Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
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For more than 20 years, David Allen has been a management consultant and executive coach. Allen’s first book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, published in 2001, became a National Bestseller. Allen has been called a personal productivity guru whose work has been featured in Fast Company, Fortune, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications.
Getting Things Done is divided into three parts. Part 1 provides an outline for getting control of your life through the five stages of mastering workflow: collection, processing, organizing, reviewing and doing. Part 2, which is well over half the book, repeats a lot of what is said in Part 1, but provides much more detail on the application of Allen’s methodology. Part 3 explains why Allen’s methods work and the benefits to be gained from using his approach.
The entire process, including inputs, processing/thinking, and outputs (actions and action lists), is conveniently summarized in a flowchart provided in the book. Allen’s philosophy is that to be one’s most productive self, one must be able to think clearly. In order to think clearly, one must have completely downloaded from one’s short-term memory or RAM (like computer RAM) all the "open loops" -- unfulfilled commitments one has made to oneself. This frees the mind to do naturally what it does best -- think about things rather than of things. Allen gives pointers for using one’s critical thinking skills, including three methods for making decisions about what actions to take, in Chapter 9.
Once one has everything off his mind and written down, in paper or electronically, one has to decide, "What’s the next action?" This is THE critical question. Once this is decided, the action must be completed or tracked in a trusted system, such as a Personal Digital Assistant or PDA.
Allen also has a two-minute rule, which states that as one goes through their in-box and determines next actions, any next action that can be completed in two minutes or less should be completed immediately. In this way, a lot of items are touched only once and are forever cleared from "psychic RAM."
Allen outlines a process for getting RAM cleared in the first place and then for keeping it clear on a daily basis, as new things come into one’s "in" box. The "What’s the next action?" question must be asked on the front-end, when the item from the "in" box is first reviewed.
Applying Allen’s system is put forth as a way for today’s knowledge worker to have a competitive edge in the new millennium. His system is as applicable to one’s home environment and projects as it is to one’s work. He also claims it can help procrastinators.
Getting Things Done is part tools and techniques, part psychology. Allen says that mastering your time enables you to live in the present moment. This may be the true gift of this book.
- 1 Part 1 -- The Art of Getting Things Done
- 2 Part 2 -- Practicing Stress-Free Productivity
- 2.1 Chapter 4 summary -- Getting Started: Setting Up the Time, Space and Tools
- 2.2 Chapter 5 summary -- Collection: Corralling Your "Stuff"
- 2.3 Chapter 6 summary -- Processing: Getting "In" to Empty
- 2.4 Chapter 7 summary -- Organizing: Setting Up the Right Buckets
- 2.5 Chapter 8 summary -- Reviewing: Keeping Your System Functional
- 2.6 Chapter 9 summary -- Doing: Making the Best Action Choices
- 2.7 Chapter 10 summary -- Getting Projects Under Control
- 3 Part 3 -- The Power of the Key Principles
- 4 External Links
Part 1 -- The Art of Getting Things Done
Chapter 1 summary -- A New Practice for a New Reality
With the societal shift to knowledge work, new behaviors and tools are required to successfully manage workflow. These behaviors and tools are incorporated into Allen’s methodology, the objectives of which include: first, to capture all one needs to accomplish somewhere outside the brain and second, to discipline oneself to make decisions about these items as they are added to one’s workload.
Allen states that a person is the most productive when the mind is clear, free of what he calls "open loops" -- the things people commit to do which remain undone and become a drag on the unconscious mind. He uses the analogy of RAM on a personal computer, with the idea that too much "stuff" stored in a person’s short-term memory can blow a fuse. His idea is that the conscious mind is a focusing tool, not a storage place.
In addition, one must write down the outcomes they wish to achieve. Then, for every outcome, one must determine the "next physical action" required to move the situation forward. This next physical action must be organized in a system one reviews regularly. Doing these things is the equivalent of what Allen calls "horizontal" focus.
Chapter 2 summary -- Getting Control of Your Life: The Five Stages of Mastering Workflow
Allen explains the five stages of mastering workflow: to collect, process, organize, review and do.
In the Collection stage, the idea is to gather all the items that remain to be completed. Collection tools include the physical in-basket, paper-based and electronic note-taking devices, voice-recording devices and email. There are three "collection success factors": 1. Every open loop must be in your collection system and out of your head. 2. You must have as few collection buckets as you can get by with. 3. You must empty them regularly.
In the Process stage, the bucket is emptied. Allen describes this as perhaps the most critical improvement for almost all the people he’s worked with. He outlines this process in great detail, complete with a flowchart. It asks:
- What is it? Is it actionable?
- If not, trash it, put it in a tickler file or put it in a reference file.
- If so, what’s the next action? The next action is defined as the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the current reality toward completion.
- Will next action take less than 2 minutes?
- If yes, do it.
- If no, delegate it or defer it.
- If it will take longer than 2 minutes, consider it a project (defined as requiring more than one action step) and put it in your project plans which will be reviewed for actions.
In the Organize stage, Allen describes eight categories of reminders and materials: trash, incubation tools, reference storage, list of projects, storage or files for project plans and materials, a calendar, a list of reminders of next actions, and a list of reminders of things you’re waiting for.
Allen says a Review of all one’s lists, preferably weekly, is critical for success.
Chapter 3 summary -- Getting Projects Creatively Under Way: The Five Phases of Project Planning
This chapter is about "vertical" focus, the thought process behind successful project planning.
Allen states that the brain goes through five steps to accomplish most any task and that this Natural Planning Model is also the most effective for project planning. These steps are:
- Defining purpose and principles -- In defining purpose, one asks "why?" Answering this question provides the following benefits: it defines success, creates decision-making criteria, aligns resources, motivates, clarifies focus and expands options. Principles create the boundaries of the plan and define the criteria for excellence of behavior.
- Outcome visioning -- A vision provides a picture of the final result. Allen discusses the Reticular Activating System within the brain and how it acts like a search engine. In defining the desired outcome, this filter in the brain brings to one’s attention those things that match the vision. In addition, Allen states that you won’t see how to do it until you see yourself doing it, and his advice is to view the project from beyond the completion date, envision "WILD SUCCESS", and capture features, aspects, qualities you imagine in place.
- Brainstorming -- Brainstorming identifies how one gets from here to there through the generation of lots of ideas. Allen recommends writing down these ideas to help generate many new ones that might not have occurred had the brain not been emptied by writing down the original ideas. Writing ideas down also provides an anchor to keep one focused on the topic at hand. This idea of writing to spur thinking has been labeled as "distributed cognition". Keys to effective brainstorming are: don’t judge, challenge, evaluate, or criticize; go for quantity, not quality; and put analysis and organization in the background.
- Organizing -- Allen describes the key steps to include: identify the significant pieces; sort by components, sequences and/or priorities; and detail to the required degree.
- Identifying next actions -- Allen states that a project is sufficiently planned when every Next Action has been decided on every front that can actually be moved on without some other components having to be completed first.
Part 2 -- Practicing Stress-Free Productivity
Chapter 4 summary -- Getting Started: Setting Up the Time, Space and Tools
Allen recommends setting aside two whole days, back to back, to get started.
To set up a space, one needs a minimum of a writing surface and room for an in-basket. A work space is needed for work and home for everyone, including students, homemakers and retirees. Don’t skimp on the home work space and don’t share work space with someone else. Allen is not a proponent of the "hoteling" concept that many companies have employed in recent years.
The basic processing tools include paper-holding trays, plain paper, post-its, clips, stapler, a labeler all to oneself, letter size file folders (don’t bother with color-coding), a calendar, wastebasket/recycling bins, and possibly an organizer to "manage your triggers externally" (such as papers, planners or a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA)).
A good general-reference filing system is key to the success of a personal management system. If it takes one more than a minute to get something out of the in-basket, decide it needs no action but should be kept for future reference, and filed, one has a significant improvement opportunity. Key filing success factors include: keep files at hand’s reach, use one A to Z alphabetical filing system, have lots of fresh folders, keep the drawers less than three-quarters full, label folders with an Auto Labeler, buy high-quality file cabinets, get rid of hanging files if you can, and purge your files at least once a year.
Chapter 5 summary -- Collection: Corralling Your "Stuff"
Allen says it usually takes between one and six hours to gather everything that needs to be gathered into one’s "in" basket. It’s important to complete all the gathering before the "processing" and "organizing" begins. Although one will be tempted to start the processing while gathering, it’s important not to do so. First, it gives one a sense of just how much stuff there is. Second, the "end of the tunnel" is identified. Third, one can’t process as effectively with the distraction of knowing there is still more stuff to gather.
The gathering process should cover one’s physical space, such as desk drawers, countertops, and cabinets. It also includes a "mind sweep" to uncover anything that may be residing in one’s mental space, what Allen calls "psychic RAM".
Allen warns that one may feel anxious as all this stuff is made conscious. At the same time, he recommends going for quantity. Finally, once the collection phase is complete, he urges moving on to the next step, since leaving items in the "in" box for too long will cause things to creep back into one’s psyche.
Chapter 6 summary -- Processing: Getting "In" to Empty
Processing doesn’t mean getting all actions completed; it means deciding what to do with each of the items in the "in" box. When this phase is complete, one will have trashed unneeded items, completed any less-than-two-minute actions, delegated, put reminders in one’s organizer of actions one must complete, and identified any projects.
Allen provides guidelines for effective processing. First, process the top item first. Resist the urge to pull out the most urgent, fun or interesting item first. Second, process one item at a time. This focus forces the attention and decision-making needed to get through everything. Finally, never put anything back into "in."
As each item is reviewed, the key question is, "what’s the next action?" If none, the item is trashed, incubated to a "Someday/Maybe" list or "tickler" file, or put in reference material. If there is an action, make it specific. Then do it (if it takes less than two minutes), delegate it (and add it to the "Waiting For" list) or defer it.
Chapter 7 summary -- Organizing: Setting Up the Right Buckets
Once processing is complete, one needs a way to organize the output. Allen gives the seven primary places to keep output and tips and tricks on making these places work. These areas include: a "Projects" list, project support material, calendared actions and information, "Next Actions" lists, a "Waiting For" list, reference material, and a "Someday/Maybe" list. These categories should be kept distinct from each other. Allen states these lists are all that one needs to stay organized and advises against trying to prioritize among these lists. Instead, setting priorities is more of an intuitive process that occurs as lists are reviewed.
Actions that should go on the calendar are ones that must be done on a specific day or time. They may also include triggers for activating projects, events one might want to participate in and decision catalysts. "Next Actions" should be organized by context, such as "Calls", "Errands", and "At Home." The "Waiting For" list should be reviewed often enough to determine if one needs to take any action. Items in one’s "Read and Review" pile and emails that require action are reminders themselves, and Allen recommends pulling emails requiring action to a separate folder in one’s email system.
The "Projects" list provides a single place to review all projects for needed actions. One may subdivide projects by categories such as Personal/Professional, and one also may identify subprojects. Allen emphasizes there is no perfect way to track projects; one just needs to know what projects they have and how to find any associated reminders. Allen discusses Project Support Materials and warns against using them as a reminder. He also shares ideas for organizing ad hoc project thinking, where ideas are triggered and one needs to capture the ideas.
Allen makes the point that it is as important to organize nonactionable data -- which includes reference material and "Someday/Maybes" -- as it is to manage action and project reminders. Reference systems include general-reference filing, large-category filing, rolodexes and contact managers, and libraries and archives. Most people have 200 to 400 paper-based general-reference files and 30 to 100 e-mail reference folders.
For ideas that are not ready for action, one can keep them on a Someday/Maybe list, trigger them on one’s calendar or put them in a "tickler" system. Allen states that it is important not to call the "Hold and Review" pile one’s Someday/Maybe list.
Chapter 8 summary -- Reviewing: Keeping Your System Functional
To keep the system working, it is key that one continues to trust the system. Trust is maintained by keeping the system up-to-date. One needs to decide what to look at and when. Allen suggests the most frequent review will probably be of one’s daily calendar and daily tickler folder. After these, the next actions lists should be reviewed.
The key to sustaining the system is the Weekly Review. This process includes whatever is needed to empty one’s head and includes going through the five phases of workflow management. Allen recommends blocking out a couple of hours early every Friday afternoon.
Chapter 9 summary -- Doing: Making the Best Action Choices
Allen gives three models for deciding what to do at a point in time, beyond his simple answer to trust one’s intuition.
The Four-Criteria Model for Choosing Actions in the Moment uses the criteria of context, time available, energy available, and priority to make decisions.
The Threefold Model for Evaluating Daily Work presents Allen’s idea that during a workday, one engages in one of three activities: doing predefined work, doing work as it shows up, or defining one’s work. Allen asserts that the sacrifice of not doing the work you have defined on your lists, because something else came up, can be tolerated only if one knows what he’s not doing. People may blame their stress and lowered effectiveness on surprises when it’s really their lack of defining their work. He calls one’s ability to deal with surprise a competitive edge.
The Six-Level Model for Reviewing Your Own Work is presented in terms of altitude:
- 50,000 + feet: Life
- 40,000 feet: Three- to five-year visions
- 30,000 feet: One-to two-year goals
- 20,000 feet: Areas of responsibility
- 10,000 feet: Current projects
- Runway: Current actions
Each of these levels should enhance and align with the levels above it. Priorities are driven from the top. However, without a sense of control over current projects and actions, trying to manage oneself from the top down can create frustration. Allen recommends starting at the bottom level, first ensuring all action lists are complete, and then working up the model.
Chapter 10 summary -- Getting Projects Under Control
Allen digs into the "vertical" project level again. He indicates that formal planning tools and techniques might be overrated and favors creative, proactive thinking. He suggests projects that may need more planning are first, those that still have one’s attention even after defining next actions, and second, those for which ideas just show up. The first require a revisit to the Natural Planning Model. The second require tools and structures to capture those random ideas. These may include a good writing instrument, paper, easels and whiteboards, and the computer. Allen states that the very act of writing ideas down facilitates a constructive thinking process like nothing else.
Part 3 -- The Power of the Key Principles
Chapter 11 summary -- The Power of the Collection Habit
In this chapter, Allen gets into the psychological aspects of his methodology, which in essence explain why his process works so well. He also discusses the benefits he has observed his clients realize over the years, including an increased level of trust with others and with oneself. He states that people feel badly about their unprocessed "in" boxes because the incomplete items in them represent broken agreements with themselves. To remedy this, he advises three choices: don’t make the agreement, complete the agreement or renegotiate the agreement.
He states that anything held only in "psychic RAM" (not conscious) will carry equal weight and many small things will create more mental stress than they deserve. He says that one should use the mind to think about things, rather than of things. He considers his methodology real knowledge work, at a more sophisticated level.
Chapter 12 summary -- The Power of the Next-Action Decision
Allen proposes that twenty minutes before the end of a meeting, one should ask, "So what’s the next action here?" to increase clarity. This is radical common sense, yet it is easy to avoid this more relevant level of thinking. He points out the dark side of a "collaborative culture" where people are too polite to hold others accountable, but says it is impolite to allow people to walk away from discussions unclear. Asking this question is key for knowledge workers to increase their productivity through "operational responsiveness." Finally, this question presupposes there is the possibility of change and that one can do something to make it happen, which is empowering.
Chapter 13 summary -- The Power of Outcome Focusing
Allen says even the slightest increase in the use of natural planning can bring significant improvement. He lauds the ability to envision success when how to achieve it is still unclear. Being able to generate lots of ideas, both good and bad, is a critical piece of creative intelligence. Honing and organizing ideas is a necessary mental discipline. Finally, choosing and taking next actions are the essence of productivity. Effectively applying these techniques is described as perhaps the major component of professional competence for the new millennium.
- Official website of David Allen and Getting Things Done
- DidIGetThingsDone.com, a frequently updated blog about the reality of using the GTD methodology.