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Home » Lifehack & GTD

A GTD Summary & Review of Allen’s Getting Things Done

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A Review of Getting Things Done by David Allen

I just finished Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. The book has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and is preached as the go-to manual for the ‘Lifehack’, or knowledge information age of personal productivity. But should it be?

First, I’ll give a chapter-by-chapter summary (think Cliff Notes) of Getting Things Done, and then give the positives and negatives on the book (and GTD movement) – including some very inspired thoughts about Allen and his credentials. I guess you could call it a ‘GTD’ summary of Getting Things Done.

Chapter 1: A New Practice for a New Reality

review of Getting Things DoneThe first chapter essentially states that the true art and challenge of knowledge workers is to determine what to do with ambiguous tasks and projects. Work has no boundaries so in order to have a ‘mind like water’ (Allen use to be a karate instructor after a trip to a mental institution) you have to:

  • Collect the data
  • Clarify the next action
  • Remind and review

This will wipe out all the stress of the ‘stuff’ that is cluttering your life. You should keep record of everything you need to do so that your mind can be free to deal with actions, or ‘getting things done’.

Chapter 2: Getting Control of your Life: The Five Stages of Matering Workflow

There are five steps to mastering your workflow:
1. Collect. Use an in-basket, paper notes, voice, email, and electronic methods to collect 100% of everything.
2. Process (what to do about them). What is it? Is it actionable? If no, then trash it, save it, or reference it. If yes, will it take less than 2 minutes to do? If yes, then do it. If no, then delegate it or defer to doing it later (put it on your calendar).
3. Organize the results. If you can take an action, calendar it or write it down on a next action list. If no, trash it, write it down to do later, or save it in a reference file.
4. Review next actions. Glance at your list to determine what to do and have a weekly review to gather and process everything, review your system, update your lists, get clean, clear, current, and complete.
5. Do the actions. Allen highlights 3 models to decide what to do:

  • A. The 4 criteria model for determining actions in the moment: in order: a. context, b. time available, c. energy available, d. priority.
  • B. The 3-fold model for evaluating daily work: a. doing pre-defined work, b. doing work as it shows up, c. defining your work.
  • C. The 6 level model for reviewing our own work: work from the bottom up a. runway (current actions), b. 10,000 feet (current goals), c. 20,000 feet (areas of job responsibility), d. 30,000 feet (1-2 year goals), e. 40,000 feet (3-5 year vision), f. 50,000 feet (life goals)

Chapter 3: Getting Projects Creatively Under Way: The Five Phases of Project Planning

For projects (work that takes more than one action step to complete), here’s how to handle it:

  • Step 1: Define purpose and principles.
  • Step 2: Envision an outcome.
  • Step 3: Brainstorm.
  • Step 4: Organize.
  • Step 5: Identify next actions.

Chapter 4: Getting Started: Setting up the Time, Space, and Tools

  • Time: Create a block of time to get everything organized.
  • Space: Set up space at home, work, and in transit that are all basically identical. If you are using cloud computing to keep track of things and have internet access, you’re basically already doing this.
  • Tools: Allen recommends getting the following tools: at least 3 paper holding trays, stack of letter size paper, pen/pencil, post-its, paper clips, binder clips, stapler, staples, Scotch tape, rubber bands, automatic labeler, file folders, calendar, wastebasket, recycling bin. Allen also recommends setting up an A-Z filing system to organize everything. Here, Allen, and his book, are showing their age a little bit. If you’re working in a knowledge job today, you probably don’t need half these things and they only add to clutter, and the resulting stress.

Chapter 5: Collection: Corralling your Stuff

  • Gather all physical things you need to process: paperwork, business cards, notes, etc.
  • Do a mental mindsweep of everything you need to process. This includes professional and personal commitments.

Chapter 6: Processing: Getting in to Empty

After collecting everything, you need to process it. This means you should:

  • Trash what you don’t need.
  • Complete any less-than 2 minute actions.
  • Delegate stuff you can’t complete to others.
  • Sort into your own organizing system reminders for actions that will take more than two minutes.
  • Identify any larger commitments, or projects, that you have.
  • Identify things to save for later and use as reference material only.

Chapter 7: Organizing: Setting up the Right Buckets

Allen identifies 7 basic categories of things you have processed and will want to keep track of:

  • A projects list.
  • Project support material.
  • Calendared actions.
  • Next actions: could be categorized by type of action: calls, computer, email, errands, at home, at work, agenda, or read/review.
  • A “waiting for” list (waiting for others to complete).
  • Reference materials.
  • Someday/Maybe list (i.e. CD’s to buy, websites to visit, recipes to cook, etc.)

Chapter 8: Reviewing: Keeping your System Functional

Review your calendar first, and then your action list.

Do a weekly review and period ‘big picture’ reviews.

Chapter 9: Doing: Making the Best Action Choices

This chapter is almost a word-by-word repeat of Chapter 2, Step 5, which covers the three models to get work done.

Chapter 10: Getting Projects Under Control

This chapter is a repeat of chapter 3. Nothing new here.

Chapter 11: The Power of the Collection Habit

If you feel dissatisfied with yourself, you have three options:

  • Don’t make the agreement.
  • Complete the agreement.
  • Renegotiate the agreement.

Basically, Allen is saying that it’s better to set limits with yourself and others versus saying yes to everything and letting yourself and others down.

Chapter 12: The Power of the Next-Action Decision

Allen uses this chapter to self-promote that organizations and people who look at projects by focusing on the ‘next action’ are much more efficient than those that don’t. He also says that intelligent people who over-think can benefit by intelligently dumbing themselves down with this technique.

Allen argues that this technique forces: clarity, accountability, productivity, and empowerment.

Chapter 13: The Power of Outcome Focusing

Self promotion and yada, yada, yada. Nothing worth mentioning.

My Review: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Getting Things Done

Good of Getting Things Done:

  • The book consolidates some basic efficiency principles.
  • It’s good for those who are overwhelmed and don’t know how to improve their productivity.
  • It’s good for those new to an office environment.
  • I can see how students could use some of the principles to get more studying done.
  • It helped me accomplish something I needed to do: focus on ways to optimize my workflow.

The Bad of Getting Things Done:

It’s 260 pages and the useful information in it is covered in 5 pages. This means that there is 255 pages of fluff and repetition. I would not recommend buying the book, because just about any summary you’ll read on it will be pretty comprehensive and get rid of all the crap.

The Ugly of Getting Things Done:

Allen is primarily a salesperson. His book takes basic principles that can’t really be refuted. Yes, there is wisdom in some of the time-tested methods that he has taken claim for, but he has created a cult of personality through self-promotion, common sense preaching, and a catchy book title. He’s running a multi-million dollar business that charges $600 per head for seminars based on the catchiness of the brand that essentially recap the basic principles in the book.

In doing some research on Allen’s career, I found that he has had dozens of different careers in his life: karate instructor, vitamin salesperson, moped salesperson, landscaper, waiter, magician, glassblower, travel agent, and ordained minister of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness church. This church is a new age religion church that has been called a cult of personality by many, and it looks like Allen has utilized a lot of cult and ministry methods in his book to create a cult of personality amongst many knowledge workers.

Final Thoughts on Getting Things Done:

The book has some good content, but is vastly overrated, and the self promotion within the book is tough to take at times. Use some of the basics within it to analyze whatever workflow system you are currently looking to look for areas of improvement. In general, it’s good to really sit down, reorganize, and be creative about your own personal workflow, but I would not recommend spending the time to read the book to do that. The Cliff Notes should suffice.

Getting Things Done Discussion:

  • Have you read the book? What are your thoughts?
  • What are the basics of your workflow method?
  • What productivity/efficiency tips have you found to be the most effective?

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I am G.E. Miller, & this is my story. My goal is financial independence ASAP. If you share that goal, join me & 7,500+ others by getting FREE email updates. You'll also find every post by category & every post in order.


6 Comments »
  • Chotchke says:

    I don’t really understand the whole GTD phenomenon. I mean, hasn’t anybody who does work and completes things been practicing some form of ‘GTD’. Overhype, in my opinion. I guess it’s good for people who don’t know what they’re doing at work or are really unorganized.

  • Stuart says:

    Oh no! You just obliterated my GTD religion!

  • Paul says:

    Could not agree more – you nailed it with your summary.

  • Lesley says:

    I found a lot of the information in the book to be things that can be derived from the use common sense.
    Honestly, it shouldn’t be that hard to stay on top of things in one’s life. I hold a full-time job, run a home, go to school, and I am a mom/wife. If you don’t know how to manage you life, either you will learn or it will manage you.

  • Antoine says:

    Thanks for this summary G.E. Miller. You saved me some time, and that is highly valuable. Let me try to save some of yours

    *1 Have you read the book? What are your thoughts?
    No. I think buying it is an easy yet concrete step towards getting your life organized. If the book’s only downside is it’s length and repetition, that’s ok. If it is boring too, then it’s a motivation killer. Bottom line if one feels knowledgeable about getting things done AND energized, sounds like an ok spend.

    *2 What are the basics of your workflow method?
    To get moving on a daily basis: Meeting schedule + To do list
    To get moving in the right direction: periodically, review progress towards objectives + adjustment of objectives and path forward (for my “goals in life” it is a yearly review, for shorter projects it is obviously more frequent)
    [Not sure what you call a workflow method, so forgive me if my answer is not the kind you are looking for]

    *3 What productivity/efficiency tips have you found to be the most effective?
    – to do list (a long one, contrary to what is usually advised re to do lists). Keeping it long is my best way to avoid procrastination: you always find items that you feel like doing
    – as many deadlines as you can handle (and I mean strict deadlines). Meetings are great deadlines: you know that if you are late, you will inflict pain to yourself AND others)

  • Martin Voelker says:

    Derek,
    thanks for the link. The guy from Wired gives GTD a 4 out of 5 and concludes: “The book is as dry as a camera manual. It took me two years to open my camera manual, too. Both turned out to be useful.”
    The alternative to a dry book in this genre will often be neo-pagan New Age gobbledigook, businessified. Allen also doesn’t get obsessed with the positive thinking fad (while acknowledging that it has some role).
    I have listened to the audiobook (within one week) and bought the book. While I appreciate the “cliff notes” I don’t agree that they’ll suffice for someone who is looking to implement the GRD method, especially when doing it by him or her self.
    What I found personally true is that those “open loops” that Allen asks us to identify and close are my biggest hurdle for getting things done. Being haunted by hovering tasks and responsibilities and amorphous stuff weighs on me. GTD gives clear direction on how keep on top.
    Also, in retrospect, I’ve been in too many interactions and meetings where no clear next action has been defined. If reinforcing simple processes like these were the only things GTD effected in organizations, it’s worth $600 per head (which by the way is not a large fee by industry standards).

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