Book Review – Getting Things Done

Posted in Book Review, GTD, Personal Development at 12:12 pm by Haider

It’s ironic that I wrote on the first page of a book called Getting Things Done that I will finish reading the book in 10 days, only to end up finishing it over a year later! So much for getting things done…

But now that I’ve read the book, I’m glad that I managed to get through to reading it, and regret putting it off for such a long time. This is by far the most effective productivity approach I’ve come across, with some really illuminating insights about productivity that changed my approach to getting things done, and “time management.” The author, David Allen, calls his approach “radical common sense” but it’s hardly a common approach in the field of productivity.

Stress-Free Productivity

The sub-title of the book says a lot about the book’s approach: “The Art of Stress-free Productivity.” It’s not simply a matter of being more productive. It’s to be more productive, with less stress. Many “time management” experts focus on increasing output, and think that this will make people feel better at having accomplished more. However, this usually leads people to feel more stressed out as they try to make more use of their time, and feel guilty when they don’t exploit every minute to its fullest potential. David Allen’s approach isn’t about making better use of your time. In fact, time isn’t what he seeks to manage with his approach. Knowing that the focus of his approach is handling stress, we can identify the starting point of his system: your brain.

What you hold in your brain is what causes you stress. When you constantly have a to do list on your mind, you will loop through the list all the time, when you can do something about your tasks, or not. You are worried about what you have to do because you’re afraid you might forget about it (that’s why it’s always nagging you not to forget it), and find it difficult to actually do any of the things on your mind because you don’t know where to begin, or what outcome you’re expecting. The essence of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (or GTD) approach is to develop a system, a trusted system, that you can rely on to record all your to do items, so that your brain won’t have to do that, all the time, or any of the time. If your brain can trust that the system is doing it’s job, it can relax, knowing that you won’t forget about your to do items. However, the system isn’t simply a to do list. There’s more to it than that! But before I plunge into the system, I’ll pave the way by explaining the problems we face, and where the system comes in to save the day!

Your Commitments

Anything you want to do, or have promised others to do, is essentially a commitment. This means that you are meant to do the necessary actions to see the expected results. If you promise someone that you will fix his computer, then you will have to do all the actions associated with the result you promised. Therefore, any commitment you have is what David Allen calls an “open loop” that needs closure. But the problem is that you are constantly making commitments with yourself and others that you might lose track of. This causes you stress because you’re not fully aware of all the commitments that you have made, and aren’t sure what you’re going to do about them. Since you don’t know what you already have to do, you end up taking on more projects, which add to your stress, and may even reduce your output. We are constantly receiving and making commitments without identifying what needs to be done about them.

Your Stuff

Everything in your world that’s not in its place is considered “stuff.” Computer files scattered across your desktop, papers piling up on and around your desk, devices you need to fix, garbage you need to take out, etc. Anything that needs to be somewhere else, or has an action associated with it that you have not identified is stuff. Stuff is a strain on your brain that you’re not addressing. You might be able to work in your office by making room for yourself around your paper piles, but your brain will be aware of all the stuff around you, and will constantly consider doing something about them, even though you don’t want to at the moment. This shifts your focus away from the task at hand, and makes you feel guilty for not working on your piles. Therefore, since this stuff is in your life, you won’t be able to give any task your full energy, since most of it is drained from the thought of having to deal with all your stuff. To live stress-free, you must process your stuff. And this is where the system begins.

The Getting Things Done System

The system consists of 5 stages, and it’s important to acknowledge and maintain the distinction between these stages. And since the system is intended to get you to deal with all your stuff, the first stage in the process is to:

1- Collect

And when I say collect, I mean collect everything, and place it in your “in” basket. This should ideally be a physical basket where you place in it everything that’s not in its place, or you need to do something about. Dump all your unprocessed piles, to do lists, magazines you want to read, etc. into your “in” basket. Grab a pile of paper and write down what’s on your mind, and dump it into your “in” basket. David Allen suggests that you put one idea per page (for easy processing later on). Write down everything that you need to do, which you can think of. Any ideas that are constantly popping up in your head. If you’re thinking of a blog post to write, write that idea down. Don’t leave anything on your mind, which you haven’t put down on paper. Your head should be empty after you’ve finished collecting, and you shouldn’t have anything out of place in your home (not just your office. I did say everything!). If you need to take your car to the garage, you don’t need to park it in your “in” basket, but must make a note of it in your “in” basket.

This stage by itself is a very liberating experience, because you will feel in control of the things in your life, and it will give you a rough idea of how many things you need to consider, and how much you have to handle. But while you’re collecting, you aren’t considering what to do about the items you’re collecting. You’re simply collecting. This will ensure that you do not tire yourself out before you manage to collect all the stuff in your life. Having collected all your stuff, you want to begin to:

2- Process

Without considering the priority of the tasks you have to do, or their complexity, process your items, one at a time, until you have processed all your stuff. How do you process your stuff? Grab an item from your “in” basket and ask yourself: What is it?

What needs to be done with this item? The main distinction you need to draw is whether you need to take an action on this item, or simply keep it for reference. In other words, is the item actionable, or not? If it’s not actionable, you have three options open for you:

1. Eliminate: The item is of no use to you any longer, and you can simply throw it away.

2. Keep for possible action: Put the item in a someday/maybe list. Something you would like to consider working on, but not at this point in your life. It could be a trip you are thinking of taking in the summer, or a course you’re planning to take next semester. Since there is no action to take on it at the moment, but you would like to consider it later on, keep it for later evaluation.

3. Reference it: Either place it in an existing folder, where it belongs, or use a new folder to keep it. Label your folders, and arrange them alphabetically for easy reference.

On the other hand, if the item is actionable (you need to take an action on it), does it involve several actions, or a single action? If it’ll take several actions to mark the item as done, then make a note of the item as a project in your Projects List, and determine the next physical, visible action that you need to do to get the project moving. If it’s to book cinema tickets online, the next action might be: “connect to the Internet,” or “visit cinema website.”

If the next action takes less than two minutes to complete, then do the action immediately! It’s a waste to put such an item in your to do list, when it’ll take you more time to consider the action than actually doing it! This is known as the “two minute rule.”

If it takes more than two minutes to do, ask yourself: Should I be the one that does this action, or should it (can it) be done by someone else? If it can be done by someone else, then delegate it to that person, and make a record of it in your Waiting For List. If you are responsible for the outcome of that action, you need to check whether it has been done or not. Therefore, your Waiting For list will help you keep track of the things you expect others to do, and to ask for updates about them.

If you are the one that’s meant to do the task, ask yourself: Does this need to be done on a specific day, or at a specific time? If so, then record this item in your calendar. Use your calendar only for date/time-specific actions, and not general to do items. If it’s not for a specific date/time, then record it in your Next Actions Lists.

3- Organize

Once you have processed your items, you would have essentially decided what outcome you expect out of each action, and what needs to be done to get the result you want. To refer back to the actions you need to take, you need to organize your actions into lists that will help you decide what needs to be done. This is why your action lists need to be properly organized.

Your Next Actions Lists should be split up into Contexts: the location or tool(s) required to do the action. If the task is to be done on a computer, then put it on your @Computer action list (the @ character can be used to specify contexts). If it’s a phone call you need to make, you can put it on your @Calls, or @Phone, action list. Therefore, you will know what you can do based on the context you’re in. If you’re not at a computer, you don’t have to go through your @Computer list.

Your calendar, waiting for list, projects list, etc are your means of organizing the the work you need to get done in the best way possible.

4- Review

The most powerful aspect of this system is in getting things out of your head and into your trusted system. But your brain needs to be aware of what’s in your system, or at least be sure that you have not forgotten what’s in your system. Therefore, you should review what’s on your lists on a regular basis, so that you are aware of the commitments that you have and the actions that you need to take.

A weekly review is highly recommended to update your lists (actions you need to add and items you need to cross off, projects you need to take on, etc). If your system is not up-to-date, you will lose trust in it. If it’s incomplete, you will not rely on it. Therefore, reviewing your system helps to renew your trust and to always keep it updated.

5- Do

A productivity system that helps you keep track of your actions and organize your lists is meaningless if it does not lead you to doing the things that need to be done. Therefore, you must actually do what’s on your lists. The items on your lists should be done as soon as you are in the right context and the opportunity to do the action becomes available. Since all your commitments are important, you should not organize your tasks based on priority (otherwise, commitments that are of low priority might never get done!). What you need to consider before the priority of your tasks are (in the order given below):

1- The context that you are in

2- The time available for the task

3- Your energy level

And, finally, 4- The priority of the task

If you are not in the right context, or don’t have the time or lack the necessary energy to carry out the task, then no matter what the priority of the task is, you will not be able to do it. If several actions have the same priority level, then you should follow your intuition to pick the task to work on.

What I LOVED about the book

The workflow (productivity) system presented in the book is very simple, yet extremely powerful. Rather than presenting a set of productivity habits we need to develop, this system is comprehensive and easy to start implementing. There are many great insights into productivity that I hadn’t thought of before, which completely changed my approach to productivity. For example, David Allen makes the point that we can never manage time, because it’s never time that we manage. “Time management” is really “action management” because we seek to manage our actions in order to gain the greatest results. We can’t manage 24 hours and end up with 25, but we can manage our actions so that we can make the most of the time that we have.

There are many more models presented in the book that I haven’t mentioned or even touched on, but that really help explain what we need to consider when trying to lead productive, stress-free lives.

The Cons

While David Allen has some great insights, he doesn’t express his ideas in an eloquent way. He seems to waffle a lot before making his point. Parts of the book lack structure, and I would have preferred if he had highlighted the things I’d be coming back to, rather than mix the mundane with the real productivity gems.

Because the GTD system is very flexible, he only gives minor suggestions on how to actually implement the system, leaving the implementation up to us. I would have preferred if he had given a number of suggestions, and allowed us to select the best approach for us, rather than leave us wondering how we’d make use of the system. This isn’t to say that the book doesn’t contain implementation tips, but not as much as I had hoped.


Getting Things Done is a highly recommended book. I suggest you buy it and go through it, without putting it off. The productivity you will experience and the reduction in stress you will feel are well worth the investment.

I have dedicated a section in my blog to give some more tips on implementing GTD from the book and other GTD resources, as well as my own experiences. There’s a lot more to talk about regarding the GTD system, and I have only touched on the tip of the tip of the iceberg.

My message to you when you finish reading the book is:

You’re welcome 😀


  1. computerchi said,

    March 8, 2008 at 6:02 pm

    Very good, thanks.
    How about Outlook? It has the to do list and calendar.

  2. Haider said,

    March 9, 2008 at 8:20 am

    Dear Computerchi,

    Thanks for stopping by.

    I will expand on the points you raised – namely the *tools* to use and *where* to store your to do list – in future posts.

    For now, I would say that for all intents and purposes, Outlook can be useful, but is not enough. There are many, many things that need to get done away from a computer, so you need to have your to do list with you on the go. What defeats the purpose of the GTD method is trying to memorise “to do” items from a list you store on your computer. The point is, you don’t want to keep commitments in your head, so you need to have your “to do”s accessible when you need to go through them and start doing them.

    I personally don’t use Outlook, but you will also want to have separate “to do” lists for different contexts (e.g. @computer, @phone, @home, @office, etc). If this feature is supported, rather than have a single to do list for all your items, then it’s a plus.

    In conclusion, you can use Outlook as part of your GTD system, but I don’t think it’ll be enough for all your needs.


  3. Bashar said,

    March 9, 2008 at 9:34 am


    Thanks. I was delaying buying this book for long time, for reason I dont really know. I’m currently going through “How to Win Friends & Influence People” by magnificent Dale Carnegie. It’s quite a great book. But now since you mention this, I guess I will take it as my next one on the list.

    Thanks again 🙂

  4. Haider said,

    March 9, 2008 at 10:18 am

    Getting Things Done should be one of the first books to read, because it helps you organize all your activities, as well as your reading lists!

    I’ll put your book you recommended on my wish list. I’ve heard the book is excellent.

  5. A Fils for Your Thoughts » Thinking And Doing said,

    April 5, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    […] of the primary reasons why the GTD system places a lot of importance on collecting your “stuff”, processing and organizing it, […]

  6. Milly said,

    October 27, 2008 at 11:10 pm

    This is great info to know.

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