Get Things Done – David Allen’s Actionable Steps for a Better You

Get Things Done – nuggets from David Allen’s 2015 GTD Book

I recently finished reading this book and I already started implementing a lot of the things I learned from it. It initially appeared in 2002 and it was revised in 2015 with some new ideas and perspectives, mostly from a technological point of view.

David Allen is a productivity consultant for companies and individuals who feel that somewhere along the road, they got lost in the little things and are trapped in a vicious circle of small tasks that consume their energy.


'Keep everything in your head or out of your head. If it's in between, you won't trust either… Click To Tweet

They know they have big projects, but they are not quite sure how to get started because it seems that there is always something in the way. Although many theories would suggest starting from the top down, and seeing the big picture when it comes to a project,

Allen shifts the perspective completely. In this new method, GTD (Getting Things Done) he says it is crucial to see “What the next action is?”, write down all your ideas about that particular project and divide it into small actionable steps.

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This is actually one of the main ideas of the book and the entire system: “Keep everything in your head or out of your head. If it’s in between, you won’t trust either one.”

GTD - David Allen

So in order to have a clear vision about our ideas, projects, plans and even day to day activities it is best to put them on paper. Sounds simple, but so many of us don’t use this system and we rely solely on our minds to remember stuff. And that is not the big issue. The main problem is that we remember stuff in the moments when we should focus on something completely different and we decrease our productivity:

'There is usually an inverse relationship between how much something is on your mind and how much… Click To Tweet

The book focuses on and describes also in great detail all the tools that you have available in order to be more productive and keep an organized life. Whether we are talking about office, home, family, finances or even vacations, it does not matter. All things that are related to these topics should be written down in specific places where you know you will revise them again and make progress. Because this is another issue: if you have an agenda where you write down everything in bulk, you will never really get to the bottom of things and you will be overwhelmed by the amount of information that you gathered.

So one of the easiest ways to get organized is to use lists. Post-its, agendas, pens, paper, all the classic stuff that you usually keep around the house or in our office can help you in this process. Of course you can also use digital tools and rely on them to some extent, but it was proven that these traditional tools are still the most efficient. How can you get started? Allen suggests that it takes about a full weekend for some of his clients to go thoroughly through the entire process and organize their lives. You would need two days in which you are not distracted, you do not have important calls, tasks and commitments. You will need to go through all your stuff and make a complete inventory of your materials. If they are useful for some projects, if they are just reading materials, stuff you will deal with at a later date or simply just trash.

He recommends this process not only for individuals but also for companies: “I recommend that all organizations (if they don’t have one already) establish a ‘purge day,’ when all employees get to come to work in jeans, put their phone on do-not-disturb, and get current with all their stored stuff.” In order to be more productive the author suggest to use the two minute rule. So if something new appears in your schedule like an email or a memo that you have to answer with yes or no, if it can be done in under two minutes, the advice is to do it, even if you feel that it breaks your work cycle. Leaving it for another time will mean that your emails are starting to gather in your inbox and perhaps answering after a week is no longer relevant for that topic. Anything that requires under 2 minute actions should be dealt with immediately.

In order to be more focused and present in our daily activities, Allen says we need to have a “Mind like water”:“The idea of ‘mind like water’ doesn’t assume that water is always undisturbed. On the contrary, water engages appropriately with disturbance, instead of fighting against it.”

How can you achieve a “mind like water” attitude? Well, first you have to take everything from your mind and write it down on a piece of paper. You will instantly feel more relaxed because you now have a system which will help you remember things instead of constantly wandering inside your thoughts and organising everything there, when you should be focusing on one project at a time. Once you do this and you have control over what is in your head, you need to find the right perspective.

Allen’s method suggests six “horizons of focus”:

  1. Current actions
  2. Current projects
  3. Areas of Responsibility
  4. 1-2 year goals
  5. 3-5 year goals
  6. Life.

What is so great about this process is that there isn’t a recipe for everyone and you can customise the process so that it fits your personality and your work mechanisms. You can choose the amount of lists that you want to have, the way to organise your calendar, the amount of technology you want to involve. You have to take into consideration some basic guiding lines, but most of it can be tailored around your specific needs.

Getting Things Done is a mechanism that will help you store, track and retrieve information at any given moment and in this way you will no longer feel stressed that you might forget some important details. What you need to keep in mind when you are writing down an idea for a project, is the fact that it needs to be broken down into actions. For example if you just write : planning vacation, this is not something that will make you take further action. You need to think about the specific steps and what is the next 1-2 concrete steps that you need to take: a. decide about location, b. announce your boss that you need a vacation leave, c. book tickets etc.

“Project” is a very general term and as the author puts it: “You don’t actually do a project; you can only do action steps related to it.”

GTD nugget

If you keep these suggestions in mind and you start even with only small changes, you will see the difference in the way you respond to tasks and the way you organise in a matter of days.

This book is one of the best I’ve read when it comes to time/action management and it really helped me to become a more focused and organized person. I began to apply the ideas presented while I was reading it and although I did not reach the point of having a full purge of my office and all my documents, I still feel better about the way I organize my day to day activities and I became more productive.

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