mammoth projects on our horizon.  As long as this is not a procrastination technique, we need to learn to be ok with it, and still work to maximize our effectiveness in that moment.  The Getting Things Done model gives us the ability to be productive in all mental states.

“One of the best ways to increase your energy is to close some of your loops.  So always be sure to have some easy loops to close, right at hand.”

Getting Things Done, Page 195

What’s an easy loop to close?  Simple tasks, minimal interaction – updating address books, backing up your laptop, refilling your stapler – all these things need to get done at some point.  You may as well complete them when your energy’s low.  Just remember, aside from the time sensitive ones, your next task should be chosen based on context, time and energy.

Here’s the biggest catch with the Getting Things Done system; if you don’t capture everything in it, it will cease being effective.  Literally every single thing you’ve told your brain you’d like to do at some point needs to go in.  Sound impossible?  It’s not, but it does take some effort.  Allen suggests that with a typical executive coaching client he will spend 10-20 hours simply “collecting” all the notes, scraps of paper and emails that may have some action required.  The fact is, you can’t trick your brain.  If your brain doesn’t have complete faith in the system then it will take matters back into its own hands, and you’re back where you started – with that nagging feeling in the back of your mind that you’re forgetting something.

And so it is with that in mind that I have committed to twenty hours this weekend, “collecting” and “processing” my every scrap of information (paper or digital) and putting it into this process.  And you know what?  I’m looking forward to it.  Think about what it feels like to check something off a list once you’ve completed it.  Now multiply that by 100,000.  Could be a life changing weekend.  I’ll keep you posted.

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Chris Taylor

ABOUT Chris Taylor

Founder of Actionable Books, Chris Taylor is a writer, entrepreneur and speaker. He spends his daylight hours helping consultants and employees alike find meaning in their work and discover rich team relationships through his company, Actionablebooks...
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