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David Allen - Getting Things Done - The Art of Stress-Free Productivity - Summary 🔗

Below is my summary of the book ‘Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity’ by David Allen, mostly quoting and paraphrasing the content.

1 A New Practice for a New Reality 🔗

IT’S POSSIBLE FOR a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control.

The methods presented here are all based on three key objectives:

  1. capturing all the things that might need to get done or have usefulness for you — now, later, someday, big, little, or in between — in a logical and trusted system outside your head and off your mind;
  2. directing yourself to make front-end decisions about all of the “inputs” you let into your life so that you will always have a workable inventory of “next actions” that you can implement or renegotiate in the moment; and
  3. curating and coordinating all of that content, utilizing the recognition of the multiple levels of commitments with yourself and others you will have at play, at any point in time.

The Principle: Dealing Effectively with Internal Commitments 🔗

You’ve probably made many more agreements with yourself than you realize, and every single one of them — big or little — is being tracked by a less-than-conscious part of you. These are the “incompletes”, or “open loops”, defined as anything pulling at your attention that doesn’t belong where it is, the way it is.

In order to deal effectively with all of that, you must first identify and capture all those things that are “ringing your bell” in some way, clarify what, exactly, they mean to you, and then make a decision about how to move on them.

The Basic Requirements for Managing Commitments 🔗

First of all, if it’s on your mind, your mind isn’t clear.

Anything you consider unfinished in any way must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind, a collection tool, that you know you’ll come back to regularly and sort through.

Second, you must clarify exactly what your commitment is and decide what you have to do, if anything, to make progress toward fulfilling it.

Third, once you’ve decided on all the actions you need to take, you must keep reminders of them organized in a system you review regularly.

Why Things Are on Your Mind 🔗

Most often, the reason something is on your mind is that you want it to be different than it currently is, and yet:

That’s why it’s on your mind. Until those thoughts have been clarified and those decisions made, and the resulting data has been stored in a system that you absolutely know you will access and think about when you need to, your brain can’t give up the job.

Your Mind Doesn’t Have a Mind of Its Own 🔗

It’s a waste of time and energy to keep thinking about something that you make no progress on.

The Transformation of “Stuff” 🔗

Here’s how to define “stuff”: anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined what, exactly, it means to you, with the desired outcome and the next action step.

We need to transform all the “stuff” we’ve attracted and accumulated into a clear inventory of meaningful actions, projects, and usable information.

Managing Action Is the Prime Challenge 🔗

The real work is to manage our actions.

In training and coaching many thousands of people, we have found that lack of time is not the major issue for them (though they may think it is); the real problem is a lack of clarity and definition about what a project really is, and what associated next-action steps are required.

Getting things done requires two basic components:

  1. defining what “done” means (outcome) and
  2. what “doing” looks like (action).

The Value of a Bottom-Up Approach 🔗

Getting current on, and in control of, what’s in your in-tray and on your mind right now, and incorporating practices that you can trust will help you stay that way, will provide the best means of broadening your horizons.

Horizontal and Vertical Action Management 🔗

You need to control commitments, projects, and actions in two ways — horizontally and vertically. Horizontal control maintains coherence across all the activities in which you are involved.

Vertical control, in contrast, manages thinking, development, and coordination of individual topics and projects.

The goal for managing horizontally and vertically is the same: to get things off your mind and get them done.

The Major Change: Getting It All Out of Your Head 🔗

There is no real way to achieve the kind of relaxed control promised if you keep things only in your head.

There is no reason to ever have the same thought twice, unless you like having that thought.

Most people walk around with their RAM bursting at the seams. They’re constantly distracted, their focus disturbed and performance diminished by their own internal mental overload.

A big problem is that your mind keeps reminding you of things when you can’t do anything about them. It has no sense of past or future. That means as soon as you tell yourself that you might need to do something, and store it only in your head, there’s a part of you that thinks you should be doing that something all the time.

Most people have been in some version of this mental stress state so consistently, for so long, that they don’t even know they’re in it.

2 Getting Control of Your Life: The Five Steps of Mastering Workflow 🔗

THE CORE PROCESS for mastering the art of relaxed and controlled engagement is a five-step method for managing your workflow — the ever-present ingestion and expressions of our experiences.


  1. capture what has our attention;
  2. clarify what each item means and what to do about it;
  3. organize the results, which presents the options we
  4. reflect on, which we then choose to
  5. engage with.

Most people have major weaknesses in their (1) capture process. Most of their commitments to do something are still in their head.

Many have collected lots of things but haven’t (2) clarified exactly what they represent or decided what action, if any, to take about them.

Others make good decisions about stuff in the moment but lose the value of that thinking because they don’t efficiently (3) organize the results.

Still others have good systems but don’t (4) reflect on the contents consistently enough to keep them functional.

Finally, if any one of these previous links is weak, what someone is likely to choose to (5) engage in at any point in time may not be the best option.

Capture 🔗

Gathering 100 Percent of the “Incompletes” 🔗

In order to eliminate “holes in your bucket”, you need to collect and gather placeholders for, or representations of, all the things you consider incomplete in your world — that is, anything personal or professional, big or little, of urgent or minor importance, that you think ought to be different than it currently is and that you have any level of internal commitment to changing.

In order to manage this inventory of open loops appropriately, you need to capture it into “containers” that hold items in abeyance until you have a few moments to decide what they are and what, if anything, you’re going to do about them. Then you must empty these containers regularly to ensure that they remain viable capture tools.

The Capture Tools 🔗

Get It All Out of Your Head 🔗

If you’re still trying to keep track of too many things in your mental space, you likely won’t be motivated to use and empty your in-trays with integrity.

Minimize the Number of Capture Locations 🔗

You should have as many in-trays as you need and as few as you can get by with.

Empty the Capture Tools Regularly 🔗

The final success factor for capturing should be obvious: if you don’t empty and process the stuff you’ve collected, your tools aren’t serving any function other than the storage of amorphous material.

Clarify 🔗


Organize 🔗

Being organized means simply that where something is matches what it means to you.

For nonactionable items, the possible categories are trash, incubation, and reference.

To manage actionable things, you will need a 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.

Projects 🔗

A project is any desired result that can be accomplished within a year that requires more than one action step.

Projects do not initially need to be listed in any particular order, by size, or by priority. They just need to be on a master list so you can review them regularly enough to ensure that appropriate next actions have been defined for each of them.

You don’t actually do a project; you can only do action steps related to it.

Project Support Material 🔗

Your Projects list will be merely an index.

All of the details, plans, and supporting information that you may need as you work on your various projects should be contained in separate file folders, computer files, notebooks, or binders.

The Next-Action Categories 🔗

The next-action decision is central. That action needs to be the next physical, visible behavior, without exception, on every open loop.

Calendar 🔗

Three things go on your calendar:

No More “Daily To-Do” Lists on the Calendar Those three things are what go on the calendar, and nothing else!

The calendar should be sacred territory. If you write something there, it must get done that day or not at all.

The “Next Actions” List(s) 🔗

Any longer-than-two-minute, non-delegatable action you have identified needs to be tracked here.

Nonactionable Items 🔗

No-action systems fall into three categories: trash, incubation, and reference.

Trash 🔗

Throw away, shred, or recycle anything that has no potential future action or reference value.

Incubation 🔗

It can be useful and inspiring to maintain an ongoing list of things you might want to do at some point but not now.

Reference Material 🔗

Many things that come your way require no action but have intrinsic value as information. You will want to keep and be able to retrieve these as needed.

Reflect 🔗

You need to be able to step back and review the whole picture of your life and work from a broader perspective as well as drop down “into the weeds” of concrete actions to take, as needed, and at appropriate intervals.

Your life is more complex than any single system can describe or coordinate, but the GTD methodology creates a coherent model for placeholding key elements, which still require attention, being kept current, and being reviewed in a coordinated way.

What to Review When 🔗

The item you’ll probably review most frequently is your calendar, which will remind you about the “hard landscape” for the day.

After checking your calendar, you’ll most often turn to your Next Action lists. These hold the inventory of predefined actions that you can take if you have any discretionary time during the day.

Projects, Waiting For, and Someday / Maybe lists need to be reviewed only as often as you think they have to be in order to stop you from wondering about them.

Critical Success Factor: The Weekly Review 🔗

Everything that might require action must be reviewed on a frequent enough basis to keep your mind from taking back the job of remembering and reminding.

All of your Projects, active project plans, and Next Actions, Agendas, Waiting For, and even Someday / Maybe lists should be reviewed once a week.

Engage 🔗

The basic purpose of this workflow-management process is to facilitate good choices about what you’re doing at any point in time.

Three Models for Making Action Choices 🔗

1. The Four-Criteria Model for Choosing Actions in the Moment 🔗

There are four criteria you can apply, in this order:

2. The Threefold Model for Identifying Daily Work 🔗

There are three different kinds of activities you can be engaged in:

3. The Six-Level Model for Reviewing Your Own Work 🔗

Ground: Current Actions. This is the accumulated list of all the actions you need to take.

Horizon 1: Current Projects. Generating most of the actions that you currently have in front of you are the thirty to one hundred projects on your plate.

Horizon 2: Areas of Focus and Accountabilities. You create or accept your projects and actions because of the roles, interests, and accountabilities you have.

Horizon 3: Goals. What you want to be experiencing in various areas of your life and work one to two years from now will add another dimension to defining your work.

Horizon 4: Vision. Projecting three to five years into the future generates thinking about bigger categories: organization strategies, environmental trends, career and lifestyle transition circumstances.

Horizon 5: Purpose and Principles. This is the big-picture view. Why does your company exist? Why do you exist?

3 Getting Projects Creatively Under Way: The Five Phases of Project Planning 🔗

THE KEY INGREDIENTS of relaxed control are

  1. clearly defined outcomes (projects) and the next actions required to move them toward closure, and
  2. reminders placed in a trusted system that is reviewed regularly.

Enhancing Vertical Focus 🔗

The goal is to get projects and situations sufficiently clear and under control to get them off your mind, and not to lose any potentially useful ideas.

The Natural Planning Model 🔗

  1. Defining purpose and principles
  2. Outcome visioning
  3. Brainstorming
  4. Organizing
  5. Identifying next actions

Purpose 🔗

To know and to be clear about the purpose of any activity are prime directives for appropriate focus, creative development, and cooperation.

Principles 🔗

Of equal value as prime criteria for driving and directing a project are the standards and values you hold.

Vision / Outcome 🔗

In order to most productively access the conscious and unconscious resources available to you, you must have a clear picture in your mind of what success would look, sound, and feel like.

The Power of Focus 🔗

The focus we hold in our minds affects what we perceive and how we perform.

Clarifying Outcomes 🔗

You often need to make it up in your mind before you can make it happen in your life.

Brainstorming 🔗

Once you know what you want to happen and why, the how mechanism is brought into play.

Capturing Your Ideas 🔗

Give yourself permission to capture and express any idea, and then later on figure out how it fits in and what to do with it.

Distributed Cognition 🔗

The great thing about external brainstorming is that in addition to capturing your original ideas, it can help generate many new ones that might not have occurred to you if you didn’t have a mechanism to hold your thoughts and continually reflect them back to you.

Brainstorming Keys 🔗

Organizing 🔗

A project plan identifies the smaller outcomes, which can then be naturally planned.

The Basics of Organizing 🔗

Next Actions 🔗

Answering the question about what, specifically, you would do about something physically if you had nothing else to do will test the maturity of your thinking about the project.

The Basics 🔗

Decide on next actions for each of the current “moving parts” of the project.

Decide on the next action in the planning process, if necessary.

How Much Planning Do You Really Need to Do? 🔗

As much as you need to get the project off your mind.

Need More Clarity? 🔗

If greater clarity is what you need, shift your thinking up the natural planning scale.

Need More to Be Happening? 🔗

If more action is what’s needed, you need to move down the model.

Conclusion of Part 1 🔗

The prior two chapters covered the basic models of how to stay maximally productive and in control, with minimal effort, at the two most basic levels of our life and work:

You must be responsible for collecting all your open loops, applying a front-end thought process to each of them, and managing the results with organization, review, and action.

These models are simple to understand and easy to implement. Applying them creates remarkable results. You need essentially no new skills — you already know how to write things down, clarify outcomes, decide next actions, put things into categories, review it all, and make intuitive choices. Right now you have the ability to focus on successful results, brainstorm, organize your thinking, and get moving on your next steps.

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Updated on 2024 Jul 4.

DISCLAIMER: This is not professional advice. The ideas and opinions presented here are my own, not necessarily those of my employer.