Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

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.

This is not a full outline. It's what works for me. Some parts were too deep in the weeds of professional work, so I recommend you read the book yourself, if you're curious.

Part 1 - Getting Things Done

Chapter 1 - A New Practice for a New Reality

"You already know how to do everything necessary to achieve this healthy, high-performance state. If you're like most people, however, you need to apply these skills in a more timely, complete, and systematic way so you can get on top of it all instead of feeling buried."

The Problem: New Demands, Insufficient Resources

Work no longer has clear boundaries. Used to be self-evident - till the fields, move the crates. Now we have an infinite amount of data and choice. Our jobs (and lives) keep changing - professional goals, career changes, cultural swings. The old models and habits are insufficient - distraction and tools to fight distraction are everywhere

Upping the quality of our thinking and commitments does not diminish the quantity of potentially relevant and important stuff to manage.

The Promise: The "Ready State" of the Martial Artist

"You can experience what the martial artists call a "mind like water" and top athletes refer to as the "zone," within the complex world in which you're engaged."

The Principle: Dealing Effectively with Internal Commitments

"Even those who are not consciously 'stressed out' will invariably experience greater relaxation, better focus, and increased productive energy when they learn more effectively to control the 'open loops' of their lives."

"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."

3 basic requirements for managing commitments:

  1. Capture it in a trusted system or collection tool - "If it's on your mind, your mind isn't clear."

  2. Clarify exactly what your commitment is and decide what you have to do

  3. Keep reminders of them organized in a system you review regularly

Thinking in a concentrated manner to define desired outcomes and requisite next actions is something few people feel they have to do (until they have to). But in truth, it is the most effective means available for making wishes a reality.

The Process: Managing Action

You can train yourself to be better at this and dealing with your limited resources. But you need to get everything out of your head, it's a terrible system to keep anything there.

At least a portion of your mind is really kind of stupid, in an interesting way. If it had any innate intelligence and logic, it would remind you of the things you needed to do only when you could do something about them.

Chapter 2 - Getting Control of your Life: The Five Steps of Mastering Workflow

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.

This is not arbitrary, it's what we all do. An example is cooking dinner. First, you identify all the stuff that doesn't belong where it is (capture), determine what to keep and what to chuck (clarify), put things where they need to go (organize), check your recipe book (reflect), and get started cooking (engage).


Things are already being collected for you - email, dresser drawers, etc.

You need an in-tray to collect everything. It can be any version that works for you - physical in-tray, paper-based note-taking, digital/audio note-taking, or email.

Every open loop must be in your capture system and out of your head.

You must have as few capturing buckets as you can get by with.

You must empty them regularly.

The sense of trust that nothing possibly useful will get lost will give you the freedom to have many more good ideas.


Asking yourself what this stuff is all about. The core question is "Is it actionable?"

If no, it is either trash, saved in an incubation, or stored in reference

If yes, does it take two minutes to complete? If yes, do it. If no, delegate or defer it.


Project - any desired result that can be completed in less than a year and requires more than one action step. Examples: Publish book, plant garden, take August holiday, etc.

Split actionable items into Next Actions list or Waiting For list

Next Action lists are at the heart of daily action management. These can skyrocket in total.

Incubation tools are either the Someday/Maybe list or the tickler system

Someday/Maybe is a parking lot for future projects. It helps to make a reminder to review these regularly. Or they could include time-specific projects, like books to read or movies to see.

Tickler system is a parking lot for projects some designated time in the future. Essentially, it is mailing yourself a reminder in the future.


Your life is more complex than any single system can describe or coordinate, but the GTD methodology creates a coherent model for place-holding key elements, which still require attention, being kept current, and being reviewed in a coordinated way. After checking your calendar for the hard structure of the day, you can move on to reflect on the Next Action list for wherever you are.

The Weekly Review is a critical success factor. All of your Projects, Next Action lists, Waiting For lists, and even Someday/Maybe lists should be reviewed weekly.

Weekly review is the time to:

* gather and process all your stuff

* review your system

* update your lists

* get clean, clear, current and complete

Because this is a review of everything you've included in the system, it should feel complete. Most people don't have a complete, trusted system capturing and clarifying everything, so a weekly review still has holes.


How do you decide what to do from all these mega lists?

1. The four Criteria Model for Choosing Actions in the Moment - context, time available, energy available, priority.

2. The threefold model for identifying daily work - predetermined work, work as it comes, and defining your work

3. Six-level model for reviewing your own work

1. Horizon 5: Purpose and principles

2. Horizon 4: Visions

3. Horizon 3: Goals

4. horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountabilities

5. Horizon 1: Current projects

6. Ground: Current actions

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

Enhancing Vertical Focus

Horizontal focus is clearly defined outcomes and steps to move toward closure, as well as reminders placed in a trusted system to be reviewed regularly.

Vertical focus is greater focus and rigor to get a particular project done

The Natural Planning Model - you're already doing this with whatever you accomplish, down to getting dressed and going out to eat:

  • Defining purpose and principles

  • Outcome visioning

  • Brainstorming

  • Organizing

  • Identifying next actions

Example: Going out to eat requires the intention of going out (purpose) and the standards of restaurant you like (principles). Imagining the options available to you (outcome visioning) is followed by questions about how to accomplish this vision (brainstorming), such as "Is there gas in the car?" or "Are they open?". You then organize those thoughts and take the next action - go get food.

The Unnatural Planning Model - when you go out of order, like asking if anyone has any ideas to share in a meeting before the purpose of the meeting is determined. Some good might come out of it but not as much if you went naturally.

Natural Planning Techniques: The Five Phases

* Purpose - Ask "why?" Duh. It defines success as an outcome, motivates, aligns resources, expands options, and creates decision-making criteria

* Principles - standards and values you hold, often subconscious but they're there

Vision/Outcome - You need a clear picture in your mind of what success will look, sound, and feel like.

See: May 1957 issue of Scientific American outlining the Reticular Activating System - keeps you asleep when music is playing, but wakes you if a little baby cries in another room. It is the focus you have for when someone says your name in a loud, crowded hall. Or if you're told to focus on the color red and your brain can instantly scan a scene.

"Suffice it to say that something automatic and extraordinary happens in your mind when you create and focus on a clear picture of what you want.

Clarifying and re-clarifying is important because we often make an outcome without any real way of knowing it can exist.

* Brainstorm - "The best way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas" said Linus Pauling

* Mind-mapping - core idea in the middle of a piece of paper and branch out components to their basics

* Don't judge, challenge, evaluate, or criticize

* Go for quantity, not quality

* Put analysis and organization in the background

Organize - identify significant pieces and sort them by the correct parts, then go into detail

Next actions

Part 2 -Practicing Stress-Free Productivity

Chapter 4 - Getting Started: Setting Up the Time, Space and Tools

"...let me assure you that much of the value people get from this material is good tricks [...] Tricks are for the not-so-smart, not-so-conscious part of us. To a great degree, the highest-performing people I know are those who have installed the best tricks in their lives. I know that's true of me."

Example: Put It In Front of the Door - If you don't want to forget something when heading out to work, put it in front of the door to remind you.

Setting Aside Time

Allen recommends two full days to set aside and implement this system. You can do whatever.

Setting Up the Space

The basics of the workspace are just a writing surface and room for an in-tray, and probably (for most people_ s[ace for core digital tools as well.

A functional workspace is critical. If you don't already have a dedicated workspace and in-tray, get them now.

Getting the Tools You'll Need

Allen outlines all the possible supplies and materials you might need. Keep them together - pens, post-its, paper, etc.

Chapter 5 - Capturing: Corralling Your "Stuff"

The first step to getting a "mind like water" is collecting everything in one spot - your in-tray. Why? It's helpful to have a sense of volume. It shows you the "light at the end of the tunnel". Also, when going through other steps in the workflow, you don't want to be thinking you missed something elsewhere in your life. It delivers enhanced focus and control.

Be careful to not shift into clarifying and purging mode while collecting. These are two distinct actions and you should stick to one (capturing) before the others. No need to context switch just yet.

Walk around all your life spaces to get ideas of things that need to get done. Examine furniture, filing systems, etc.

Chapter 6 - Clarifying: Getting "In" to Empty

Once everything is collected, the mission is to get to the bottom of "in".

Start with the basic rules:

  • Process the top item first.

  • Process one item at a time.

  • Never put anything back into "in".

Most people get to their in-tray or their email and look for the most urgent, most fun, or most interesting stuff to deal with first. [...] But that's not processing your in-tray; it's emergency scanning. [...] Many people live in this emergency-scanning mode, always distracted by what's coming into "in," and not feeling comfortable if they're not constantly skimming the contents on their computer or mobile devices.

The Key Processing Question: "What's the Next Action?"

If it requires no action, trash it, incubate it, or store it as reference material.

Incubation can be handled by adding it to the Someday/Maybe list or placing it on the calendar. They're trusted reminders to check up on the item but not keep it in "in".

If it requires an action, you need to clearly define the next physical step. The task of cleaning the garage could really mean the next action step is getting a quote from a cleaning service.

Once you decide the next action, you can do one of three things:

  • Do it - if it can be done in two minutes, do it. It is the efficiency cut-off.

  • Delegate it - if it wont' be done in two minutes, ask "Am I the best person for the job?" If not, hand it off.

  • Defer it - If it will take longer than two minutes and you need to do it, defer it to the Pending pile to be organized later.

Chapter 7 - Organizing: Setting Up the Right Buckets

Being organized means nothing more or less than where something is matches what it means to you.

The Basic Categories - it is important to keep these hard edges distinct:

  • A Projects list

  • Project support material

  • Calendar actions and information

  • Next Actions list

  • A Waiting For list

  • Reference material

  • A Someday/Maybe list

Organizing Action Reminders

Actions can be organized by the calendar or by doing them ASAP. Keep the calendar sacred and make lists to group Pending tasks together by how they can get done, i.e At Computer or Errands lists. This choice helps you focus on the context. Some others include At Office/Home, Anywhere, Read/Review, and Calls.

Organize the "Waiting For" list so that you can check it as often as you need to, such as when you need to light a fire under someone's ass to get you some information or decision.

Make sure you're not dispersing your reminders for action. You want to be able to trust the system, not go searching to find it.

Organizing Project Reminders

The Projects list is not meant to hold action steps, you can't do a project. But keeping them in eyesight will help organize. You want to ensure you're moving forward with actions toward the project.

A project is more than one action needed to achieve a desired result, so making a Projects list helps alleviate subtle tension, focus your weekly review, and facilitate relationship management.

You could always sub-sort projects by personal versus professional, or maybe by delegation.

Organizing Non-actionable Data

Reference material is a personal judgement call for the information you need to keep handy for your next actions. You decide how best to file and organize your reference material, so it's not in the same buckets as your next actions or lists.

The Someday/Maybe list is non-actionable, at least for now. Big dreams included, like learn Spanish or travel to Tokyo. Or recipes to make, books to read, movies to see. Review it as regularly as need be to make sure it is or is not time to take action.

Chapter 8 - Reflecting: Keeping it all Fresh and Functional

What to Look at, when

Calendar first - provides the hard landscape of what's required and scheduled for the day or coming days

Then Action lists - depending on where you are, or how you organize your Pending lists, get to work

If you're like me and most other people, no matter how good your intentions may be, you're going to have the world come at you faster than you can keep up." This is what makes the Weekly Review invaluable. "The Weekly Review is whatever you need to do to get your head empty again and get oriented for the next couple of weeks. It's going through the steps of workflow management - capturing, clarifying, organizing, and reviewing all your outstanding commitments, intentions, and inclinations - until you can honestly, say, "I absolutely know right now everything I'm not doing but could be doing if I decided to."

Chapter 9 - Engaging: Making the best action choices

“When it comes to your real-time, plow-through, get-it-done workday, how do you decide what to do at any given point? As I've said, my simple answer is, trust your heart. Or your spirit. Or, if you're allergic to those kinds of words, try these: your gut, the seat of your pants, your liver, your intuition - whatever works for you as a reference point that has you tep back and access whatever you consider the source of your inner wisdom.”

The Four-Criteria Model for Choosing Actions in the Moment

  • Context - Where are you? What tools and access do you have?

  • Time available

  • Energy available - Allen recommends keeping a low-energy list

  • Priority

The Threefold Model for Evaluating Daily Work

  • Doing predefined work

  • Doing work as it shows up

  • Defining your work

The Six-Level Model for Reviewing Your Own Work

  • Horizon 5: Life

  • Horizon 4: Long-term visions

  • Horizon 3: One- to two-year goals

  • Horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountability - current job responsibilities, what hats do you wear?

  • Horizon 1: Current projects - Finalize your Projects list

Ground: Current actions - make sure your action lists are complete

Work from the bottom up.