Getting Things Done: the art of stress-free productivity (2015 edition) by David Allen

Getting Things Done by David Allen

Let me start by saying that I’m a big fan of the GTD method. I read the first edition of this book back in late 2007 soon after I had finished The E-Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber. At the time I was running my web development firm and was in desperate need of some operational clarity and organization. While I didn’t commit myself fully to GTD all those years ago, I certainly wish I had. The principles taught in David Allen’s book are simple in theory, but sometimes hard in practice, especially for those of us that have had our own “systems” for so many years. It took me awhile, but once I moved on from my web development firm and began committing myself to more narrowly-focused startups, I found the GTD methods easier to apply. It was partly my own maturity, but more likely the fact that we had a project tracking system at my web development firm that was ingrained into my daily life, that made adoption so difficult. Once I started using the core principles of his system, I found my ability to stay organized and make more progress immeasurable.

Like most of us, the end of a year is a time for reflection and planning. I’ve committed myself to a number of things in 2015, but perhaps the most radical was to fully adopt GTD. This meant a reread of David Allen’s book, which I did during the holiday break. It was by chance that I noticed that the 2015 edition was being released in March. For me this was very exciting. I’ve reread GTD and referred to its pages many times over the last 7 years, cringing every time a mention of Palm Pilots or other outdated electronics came up. I was hoping that this new edition would take a look at the current world of technology and give some very practical tips (and recommendations) for software workflows. Unfortunately, at least for me, it fell a little short in some areas, but overall the core system remains solid.

I’ve tried to do two things with this review. The first is to give an overview of the GTD method itself. I work with a lot of young professionals that have never even heard of GTD and I think it is important to educate the masses. My goal is not to convert everyone to the GTD method, but since I deal with so many disorganized individuals on a regular basis, my hope is that this will at least enlighten a few of them. Perhaps they will adopt a system like this and make my life a lot easier. The second is to actually review the book. There were not a tremendous amount of changes, but there was some updated information and additional chapters added that warrant review. For those people who have either read the previous version and are looking for a reason to read the new edition, or for those people who have been debating reading the book in the first place, I’ve put together some of my thoughts which might make those decisions easier.

Let’s get started.

The GTD Method

If you are unfamiliar with the GTD (Getting Things Done) method, then I think you’ll find that much of it is common sense. As David Allen says, applying the GTD method involves no new skills, it’s simply a matter of learning how to leverage those skills to maximize effectiveness. As someone who has studied this for a long time, I can tell you that applying this method takes time and energy, but its benefits are well worth it.

Three Key Objectives

The GTD method starts by identifying three key objectives of the system:

  1. Capture all things
  2. Turn inputs into next actions
  3. Curate and coordinate all of that content

The basic principles outlined in these objectives are meant to free your mind from distractions by creating an “external brain” (i.e. a trusted system) that can store all of the things that we typically worry about on a constant basis. The argument is that our brains are like RAM in a computer, only capable of storing and processing so many things at a time. And since RAM doesn’t necessarily handle priority well, remembering to pick up milk on your way home takes as much cognitive effort as remembering to add some key bullets to a big client presentation. Attempting to use your brain as a storage mechanism (short-term or long-term) is doomed for failure. Not only does it consume your brain capacity, limiting your ability for higher-level thinking, but it creates “open loops” (unresolved problems, tasks, etc.) that create uneasiness and a sense that “there’s something I was supposed to do.”

David Allen states that most of our efforts fail for the following three reasons:

  1. There is too much distraction for higher-level focus
  2. People have ineffectual personal organizations systems, and;
  3. When clear, lofty goals are set, the bar is raised so high, that we find there is too much work to meet our own standards

In order to avoid this cycle, one must follow the three key objectives above. This means that you must (1) clear your mind — “no open loops”, (2) clarify your commitments — decide “what” you have to do, and (3) once decided, remind yourself what you’ve committed to. By processing this information on the front-end, you no longer have to think about it on the backend. You’ve already decided what a successful outcome looks like and you’ve defined what you need to do to complete it. When it’s time to perform a task, you no longer need to think about it, you can automatically react.

Managing Your Actions

We are inundated with inputs everyday. Whether it be emails, requests from your boss, new business cards handed to you at a sales meeting, or a discussion with your spouse or partner, the amount of data we need to process every day can be overwhelming. A major part of organizing and reviewing this information is to understand the difference between “projects” and “actions.” As David Allen says, “you can’t ‘do’ a project, you can only manage your actions.” This means you must broadly define “projects” as anything that requires more than one “action.”

This gives us two distinct perspectives when looking at what we’ve committed to, horizontal and vertical. The horizontal perspective is what gives us an overview of all the activities we’re involved in. The vertical perspective is what allow us to drill down into the “project planning” of individual topics. Essentially, projects (or the horizontal) defines what “done” means (outcome) and actions (the vertical) defines what “doing” looks like.

The Five Steps of Mastering Workflow

David Allen defines five distinct steps that should be the part of any successful workflow. These are (1) capture, (2) clarify, (3) organize, (4) reflect, and (5) engage.

Capture: This idea is pretty straightforward. Get everything out of your head, minimize the number of capture locations, and empty the capture tools regularly. By getting everything into your “in-tray”, you know you won’t forget it. This lets your mind focus on other things.

Clarify: Ask yourself, “what is it?” Is it actionable? If no, then you either trash it, put it in your someday/maybe file, or add it to your reference materials. If it is actionable, then you need to decide if it is a project (does it require more than one step). If so, then define the successful outcome and the next action. If not, then you either do it, delegate it, or defer it.

Organize: The system defines eight discrete categories of reminders: (1) projects, (2) project plans, (3) waiting for, (4) calendar, (5) next actions, (6) trash, (7) someday/maybe, and (8) reference. The clarifying step helps route items to these different categories, but maintaining this organization structure is key to the next step, reflect.

Reflect: Once you have captured, clarified, and organized your projects and tasks, you must regularly review them (“often enough to feel like you don’t have to think about them”). The system teaches multiple levels of reviews including daily and weekly reviews, plus less frequent, higher-level reviews for clarity above your operational activities.

Engage: The final step is to engage, or more appropriately, get things done. David Allen gives us three models for making action choices: (1) The four-criteria model for choosing actions in the moment, (2) The threefold model for identifying daily work, and (3) The six-level model for reviewing your own work. He goes into great detail for each one and it would be useful to take the time to learn them. Understanding why you’re doing something is just as important as understanding what you’re doing. David Allen gives plenty of insight into this and helpful ways to apply it.

The Natural Planning Model

David Allen defines the natural planning model as something we already do “naturally” but have been taught to ignore in favor of something more unnatural. The premise is that your brain is hardwired to problem solve quickly and efficiently. It does this by going through five steps:

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

Our brains first identify the purpose, which answers, “why are we doing this?” and decides on our principles, what are the moral constraints we place on this project? Next we envision the outcome, the what instead of why. What does success look like? Next we brainstorm solutions to the problem. Then we organize our thoughts to identify the significant pieces, sort (by components, sequence, and priorities), and detail it to the required degree. Finally we decide on next actions to begin implementing the solution.

David Allen argues that in the vast majority of cases, this happens very quickly in our brains without the need to do a formal planning process. However, for the times that do require more in-depth analysis and thought, such as for a large project at work, the unnatural planning model usually kicks in. This is when meetings start with “who has a good idea?”, rather than defining the purpose of a project, figuring out what the desired outcome looks like, and brainstorming ideas to get the ball rolling. If all you get from the GTD method was learning to implement the Natural Planning Model in your organization, it would be worth it.

Implementing GTD

One of the things I really like about this book is the practical (almost workbook like) methods to implementing GTD for yourself. The book goes through each of the five steps of mastering workflow and gives some very good tips and examples to help relate the process to you. It does take quite a commitment, so be prepared to spend some time and energy on this.

As you go through each of the steps, it is as if David Allen is standing over your shoulder telling you exactly what to do. As part of the Capturing phase, for example, he provides a very detailed “trigger list” that helps you do a mental sweep and clear your brain of all your “open loops.” The clarifying section gives some great tips for how to process your “in-tray” to minimize decision fatigue and keep your system’s integrity. Most importantly is probably the introduction of the “Two-Minute Rule”, which states that any action that requires less than two minutes to complete, should be completed when you process it. The theory is that if it takes less than two minutes to complete, then you are creating inefficiencies by trying to add that to a system and track it.

Some other great insights include the rebuke of the “Daily To Do List.” For the longest time I would attempt to put together a list of “Things To Do Today” that would ultimately end in disappointment as many of the things never got checked off. David Allen argues for creating “hard edges” for calendars, meaning that only the things that must get done today should be on your list of things to do today. Everything else goes on your Next Action Lists that should be referred to only after you have completed the things that must be done.

Next Action Lists are another great insight. Different types of tasks should be grouped by context (as explained by his four-criteria model for choosing actions in the moment). This allows you to quickly surface actions that can be done while at your computer, out running errands, speaking with a colleague, etc. I’ve personally found this type of organization to be incredibly useful.

A key part of the GTD method is to be able to review all the things you’re currently working on, the horizontal perspective I mentioned earlier. This requires keeping a projects list that gives you a view of all your outcomes instead of the actions you need to take. Doing this, says Allen, gives you control and focus, alleviates subtle tension, and facilitates relationship management. By reviewing your project list at least once a week, you immediately get a complete overview of your priorities and can plan next actions to move each one to completion. It also refreshes your mind and gives you the feeling that you know exactly what is going on and what you’ve committed yourself to.

David Allen also gives you plenty of strategies to deal with “fuzzier” kinds of commitments like career goals, health and energy, family, staff issues, workload, team morale, etc. His “six-level model for reviewing your own work” breaks the importance of your work into 6 “horizons.” I think of this as something like the “30,000 foot view” type of approach, only his method gets much more specific. The highest is horizon 5, or purpose and principles, essentially the “why am I here?” and “why do I do what I do?” type questions. Levels 4 and 3 are vision (3-to-5 year plan) and goals (1-to-2 year plan). The book spends little time on these levels in favor of the bottom three, which are more about getting things done.

Horizon 2 are your areas of focus and accountability. These are one level above projects in that they aren’t things you necessarily finish, but instead help assess experience and engagement. This gives you a sense of things like your roles and responsibilities at work and your family commitments and responsibilities. Reviewing this every so often is incredibly enlightening because it gives you the perspective needed to plan things at horizon 1, your projects. As mentioned earlier, projects are your desired outcomes, what success looks like. The final level is ground, which are the actions required to complete your projects.

Reviewing your work regularly (or reflecting) is another key part of the GTD method. David Allen gives plenty of information and defines processes to execute this efficiently.

The GTD method is very practical and works well if you can commit to it. Having this system in place can “still your mind” and let your brain focus on the bigger picture, unleashing creativity at a level you may have never thought possible. It also teaches you the value of having a system, which can help you avoid “sacrificing the seemingly urgent, for the truly important.” This means giving you the tools and the clarity of thought to efficiently and effectively deal with anything thrown at you, no matter how demanding.

If this is at all interesting to you, I suggest you read David Allen’s book. He will make a much stronger case than I have.

Thoughts on the 2015 Edition

As I mentioned in the beginning of this blog post, I am a big fan of the GTD method. I found the original book to be well-written, organized the best it probably could be, and full of extremely useful and practical processes to implement the system for yourself. Even though the old version was somewhat dated, the principles themselves withstood the test of time. The new version of the book (as he mentions in the introduction) removes references to specific software applications and technology specifically to create an “evergreen” version. While I understand the reasoning behind this, I actually felt the examples were a little less effective without a technological reference.

I currently implement my GTD system using a combination of Asana, Evernote, Google Drive, DropBox, Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Gmail. Some of these are a result of the systems we use at work, some of them are personally chosen, but ultimately I find that the system can break down under certain circumstances. It would have been useful to me (a practiced GTDer) and to people just learning, to have a “here’s how to do this with today’s technology” section. I understand that there are plenty of online resources and other opinions, but I think it would have been helpful to outline general use cases, even if they were only for types of software (and I don’t mean email).

Speaking of email, I find it difficult to read or hear email and productivity in the same sentence. I personally believe the two are antithetical to one another. While the real world requires that we both deal with, and have processes to organize, email, I found it somewhat disheartening that the master of productivity himself is still advocating email as a productivity tool. As a communication tool, email is a necessity, but to use it to organize your action lists? That seems like sacrilege to me. There is a lot of productivity software out there like Asana, JIRA, Basecamp, and more that can eliminate email almost entirely. I would have liked to get his perspective on those.

There was also a new chapter entitled “GTD and Cognitive Science.” It outlines several areas of psychology such as Positive Psychology, Flow, Self-Leadership Theory, and Psychological Capital (PsyCap) that all seem related to the benefits of GTD. The chapter was interesting, but I thought, surprisingly unnecessary. I felt as though this information would have been more effective if it had been integrated into the other chapters as validation for his methods, dovetailing the practical with the psychological benefits. He already does this to some extent, in both the original and updated versions, so adding in this new chapter seems more like a space filler than something of true value.

The final chapter of the book describes the Three Tiers of GTD Mastery. These are:

  1. Employing fundamentals of managing workflow
  2. Implementing a more elevated and integrated total life management system, and;
  3. Leveraging skills to create clear space and get things done for an ever-expansive expression and manifestation

I found this chapter to be quite useful. He speaks openly about how easy it is to get off track and then gives some good tips for how to get back up to speed. He also interestingly relates the stages of mastery to college degrees, each one building on the previous set of knowledge. This seems like a good analogy as it decouples GTD from an all-or-nothing approach. There are benefits to implementing parts of the system, and once comfortable with those, you can build upon them. While he specifically doesn’t compare mastering GTD to some other forms of spiritual enlightenment, he does make a solid case for how GTD can help you attain life mastery.

He states, GTD and life mastery “is when one recognizes anything that has his or her attention (concerns, worries, problems, issues, tensions) and translates them into achievable outcomes (projects) to be executed with concrete next actions.” It sounds so simple, yet for one to reach this level of control, I think you need to be sitting on a higher plane of existence. Maybe someday.

Should you buy and read this book?

While I do have some criticisms of the new version, at the end of the day, the content and the system remain solid. If you are new to GTD, then absolutely, buy it and read it. If you’ve read it in the past and are curious about any new insights, then I still say, buy it and read it. I’ve reread this book several times, and every time I do I feel like I learn something new. If you plan on rereading it, then having the updated version will be highly beneficial (especially since there are no mentions of palm pilots — well, maybe one).

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