Book Summary: Getting Things Done, by David Allen
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- 1-Page Summary
- Introduction: The Getting Things Done (GTD) Program
- Part 1 | Chapter 1: Your Organization System Must Fit Your Life
- Chapter 2: An Overview of the GTD System
- Chapter 3: Project Planning
- Part 2 | Chapter 4: Set Yourself Up for GTD Success
- Chapter 5: Step 1—Capture Everything
- Chapter 6: Step 2—Clarify Everything in Your In-Tray
- Chapter 7: Step 3—Organizing
- Chapter 8: Step 4—Review Everything Regularly
- Chapter 9: Engage
- Chapter 10: Tips for Vertical Project Planning
- Part 3 | Chapter 11: The Life-Changing Habit of Capturing
- Chapters 12 and 13: The Life-Changing Habit of Next Actions
- Chapter 14: Cognitive Science Backs Up GTD Methods
- Chapter 15: Mastering the GTD Program
1-Page Book Summary of Getting Things Done
Do you feel like you’re always playing catch up with your to-do list? Are there never enough hours in the day?
The Getting Things Done (GTD) program is designed to help you do the things you have to do with less time, energy, and effort so you can do more of the things you want to do.
The crux of the GTD system is to store every task, reminder, and note bouncing around your brain in an external organization system to free up your mental energy to actually focus on the task at hand. Your brain is great at creating and processing things but not at remembering them, so trying to keep track of everything in your head saps your brainpower from doing what your mind does best.
Through the GTD system, you’ll capture every task and reminder on lists, in files, and on your calendar. You’ll be aware and in control of your entire workload so you can be fully present in each moment without the nagging feeling that you should be doing something else.
The five steps of the GTD system are:
- Capture all the problems and ideas that are taking your attention.
- Clarify what each one means and what you need to do about it.
- Organize the decisions and actions you’ve clarified.
- Reflect on everything in front of you to choose what to tackle next.
- Engage with the task (get it done).
When you first start out, you’ll have a large mental backlog of items to capture and process, and this will take a good amount of time. After you get through it once, you’ll have all the items in the proper place. Then, on a regular basis (for example, daily), you’ll step through the five steps to capture and process new items, then figure out what you want to do that day.
Step 1: Capture
The first step is to capture every idea, reminder, and piece of information and get it out of your head. Capture everything—big and small, short-term and long-term, anything in your life that you feel should be different and that you have some motivation or commitment to change (anything from career strategy ideas to a reminder to fix that gadget in your junk drawer).
When you make a habit of capturing everything, you can trust that nothing will fall through the cracks. Other people will see your diligence and their trust in you will grow; furthermore, your trust in yourself and your confidence to accomplish things will grow.
Go through your desk, kitchen table, briefcase, and every other nook and cranny that could hold a note or reminder you need to process. Then wrack your brain for every other idea and loose end that’s nagging at you—whether it’s about a meeting you just had or a gift for your mom’s birthday next week.
Put everything in your in-tray. Don’t stop to work on anything else—just focus on capturing absolutely everything as quickly as possible. When you’re done, you’ll take time to assess every item.
Step 2: Clarify
The next step is to decide the intended outcome for each item and figure out what the immediate next action is to make progress toward that outcome. The “next action” is the immediate next physical step you can take toward a project’s completion. For example, if the item says “schedule meeting,” you need to decide what you need to do next to schedule that meeting: Check your availability? Book a conference room? Email meeting requests?
This front-end decision-making boosts your productivity because it forces you to determine how to tackle an item when it lands in front of you rather than waiting until you’re up against a deadline. Clarifying next actions turns seemingly daunting tasks into bite-sized actions you can easily complete and feel success with.
Based on the next action you determine for each item, you’ll either:
- Throw it away. If it doesn’t require any action and you won’t need the information later, toss it.
- Keep it for your reference files. These items don’t require any action, but they have information that may be useful later.
- Do it. If the next action takes less than two minutes, do it now.
- Label it a project. The GTD system defines projects as anything that requires more than one step and can be finished within a year—anything from planting your garden to learning new software at work. Put a sticky note on it labeling it a project and put it in a Pending pile.
- Decide to delegate it. If the next action will take longer than two minutes, consider whether you’re the best person for the job. If not, put a sticky note on it marking that you’re delegating it and to whom, and put it in the Pending pile.
- Save it for later. Label items that don’t require any action now but you might want to follow up on in the future as “Someday/Maybe.” If you want to create a reminder to reconsider it on a specific date, make a note of that date so you can put it in your tickler file or on your calendar in the next step. Put all these items in the Pending pile.
- Defer to next actions. If it’ll take longer than two minutes and you can’t delegate it, label it “Next Action” and put it in the Pending pile.
Here’s a flowchart that shows Steps 1 to 3 more clearly:
Step 3: Organize
In the clarifying step, you made a decision about the next step for each item; now you’re going to organize the items into files, lists, and calendar items.
The author proposes a lot of different lists and files with different purposes, and it can be overwhelming. For now, focus on the big picture point—that each item gets put into its ideal place, which gives you mental confidence that you’ve accounted for everything on your plate, and that it’ll be there when you need it.
Although you threw away some items during Step 2, you might still come across items that, upon further consideration, you decide you don’t need. Trash them.
Now take the non-actionable reference items—whether they’re menus from your favorite food delivery spot or a list of contacts for members of the committee you chair—and make your reference files. There are two types of reference files: subject-specific files for one type of document, such as past contracts you may need for future reference, and general-reference files for anything that doesn’t fall into a specific category.
In order for your reference files to be useful, your organization must be simple and easily navigable. An effective filing system motivates you to keep up with filing new items and makes it easy to retrieve documents when you need them.
Now tackle the Pending pile. Based on what you decided in the last step, put each item in one of the following places:
- Projects list is an index of your projects that are in the planning process, which helps you keep track of each project’s finish line and consistently determine each project’s next action.
- Project Support Materials file holds project plans, research, invoices, and other documents.
- Waiting For list helps you keep track of tasks you’re waiting for someone else to complete or items you’ve decided to delegate.
- Someday/Maybe list is a running list of things you want to act on in the future. You must review this list regularly so you can decide when the time is right to pursue one of these ideas.
- Tickler file (meant to tickle your memory) is a filing system that holds information, documents, and reminders you won’t need until a certain point in the future, such as a flyer for a play that doesn’t debut for another three months.
- Calendar is for items that need to be done at a certain time or on a certain day, such as appointments, deadlines, or reminders. The only items that should go on your calendar are things that must happen on that day or not at all.
- Next Actions list is a to-do list to be tackled as soon as possible; it’s essentially the catch-all for tasks that are actionable, take longer than two minutes, and can’t be delegated. If you have more than a few dozen next actions on this list, it helps to divide them up into categories based on what you need or where you need to be to tackle them, such as “Calls to Make” or “Office.”
Step 4: Reflect
Regularly reflect on all your lists and files to help you make smarter choices about which tasks to tackle. Review your calendar daily and your Next Actions list frequently, so you always know the immovable aspects of your schedule—like meetings and appointments—as well as what needs to get done when you have time available.
The fast pace of life and incoming items makes it nearly impossible to keep your system completely updated on a day-to-day basis, so a Weekly Review is critical for keeping your lists and files clean and current. During the Weekly Review, you’ll:
- Review your Projects, Project Plans, Next Actions, Waiting For, Someday/Maybe lists, and your Tickler File
- Capture anything you haven’t captured yet
- Clarify any items that you haven’t clarified
- Take stock of your whole organization system to make sure everything is running smoothly
- Update your lists
- Clean up and clear things out where needed
In addition to catching up, your Weekly Review is a chance for you to ponder big-picture ideas and projects and consider whether your day-to-day obligations align with your goals and values in life.
Step 5: Engage
The Getting Things Done system is designed to help you make informed choices about how you engage with your tasks, meaning what you do when you have time available. You can only feel confident about what you’re doing if you also feel confident about what you’re not doing at any given moment.
Now that you have a list of Next Actions to do, you need to choose what to work on today, in which order. Use the following three models for choosing which item on your Next Actions list to tackle.
The Four-Criteria Model: Narrow Your Options
This model helps you narrow down your choices based on four criteria:
- Context: Certain tasks require you to be at a certain location or to have access to a certain tool (e.g. at the office or in front of a computer). It helps if you’ve already sorted your next actions into context-specific lists.
- Time available: Some tasks require an hour of focused attention, so if you just have a few minutes before your next appointment this isn’t the time for that task.
- Energy available: Certain tasks require a lot of mental or physical energy, while others don’t need much. Only tackle what you have the energy to take on.
- Priority: After narrowing down your options with the first three criteria, prioritizing will be a more subjective decision based on your intuition and judgment. Use the next two models to help you choose by determining first what category of work an item falls into and then how it fits into your big-picture goals and values.
The Threefold Model: Types of Work
To make an informed decision about whether to take on a task, you must understand which of the three categories it falls into:
- Predefined work is essentially anything on your Next Actions list and calendar, all of which you’ve clarified and deemed important.
- Work that shows up encompasses the unanticipated tasks that arise during the day, whether it’s a last-minute report your boss assigns you or the surprise repair your car needs. Prioritize this work when it needs your immediate attention, but don’t fall into the trap of defaulting to what’s right in front of you when it’s not the most important or urgent.
- Defining work is the time you spend maintaining the GTD system—clearing your in-tray, clarifying tasks, organizing, filing, and doing two-minute actions. You must prioritize time to do this regularly, ideally during your Weekly Review.
The Six-Level Model: Determine Priorities
**In order to prioritize the...
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Getting Things Done Summary Introduction: The Getting Things Done (GTD) Program
The Getting Things Done (GTD) program is designed to increase your productivity and effectiveness—not so you can squeeze even more into your already busy life, but so that you can do things with less time, energy, and effort. When you feel in control of your life and your to-do list, you can be present in each moment without the nagging feeling that there’s something else you should be doing. When your mind is clear, you can focus and use your creative energy for the task at hand, and in your free moments, you can fully enjoy life without feeling guilty that you’re not doing something “productive.”
The GTD program is meant to be a lifelong practice, and you’ll continually graduate to more advanced levels of application. As you start to cement the strategies as habits, you’ll reach new levels of mastery to enhance your life and productivity in new ways: Once staying on top of your emails is second nature, use your skills (and newfound free time and energy) to take on a new hobby or strengthen your important relationships.
In the meantime, don’t wait until you finish the book to start using the strategies—put them into practice as you go. Practicing the skills will give you a richer understanding and help you dive deeper into the program.
Many readers regularly re-read this book and come away with something new each time. The program requires more habit changes than most people can fully implement all at once, so readers tend to absorb pieces at a time; after the first time through, start practicing the basics, and the next time you’ll better understand the strategies for refining those basic skills. Each time you read the book, you gain a new level of understanding and practice.
Revised Edition Of The Book: New World, Same Program
This book has been revised and updated from its original 2001 edition. The principles and general strategies remain the same, but the world is a different place than it was at the turn of the century, so the author has made the following adjustments and additions:
- He incorporates the rise of digital...
Getting Things Done Summary Part 1 | Chapter 1: Your Organization System Must Fit Your Life
What does your to-do list look like? Is it a hodgepodge of reminders, information, and projects from all areas of your life? Are you getting anxious just thinking about it?
In this chapter, we’ll talk about why your current system isn’t working and how the Getting Things Done program takes a different approach.
Outdated Time Management Tools Can’t Keep Up With Today’s Demands
Significant changes to daily life in the last half-century have overloaded people with work and personal responsibilities, so people need a more dynamic way of managing it all.
First, most people’s jobs are no longer restricted to the hours of 9 am to 5 pm nor to the confines of the office. These days, people are always on call via phone and email, and the effects of globalization mean you could be working with people nine time zones away. There are no boundaries to your workday, so it easily steals time from other parts of your life.
Second, the nature of work has changed from more industrial, assembly-line type work with clear, visible tasks to so-called knowledge work with much more ambiguously defined projects. Previously, you knew what your task was (for example, assemble these parts) and you knew when it was done. Now, one task can eat up a lot of your time because there’s no clear signal when you’re done.
Third, modern life requires near-constant communication with more people. Most organizations require increasing interdepartmental collaboration, so workers are no longer limited to their specifically defined roles and departments. In your personal life, too, there’s more pressure to stay connected with friends and family via the Internet and social media.
People have no clear boundaries to work and personal commitments, leaving them with little to no free time—or making them feel guilty or pulled in other directions when they do carve out free time.
Established time management tools were developed to organize life the way it used to be.
- Calendars are only effective at organizing a portion of your life.
- To-do lists and prioritizing strategies...
Shortform Exercise: Capture, Clarify, and Organize
Open loops can be mentally draining before you’ve even made any progress on completing the task. Apply this exercise to your open loops to help clear your mind and get things done.
Name a project or task that’s been weighing on your mind, anything from a project at work to planning your next vacation.
Getting Things Done Summary Chapter 2: An Overview of the GTD System
The Getting Things Done system has five steps:
- Capture all the problems and ideas that are taking your attention.
- Clarify what each one means and what you need to do about it.
- Organize the decisions and actions you’ve clarified.
- Reflect on everything in front of you to choose what to tackle next.
- Engage with the task (get it done).
Devote time to each step individually, rather than trying to go through all five at once: Take some time to sit and capture everything in your head, go through and clarify all those items during another sitting, and so on.
Most people do these five steps naturally, but not as efficiently as they could. Many people fall into one of these traps:
- They don’t capture everything, leaving too many open loops in their heads.
- They don’t clarify sufficiently, so they have ambiguous to-do lists, notes, and reminders that don’t tell them exactly what to do.
- They don’t organize efficiently, so the reminders get lost and tasks don’t get done in a timely way.
- They don’t spend enough time reflecting, so they have lists, calendars, and reminders that are overloaded and out-of-date.
- They tackle whatever is the most immediate and demanding instead of making strategic decisions about what to engage in.
Let’s talk about each step, and in later chapters we’ll explore them in more detail.
Step 1: Capture
The first critical step is to capture every idea, reminder, and piece of information and get it out of your head. Capture everything—big and small, short-term and long-term, anything in your life that you feel should be different and that you have some motivation or commitment to change—from career strategy ideas to a reminder to fix that gadget in your junk drawer.
Put all these things into “containers,” which can be:
- Paper notebooks, note cards, or pads
- Physical in-trays
- Emails or text messages
- Digital or audio note-taking systems/apps
Whatever type of container you use, make sure that it is always with you so that you can capture something as...
Shortform Exercise: Adapting Your Organization System
Many people are already doing some aspects of the GTD program without realizing it. Use this to assess your current system and see where you could fine-tune it.
How do you currently organize and keep track of your to-dos?
Getting Things Done Summary Chapter 3: Project Planning
In Part 2, we’ll go deeper into implementing the Getting Things Done system, but first, let’s take an aside to discuss projects. Many of your next actions will stem from projects—which can be anything from getting a new printer to remodeling your home to planning a business merger—so it’s important that you know how to plan and execute them effectively.
How you approach planning your projects is a critical factor in whether you complete them, how successfully, and how stressful the process is.
The Natural Planning Method Overview
Many people lean toward formal planning methods, especially in business contexts (for example, planning sessions and project management software).
Planning sessions often start with a manager soliciting ideas for a project such as planning a conference. People start to throw out ideas for venues, events, and speakers, but they don’t make much progress because people are suggesting different cities and topics. The manager then realizes the team needs to organize and brainstorm. But they’re still not getting very far because everyone isn’t on the same page. Finally, they face the question, “What’s the vision and purpose?” That’s the foundation of any project.
This approach is the Reactive Planning Model, and it’s not very efficient or effective.
Taking the wrong approach to planning projects makes the process feel daunting and causes many people to put off planning until the last minute. Additionally, it can lead you to:
- Overlook critical issues
- Not allow enough time for brainstorming
- Neglect nitty-gritty details such as next actions and accountabilities.
By contrast, the Natural Planning Method is a much more effective approach, and you’re probably already doing it in your everyday life—you just might not realize you’re doing it. There are five steps of natural planning; we’ll give an overview of them and look at how they apply to planning a dinner out, then we’ll explain each one in depth.
1) Define your purpose and principles. Your purpose is the intention of the project, and your...
Shortform Exercise: Apply The Natural Planning Method
Practice applying the Natural Planning Method to a project in your life.
Step 1—Define Your Purpose and Principles: Think of a project you’re currently working on or plan to begin soon. Define the purpose and principles of the project.
Getting Things Done Summary Part 2 | Chapter 4: Set Yourself Up for GTD Success
Now that you’ve learned the models and the methods, it’s time to start applying the Getting Things Done program to your life.
It’s one thing to know what you should do, and quite another to actually do it, so Part 2 provides some coaching and practical tools for implementing the GTD system. You can implement the full-scale system, or adopt a few aspects and implement more over time.
Your biggest time investment will be in getting the GTD system up and running. It takes most people two days back-to-back to fully get things started—about a day to capture and another day to clarify and determine next actions.
The initial process takes a lot of mental energy, so aim to dedicate a day or two to it with no distractions. If you work on this after you get home from work at the end of the day, your energy will probably be too tapped to effectively capture and clarify everything without falling down rabbit holes.
Once you have the system set up and in place, you’ll be able to maintain it during much shorter windows of free time in your days.
Designate a physical location in your home where you can manage your workflow and keep your in-trays and files. Even if your system is mostly digital, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll have some papers to deal with, so you need a place to store and process them.
Your workspace should have:
- A writing surface
- An in-tray
- Space for a computer or other necessary digital devices
You may also want:
- A printer
- File drawers
- Stacking trays
- Reference shelves
- A whiteboard
If you work at an office, create an almost identical setup at work so that you can manage your system wherever you are when things come up. If you share a workspace at home or at work, carve out your own space in order to keep your system organized and effective.
If you travel a lot or work remotely, you may also want a portable office with a briefcase, satchel, or backpack as well as necessary folders and workstation supplies (we’ll get into those in the next section);...
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Shortform Exercise: Establish Your GTD Setup
Implementing the GTD system requires some time, space, and the right tools.
Looking at your schedule, when can you dedicate a day or two to setting up your GTD system, ideally without any distractions?
Getting Things Done Summary Chapter 5: Step 1—Capture Everything
Now that you have your workspace set up and the time set aside, dive in with the first step: capturing.
There are a few benefits to getting everything in one place in front of you before you begin the next step, clarifying:
- You know how much stuff you have to go through.
- You have a definitive endpoint (at least for now, until life gives you more to capture).
- You can focus on clarifying and organizing when you get to those steps, without feeling like there’s still more stuff out there.
Part 1: Capture Physical Items
Capturing is more all-encompassing than simply jotting down a list off the top of your head. For your initial capturing, go through physical holders of notes and reminders, including:
- Bulletin boards
- Desk drawers
- Office (or second office space)
If you can’t get to every spot right now, make a placeholder note (e.g. “Clean out hall closet”) and put it in your in-tray to remind you to do it later.
Gather anything that doesn’t belong where it is the way it is, and put it all into your in-tray. This includes:
- Business cards
- Reading material
- Reference materials
By the nature of this process, you’ll end up with a lot of things that aren’t that important—that’s why you probably put them off in the first place. But you need to capture them nonetheless so that you have no open loops.
Follow these guidelines for capturing:
- Scan your entire physical surroundings for anything that is incomplete (for example, gadgets that need to be repaired and furniture you’ve been meaning to move).
- Generally, you can leave supplies (such as stationery, batteries, and paper clips), reference material (such as software manuals and contact lists), decorations (such as photos and artwork), and equipment (such as a computer and printer) where they are unless there’s something about them you need to move, fix, update, or otherwise alter.
Shortform Exercise: Capture All Your Open Loops
Open loops can lurk in all corners of your life. Use this exercise to uncover them.
If you don’t have an in-tray, where do you collect most of the items you need to deal with (such as mail, notes, and forms)?
Getting Things Done Summary Chapter 6: Step 2—Clarify Everything in Your In-Tray
Now that your mind is empty and your in-tray is probably overflowing, it’s time to work through everything—quickly, decisively, and diligently.
It’s easy for this clarifying/processing stage and the next step, organizing, to get entangled. If you’re implementing the GTD system as you read this, you may want to read this chapter and the next before moving forward on clarifying your “in” items.
Here’s the big picture of how this works: First, in Step 2, decide what action each item needs—for some items, the action will be the next thing you need to do to accomplish the task (for example, call your mechanic), and for others, it’ll be to delegate the task or file the item for later. If there’s anything you can throw away or complete in less than two minutes, do it now. Otherwise, label each item according to what you decide. Then, in Step 3, you’ll physically sort everything into their appropriate files and lists.
Back to Step 2: Emptying your in-tray might seem like a daunting task, so follow these guidelines to get through it.
Rule #1: One at a Time, Starting at the Top
In order to get through this pile, you need to treat each item equally: Pick one up, decide what to do with it, and mark it accordingly (e.g. calendar, Next Actions list, Projects list).
You may be tempted to do an “emergency scan” of your tasks, quickly perusing for the most urgent, enjoyable, easy, or interesting item to tackle first. But that makes it easy to neglect certain items and put off making a decision about them.
The most effective way to empty your in-tray is to work through each item from the list top-down (or, if you prefer, flip the in-tray upside down and work from the top-down so you start with the first items you put in the tray).
Additionally, assessing just one item at a time forces you to dedicate enough attention to decide what to do with each one.
The only exception to this is if you’re the rare person who’s more effective and efficient when you multitask. Some people can only make a decision about an item if they briefly shift their...
Getting Things Done Summary Chapter 7: Step 3—Organizing
Once you’ve clarified what you need to do with each item, it’s time to physically sort them in your organizing system. You should now have an empty in-tray and two piles: a pile of reference items and a Pending pile.
You’ll organize the Pending pile by placing items in the following places (discussed in more detail below):
- Projects list
- Project support material folder
- Waiting For list
- Someday/Maybe list
- Tickler file
- Calendar actions/information
- Next Actions list
Your lists can be numbered lists (on paper or in digital form) or can be folders of papers labeled with separate items.
As you organize, keep in mind that although you threw away some items during Step 2, you might still come across items that, upon further consideration, you decide you don’t need. Trash them.
You won’t—and probably shouldn’t—crystallize your organization system when you first get the Getting Things Done program up and running. Your organization system needs to reflect what works best for you, and that will take time and some trial and error to figure out.
Now let’s take a closer look at each category.
Start with your reference pile. Your general-reference file holds information that is critically important and vastly diverse. In order for your general-reference information to be useful, your organization must be simple and easily navigable.
Follow these guidelines to effectively organize general-reference materials:
- Base it on how accessible you need certain information to be. Make information you need frequently easily accessible, perhaps on your cell phone, while documents you only need at work can be filed in your office.
- Do what works for you. Try different systems (paper-based or digital) and customize them to your needs. You won’t know what works until you start using a system.
There are multiple locations where you can keep your general-reference material, based on the content.
- **General-reference filing holds a broad range of material, so keep this culled, organized, and...
Shortform Exercise: Get Organized
You’ve done the hard work of capturing and clarifying everything. Now organizing it in an easily accessible and navigable way is key to making this system work.
What are two or three categories you might use to sort your next actions?
Getting Things Done Summary Chapter 8: Step 4—Review Everything Regularly
Now you have the whole system set up: You’ve captured, clarified, and organized everything. In order for the Getting Things Done system to work, you need to regularly reflect, review, and update everything. Your lists and files do you no good if you don’t consistently look at or update them.
Review your calendar and daily tickler file most often. They give you the “hard landscape” of your day, so you know how much time you have—or don’t—for other tasks.
Your Next Actions list is your second most frequently reviewed resource. Check it to remind yourself what tasks you have on deck so that you can weigh them against work that comes in throughout the day. Even if you don’t do anything on your Next Actions list on a given day, you need to know what’s there to feel confident about your choice to put it off.
Additionally, have any list you need on hand at the moment you need it: If you have a few free minutes with your phone, be sure you can access and check your Calls list, or if you’re going into a meeting with your boss, have your Agenda on hand so you can review other items you want to bring up with her.
The only way to keep nagging thoughts and reminders off your brain is to keep your system reliable, effective, and current. Make sure the system stays that way during your Weekly Review.
A Weekly Review Is Critical to Success
No matter how organized and efficient your system is, sometimes things come at you too fast to capture, clarify, and file everything on the spot. That’s why the Weekly Review is so critical to keep current on everything.
Besides simply catching up, your Weekly Review gives you a moment to reflect and come up with new ideas to capture. Additionally, the Weekly Review keeps you aware of the tasks and projects on your plate so that you can better navigate incoming work through the course of the week.
During your Weekly Review, you’ll:
- Capture and clarify
Step 1: Capture and Clarify
Your Weekly Review is the time to go through a smaller version of the massive capturing and...
Shortform Exercise: Review Your To-Dos
You have to regularly review your calendar and lists in order for them to be of any use.
In your current organization system, how often do you look at your calendar, organizer, and/or to-do list?
Getting Things Done Summary Chapter 9: Engage
It’s the moment of truth: You have a half-hour free in your schedule. What do you do?
The simple answer is to trust your intuition. But with so many tasks pulling at you from different areas of your life, that’s easier said than done.
Let’s dive deeper into the three frameworks for prioritizing that we talked about in Chapter 2.
The Four Criteria Model for Narrowing Down Your Options
Begin by narrowing down your options using the following four criteria.
Criteria #1: Context
Consider the context. If you’ve divided your next actions into categories—such as Calls to Make and Computer Tasks—then you can easily pull up the list that applies to where you are and what tools you have available. Categorized lists save you the time and brain power it takes to scan through a master Next Actions list and determine which tasks you can tackle in a given context.
You can be creative with the categories of your action lists, such as creating a “Brain Gone” list for mindless tasks and a “Less Than 5-Minute” list for quick tasks. You can also make time-sensitive lists and group everything you need to accomplish before a certain deadline—for example, before you leave for a trip—into one list.
You might not need to get this specific when you’re starting out with the Getting Things Done system, but as time goes on create new lists based on what works for you.
Criteria #2: Time
How much time do you have? If you have only 15 minutes before your next appointment, don’t dive into something that’s going to take an hour to accomplish.
Narrowing your options to fit the time you have maximizes your productivity by making use of odd windows of time in your day, for instance while you’re on hold on the phone, waiting for a meeting to start, or sitting in the waiting room at your doctor’s office.
Criteria #3: Energy
You have only so much physical energy and brainpower, so be realistic about your energy level and choose an action that matches. If you’re working on something mentally demanding, you’ll eventually reach a point of...
Shortform Exercise: Consider Your Priorities
Reflect on your workflow and method of prioritizing.
Think of something that’s currently on your to-do list. What role and responsibility does that task serve?
Getting Things Done Summary Chapter 10: Tips for Vertical Project Planning
If you’ve worked through all the steps, you already have a healthy Projects list with next actions identified and support materials organized. However, even with the project planning steps we talked about in Chapter 3, you might need to do some deeper vertical thinking for certain projects.
Review your Projects list and ask yourself these questions about each project:
- Is there more I need to know about this?
- Are there ideas or information I need to capture?
- What else do I need to remember about this project?
As you go through this process, jot down your thoughts in whatever form feels best—bullet points, an outline, or a mind map.
While many projects are straightforward and take just a few steps to complete (such as finding a new doctor), there are two types of projects that need more attention:
- Projects that are still on your mind after you’ve decided the next action
- Projects that inspire plans and ideas that pop up at random times
Let’s look at how to deal with each.
Type #1: Projects That Need More Planning
If you’ve decided on a next action for a project but it’s still nagging at you, you probably need to do more planning.
For these projects, your next action will most likely take one of four forms:
- Brainstorming: If you need more ideas to get things moving on the project, the action item will be along the lines of “Draft ideas for Project X.” Decide how you’re going to brainstorm (refer to Chapter 3) and put the action on the appropriate list—possibly the “Computer Tasks” if you’re going to type up your ideas.
- Organizing: If you already have some notes or support materials that you need to sort and organize, your action item will be something like “Organize Project X notes.” Again, determine the context for this action and put it on the “Office,” “Computer Tasks,” or other appropriate action list.
- Setting up meetings: If you need input from other people involved to brainstorm or determine how to move forward, you’ll have to set up a meeting and your action item might be “email team” or...
Getting Things Done Summary Part 3 | Chapter 11: The Life-Changing Habit of Capturing
Now that you know the principles and the practice of the Getting Things Done program, let’s talk about how implementing this system will change your mental well-being and relationships with others.
Capturing Liberates Your Mind
Capturing everything you need to do in one system maximizes your mental capacity: When you hold everything in your head, relatively unimportant tasks consume as much mental energy as the important ones, so some items are getting too much attention and others aren’t getting enough. By contrast, when you capture and clarify everything, you can assess how important and urgent something really is and address it appropriately.
The initial capturing process might bring up conflicting feelings: The sheer number of tasks can make you anxious, stressed, frustrated, and guilty. But recording and organizing them will also make you feel relieved and in control.
You’ll know you’ve captured everything when you have nothing left pulling at your attention. At this point you can put all your focus on the task at hand and get into a “zone” with everything you do.
Capturing Makes You Trustworthy
When people around you—at work and in your personal life—see that you consistently and promptly act on items and tasks, their trust in you will grow. In simple terms, think about a friend who always cancels or reschedules your lunch dates at the last minute versus a friend who always shows up or gives you ample notice when she can’t make it; who do you trust more, and does that trust extend beyond the ability to show up for lunch?
By the same token, when you reliably follow the system and stay on top of your tasks, projects, and organization, you’ll have more trust in yourself and you’ll become more confident about the way you engage with the world.
Every time you take on a new task, you’re making an agreement with yourself. And every unfinished task on your to-do list feels like a broken agreement; too many unfinished tasks causes you to lose trust in yourself.
Keep your trust and confidence in yourself high with these strategies:...
Getting Things Done Summary Chapters 12 and 13: The Life-Changing Habit of Next Actions
Defining a next action goes hand-in-hand with identifying and envisioning the outcome you want to achieve: If you don’t know where you’re going, you can’t decide how to get there. The Getting Things Done program helps you determine both the outcomes you want via projects and how to achieve them via next actions.
Identifying projects and next actions brings clarity, accountability, productivity, and empowerment. You define the outcome you want, determine who’s involved in making it happen, create momentum that contributes to achieving this outcome, and take on ownership of making this dream a reality.
Your Mind Turns Undecided Next Actions Into Daunting Tasks
When you have the opportunity to tackle things on your to-do list, one of the biggest roadblocks to productivity is not having next actions already defined.
Why do so many smart, successful people delay working on projects until they’re pushing the deadline? Intelligent, creative, and sensitive people tend to procrastinate the most because when they look at a task like “do taxes,” their imaginative minds conjure worst-case-scenario images.
If you’re not in the habit of defining next actions, your whole to-do list becomes overwhelming. When that happens, it’s tempting to avoid it entirely.
Instead, clarifying next actions turns seemingly daunting tasks into bite-sized actions you can easily complete and feel the thrill of success. Taking it a step further and categorizing next actions into context-specific lists removes yet another barrier to tackling your to-do list and feeling on top of the world.
Clarifying a next action usually only takes about 10 seconds, but on a Thursday afternoon when you have 15 minutes before your next meeting, you might not feel like you have the brainpower to figure out the next action for an item that says “get new tires.” On the other hand, seeing “search the web for a tire store” feels much more doable.
The Benefits of Asking, “What’s Next?”
Too often, people come away from meetings or discussions knowing only that something generally needs...
Shortform Exercise: Decide Your Next Move
Getting through your tasks boils down to determining the next actions for each item on your to-do list.
What is a task or project—big or small—that you’ve been putting off?
Getting Things Done Summary Chapter 14: Cognitive Science Backs Up GTD Methods
When the original version of this book was published in 2001, the primary evidence of the Getting Things Done program’s effectiveness was anecdotal from the author’s own experience and the experiences of his clients. However, by the time the updated version was released in 2015, multiple cognitive science studies had confirmed the principles behind the GTD methodology.
The GTD system offers more than just a way to manage your time and your tasks—GTD encourages more meaningful work, a more mindful approach to living, and an overall sense of empowerment and reduced stress through outcome thinking (projects) and longer-term goals (higher horizons).
Several psychological theories and principles that back up GTD practices, including:
- Research on distributed cognition proves that your brain is great at thinking and having ideas, but not great at remembering them.
- Studies show that unfinished goals, actions, and projects (a.k.a. open loops) weigh heavily on your mind, decreasing your clarity and ability to focus.
- Self-leadership strategies help people control their own actions with techniques such as self cueing (such as adding items to your action lists), natural rewards (such as the sense of accomplishment from completing captured tasks), and positive mindset (such as feeling motivated and empowered). Self-leadership strategies are proven to increase people’s sense of self-efficacy, the feeling of confidence and control over your ability to perform tasks.
- Research shows that the most effective way to achieve goals is through implementation intentions, or making a plan that includes the necessary actions and the contexts for completing them.
Let’s take a closer look at two other areas of psychological study that support the GTD system.
Experience Total Focus Through Flow
Flow is the state of being totally engaged and performing at your peak; athletes call it being “in the zone.”
The GTD program facilitates several conditions that are necessary to experience flow:
- You must be working on just one activity....
Getting Things Done Summary Chapter 15: Mastering the GTD Program
As we’ve talked about, implementing and mastering the GTD program will be a lifelong endeavor—you’ll never reach an endpoint but rather, over time, you’ll become more proficient at using the GTD system and can leverage it to accomplish more profound productivity.
Think of it like learning to play guitar: First, you learn the chords, then, as those become more second-nature, you learn simple melodies, and finally, you can compose your own music.
Let’s explore the three tiers of GTD mastery.
Tier 1: The Fundamentals
Like any skill, the first step to mastering the GTD system is to get a grasp of the basics.
Although the GTD program doesn’t require any new skills (for example, you know how to write things down and file papers), it does require you to adopt new practices and form new habits. It can easily take about two years to cement these habits, and most people fall off the wagon and get back on course a couple of times along the way.
Don’t let these basic practices slip, since they cause your whole system to unravel:
- Capturing items as soon as you receive them
- Diligently identifying next actions
- Keeping your Waiting For list complete and current, regularly reviewing it, and determining follow-up next actions when necessary
- Maintaining Agenda lists with discussion topics for various people in your life
- Maintaining a simple and navigable filing system
- Writing only date-specific tasks and reminders on your calendar
- Committing to a Weekly Review
Avoid these pitfalls and stay diligent about the GTD practices and you’ll reach the next level of GTD mastery.
Tier 2: Effective Life Management
While Tier 1 gives you full control of your hourly and daily tasks and schedule, at Tier 2 you’re managing your life at a weekly and monthly level. In other words, Tier 1 is about mastering your next actions, while Tier 2 is about mastering your projects.
Once you have a handle on all your action items, you can focus on the reasons behind those actions—the projects. Your projects are tied to your various roles...