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Getting Things Done

Have you ever heard of Getting Things Done [3]? When I brought it up to my wife, she thought I was just making a sarcastic comment (not uncommon :)) but it’s a national bestselling book by David Allen about a personal productivity system.

It’s been lauded by practically everyone who has integrated it into their lives. When so many people proclaim its brilliance, you’d be a fool not to take a look at it right? Well, I was such a fool until recently. The system is as good as people claim and it’s surprisingly not very different, at least in its core principles, as what I believe, which makes it easy to integrate and easy to adopt. I now feel stupid for not reading about this earlier!

The Core Principle

The core principle in Getting Things Done is that you should write down all the things you need to do. You begin the week by reviewing your projects and your tasks, writing down what you want to accomplish, and then charting out your progress. The key to it all is getting things out of your head and onto a piece of paper. By writing it down, you take the responsibility of remembering out of your brain and you are allowed to focus on the work and not the worry.

During my junior year of college, I dropped in on my friend Roberto right before final exam week was about to start. He was, in short, kind of freaking out. He had final papers, final exams, last minute homework assignments, and all the typical headaches associated with the end of the semester. He was strung out, stretched thin, and on the verge of breaking. I told him just to write everything down on a piece of paper and just start crossing them out as he did them. He would later tell me that our talk, the combination of him venting his emotions and the suggestion of writing things down, helped him tremendously that week. Just writing it down puts it in perspective and focus.

There’s also one other core idea in GTD: find the next physical action you need to take to move closer to achieving a goal… then do it. It sounds silly but it works. Step by step, one task at a time, and you’ll be getting things done in no time.

Oh, and one other little idea that isn’t immediately obvious, no multitasking. One step, one task. No juggling.

Philosophical & Applicable Sides to GTD

GTD has two parts, a philosophical part, which will give you a good framework to approach your work, and an applicable part, which shows you the tools you can use to implement GTD. This is part of the power of GTD. Rather than talking strictly about philosophical framework issues, he goes into how you should actually do things.

5 Stages of Workflow

A workflow is a diagram showing you the sequence of operations you need to perform to achieve a goal. In GTD, the workflow contains the five steps you need to execute in order to get things done! When you read these five stages, they’ll sound very intuitive and perhaps even obvious. The key is that you need to remember to follow the workflow and its five stages:

  1. Collect: Create an inbox, or multiple inboxes, and use it to “collect” everything you need to do. The key here is that you need to get it out of your head and into something else, like a bin or a notebook, so you don’t forget and you don’t drain yourself trying not to forget. You should also minimize the number of buckets you use (you don’t want to have to remember all those buckets!).
  2. Process: Process your inbox. Identify it and determine if it’s actionable or not…
  3. Organize: Processing will tell you whether it’s actionable or not, this will determine how you will organize it. If it is NOT actionable, trash it, “incubate” it, or file it away for reference. For incubate, you might put it in an “ideas” folder (he calls it a “tickler” folder). If it is actionable, determine the next action and do it, delegate it, defer it, or turn it into a project (if it needs more than one step to reach your outcome).
  4. Ever hear of 43 folders? It refers to 31 Daily file folders and 12 Monthly file folders (totaling 43 folders), which can be used as scheduling tools.

  5. Review: Review all of your projects, your “tickler” file, and prepare a list of tasks.
  6. Do: Now do the tasks you’ve set up for yourself.

Does that sound like a lot of work? It’s actually not. Once you get it rolling and are comfortable with it, it’s very easy. It’s also comforting to know that you are always getting closer to your goals and never forgetting anything behind is. You never get that nagging sensation that you should be working on something else, because everything is written down and prioritized.

6 Levels of Focus

Once you have the five stages for completing work, you should move towards the higher level planning portion. This is the second major philosophical framework he provides and it involves how you put things into perspective. There are six different “levels:” (from lowest to highest)

  1. Current actions
  2. Current projects
  3. Areas of responsibility
  4. Yearly goals
  5. 5-year goals
  6. Life goals

GTD advocates that you need to do a weekly review of all six of these levels. The value isn’t in the list itself, it’s in you thinking about which goals are your “life goals,” once a week, and be sure that you’re working towards them. When was the last time you thought about your life goals? Probably not every week.

5 Stages of Project Planning

GTD recognizes that you have simple tasks, like getting milk from the grocery store, and more complex tasks, like completing a project for work. For those multi-step goals, you start getting into project planning. This isn’t rocket science either:

  1. Define the purpose of the project – Answer the question of why? Why are we taking on this project, does it make sense? Does it make sense to do this now?
  2. Determining the desired outcome – What do we want as the end result? How do we know we’re done?
  3. Brainstorming the process – How do we complete the task? Step by step, capturing everything you think of.
  4. Organizing the data from the brainstorming process – Organize everything in the brainstorming so you can pull out the action items later.
  5. Determining action items and establishing a plan – Establish a plan of action using the organized information from the brainstorming. Repeat this process until you have everything on paper and none of it in your mind.

Establishing A Filing System

Chapter 7 talks about setting up the right buckets for your system and I think this is the most important chapter in the entire book, once you get past the basic premise. It gives you a lot of information from which you can develop your own filing system.

The key to a successful filing system is that it needs to be very fast and easy. You need to see an item and immediately be able to file it away. My old system of piles on my desk was OK, but not the best because it wasn’t fast and easy. I knew what the piles were but I shouldn’t have to think about it. It’s also important that the categories be discrete as to limit the number of places something isn’t. Another key is that the filing system needs to be purged regularly (annually or quarterly), so there’s no stale information in there or something that slipped passed the planning filters. I don’t want to rehash the chapter because you can just read it.


At this point, if you’ve read my writings this far, you really need to read the book. Even though I’ve summarized a large part of it, the book goes into much greater depth and there are plenty of ideas and principles I’ve missed (there’s only so much you can adopt at once) such as three phase approach to work, etc. It’s been around for a while so your local library will have a well read copy of it on file and there’s an audiobook version too (that’s how I read it), great for if you do a lot of driving.