Getting Things Done Review & Summary

A Review of “Getting Things Done”, by David Allen

I just finished Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen. The book has sold millions 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.

getting things done review

Getting Things Done Summary (Chapter-by-Chapter):

Chapter 1: A New Practice for a New Reality

The 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 Mastering 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 mind sweep 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”

The Good in “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 in “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 in “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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