All Gett 08-08-117 

Getting Things Done

The Art of Stress-Free Productivity


David Allen

Penguin Books, 2001, 259 pp., ISBN 0-14-200028-0



Allen is a management consultant and executive coach.  His method for getting things done is very doable and avoids some of the scheduling mistakes of other time management methods.  It is a bottom-up method: it deals with how to get things done that arrive on your plate.  It does not deal with the question of priorities: what things you should decide to accept based on your life philosophy, values, or job scope.  His process relies on getting everything into appropriate places that can be easily reviewed so you can clear your mind from trying to remember stuff and do the work with less stress.


After collecting in one place all the things you have to do, the key is to "process" each one.  Decide the next action to be taken.  Too often we have something in our "in box" that we don't know what to do with, so it sits there and clutters our mind.  The secret is to decide immediately what, if anything, we can do and put the "next action" on our To Do list.


Part 1 describes an overview of the system.  Part 2 shows how to implement it and Part 3 extols the results you may expect.   


Chapter 1.  A New Practice for a New Reality

Two key objectives:

1.      Capture all the things that need to get done into a logical system outside your mind.

2.      Make front-end decisions about every item as it arises so you will always have a "next action" you can implement.  (3-4)


Most of the stress comes from "open loops," or commitments that aren't well managed, things that keep grabbing your mind as things that need attention.  To keep these things from cluttering up your mind, you must collect them all in one place and plan how to handle them.  (12-13) 


Allen's system requires you to:

1.      Capture every one of those things in some kind of collection vessel.

2.      Clarify exactly what the outcome is supposed to be for each one and what, specifically, you have to do to make progress.

3.      Keep reminders in an organized system that you review regularly.  (13)


"The real issue is how to make appropriate choices about what to do at any point in time.  The real issue is how we manage actions."   (19)


"The real problem is a lack of clarity and definition about what a project really is, and what the associated next-action steps required are.  Clarifying things on the front end…allows people to reap the benefits of managing action." (19) 


"The goal…is…to get things off your mind and get things done." (21)


Chapter 2.  Getting Control of Your Life: The Five Stages of Mastering Workflow

1.      Collect things that command our attention.

2.      Process what they mean and what to do about them.

3.      Organize the results.

4.      Review the lists.

5.      Do the next action.  (24)


1. Collection:

Collect the "stuff" in an in-basket, on sheets of paper, on an electronic note-taking device, voice-recordings, and/or emails.  (27)


1.      Every "open loop" must be in your collection system (and out of your head).

2.      Minimize the number of collection buckets.

3.      Empty them regularly.  (29) 


"These collection tools become part of your life-style.  Keep them with you (like your toothbrush).  Collect in them all the time (like brushing your teeth).  (29)


Regularly empty the buckets and process the stuff as you do it.  


2. Process:

Decide what it is, i.e. the results you want.

Can you take an action?  If 'no,' it is a) trash, or b) action might be needed later, or c) reference.


If it is actionable ask two questions:

1.      What 'project' or outcome have you committed to? and

2.      What's the next action required?  [This is a key question.]


Actionable items have three possibilities:

1.      Do it (if it will take less than 2 minutes)

2.      Delegate it (if it belongs to someone else)

3.      Defer it (if it will take longer than 2 minutes) (35)


3. Organize:

If no action is needed it you toss it, tickle it for later or file it so you can find it. (35)


Projects: A project is any desired result that requires more than one action.  (37)

Put all projects on a master list.  This is a list of "finish lines."  

Put support materials and reference materials in reference files.


Next-Action Categories: 

       Things that must be done on a specific day - put on your calendar

       Things that need to get done as soon as possible - put on To Do list.  Instead of a Do Today list, use a Next Actions list, not necessarily today, but soon.

       The things that you may want to do someday, but not now, put in a "Someday/Maybe" location, probably a file.


Reference Material:

Put in your filing system.  Use a general system with a through z.


4.  Review:

Keep your systems where you can take a look at all your outstanding projects and open loops weekly.  Review your calendar and your tickler file daily.  Review your Next Actions list frequently.  Review your "Projects," "Waiting For" and "Someday/Maybe" lists as often as you think necessary.  (45-6)


During each weekly review, gather all your 'stuff.'  Review your system.  Update your lists.  Get clean and current.  (47)


5. Do:

To decide what to do at any given time, use your intuitive judgment.  How much time and energy do you have?  What do the circumstances allow?  How soon is it due? 


Chapter 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." (54) 


The natural planning model is: (56-8)

1.      Defining purpose and principles.  Why?  Is it clear and specific?  Principles mean standards and boundaries.

2.      Outcome visioning.  An image of the results.  What does it look like?

3.      Brainstorming.  Throwing out ideas for how to get there.   

4.      Organizing.  Organize the best.

a.      Identify the significant pieces

b.      Sort by components, sequences, and/or priorities

c.      Detail to the required degree

5.      Identifying next actions.  Decide what to do next.


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

The basics for a work space are just a writing surface and room for an in-basket. (89) 


Keep plenty of blank file folders handy and file it immediately.  Don't stack it or stuff it.  (97)  Keep your files at arms length.  "One simple alpha system files everything by topic, project, person, or company, so it can be in only three or four places if you forget exactly where you put it." (98) 


Chapter 5.  Collection: Corralling Your "Stuff"

"The first activity is to search your physical environment for anything that doesn't belong where it is, the way it is, permanently, and put it into your in-basket."  "Train yourself to notice and collect anything that doesn't belong where it is forever." (106)  "It's also a great habit to date everything you write." (108)


Chapter 6.  Processing: Getting "in" to Empty

That doesn't mean doing everything.  It means identifying each item and deciding what it is, what it means, and what you're going to do with it.  (119)


"Process" means decide what the thing is and what action is required, and then dispatch it accordingly. (122)


Some things need to incubate.  You can write them on a "Someday/Maybe" list or put them on your calendar on in a "tickler" file.  Either way you can get them off your mind and in someplace where they won't be lost. (127)


If there is an action, what is it?  Decide what is to be done next and put it in the "Next Actions" file.  We often get hung up here because we don't take the time to identify the specific next action so it hangs out there nibbling at our consciousness.  The next action is the absolute next physical thing to do.  (128-130)  Think about it enough to decide.  Then:

       Do it (if it takes less than 2 minutes)

       Delegate it (if someone else should do it) or

       Defer it (into your work organization system as an option to do it later). (131)


Keep a record in the "Waiting For" file of everything you hand off with the date. (135)


Your list of projects will be your stake in the ground to keep reminding you of actions you have pending until you have closure.  (137)


Chapter 7.  Organizing: Setting Up the Right Buckets

The seven primary types of things to keep track of:

       A "Projects" list

       Project support material

       Calendared actions and information

       "Next Actions" lists

       A "Waiting For" list

       Reference material

       A "Someday/Maybe" list


All you need are lists and folders.  Keep your lists complete.  Reviewing them frequently will keep you on track.  (140-141)


The most common categories of action reminders:


       At computer


       Office Actions or At Office

       At Home

       Agendas (for people and meetings)



"When the next action on something is up to someone else, you don't need an action reminder, just a trigger about what you're waiting for from whom.  Your role is to review that list as often as you need to and assess whether you ought to be taking an action such as checking the status or lighting a fire under the project." (149)


Organizing Project Reminders.  Create and maintain one list of all your projects in a very simple format.  This is simply a comprehensive index of your open loops.  The value is that you can review it completely and easily at least once a week. (155)


"If you have a project that you don't really need to think about now but that deserves a flag at some point in the future, you can pick an appropriate date and put a reminder about the project in your calendar for that day."  This might include special events, regular events such as budget preparation, and key dates such as birthdays.  (171) 


Chapter 8.  Reviewing: Keeping Your System Functional

Every day, look at your calendar and your daily tickler file first, then your action lists.  Evaluate them against the flow of other work coming at you to ensure you make the best choices about what to deal with.  (183) 


Keep your system up to date.  If it gets out of date, your mind tries to remember all this stuff and this causes stress.  Do a weekly review of the whole thing.  Collect, process, organize and review your outstanding involvements.  Do whatever you need to do to empty your head again.  (185) 


Here's the drill:  (186)

       Put all loose papers in your in-basket.

       Process your notes from anywhere.  Be ruthless.

       Preview past calendar dates for left over actions and reference info and transfer into the new system.

       Look at future calendar events and capture actions required.

       Empty your head by putting everything in writing that you haven't collected.

       Review your projects list

       Review your "next actions" lists

       Review your "Waiting For' list

       Review any relevant checklists

       Review "Someday/Maybe" List

       Review any relevant checklists

       Be creative and courageous to add new, harebrained and creative ideas. 


Chapter 9.  Doing: Making the Best Action Choices

When it comes to doing the work, you decide what to do at any point in time by trusting your intuition.  (191)  [He provides 19 pages of suggestions of how to follow your intuition. dlm]


Chapter 10.  Getting Projects Under Control

Chapter 11.  The Power of the Collection Habit

Chapter 12.  The Power of the Next-Action Decision

Productivity jumps when individuals consistently ask and answer "What's the next action?"  (236)  [This is probably the key idea of the book. dlm] "Often even the simplest things are stuck because we haven't made a final decision yet about the next action." (239)  "You'll invariably feel a relieving of pressure about anything you have a commitment to change or do, when you decide on the very next physical action required to move it forward." (242)  "Perhaps the greatest benefit of adopting the next-action approach is that it dramatically increases your ability to make things happen, with a concomitant rise in your self-esteem and constructive outlook." (147)


Chapter 13.  The Power of Outcome Focusing

"The Magic of Mastering the Mundane."  While this is a topic heading, it could have been the subtitle of the book.  (252)


"The model is simply the basic principle of determining outcomes and actions for everything we consider to be our work." (254)



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