Getting Things Done by David Allen: NOTES36 min read

Categories Management & LeadershipPosted on

Getting Things Done is a manual for stress-free productivity, which helps you set up a system of lists, reminders and weekly reviews, in order to free your mind from having to remember tasks and to-dos and instead let it work at full focus on the task at hand.

Favorite quote from the author:

Use your mind to think about things, rather than think of them. Add value as you think about projects and people rather than remind yourself they exist.

This book hardly needs an introduction, it is the bible of productivity. David Allen has sold over 1.5 million copies of his simple, yet effective productivity system. The book has been revised and updated in 2015 to reflect the changes in technology, since it was originally published in 2001 – over a decade ago.

The GTD system has always been timeless, though. You could do it on paper, online, or now on your smartphone, the second you put down the book.

I won’t be able to portray the system in full detail here, but since that’s been done all over the internet, I’ll happily take my top 3 lessons:

Use a “collection bucket” to store things outside your mind and stay focused.

Create a “next actions” list for all your projects to avoid thinking in the moment.

Do a weekly review of everything, or else!

Ready for productivity made simple? Let’s go!

Lesson 1: Use a “collection bucket” to store things outside your mind and stay focused

This one’s been a major game changer for me in 2015. There’s a reason it made #1 on this list.

You know that horrible feeling you have once you remember you have to buy milk?

You can’t seem to un-remember it and it keeps nagging you, while all you’re trying to do is work.

“Buy milk, buy milk, buy milk, buy milk, buy milk, buy milk, buy milk, …”

“Dammit brain, shut up!”

With a collection bucket, it will.

Your collection bucket can be a simple piece of paper, a notebook or note inside Evernote, a note on your phone, or even a physical bucket in your office.

It serves as a means to collect all interruptions, whether they come in the form of thoughts in your mind or to-do’s handed over to you by coworkers.

Whatever lands in your brain or lap while you’re busy working (for example during a Pomodoro time block), goes in there.

This lets you deflect interruptions as they occur and keeps your mind from derailing, while you’re on a productivity roll.

Of course this system is only good if you empty your collection bucket or buckets regularly, Allen suggests weekly.

Your brain will only get a feeling of relief from putting something in your collection bucket when it knows that whatever lands in there will be taken care of sooner rather than later.

Lesson 2: Create a “next actions” list for all your projects to avoid thinking in the moment.

Here’s the major problem with to-do lists: They trick you into thinking you can know in advance how much you’ll be able to achieve.

The bad news is, you can’t.

Sure, you can make a list with 17 items, but none of that accounts for interruptions, crises, delays, other people or, and this too happens, a simple lack of energy where you’re just not able to do as much.

David Allen suggest you do this instead: Create a “next actions” list, where you list out all the specific tasks (= takes less than 30 minutes) of your current projects.

That way you always know what to work on next, when you have the time and energy to work, meaning you just pull out the list, pick a task and go.

You can even have multiple “next actions” lists and sort them by project or location of where you’re able to do the tasks on it.

For example you could make these lists: laptop with wifi, laptop without wifi, phone, notebook.

Now, when you’re at the airport and your flight’s been delayed, but there’s no wifi and your phone is dead, you can still pull out your notebook list and do something on paper.

Note: The “next actions” list was a major part of the beautiful productivity system for essentialists I described here.

Lesson 3: Do a weekly review of everything, or else!

These are just two of several lists in the GTD system and the thing with all lists is this:

They’re only as good as they’re up to date.

Therefore, a weekly review is crucial to making the whole GTD system work.

Empty your collection buckets on Friday afternoon, for example, and then update all your lists. You’ll get a bird’s eye view and make sure everything is complete.

This is the part that makes the whole system stress-free and if you slack on it, you’ll pay the mental price.

For example I always plan to empty my collection bucket on Fridays, but Friday is also publishing day on my blog, which means I often don’t get around to it.

Then I end up doing the most recent tasks in it over the weekend, but will leave older and less pressing ones in there (for example cleaning out my Dropbox), which makes me wary of putting more to-dos in, as I’m not sure when I’ll actually do them.

Obviously, this is something I need to improve, in order to reap the full benefits of the system.

My personal take-aways

I share the opinion most people hold about GTD: it works great – but only if you rigorously stick to its rules. It just might be the best productivity system there is, but it’s also demanding and thus very easy to fall off the wagon.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever use the system in full, but I want to give it a go. For now I’m happy with using parts of it and adapting it to my own needs.

Other productivity systems, like The ONE Thing or The Power of Less appear to be a little more forgiving, but then again they’re probably also not as powerful.

I do love GTD, otherwise I wouldn’t have written about it so much, and I highly recommend you check it out. The summary on Blinkist is more than enough to get you up and running – I’d then get the book once you start seeing results and really want to nail the details.

  • Contents
  • What’s it about?
  • Change your perspective: achieve all your goals byfocusing on the six horizons
  • Plan your projects using the five simple steps of the GTDmodel
  • First make sure you have the tools and supplies you needin place
  • Acknowledge outstanding issues and record them for futurereference
  • Decide which of these pending issues to act upon
  • Sort your tasks and outline the projects they will be partof
  • Review your progress regularly, and reflect on it
  • Carry out the task according to plan, and set the wheels in motion
  • Change the focus of your actions, but be consistent
  • Final summary
  • Now read the book
  • Key takeaways

What’s it about?

While most people enjoy an increasingly higher quality of life with each new generation, and the nature of their jobs shifts from industrialized work to intellectual work, they can become more stressed as they take on too much to handle with their limited resources. Few have a system in place where they can manage their ever-increasing personal and professional projects in a state of stability, relaxation, and contentment.

However, leveraging the momentum that comes with clearing the mind of distractions and operating in a fluid, productive state is a skill that can be acquired with practice. If we acknowledge the fact that our lack of organization stems from having too many commitments that are not backed up by sufficient resources, we can work toward putting those physical and mental resources into place.

To achieve our dreams and goals, we need to focus, define our objectives and the actions we must take, and then simply put reminders in place so that our projects flow smoothly. We must train the mind to avoid procrastination, and set it on “cruise control,” a state fueled by the momentum of our previous actions, which yields unrestrained productivity.

The GTD (Getting Things Done) model is a system that involves four major changes to the way we do things: changing our perspective on goals; changing our approach to handling them; changing the focus of our actions; and then applying a five-step plan for each of our goals. If you’re willing to commit to the model, you’ll find it will tick all the right boxes.

Change your perspective: achieve all your goals by focusing on the six horizons

The way you perceive your life and goals is a matter of context and perspective. Your “horizon” or current stage in reaching your ultimate goal is something you should always bear in mind when planning your next step or reviewing your achievements. It keeps you on track, so that you don’t stray from your goals, but instead work on your projects simultaneously in such a way as to facilitate (not hinder) your goal.

There are six horizons that you work towards every day, whether you are aware of it or not.

The ground level, where you are now, is the level at which you conceptualize your current actions. They can be mundane tasks, both tedious and numerous, and include anything from running errands to making important business calls.

The first horizon, slightly higher up, is made up of the projects you currently have underway, with all those short-term outcomes you hope to achieve to get closer to your goal, like moving your headquarters, setting up a trade-show stand, and so on. The second horizon is where you reassess your current focus in both your personal and professional life, whatever that may entail, from duties and responsibilities to global commitments.

Higher up are those horizons that truly matter to you in the grand scheme of things. There are no clear boundaries between them, but the number of years it would take to achieve them may serve as a reference point. For instance, the third horizon is where you would like your life to be heading one or two years from now. The fourth horizon is about projecting even further into the future, maybe up to five years from today. This is where your career, aspirations, and other long-term goals are assessed. Finally, at the highest level lie your principles and life purpose. Reassessing your status as you try to fulfill these goals is crucial to achieving them.

These horizons will keep you focused on your tasks, however difficult or easy they may be. Make a list of all your goals and assess which dimension they belong to. There are no clear boundaries between horizons, and everyone perceives them differently. A goal that may be trivial to some will be life-altering to others; one that takes a decade to achieve by some may be achievable in less than a year by others.

Keep track of your goals as they switch from one horizon to the next, and outline your progress through these horizons as you achieve each one.

Plan your projects using the five simple steps of the GTD model

To master our professional and personal workflow, we need to discipline our brain to physically take us from the moment a task arises to engaging with whatever is necessary to bring that situation or task to fruition. In a nutshell, you should apply five simple steps in dealing with each task to move from inception to completion for any project:

  1. Keep a record of everything that requires your attention. Transcribe and store that information in your “inventory” of pending tasks.
  2. Assess the importance of each record, identify those that constitute doable tasks, and decide whether to act upon them.
  3. Visualize how you would coordinate your next steps, and decide which path to take.
  4. Envision the results and reflect on the outcome.
  5. Take action: tackle each task one by one.

The five-step planning model only brings you up to the point where you engage in a task, and does not seek to assess the effect of this task on a greater project or goal. It focuses on efficiency, not effectiveness. Before you begin to apply this model, you must first understand its limitations, and to accept the fact that you must also commit to a fresh perspective on handling your tasks from this point forward.

First make sure you have the tools and supplies you need in place

When people don’t prepare all the office supplies, stationery and software tools they need before they begin sorting and assessing their tasks, they quickly find themselves up the creek without a paddle. Yet, taking care of this seemingly trivial aspect is half the battle.

For the first step of the planning system, where you collect all the items and tasksx requiring your attention together in one place, you need a fail-safe system to store them. This could include a dedicated tray on your desk, a simple pen and paper, a voice recorder, email and texting software, or any of the various time management apps and cloud storage services readily available on the market.

How you choose to organize your filing system, either using physical organizers or electronic solutions, is up to you. If you have a mobile device and an app at work that you use for scheduling and communications, be sure to sync it regularly.

To help ease you through your review stage—the fourth step in this planning system—you could keep a dedicated folder in your email manager for everything that needs your attention regularly, including proposals, bills, receipts, emails concerning outstanding payments or pending tasks, and so on, with associated reminders and alarms for deadlines.

Having these simple tools in place before you embark on a project will ensure that your work runs smoothly and you operate as efficiently as possible. Have as many as you need and are able to handle.

Acknowledge outstanding issues and record them for future reference

The first step in completing all your tasks is to look around for errands and responsibilities that you’ve postponed, that have drawn your attention at some point but were left unfinished, that are long overdue, take up space unnecessarily, or are otherwise outstanding.

Once they are all piled up together, you will need to start keeping a record of every issue, big or small, that arises from then on. Since it would be hard to drop physical reminders of everything that needs your attention in that dedicated “to-do” tray on your desk, like storing your tennis ball in there to remind you to renew your tennis club membership, it’s best to transcribe the information and keep a physical or virtual record of what needs doing. It can be as simple as an entry in your agenda, a vocal recording, a line on a list, a scribble on a sticky note, or a memo in your mobile app.

This “inventory” of issues that may need to be dealt with should go through a continuous reshuffling cycle. You can’t just leave things stashed away in the recesses of a cabinet somewhere without turning back to them every day.

With the GTD model, nothing is overlooked or left to chance. Once you’ve drawn together everything at home or at the office that could even remotely be turned into a task, you must commit to handle every new issue that arises in the same way, and not to ignore even the most trivial of items.

Decide which of these pending issues to act upon

Once a pending issue has been acknowledged as something that requires your attention, and recorded for future reference, it’s time to decide on the best course of action.

If the issue you’ve picked up from your pile is not something you deem as doable at present, it should either go to the trash can, the list of things you’d like to do given the resources, or your reference list for future actions. If you believe it’s something you can do in two minutes or less, then waste no time in doing it. If it’s likely to take longer, you can either delegate or defer it to a later time, but don’t forget to record it in a calendar or on a list. Bear in mind that the two-minute rule is only a guideline, and you can set your own time limits.

Some people like to scan for the fun-and-easy tasks first, and get those out of the way before they tend to the more difficult items. Others apply a last-in-first-out or first-in-last-out kind of approach to dealing with their inventory. Whichever you prefer, remember to deal with one item at a time. Very few people have the ability to be efficient when multi-tasking.

When you begin to sift through the pile of outstanding issues, reading them one by one and deciding what could turn into feasible tasks, remember the two-minute rule. If what you’re reading on a post-it can be done now, do it. If not, you can either delegate or defer it to a better time. If none of these options are applicable, take your pick between throwing it away and keeping it for future reference, but try to be consistent in your decisions.

Sort your tasks and outline the projects they will be part of

When a feasible task can’t be fulfilled using the 2-minute rule, it’s very likely that it should be part of a larger project, which may involve delegating, coordinating with co-workers, etc.

Tasks you’ve classified as doable should go on a list of projects, be it paper-based or electronic, and should be accompanied by supporting material and reference files, all of which must be reviewed regularly. They should also be stored using a system of your choice that makes them readily available to you at any given moment. Letting your secretary have sole access, for instance, is not the way to go.

Organizing is nothing more than making sure that everything is where it needs to be, or where it matches your understanding of where it needs to be. There are a few things to remember as you try to tackle your inventory. The calendar is sacred, and you should resist the urge to make amendments to an entry. Moreover, every stored reminder of a delegated task should come with a phone number and/or a date alongside the note. That way, when you have your regular review, a breather at work, or your official company “purge,” you won’t waste time trying to remind yourself who you’ve assigned a task to, when it should have been dealt with, or who needs to be in the loop if there’s a delay.

Digital software is easy to manage and portable, but it also tends to prompt you at specific pre-defined times, rather than when you might actually need it to, and even then the one-off alarm is easier to ignore than if you were to have a paper in your tray staring back at you all the time. Many people prefer simple checklists, or even the classic Moleskine notebook.

Having folders, calendars, check lists, and filing cabinets (and their electronic equivalents) is a good way to classify tasks according to the projects they should be part of, keeping track of them so that there are no loose ends at your end. As you keep all of these task reminders organized and within reach, you’re bound to minimize the time and effort you invest in your projects.

Review your progress regularly, and reflect on it

Managing the workflow effectively is a matter of how consistent you are in your reflections, or, in other words, how you go from observing that a task needs doing to completing it. Being highly organized and keeping track of the deadlines and the time that has elapsed since you’ve delegated or deferred a task not only gives you a visible edge over coworkers and business associates, but also keeps you focused.

When you have a weekly review set in place, you can catch hold of all your loose ends, and marry the important commitments with the mundane tasks. It will also reveal any hidden projects, ones that you may stumble upon as you handle your current tasks, ones that you could work towards to achieve higher goals, and ones that just pop up out of the blue.

Some companies use CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software to help their review process flow smoothly, while others can only rely on these tools to delegate and visualize their workflows. They’re easy to update, dynamic, and they tend to keep track of a network of connected tasks, from those involving customer interactions over the phone to sales data analysis. Some are only useful in that they keep an updated contact list. However complex the software, though, regular reviews need human brainpower to weed out the redundant, inactive or inapplicable tasks. And for humans to be able to work consistently with them, they must function as general reference systems with virtually the same interface and functionality throughout the company.

Committing to a weekly review is the most efficient way to refresh and update the list of ongoing tasks, but you can’t rest on your laurels after you’ve had your review. Your review and reflection on the tasks at hand should be an ongoing process, and you need to use every opportunity you have to set reminders, alarms, and notifications for outstanding tasks.

Carry out the task according to plan, and set the wheels in motion

There are various ways to engage with your tasks, and the one that best suits you will be a matter of circumstance. You may choose to focus on tasks that meet certain criteria in terms of priority or urgency, or you may wish to focus specifically on those you have the resources to handle the quickest. You may choose to handle tasks as they come along, or work according to the strict guidelines of the five-step planning system—or a combination of the two.

As distractions are a natural part of life, it’s important to realize that it’s not the interruptions that really distract us but the fact that we become aware that we have broken a commitment with ourselves the moment we give them their due consideration. This balancing act between what we’ve set out to do and what needs to be done regardless of our plans can only be managed appropriately when we consider our “horizons,” or our perspectives, and what that standpoint entails.

While the ultimate dimension is always the top horizon, every mundane and tedious task we accomplish gives us a sense of empowerment and freedom, and eventually gives us the resources to work our way up to the greatest goal on the agenda.

Try to maintain a positive outlook on your tasks, however trivial they may seem, and treat them with equal consideration. The order in which you undergo your tasks and the actions that you take are yours to choose. What matters is that you are consistent throughout the project.

Change the focus of your actions, but be consistent

Whichever way you choose to go about getting things done, the horizon metaphor will serve you well. There are two organized ways to do it, namely from top to bottom, or the other way around.

The bottom-up approach is more common, and more in tune with the needs of the typical businessperson juggling work commitments and family duties each day. Start with mundane tasks and resolve them one at a time, until you eventually get to the top, where you can focus on a single, life-changing outcome. When this is done, you can always switch tactics and move back down the horizon layers. Determine objectives and tasks, both large and small, and come back down another level until they’ve been taken care of.

Top-down approaches usually best serve entrepreneurs on the verge of launching a startup, or people who want to make a drastic career change and need to let their attention trickle down to the very last task involved in the process. In a sense, it’s more a matter of where you happen to be in life when you commit to this five-step model.

The outcome of the five-step model will always be the same, whether you choose the bottom-up or the top-down approach—to reach your goals. But the way you apply it will influence those around you, and even your company as a whole. It will reflect onto the company’s organization and into people’s personal macrocosms, their family lives, and their office environments.

As you approach your goals based on the “horizon” method, you will come to realize that a top-down or a bottom-up approach will be equally effective, as long as you’re consistent in your choice. The tasks you undergo will lead you to achieve your goals one at a time, and this, in turn, will help you progress to other horizons.

Final summary

Getting things done is a matter of time, patience, perspective, and having a systematized way of dealing with the world as you see it. As life throws unexpected events at you, interruptions will only become distractions if you allow them to. But when you view your goals as a set of horizons for you to reach as you strive for that ultimate higher purpose or vision in life, the stage at which you believe you’re in can be reassessed, and the interruptions can become opportunities.

There are six dimensions for you to master: a ground level and five “horizons.” These are simply the perspectives you have when you’re at certain points on your journey to your goals. As you strive to complete these goals and work your way through these dimensions or horizons, you need to be fully involved in the task at hand, but still maintain a sense of awareness of the wider aspects of your projects in order to work at full capacity. To do that, you need your mind to work in unison with your external “brain”—that is, your GTD system. It consists of only the most basic of office tools and the most elementary of guidelines, but their conjunction powered by personal decision-making skills are all you need to bring your mind to that state of fluid, unfaltering productivity.

Reaching a state where all your goals and objectives match what you envision for them and for yourself is a process that takes years or decades, but one that will become more achievable with practice. Having a GTD system in place, setting out every project via a five-step process that’s thorough and consistent, all the while keeping the six horizons in your sights, is a sure-fire solution.

Now read the book

There’s no shortage of books out there that preach on the topic of improving work habits and behaviors. Many of them are a waste of precious paper, and a drain on the reader’s valuable time. Still, every now and again, you stumble across a book like Getting Things Done, which sets the wheels in motion for you. This self-improvement book doesn’t have to be about making radical leaps or setting ambitious goals—but it can, if you want it to. You can take its teachings and apply them in any situation, be it a life-or-death decision, or a simple errand.

Those who have a background in business studies will most likely find the book an easy read, and, as the author himself puts it, most of the solutions offered are common-sense propositions that don’t set out to impress with anything other than their practicality. If you’ve tried others and found them disappointing, this book could set you back on the right track, giving it all you’ve got and loving every minute of it. So, fasten your seat belt, prepare for “cruise mode,” and worry about what you’ll be doing when you finally get to that “mind like water” state where things start going your way.

Getting Things Done by David Allen

Print | Hardcover | Audiobook

Getting Things Done Summary

The Book in Three Sentences

If we don’t appropriately manage the ‘open loops’ in our life, our attention will get pulled.

Overwhelm comes from not clarifying what your intended outcome is, not deciding what the very next action is, and not reminding yourself of your intended outcome and action.

You need to transform all the ‘stuff’ you attract and accumulate into a clear inventory of meaningful actions, projects, and usable information.

The Five Big Ideas

Getting things done requires defining what “done” means and what “doing” looks like.

Mastering your workflow involves capturing what has your attention, clarifying what it means, putting it where it belongs, reviewing it frequently and engaging with it.

If an action will take less than two minutes, it should be done at the moment it is defined.

Anxiety and guilt don’t come from having too much to do; it comes from breaking agreements with yourself.

Your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them.

Getting Things Done Summary

A basic truism Allen has discovered over decades of coaching and training thousands of people is that most stress people experience comes from inappropriately managed commitments they make or accept.

“Anything that does not belong where it is, the way it is, is an ‘open loop,’ which will be pulling on your attention if it’s not appropriately managed.”

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

“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.”

Until your thoughts have been clarified and decisions have been made, and the resulting data has been stored in a system that you absolutely know you will access and think about when you need to, your brain can’t give up the job.

“It’s a waste of time and energy to keep thinking about something that you make no progress on.”

We need to transform all the ‘stuff’ we attract and accumulate into a clear inventory of meaningful actions, projects, and usable information.

Getting things done requires two basic components:

Outcome. Defining what “done” means

Action. What “doing” looks like

You need to control commitments, projects, and actions in two ways:

Horizontally. Maintaining coherence across all the activities in which you are involved

Vertically. Managing thinking, development, and coordination of individual topics and projects.

“The goal for managing horizontally and vertically is the same: to get things off your mind and get them done.”

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

“There is no reason to ever have the same thought twice unless you like having that thought.”

The Five Steps of Mastering Workflow

Capture. Collect what has your attention

Clarify. Process what it means

Organize. Put it where it belongs

Reflect. Review frequently

Engage. Simply do.

The Three Requirements to Make the Capturing Phase Work

Every open loop must be in your capture system and out of your head

You must have as few capturing buckets as you can get by with

You must empty them regularly

Getting Things Done Workflow Chart

Getting Things Done Workflow Chart

When you’re processing an item, ask yourself, “What is it?” and, “Is it actionable?”

If it is not actionable, there are three possibilities:

Trash. It’s  no longer needed.

Incubate. No action is needed now, but something might need to be done later.

Reference. The item is potentially useful information that might be needed for something later.

If it is actionable, you have three options:

Do it. If an action will take less than two minutes, it should be done at the moment it is defined.

Delegate it. If the action will take longer than two minutes, ask yourself, “Am I the right person to do this?” If the answer is no, delegate it to the appropriate entity.

Defer it. If the action will take longer than two minutes, and you are the right person to do it, you will have to defer acting on it until later and track it on one or more “Next Actions” lists.

“Being organized means simply that where something is matches what it means to you.”

Allen defines a project as any desired result that can be accomplished within a year that requires more than one action step.

Reminders of actions you need to take fall into two categories:

Those about things that have to happen on a specific day or time

Those about things that just need to get done as soon as possible.

There are 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 sometimes on a certain day, but not necessarily at a specific time.

Day-specific information. The calendar is also the place to keep track of things you want to know about on specific days—not necessarily actions you’ll have to take but rather information that may be useful on a certain date.

“It’s useful to have a calendar on which you can note both time-specific and day-specific actions.” (Sam: this has been a game changer for me)

“Next Actions lists, which, along with the calendar, are at the heart of daily action-management organization and orientation.”

No-action systems fall into three categories:

Trash. This is self-evident

Incubation. These are things that require no immediate action but are worth keeping. There are two kinds of incubation tools (i) Someday/Maybe lists and (ii) a tickler system. Someday/Maybe items are of the nature of “projects I might want to do, but not now … but I’d like to be reminded of them regularly.” A tickler system is for items that you don’t want or need to be reminded of until some designated time in the future.

Reference. Reference systems generally take two forms: (1) topic- and area-specific storage, and (2) general reference files. The first types usually define themselves in terms of how they are stored. The second type of reference system is one that everyone needs close at hand for storing ad hoc information that doesn’t belong in some predesigned larger category.

“All of your Projects, active project plans, and Next Actions, Agendas, Waiting For, and even Someday/Maybe lists should be reviewed once a week.”

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.

Allen believes you have to use your mind to get things off your mind.

The Four-Criteria Model for Choosing Actions in the Moment


Time Available

Energy Available


The Threefold Model for Identifying Daily Work

When you’re getting things done, or “working” in the universal sense, there are three different kinds of activities you can be engaged in:

Doing predefined work. When you’re doing predefined work, you’re working from your Next Actions lists and calendar—completing tasks that you have previously determined need to be done, or managing your workflow.

Doing work as it shows up. Every day brings surprises and you’ll need to expand some time and energy on many of them. However, when you follow these leads, you’re deciding by default that these things are more important than anything else you have to do at those times.

Defining your work. Defining your work entails clearing up your in-tray, your digital messages, and your meeting notes, and breaking down new projects into actionable steps.

The Six-Level Model for Reviewing Your Own Work

Horizon 5: Purpose and principles

Horizon 4: Vision

Horizon 3: Goals

Horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountabilities

Horizon 1: Current projects

Ground: Current Actions. This is the accumulated list of all the actions you need to take.

Horizon 1: Current Projects. These are the relatively short-term outcomes you want to achieve (e.g. organizing a sales conference).

Horizon 2: Areas of Focus and Accountabilities. These are the key areas of your life and work within which you want to achieve results and maintain standards.

Horizon 3: Goals. These are thing you’d like to accomplish or have in place, which could add importance to certain aspects of your life and diminish others.

Horizon 4: Vision. What do you what your life and work to look like in three to five years? Decisions at this altitude can easily change what your work might look like on many levels.

Horizon 5: Purpose and Principles. This is the big-picture view.

The key ingredients of relaxed control are:

Clearly defined outcomes (projects) and the next actions required to move them toward closure

Reminders placed in a trusted system that is reviewed regularly.

“If you’re waiting to have a good idea before you have any ideas, you won’t have many.”

“Often the only way to make a hard decision is to come back to the purpose of what you’re doing.”

“If you’re not sure why you’re doing something, you can never do enough of it.”

“One of the most powerful life skills and one of the most important to hone and develop for both professional and personal success is creating clear outcomes.”

“If a project is still on your mind, there’s more thinking required.”

“The big secret to efficient creative and productive thinking and action is to put the right things in your focus at the right time.”

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

“Until you’ve captured everything that has your attention, some part of you will still not totally trust that you’re working with the whole picture of your world.”

“You can only feel good about what you’re not doing when you know everything you’re not doing.”

Here are the four categories of things that can remain where they are, the way they are, with no action tied to them:


Reference Material



Processing Guidelines

Process the top item first

Process one item at a time

Never put anything back into “in.”

The in-tray is a processing station, not a storage bin. There will be three types of item in it:


Items to incubate

Reference material

“It’s fine to decide not to decide about something. You just need a decide-not-to-decide system to get it off your mind.”

There are seven primary types of things that you’ll want to keep track of and manage from an organizational and operational perspective:

A Projects list

Project support material

Calendar actions and information

Next Actions lists

A Waiting For list

Reference material

A Someday/Maybe list

“The primary reason for organizing is to reduce cognitive load—i.e. to eliminate the need to constantly be thinking, ‘What do I need to do about this?’”

“Checklists can be highly useful to let you know what you don’t need to be concerned about.” (Sam: this is the basis for The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.)

Allen on The Weekly Review:

[It] is whatever you need to do to get your head empty again and get oriented for the next couple of weeks. It’s going through the steps of workflow management—capturing, clarifying, organizing, and reviewing all your outstanding commitments, intentions, and inclinations—until you can honestly say, “I absolutely know right now everything I’m not doing but could be doing if I decided to.”

“Your best thoughts about work won’t happen while you’re at work.”

“The world itself is never overwhelmed or confused—only we are, due to how we are engaged with it.”

Allen recommends to always keep an inventory of things that need to be done that require very little mental or creative horsepower.

“One of the best ways to increase your energy is to close some of your loops.”

“It is impossible to feel good about your choices unless you are clear about what your work really is.”

“There are no interruptions—there are only mismanaged inputs.”

“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.”

“Handle what has your attention and you’ll then discover what really has your attention.”

Allen believes the most important thing to deal with is whatever is most on your mind.

“If you’re not totally sure what your job is, it will always feel overwhelming.”

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

There are two types of projects, however, that deserve at least some sort of planning activity:

Those that still have your attention even after you’ve determined their next actions

Those about which potentially useful ideas and supportive detail just show up ad hoc.

“One of the greatest blocks to organizational (and family) productivity is the lack of someone about the need for a meeting, and with whom, to move something forward.”

“The sense of anxiety and guilt doesn’t come from having too much to do; it’s the automatic result of breaking agreements with yourself.”

“Negative feelings are simply the result of breaking those agreements—they’re the symptoms of disintegrated self-trust.”

“Maintaining an objective and complete inventory of your work, regularly reviewed, makes it much easier to say no with integrity.” (Sam: this is similar to what Greg McKeown suggests in Essentialism.)

“When a culture adopts ‘What’s the next action?’ as a standard operating query, there’s increase in energy, productivity, clarity, and focus.”

“Defining what real doing looks like on the most basic level and organizing placeholder reminders that we can trust are master keys to productivity enhancement and creating a relaxed inner environment.”

“Without a next action, there remains a potentially infinite gap between current reality need to do.”

“Avoiding action decisions until the pressure of the last minute creates huge inefficiencies and unnecessary stress.”

“Defining specific projects and next actions that address real quality-of-life issues is productivity at its best.”

“Your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them.”

“You can only put your conscious attention on one thing at a time.”

“Providing yourself the right cues, which you will notice at the right time, about the right things, is a core practice of stress-free productivity.”

Recommended Reading

If you like Getting Things Done, you may also enjoy the following books:

7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World Book by Cal Newport

Eat That Frog! Get More of the Important Things Done – Today! by Brian Tracy

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