Lessons from Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen

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I benefited greatly from reading Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. My only regret is that I didn’t read it years earlier when I first heard about it. My initial reaction to a book about a framework/methodology for getting things done was: “I’m pretty organized, I have To Do lists, and I get stuff done every day. No need.” Such arrogance, such missed opportunities to get better.

But better late than never.

Allen’s GTD methodology is nothing groundbreaking or esoteric. In fact, it’s grounded in common sense and behaviors that are familiar to us. Here’s how Allen introduces it:

The methods I present 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.

Sounds simple enough, right? For the rest of the book, Allen spends a good chunk of the pages going into the nitty gritty of the tactics for implementation, from organizing your physical home office space and filing cabinets to using “trigger lists” to get a comprehensive capture of things on your mind.

The book reads mostly like a manual and it took me some time to work through all of the pages. While dry, I found it necessary reading for me to fully understand how thoroughly GTD can strengthen some of the weak links in my organization and task management system.

I’ve pulled out some bits and pieces from the book along with themes that I felt were helpful, especially where Allen reiterates why capturing everything in the mind and taking the time to review and plan next actions make for a powerful combination.

The Messy Mind

Most often, the reason something is on your mind is that you want it to be different than it currently is, and yet:
– you haven’t clarified exactly what the intended outcome is;
– you haven’t decided what the very next physical action step is; and/or
– you haven’t put reminders of the outcome and the action required in a system you trust.

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There is usually an inverse relationship between how much something is on your mind and how much it’s getting done.

Without a reliable system in place, the mind can quickly accumulate a number of commitments that are made both explicitly and implicitly. For example, a series of meetings at work can easily generate a handful of follow-up tasks and open issues that need to be remembered. This in addition to any other previous commitments, both professional and personal (e.g. buy groceries, cancel subscription, send thank you note, etc.).

David Allen’s solve for this is to develop an airtight system to get all these commitments out of one’s head and onto a place – a notepad, to do app, whatever – so that the weight of these commitments can be lifted from the mind. The foundational essence of Getting Things Done is to free the mind using systems so it can have the room to be creative and productive. Once these commitments are captured properly in an external place, it’s possible to start figuring out how to make progress on them.

Throughout the book, I recalled moments when I felt stressed out or overwhelmed in the past and upon reflection, so much of that could be attributed to having a messy mind full of commitments. I’ve noticed that there is often a tipping point when I feel like I’m barely managing to juggle a number of things and out of the blue, an urgent and important task tips the scales and makes me feel like I’ve got too much on my hands. What did I usually end up doing in those situations? I took a deep breath, wrote everything down I needed to get done, prioritized what needed getting done first, and then proceeded to knock one out at a time.

We all have a version of GTD ingrained in us, but what makes GTD effective is that you’re asked to cultivate a system so that the tipping point towards stress never happens and when surprises come, you’re already equipped to handle it without putting in what feels like special effort.

The Five-Phase Chain

We (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.

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The quality of our workflow management is only as good as the weakest link in this five-phase chain, so all the links must be integrated and supported with consistent standards.

***

I have discovered that one of the major reasons many people haven’t had a lot of success with getting organized is simply that they have tried to do all five steps at one time. Most, when they sit down to make a list, are trying to collect the “most important things” in some order that reflects priorities and sequences, without setting out many (or any) real actions to take. But if you don’t decide what needs to be done about your assistant’s birthday, because it’s “not that important” right now, that open loop will take up energy and prevent you from having a totally effective, clear focus on what’s important.

After seeing the GTD framework presented in the five-phase chain structure, I instantly recognized my weak links. In addition to having a leaky capture function, I realized that I often don’t clarify all the items that get put in place, which then leads to a lack of reflection and engagement.

For example, I have a tendency to jump from capture to immediately cherrypicking what I perceived to be the “most important” items and diving deep into a couple of those things all at once. What ends up happening is that other seemingly smaller items start to pile up – they are usually a combination of administrative activities at work, errands for personal/family life, and communication follow-ups. I end up procrastinating on and skipping these tasks, usually leading to a barrage of activity to help me catch up or a”too late, forget it” erasure of the task. The latter result is especially unfortunate because it signals a broken commitment to myself and maybe even to someone else.

With a tighter five-phase chain, even the smaller tasks are fed into a system that forces me to confront them in a timely manner. As I’m able to organize tasks and determine their effort level, I’m able to leverage Allen’s “2-minute rule” where any tasks that can be done in under 2 minutes absolutely should be completed during a designated time. As I’ve embraced this, I’ve come to reduce my procrastination when it comes to sending things like intro emails between two parties, vendor inquiries, and scheduling meetings.

Defining Projects

I define a project as any desired result that can be accomplished within a year that requires more than one action step.

The reasoning behind my definition is that if one step won’t complete something, some kind of goalpost needs to be set up to remind you that there’s something still left to do. If you don’t have a placeholder to remind you about it, it will slip back into your head.

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

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The list of projects is the compilation of finish lines we put before us to keep our next actions moving on all tracks appropriately.

One of the most useful takeaways from GTD was this broader concept of projects and the act of generating a list of projects that I can review regularly. I realized that even at work, projects not only encompassed the meatier initiatives I took on (e.g. building up our account management layer, creating a new department, etc.)  but could include any number of things that require multiple steps such as putting together a deck for a monthly team meeting or attending a conference in another city. Outside of work, I realized projects could include things like planning all the “date nights” with my wife for the entire year or working towards my goal of running a sub 20-minute 5k.

With this list, I have a solid grasp on all the different projects I have going on, and I know where I need to focus my energies. The act of maintaining the list also gives me the opportunity to reflect on what projects are actually important to pursue and what projects I can retire because I’ve reached my desired goalpost.

The Weekly Review

The Weekly Review is the time to: Gather and process all your stuff. Review your system. Update your lists. Get clean, clear, current, and complete.

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Most people feel best about their work the week before they go on vacation, but it’s not because of the vacation itself. What do you do the last week before you leave on a big trip? You clean up, close up, clarify, organize, and renegotiate all your agreements with yourself and others. You do this so you can relax and be present on the beach, on the golf course, or on the slopes, with nothing else on your mind. I suggest you do this weekly instead of yearly, so you can bring this kind of “being present” to your everyday life.

Monday mornings are when I conduct my Weekly Review. It’s a sacred time when I review my projects list, my next actions, starred emails, and even my someday/maybe list. It usually takes me less than an hour and by the time I’m finished, I feel energized to take on the rest of the week.

Allen’s bit about people feeling good about their work before vacation is too true. I’ve seen it play out at work many times especially when people go away for an extended vacation. They spend the time necessary to organize things across all their projects and usually put together an effective “going away” packet for team members prior to their absence. This usually ends up helping projects move along without hiccups. Unfortunately, this behavior is less common on a week-to-week basis, so it’s possible that a person being at work might actually be less effective because they haven’t taken the time to plan and instead are operating in a purely reactive manner.

Relaxed Control and the System for Generating Next Actions

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.

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Just taking two minutes and writing out your primary reason for doing something invariably creates an increased sharpness of vision, much like bringing a telescope into focus.

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Organizing usually happens when you identify components and subcomponents, sequences of events, and/or priorities. What are the things that must occur to create the final result? In what order must they occur? What is the most important element to ensure the success of the project?

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The habit of clarifying the next action on projects, no matter what the situation, is fundamental to you staying in relaxed control.

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You need no new skills to increase your productivity and reduce your stress—just an enhanced set of systematic behaviors with which to apply them.

The excerpts above get at the core of why GTD is so effective. Building the habit to take time out and actually think about the why and the how before diving into the what is critical to reducing stress and increasing productivity.

The habit becomes possible by designing and investing in a system that reinforces certain behaviors. This is something that James Clear emphasizes in his book Atomic Habits (see my lessons learned from that book). No heroic efforts needed, just the discipline to consistently embrace the daily activities that ladder up to the Getting Things Done framework. In my case, the behaviors have included: a review of my calendar every morning, a review of my Next Actions list, knocking out all 2-minute tasks from my email inbox, the capture of all new thoughts/ideas/tasks into my in-tray, and a commitment to my Weekly Review to update my project lists, my next actions, and my calendar.

This is a system that I’m continuing to refine and practice, so it is still far from automatic and seamless. However, when I’m really in the groove, I feel relaxed and a greater sense of control over my time, energies, and focus.

Seduced by Busy & Urgent

I’ve noticed that people are actually more comfortable dealing with surprises and crises than they are taking control of processing, organizing, reviewing, and assessing that part of their work that is not as self-evident. It’s easy to get seduced into “busy” and “urgent” mode, especially when you have a lot of unprocessed and relatively out-of-control work on your desk, in your e-mail, and on your mind.

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Many people use the inevitability of an almost infinite stream of immediately evident things to do as a way to avoid the responsibilities of defining their work and managing their total inventory. It’s easy to get lured into not-quite-so-critical stuff that is right at hand, especially if your in-tray and your personal organization are out of control. Too often “managing by wandering around” is an excuse for getting away from amorphous piles of stuff.

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People often complain about the interruptions that prevent them from doing their work. But interruptions are unavoidable in life. When you become elegant at dispatching what’s coming in and are organized enough to take advantage of “weird time” windows that show up, you can switch between one task and the other rapidly. You can be processing e-mails while you’re on hold on a conference call. Research has now proven that you can’t actually multitask, i.e. put conscious focused attention on more than one thing at a time; and if you are trying to, it denigrates your performance considerably. If your head is your only system for placeholding, you will experience an attempted multitasking internally, which is psychologically impossible and the source of much stress for many people. If you have established practices for parking still-incomplete items midstream, however, your focus can shift cleanly from one to the next and back again, with the precision of a martial artist who appears to fight four people at once, but who in reality is simply rapidly shifting attention.

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Your ability to deal with surprise is your competitive edge, and a key to sanity and sustainability in your lifestyle.

I’ve come across a number of headlines about the modern workplace and how the continual stream of emails, chat messages, and social media posts have created an “always on” state that burns workers out, not to mention the plight of millennials with their compromised prospects of building wealth due to things like crushing student debt and expensive cost of living (see this lengthy Buzzfeed article as a representative example). But seen through a GTD lens, the root causes of feeling burned out or overwhelmed might actually be a weak system for managing tasks and projects and an addiction to the altar of busy and urgent.

While important behaviors like good sleep, spending time with loved ones, meditation, exercise, and mindful eating are critical to a good life, these behaviors will fall short of fully addressing the daily challenges of processing our many inputs and turning them into productive outcomes. Without consciously developing and refining a personal system, the state of burnout will be hard to avoid.

Being Organized Helps to Build Trust

When people with whom you interact notice that without fail you receive, process, and organize in an airtight manner the exchanges and agreements they have with you, they begin to trust you in a unique way. More significantly, you incorporate a level of self-confidence in your engagement with your world that money cannot buy. Such is the power of capturing placeholders for anything that is incomplete or unprocessed in your life. It noticeably enhances your mental well-being and improves the quality of your communications and relationships, both personally and professionally.

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And when organizations expect and reinforce this best practice of allowing nothing to fall through a communication crack, with everyone accountable for resulting actions, and commitments clarified and tracked by the appropriate persons, it can significantly increase a culture’s productivity and reduce its stress.

So much of trust-building comes from a person’s ability to communicate and strong communication is only possible if you have your stuff together. As I’ve adopted GTD, I’ve gotten a faster with responding to open threads. While I might wait a few days on non-urgent responses in order to batch them, I’ve tried to cut down on this as well. My use of the email client Superhuman has gamified my approach to communications and its interface, which mimics text messaging more than an email prompt, has encouraged rapid responses. In an effort to hit inbox zero every day (where I’m rewarded with a beautiful stock photo of some nature scene), I end up responding to everything fairly quickly while archiving emails that don’t require a response.

I’ve observed over the years that it’s really easy to erode trust by letting communications slip through the cracks. I’ve been guilty of this myself by not confirming receipt on thoughtful emails sent by someone or giving a timely response to an inquiry. I’ve also seen this play out with our team and with clients. When people don’t respond in a timely manner, it creates a vacuum that gets filled with assumptions like “that person doesn’t care”, “that person ghosted us”, “that person must be doing something more important”, or “that person must be super disorganized”.

In many ways, being good with communications (by virtue of being organized and on top of things) is akin to habits like eating well and exercising. In the short-term, the benefits won’t be as noticeable, but over a longer period of time, you’ll develop a reputation for being trustworthy and have stronger relationships to show for it. However, the moment you start to abandon the habit, you can quickly erode all the goodwill you’ve built up, much like eating poorly or not exercising can eventually wear away the gains you made.

Setting a Culture of Next Actions

People are constantly doing things, but usually only when they have to, under fire from themselves or others. They get no sense of winning, or of being in control, or of cooperating among themselves and with their world. People are starving for those experiences.

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Asking yourself, “What’s the next action?” undermines the victim mentality. It presupposes that there is a possibility of change, and that there is something you can do to make it happen. That is the assumed affirmation in the behavior.

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Is there too much complaining in your culture? The next time someone moans about something, try asking, “So what’s the next action?” People will complain only about something that they assume could be better than it currently is. The action question forces the issue. If it can be changed, there’s some action that will change it. If it can’t, it must be considered part of the landscape to be incorporated in strategy and tactics. Complaining is a sign that someone isn’t willing to risk moving on a changeable situation, or won’t consider the immutable circumstance in his or her plans. This is a temporary and hollow form of self-validation.

Burnout typically happens when people feel like they have no sense of control and are continually bombarded with things they have to do. There’s a great deal of room for improvement at our company to establish a culture where team members feel like they have a greater degree of control and a “sense of winning”.

Part of this is modeling for the team and making sure that at the leadership level, we all buy into the act of asking “what’s the next action?” so it becomes an automatic response to any situation. The other part is providing the necessary resources and training to help people develop their own system for staying organized. We’ve provided GTD training to select team members and also bought copies of the book for anyone interested. It’s been interesting to see how different people react to GTD, and David Allen predicts this spot on: “It’s interesting to note that the people who need this methodology the least are usually the ones who engage with it the quickest and the most.” For us, those who need GTD the most and complain about being overwhelmed all the time have been resistant to changing their ways even after training while those who already run a tight ship tend to nerd out and apply tactics with great enthusiasm.

The most impactful lever that I and others in leadership positions can pull is to hire people who come ready with a tight system for staying organized. This is something we have not vetted for very thoroughly in the past, but with GTD’s framework as an example, we’ll be able to articulate the required skills better and ask more detailed questions. By hiring those with higher standards of staying organized, I think we’ll be able to see a cultural shift. Even when we look at our best hires in the past few years, those with strong organization skills really stand out. Those who lacked it have mostly felt burned out and left.

Why This is the Best Kind of Self-Help Book

I’ve read a lot of self-help and self-improvement books over the years. Many business books are also a form of self-help. What many of these books lack are concrete step-by-step instructions on making progress. There are concepts, ideas, and pleas to be kinder to yourself and more vulnerable to others – all very good things that can help you reflect and change your ways. However, the impact of these books are often ephemeral and they lack the mechanisms to reinforce behaviors that become sticky.

The few self-help books that I’ve found transformative are those that get me to substantially change the way I live or work. For me, these books are instantly recognizable because even a few pages into it, I can feel my heart racing with excitement as I try to figure out how I can incorporate some of the early tactics. By the end of the book, I’m already deep into experimenting or implementing the instructions.

Some top examples: How Not to Die by Dr. Michael Greger was one where I ended up eating way more fruits/nuts/veggies and leaning heavily into a plant-based diet; Profit First by Michael Michalowicz changed the way we ran our business at Barrel especially our handling of cashflow; and Atomic Habits by James Clear helped me better understand the power of habits and got me to institute a daily habit tracker. I think Getting Things Done is in that pantheon of transformative books and my biggest regret is that I didn’t invest in reading it sooner.

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