Getting Things Done

Getting Things Done

Getting Things Done (commonly abbreviated as GTD) is an action management method created by David Allen, and described in a book of the same name. Both “Getting Things Done” and “GTD” are registered trademarks of the David Allen Company.[1]

GTD rests on the principle that a person needs to move tasks out of the mind by recording them externally. That way, the mind is freed from the job of remembering everything that needs to be done, and can concentrate on actually performing those tasks.

GTD methodology

GTD is defined by David Allen on his website.[1] In traditional time management, priorities usually play a central role. In contrast, Allen promotes two key elements in his version of time management — control and perspective. Allen advocates three major models for gaining control and perspective:

  1. A workflow process
  2. A framework with 6 levels of focus
  3. A natural planning method

The first major model is the workflow process, which is used to gain control over all the tasks and commitments which one needs or wants to get done.[2] The workflow process consists of five distinct phases listed below (with each described in greater details in the Principles section):

  1. Collect
  2. Process
  3. Organize
  4. Review
  5. Do

Allen uses an altitude analogy to illustrate his second major model, 6 different levels of focus, and give perspective on tasks and commitments. These 6 levels of focus, from the bottom up, are:[2]:51

  1. Current actions
  2. Current projects
  3. Areas of responsibility
  4. Yearly goals
  5. 5 year vision
  6. Life goals

As one ascends in altitude, one is able to consider the “bigger picture.” Considering projects, actions, unfinished business or commitments (“open loops” in GTD terminology[3]), and other “input” from a variety of “heights” gives one varying perspective.

Allen advocates a weekly review focused on different levels. The perspective gained from these reviews should drive one’s priorities, which in turn determines the priority of if and when one is to do the particular individual tasks and commitments gathered during the workflow process. During a weekly review, the user determines the context for the tasks and puts them on the appropriate lists. Examples of grouping together similar tasks include making a list of telephone calls to make or errands to do while downtown. Context lists can be defined by the set of tools available or by the presence of individuals or groups for whom one has items to discuss or present.

Allen expects that the first two models are sufficient most of the time to gain control and perspective on the majority of tasks and projects. However, there are some cases in which more involved planning and thinking are necessary.[2]:54 This leads to the third major model, which is the natural planning method. While the workflow model has a “horizontal” focus on doing individual tasks, the natural planning method has a “vertical” focus on planning projects and thinking through topics. The planning model consists of 5 stages:

  1. Defining the purpose and principles
  2. Envisioning the outcome
  3. Brainstorming
  4. Organizing
  5. Identifying next actions

GTD is based on making it easy to store, track and retrieve all information related to the things that need to get done. Allen suggests that many of the mental blocks we encounter are caused by insufficient ‘front-end’ planning (i.e., for any project we need to clarify what is to be achieved and what specific actions are needed to achieve it). It is most practical, according to Allen, to do this thinking in advance, generating a series of actions which we can later undertake without any further planning.

Allen contends that our mental “reminder system” is inefficient and seldom reminds us of what we need to do at the time and place that we can do it. Consequently, the “next actions” stored by context in the “trusted system” act as an external support which ensures that we are presented with the right reminders at the right time.

A capsule description of GTD from Allen’s book Ready for Anything:

Get everything out of your head. Make decisions about actions required on stuff when it shows up — not when it blows up. Organize reminders of your projects and the next actions on them in appropriate categories. Keep your system current, complete, and reviewed sufficiently to trust your intuitive choices about what you’re doing (and not doing) at any time.



The core principles of GTD are:



The notion of stress-free productivity starts with off-loading what needs to get done from one’s head, capturing everything that is necessary to track, remember, or take action on, into what Allen calls a bucket: a physical inbox, an email inbox, a tape recorder, a notebook, a PDA, a desktop, etc. The idea is to get everything out of one’s head and into a collection device, ready for processing. All buckets should be emptied (processed) at least once per week.

Allen doesn’t advocate any preferred collection method, leaving the choice to the individual. He only insists upon the importance of emptying the “buckets” regularly. Any storage space (physical inbox, email inbox, tape recorder, notebook, PDA, etc.) that is processed regularly by the individual is acceptable.



When processing a bucket, a strict workflow is followed:

  • Start at the top.
  • Deal with one item at a time.
  • Never put anything back into ‘in’.
  • If an item requires action:
  • Do it (if it takes less than two minutes), OR
  • Delegate it, OR
  • Defer it.
  • If an item does not require action:
  • File it for reference, OR
  • Throw it away, OR
  • Incubate it for possible action later.

If it takes under two minutes to do something, it should be done immediately. The two-minute rule is a guideline, encompassing roughly the time it would take to formally defer the action.



Allen describes a suggested set of lists which can be used to keep track of items awaiting attention:

  • Next actions — For every item requiring attention, decide what is the next action that can be physically taken on that item. For example, if the item is, “Write project report,” the next action might be, “Email Fred for meeting minutes,” or, “Call Mary to ask about report requirements.” Though there may be many steps and actions required to complete the item, there will always be something that needs to be done first, and this step should be recorded in the next actions list. Preferably, these steps are organized by the context in which they can be done, such as “in the office,” “by the phone,” or “at the store.”
  • Projects — Every open loop in one’s life or work which requires more than one physical action to achieve becomes a project. These projects are tracked and periodically reviewed to make sure that every project has a next action associated with it, and thus can be moved forward.
  • Waiting for — When an action has been delegated to someone else, or when one is waiting for some external event before a project can be moved forward, this is tracked in the system and periodically checked to see if action is due, or a reminder needs to be sent.
  • Someday/Maybe — Things to be done at some point, but not right now. Examples might be “learn Chinese,” or, “take diving holiday.”

A calendar is important for keeping track of appointments and commitments; however, Allen specifically recommends that the calendar be reserved for the hard landscape: things which absolutely have to be done by a particular deadline, or meetings and appointments which are fixed in time and place. To-do items should be reserved for the next action lists.

A final key organizing component of GTD is the filing system. A filing system must be easy, simple and fun. Even a single piece of paper, if needed for reference, should get its own file if it doesn’t belong in an existing folder. Allen suggests a single, alphabetically organized filing system, in order to make it as quick and easy as possible to store and retrieve the needed information.



The lists of actions and reminders will be of little use if not reviewed at least daily, or whenever possible. Given the time, energy and resources available at a particular moment, one must decide the most important task to be done immediately, and do it. If one is inclined to procrastinate, one may end up always doing the easy tasks and avoiding the difficult ones. To solve this, one can decide to do the actions of the list one by one, following their order, just like processing an inbox.

At least weekly, the discipline of GTD requires that all outstanding actions, projects and ‘waiting for’ items are reviewed, making sure that any new tasks or forthcoming events are entered into one’s system, and that everything is up to date. Allen suggests the creation of a “tickler file” in order to help refresh one’s memory each week with the outstanding tasks and projects.



Any organizational system is no good if excessive time is spent organizing tasks instead of actually doing them. Allen’s contention is that if one can make it simple, easy, and fun to take the necessary actions, one will be less inclined to procrastinate or become overwhelmed with too many ‘open loops’.


Tools and techniques


Tickler file

Main article: Tickler file

A slice of ’43 Folders’

One device that Allen suggests is the tickler file for organizing paperwork (also known as the ’43 folders’). Twelve folders are used to represent each month and an additional 31 folders are used to represent each day. The folders are arranged to help remind the user of activities to be done that day.


Software tools for GTD

Software was specifically suggested by Allen as helpful and important for implementing GTD, including digital outlining, brainstorming, and project planning applications. However, in 2001, Allen bemoaned the general lack of “good ‘project management’ tools,” concluding:

… less structured and more functional applications will emerge in the coming years, based on the ways we naturally think and plan.[2]:219-221

Since that prediction, a virtual explosion of GTD-supporting software has emerged; in April 2008, more than 100 applications provided the core features for implementing Getting Things Done.[4] These tools now range from simple list managers to collaborative web services, both free and commercial, for all popular platforms and devices. Much of this software specifically automates or reinforces the GTD methodology of collecting, processing, organizing, reviewing, and doing.

Software tools for GTD include Wipee List and Remember the Milk.


[edit]Other tools

Some followers of GTD advocate a ‘back-to-basics’ approach to personal management, and a rejection of over-engineered, high-tech solutions in favor of simple, less-expensive tools such as preprinted cards, index cards,[5] the Hipster PDA, or even the Moleskine paper pad.[6] David Allen himself says he relies on a “vanilla” Palm PDA and records “events of the day” on paper to be processed later.[7]



In 2005, Wired called GTD “A new cult for the info age”,[8] describing the enthusiasm for this methodology among Information Technology andknowledge workers as a kind of cult following. Allen’s ideas have also been popularized through the Internet, especially via blogs such asLifehacker,[9] 43 Folders,[10] and The Simple Dollar.[11]

In 2005, Ben Hammersley interviewed David Allen for The Guardian, with an article called “Meet the man who can bring order to your universe”,[12] saying “For me, as with the hundreds of thousands around the world who press the book into their friends’ hands with fire in their eyes, Allen’s ideas are nothing short of life-changing.”

In 2007, Time Magazine called Getting Things Done the self-help business book of its time,[13] a contrast to the notion that GTD has only a niche following of zealous enthusiasts.[citation needed]

In 2007, Wired ran another article about GTD and Allen,[14] quoting him as saying “the workings of an automatic transmission are more complicated than a manual transmission, [t]o simplify a complex event, you need a complex system.” The author of the article, Gary Wolf, dug into the roots of GTD, covering Allen’s stay in a mental hospital and his encounters with several New Age gurus, including Sri John-Roger who created the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, in whose church Allen is still a minister.


See also


Further reading

External links

Excerpts from Getting Things Done (Business Week):



From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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