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Getting Things Done by David Allen - Book Notes, Summary, Review

Getting Things Done by David Allen - Book Notes, Summary, Review - Cover Image

Published: February 12, 2021

Reading Time: 15 min


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Getting Things Done is widely considered a staple of the productivity world and is the go-to book recommended if you’re looking to become a more productive person. It’s the go-to book that many consider being the start of the “productivity revolution”.

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Who Should Read This Book?

I would recommend this book to anyone that is overwhelmed by the tasks they have to do and manage in their lives.

This book offers a great framework to capture, clarify, and organize all of the open loops in your life so you can keep your mind clear to do your work.

How This Book Changed Me

This was the first book I read in my “productivity journey” and it really did a lot for me at the time. It was honestly the first time I thought about using a task management system. I’ve come a long way since then!

My main take-aways were the 2-minute rule, creating a list of agendas for each person in my life, keeping an inbox to capture things, and doing a weekly review.

As this was my second time reading the book, it acted more like a top-up or refresher course that encouraged me to look at my systems and tidy them up.

Reading this book a second time allowed me to understand projects in a better light. I have modified my Todoist set up to reflect my new understanding and it’s working really well for me.

I’ve also taken back up the practice of the 2-minute rule – anything that takes less than 2 minutes is something you should just do right now. This is some great advice!

I’ve simplified my inbox system and am finding idea capture so much easier as a result. The reduced friction allows me to capture an idea quickly then get back to what I’m working on. This means I have captured a great idea to process later while not being totally distracted.

My Top 3 Quotes That Resonated With Me

“In karate, there is an image that’s used to define the position of perfect readiness: “mind like water.” Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact.”

“The best way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas”. Linus Pauling p106

“I suggest that you use your mind to think about things, rather than think of them.” p288

Book Notes

Part 1 – The Art Of Getting Things Done

1 A New Practice For A New Reality

  • The knowledge work we do today no longer has clearly defined boundaries.
  • We never know when our work is done.
  • We live in a world right now that generates so much information every second. This makes it difficult for our minds to process and order.
  • open loops or things we have to do pull our attention away from what we should be focused on.
  • You need to capture all of these open loops on paper or digitally so they are out of your head.
  • For each of those open loops, you should clarify exactly what the next physical action is to move it forward. By defining a clear next step it will be easier for you to complete that task.
  • This is why we tend to procrastinate on some tasks; because we don’t have a clear path forward.
  • Until you have captured and clarified all of the things on your mind, they will stay in your head taking up valuable focus and concentration power.
    • This concept is known as the Zeigarnik effect.

2 Getting Control Of Your Life

  1. Capture – what has your attention
  2. Clarify – what each item involves
  3. Organize – the things or tasks
  4. Reflect – on which ones we should action and which we should discard
  5. Engage – do the tasks
  • This is classed as horizontal management
  • Capture
    • Capture all of your open loops into containers or inboxes
    • You should process these inboxes regularly to ensure you are up to date and trust your capture system.
      • The trust you have in your capture system is at the core of getting those tasks out of your head to free up your mental headspace.
    • Inboxes can be physical or digital and you can have as many as you need but consider that the more inboxes you have the more effort goes into processing them separately.
    • Processing your inboxes doesn’t mean you have to complete each task, it just means that you should decide what the next step is for that task and move it to the appropriate place for action.
  • Clarify
    • For each item that you’ve captured ask yourself, is this actionable?
      • If no – it either goes into a reference file, a someday maybe list, or the trash.
      • If yes – you need to determine the next action for that thing
        • Do It – if it takes less than 2 minutes to complete do it right now
        • Delegate It – if it takes more than 2 minutes but someone else would be better placed to do it, delegate it.
        • Defer It – If it takes more than 2 minutes, defer it until you can action it (either move it to the Next Actions or Projects list)
  • Organize
    • The organization process involves putting tasks and items where they belong in your system to allow you to work on them when appropriate.
    • A project is anything that requires more than one step to complete and can be accomplished within a year
      • You don’t do a project, you action steps related to it
    • Things that should go on your calendar include:
      • time-specific actions i.e. appointments. Things that happen at a specific time on a specific day.
      • day-specific actions. Things you need to do on a particular day but not at a particular time.
    • Next Actions list
      • This should be a list of all of the next physical steps you need to do to complete tasks or move them forward.
      • If you have a lot of these it can be useful to categorize them by context or similar. For example, all of the calls you have to make could live under the Calls section of your list. etc.
    • Someday/Maybe List
      • This acts as your reminder of things you would like to do someday in the future. For example, start a YouTube Channel, start a podcast.
      • Other things like books to read, movies to watch can live on separate lists named accordingly.
  • Reflect
    • You should review your system as often as you need to to stay clear and current.
    • Outside of daily reviews, the best time for reflection is during a weekly review.
      • This is where you review all of your projects, next actions, agendas, waiting for, someday maybes.
      • It gives you an opportunity to gather and process all of your things and to get clear on where you are right now.
      • The more complete your whole system is, the more you will trust it which will give you the motivation to keep it up to date.
  • Engage
    • Three Models For Making Action Choices
      1. The Four-Criteria Model For Choosing Actions in the Moment
        • How to choose what you have to do right now
        • Consider where you are (context),
        • the time available until your next thing,
        • how much energy you have,
        • and the priority of the tasks you need to do.
      2. The Threefold Model for Identifying Daily Work
        • In your daily work the things you most commonly work on are:
          • predefined work
          • doing work as it shows up
          • defining the work itself
      3. The Six-Level Model For Reviewing Your Own Work
        • Horizon 5: Purpose and principles – the big picture. What matters to you?
        • Horizon 4: Vision – 3 to 5 years from now
        • Horizon 3: Goals – 1 to 2 years from now
        • Horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountabilities – the key areas of your life and work where you are focused
        • Horizon 1: Current projects
        • Ground: Current actions – what you’re working on now

3 Getting Projects Creatively Under Way

  • The key ingredients of control are:

    1. Clearly defined outcomes (projects and next actions
    2. Reminders and systems you trust
  • The natural planning model

    1. Defining purpose and principles
      • Ask why?
      • It defines success, motivates you, and clarifies your focus.
    2. Outcome visioning
    3. Brainstorming
    4. Organizing
      • Once you get ideas out of your head and onto paper, you can more easily see connections to other similar ideas. You’ll be able to categorize and sort things.
    5. Identifying next actions
    • Distributed cognition is the term used to describe the process of getting things out of your head into a “second brain”

Part 2 – Practicing Stress-Free Productivity

5 Capturing

  • Spend time capturing all of your open loops no matter what form they are in.
  • From clean the study to buy eggs to book a doctor’s appointment, if it’s all in your mind, you need to capture it into your system.
  • Be sure to add a date to each item as you capture it. This is super useful for many reasons and is a habit worth adopting right now.

6 Clarifying

  • Zeroing your inbox doesn’t mean doing all of your tasks, it means determining what each task is, where it goes, and what you’re going to do with it.
  • When processing your inbox, always process in order from top to bottom and never put something back into your inbox.
  • “decision fatigue – each decision you make diminishes the limited amount of brain power you have throughout the day” p160
  • If a task takes less than 2 minutes to do, just do it immediately. It would take more time to write it out than to simply do it which isn’t efficient.
  • A Waiting For list is useful for things you are waiting for others on. This is where the date stamp is important as you have a record of when you last followed up on that item.

7 Organizing

  • Projects list
    • this list is not meant to hold details about your projects. It’s just an index of your active projects.
    • Review the Projects list during your weekly review and identify the next actions for each project. This helps you to keep on top of all of your projects.”How you list projects and subprojects is up to you; just be sure you know where to find all the moving parts and review them as frequently as needed to keep them off your mind.” p203
  • Project support material
  • Calendar – only put time and date sensitive things onto your calendar. It should reflect the things you absolutely have to get done on any given day.
  • Next actions list – you could further divide next actions by context for example: in office, at home, at computer, out shopping etc.
  • Waiting for list
  • Reference material
  • Someday/Maybe list
  • Books to read or movies to watch etc.
  • Keep an Agenda list for each person you need to discuss things with. That way when you are in a meeting with them you can quickly review those items and discuss them.
  • Keep a Read/Review list for reading material. Refer to this when you have time or when you’re bored but want to be someway productive.

8 Reflecting

  • Being fully present and focused on what you are doing is the optimal state for working.
  • By reviewing your system regularly, you are making sure that your mind is clear to work on something with complete focus when you need to.
  • The weekly review allows you to dedicate time to capture, clarify, organize, and review all of your thoughts, ideas, and commitments so you can stay aware of what’s on your plate.
  • You can be assured that there is nothing you’re forgetting to do.
  • By the end of your weekly review you should be able to say: “I know with certainty everything I’m not doing but could be doing if I decided to”.
  • “Get clear, get current, get creative” p232
  • Get clear:
    • Empty your head – do a brain dump of everything that’s on your mind
  • Get current:
    • Review next actions, calendar, waiting for, projects.
  • Get creative:
    • By following this process, any time you experience that aha moment or come up with a great idea, you can easily capture that idea and make use of it in interesting and valuable ways.

9 Engaging (Doing)

The Four-Criteria model for choosing actions in the moment:

  1. Context
    • what are the tools available to you, where are you located? at home? in the office?
    • These contexts will determine what you can work on and what tasks you can complete at any given time.
    • It’s useful to tag or label tasks with contexts so you can easily sort and find things you can do right now.
  2. Time Available
    • This refers to the time you have until your next task or meeting or event.
    • If you only have 5 minutes until a meeting for instance, you’re not going to want to work on particularly in-depth or challenging.
    • You may opt instead for checking your email briefly or making a cup of tea.
  3. Energy Available
    • Our energy levels tend to fluctuate throughout the day
    • By learning when your Biological Prime Time (BPT) is, you’ll know when you’re at your most effective and when you’re at your least.
    • Knowing where your current energy level is at can help you to determine what tasks to take on.
  4. Priority
    • The priority of a task can often determine when you should do it or work on it.
    • The priority is determined by a number of factors including work or personal so this will be different for all tasks and people

The Threefold Model for evaluating daily work

  1. Doing predefined work
  2. Doing work as it shows up
  3. Defining your work
  • Multi-tasking is not possible
    • However, if you can establish book-ends to park incomplete tasks, you can shift your focus clearly to the next thing then back again when necessary.

The Six-Level model for reviewing your own work

Horizon 5: Life

Horizon 4: Long-term visions

Horizon 3: One to two year goals

Horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountability

Horizon 1: Current projects

Ground: Current actions

  • The best approach is to manage all of these levels in a balanced way.
  • Practically speaking, it’s better to work from the bottom up to allow you to gain the clarity you need to focus on the bigger picture.

10 Getting Projects Under Control

  • For anything you are doing, ask yourself: “what about this do I want to know, capture or remember?”
  • The key is to develop a system for routinely and easily capturing your ideas as they come to you.
  • This allows you to track everything without having to think about it.

Part 3 – The Power Of The Key Principles

11 The Power Of Capturing The Habit

  • The huge benefit of capturing everything that’s holding your attention is that it frees you up to work in a focused way.

“I suggest that you use your mind to think about things, rather than think of them.” p288

  • You want to be able to add value to your thoughts and ideas instead of being stressed by thinking about them constantly.

14 GTD and Cognitive Science

  • To work in a flow state you need to be challenged appropriately by your work
    • If it’s too challenging you develop anxiety or stress
    • If it’s not challenging enough you become bored and your attention depletes

15 The Path of GTD Mastery

  • Mastery of GTD: “it’s the demonstrated ability to consistently engage in productive behaviors as a means to achieve clarity, stability, and focus when it’s desired or required – no matter what the challenge.” p327

“The idea of “mind like water” doesn’t assume that water is always undisturbed. On the contrary, water engages appropriately with disturbance, instead of fighting against it.” p327

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