Getting Things Done [Book Review]

book coverI found this book by accident while looking for personal productivity tips. I kept seeing “Getting Things Done” or “GTD” mentioned in different online software tools (such as Remember the Milk).

Anyone that has read this book already will know the significance of the three letters “GTD”.

David Allen, a productivity guru that has served as a consultant for some very affluent and influential people, wrote this compelling book to explain his system in detail.

I’ll be honest that I was expecting something drier, boring, and perhaps even obsolete — this book is none of those. Allen weaves an engaging jib with terrific anecdotes and advice that just makes sense. This system will help you organize, become more productive and, as the title says: “get things done.” That is, provided you are willing to put in the effort and hard work — nothing is free, after all.

That is the rub, of course — the system is not easy, it is not something you can implement in a half-assed manner, nor is it something that can be adopted passively — if it is to work, it must be a concerted effort and the price of its effectiveness is eternal diligence.

If you are someone that is soul-searching for some solution to help you overcome a mountain of work, or if you constantly feel mired and two steps behind, this book is definitely worth reading; even if you decide to not try the system (like I said, it will take hard work to do it!), there are some terrific philosophical musings on the nature of productivity and work.

More details after the jump.

The books final two sentences perfectly surmise the core theme of the system:

Problems and conflicts will not go away [even with the adoption of this system] — they remain inherent as you attempt to change (or maintain) anything in this world. The operational behaviors of this book, however, will provide the focus and framework for addressing them in the most productive way.

When “stuff” happens in our day-to-day operations, whether professional or personal (or both), it is quite easy to become instantly mired in dealing with it. In a high-intensity environment, particularly, where things move a mile-a-minute, it is not uncommon to have things come in faster than they can be dealt with. Time is lost in momentary respites between chipping away at a seemingly endless stack of tasks, so voluminous and daunting that we begin to hope that it will go away by ignoring it.

What GTD does is to provide you with a “trusted system” that will take that incoming “stuff” in stride — you conserve your forward momentum and continue with your day. Things are done as they become doable.

The part of this that resonated the most with me is this idea of how a “trusted system” frees up your psyche and lowers your latent stress level: not a day goes by that I do not feel my mental energy being spent on simply remembering the plates I have spinning (what Allen calls “open loops”); some days, that task alone can consume virtually all of my available psychic energy, what Allen calls your “mental RAM”. In GTD, those tasks are all stored in a “trusted system” so that you no longer have to think about them — by trusting the system to always know what you have going on and what you need to do, you no longer have to spend energy remembering to do them.

Keys to GTD

There are three key components to the system: handling incoming “stuff”, processing your “stuff” that is not yet done, and reviewing those records routinely to keep it current — the moment it is no longer current your brain will stop trusting it and you will once again start using that mental energy to remember your spinning plates.

Handling Incoming “stuff”

“Do it, defer it, delegate it, or drop it.” That’s it.

If it takes under 2 minutes, just do it right away. Allen’s idea is that a given task will take approximately 2 minutes to record in the system anyways, so you might as well just do it right away and get it out of the way.

For those things that are longer than 2 minutes, they need to be filed into the “inbox” for later processing. Filing these items is not simply writing down “get new tires,” but is rather determining the next physical action that can be taken towards the goal. Even if such an action cannot be completed at that very moment, it is at least decided.

If you’re not the person to do it, then pass it along to the person that is more appropriate (“delegate it”), and make a note of it.

Anything else can either be dropped / deleted or stored on the “someday / maybe” list.

This process will ensure that you incoming stimuli are addressed appropriately but never occupy enough mental energy that your current impetus is lost.


Stuff in the inbox, or in existing context lists (more on that in a minute) should be done top-to-bottom; no prioritizing. Allen was quite explicit about the aprioritized nature of GTD, he believes that we will likely deprioritize unpleasant tasks, which results in the system breaking down. I tend to agree with him here, based on personal experience.

When each “next action” is done, if there is work left to do, a new “next action” is decided and filed appropriately.

The idea of “contexts” also factors into this — a “context” is something like “work” or “phone” or “computer” or “errands” — any scenario in which work is done. Next actions filed under the “phone” context will typically be phone calls to make — if you find yourself with a couple minutes to kill before a meeting or in between tasks and there is a phone handy, whip out the “phone” context list and start at the top. Contexts both help to ensure that at any given moment, you know every possible thing you can do at that very moment and also help to eliminate wasted time due to those momentary respites of inactivity.

Establishing a tangible physical action is the key to a good “next action,” though — Allen necessarily belabors this point, as it is the core of GTD lists.


Allen recommends reviewing once a week (he suggests the last hour or two on Friday) to ensure that the lists are up-to-date with any new spinning plates, items are clarified, and all the t’s dotted and i’s crossed.

Although it may seem redundant or unnecessary, Allen considers this particular step to be quite important — it’s sort of a “pulse-checking” moment, and allows you to re-center yourself for the next week.

Tools Needed

This is one thing I am still struggling with — what to use for tracking my lists?

Currently, I am using a small lined notebook, manila folders (for organizing reference material) and a large crate for my inbox. At work, I have an elegant-yet-rusty filing cabinet, legal pads, and Microsoft Outlook.

There are many high-tech solutions out there — at one point, I was using a hack in RememberTheMilk (GTD on RTM!), but these frequently fail simply because the storage / retrieval speeds required become prohibitive. Allen has said he was using a Palm Pilot or some other PDA for organization — with proper synchronization with a desktop software suite (eg. Office / Outlook), this could be feasible, particularly if you were frequently on the road.

Low-tech solutions, such as the poor man’s PDA or a notepad excel in their speed and easy of use (no awkward UI’s to wade through), but lack some of the organization and high-tech elegance of high-tech / software-based solutions.

Allen leans towards low-tech for the reasons I mention there, but suggests that some high-tech solutions, if prepared properly, could serve effectively.

Ease of Adoption

This is perhaps one of the system’s few follies. By Allen’s own admission, one should expect to spend 1-2 days (a dozen hours, minimum) to fully divest all of your spinning plates into the trusted system and process any other outstanding tasks and clutter that may be in the workspace. The resulting area (and your mind) should be prim and proper, and all of the business should be in the system.

While I won’t argue with the value of actually doing this, this is still a significant barrier of entry. I am currently attempting to start with establishing my framework first (finding tools, establishing habits) and then retroactively purging all of my open loops into the established system. This is backwards and Allen would probably frown on it, but it’s what I’m able to do, given my situation.

The book could stand to have more specific examples of execution — Allen does offer some anecdotal examples of some of the steps, but even after reading the entire book and mulling it over for quite some time, I am still somewhat unclear on certain aspects of operation. For example, when using a tactile method for processing (eg. “notebook”), are next actions only stored on context lists? Is there a generic “inbox” for non-contextual next actions?

There are more than likely some professions where adopting this system could prove to be prohibitive or downright impossible – this system is clearly intended for white-collar jobs, for example, particularly someone with office space. Allen, and his wife as well, do use the system in their home lives as well; In fact, Allen specifically advises that you must include your personal items into your system to TRULY have a trusted system — failing to incorporate all of your “open loops” will result in a cluttered mind.

That said, I do highly recommend this book. It is well-written, easy to read, and the system, if you can commit to it, is phenomenal.