Getting Things Done

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This article is about the action management system by David Allen. For other uses, see Getting Things Done (disambiguation).
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
Getting Things Done.jpg
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity cover, first edition
Author David Allen
Subject Business
Publisher Penguin
Publication date
Published in English
Pages 267
ISBN 978-0-14-312656-0 (2015 Reprint Edition)
OCLC 914220080

Getting Things Done is a time-management method, described in a book of the same title[1] by productivity consultant David Allen. It is often referred to as GTD.

The GTD method rests on the idea of moving planned tasks and projects out of the mind by recording them externally and then breaking them into actionable work items. This allows one to focus attention on taking action on tasks, instead of on recalling them.

First published in 2001, a revised edition of the book was released in 2015 to reflect the changes in information technology during the preceding decade and incorporate recent scientific research supporting the system's claims regarding how the mind functions.[2]


Allen first demonstrates stress reduction from the method with the following exercise, centered on something that has entered your life that has an unclear outcome or where the next action is not defined. (Allen calls these sources of stress "open loops," "incompletes," or "stuff.")[1]:13

  • Pick an "incomplete": What most annoys, distracts, or interests you?
  • Write down a description of the successful outcome in one sentence. What is your definition of "done"?
  • Write down the next action to move toward the desired outcome
  • Notice how you feel after the exercise compared to before it.

He claims stress can be reduced and productivity increased by putting reminders about everything you are not working on into a trusted system external to your mind. In this way, you can work on the task at hand without distraction from the "incompletes."[1]:14 The system in GTD requires you have within easy reach an inbox, a trash can, a filing system for reference material, several lists (detailed below), and a calendar. These tools can be physical or electronic as appropriate (e.g. physical in tray or email inbox).[1]:88 As "stuff" enters your life, it is captured in these tools and processed with the following workflow.[1]:27


Logic tree diagram illustrating the second and third steps (process/clarify and organize) of the five-step Getting Things Done workflow

The GTD workflow consists of five stages: capture, clarify, organize, reflect, and engage.[3] (The first edition used the names collect, process, organize, plan, and do; the description of the stages are the similar in both editions). Once all the material ("stuff") is captured (or collected) in the inbox,[1]:106 each item is clarified[1]:122 and organized[1]:141 by asking and answering questions about each item in turn as shown in the black boxes in the logic tree diagram. As a result, items end up in one of the eight oval end points in the diagram:

  • in the trash
  • on the someday/maybe list
  • in a neat reference filing system
  • on a list of tasks, with the outcome and next action defined if the "incomplete" is a "project" (i.e. if it will require two or more steps to complete it).
  • immediately completed and checked off if it can be completed under two minutes
  • delegated to someone else and, if you want a reminder to follow up, added to a "waiting for..." list
  • on a context-based "next action" list if there is only one step to complete it
  • on your calendar[1]:27

Empty your inbox or inboxes daily or at least weekly ("in" to empty).[1]:122 Don't use your inbox as a "to do" list. Don't put clarified items back into the inbox.[1]:27 Emptying your inbox doesn't mean finishing everything. It just means applying the "capture, clarify, organize" steps to all your "stuff."[1]:27

Next, reflection (termed planning in the first edition) occurs. Multi-step projects identified above are assigned a desired outcome and a single "next action."[1]:191 Finally, a task from the your task list is worked on ("engage" in the 2e, "do" in the 1e) unless the calendar dictates otherwise. You select which task to work on next by considering where you are ("context" i.e. at home, at work, out shopping, by the phone, at your computer, etc.), time available, energy available, and priority.[1]:204


Because hardware and software is changing so rapidly, GTD is deliberately technologically-neutral. In fact, Allen advises people to start with a paper-based system,[4] many task management tools claim to implement GTD methodology[5] and Allen maintains a list of some technology that has been adopted in or designed for GTD. Some are designated "GTD Enabled", meaning Allen was involved in the design.[6]


Allen emphasizes two key elements of GTD — control and perspective. The workflow is the center of the control aspect. The goal of the control processes in GTD is to get everything except the current task out of your head and into this trusted system external to your mind. He borrows a simile used in martial arts termed "mind like water." When a small object is thrown into a pool of water, the water responds appropriately with a small splash followed by quiescence. When a large object is thrown in the water again responds appropriately with a large splash followed by quiescence. The opposite of "mind like water" is a mind that never returns to quiescence but remains continually stressed by every input.[1]:12 With a trusted system and "mind like water" you can have a better perspective on your life. Allen recommends reflection from six levels or "horizons:"[1]:54

  1. current actions
  2. current projects
  3. areas of responsibility
  4. 1–2 year goals
  5. 3–5 year goals
  6. Life

Unlike some theories, which focus on top-down goal-setting, GTD works in the opposite direction. Allen argues that it is often difficult for individuals to focus on big picture goals if they cannot sufficiently control the day-to-day tasks that they frequently must face.[1]:54 By developing and using the trusted system that deals with day-to-day inputs, an individual can free up mental space to begin moving up to the next level.

Allen recommends scheduling a weekly review, reflecting on the different levels. The perspective gained from these reviews should drive one's priorities at the project level.[1]:50 Priorities at the project level in turn determine the priority of the individual tasks and commitments gathered during the workflow process. During a weekly review, determine the context for the tasks and put each task on its appropriate list. An example of grouping together similar tasks would be making a list of outstanding telephone calls, or the tasks/errands to perform while out shopping. 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.


GTD is based on storing, tracking and retrieving the information related to the things that need to get done. Mental blocks we encounter are caused by insufficient 'front-end' planning. This means thinking in advance, generating a series of actions which can later be undertaken without further planning. The minds's "reminder system" is inefficient and seldom reminds us of what we need to do at the time and place when 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. As GTD relies on external reminders, it can be seen as an application of the theories of distributed cognition or the extended mind.[7]


In 2005, Wired called GTD "A new cult for the info age",[8] describing the enthusiasm for this methodology among information technology and knowledge workers as a kind of cult following. Allen's ideas have also been popularized through the Howard Stern Show (Stern referenced it daily throughout 2012's summer) and the Internet, especially via blogs such as 43 Folders,[9] Lifehacker,[10] and The Simple Dollar.[11]

In 2005, Ben Hammersley interviewed David Allen for The Guardian article titled "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]

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... to simplify a complex event, you need a complex system".

A paper in the journal Long Range Planning by Francis Heylighen and Clément Vidal of the Free University of Brussels showed "recent insights in psychology and cognitive science support and extend GTD's recommendations".[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Allen, David (2015). Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2 ed.). Penguin Books. ISBN 9780143126560. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ David Allen (2001). "Getting Things Done: Five Simple Steps That Apply Order To Chaos". Retrieved 2015-01-04. 
  4. ^ Forrister, Kelly (2010-08-02). "Which list manager should I use for GTD?". GTD Times. The David Allen Company. Archived from the original on 2010-08-06. Retrieved 2015-01-04. 
  5. ^ Forrister, Kelly. "Simply GTD with Kelly: Getting Started". The David Allen Company. Archived from the original on 2010-08-29. Retrieved 2010-08-22. If you're at all familiar with GTD you know that David Allen does not tell you which tools to use--GTD is tool agnostic--so those choices are up to you. Not saying all tools, software programs, paper planners work seamlessly with GTD, but where you organize your stuff is up to you. 
  6. ^ "Common Tools & Software". Getting Things Done website. David Allen Co. Retrieved 2014-05-30. 
  7. ^ a b Heylighen, Francis; Vidal, Clément (December 2008). "Getting Things Done: The Science behind Stress-Free Productivity" (PDF). Long Range Planning: International Journal of Strategic Management 41 (6): 585–605. doi:10.1016/j.lrp.2008.09.004. ISSN 0024-6301. 
  8. ^ Andrews, Robert (2005-07-12). "A new cult for the info age". (Condé Nast). Retrieved 2010-03-05. 
  9. ^ Mann, Merlin (2004-09-08). "Getting started with "Getting Things Done"". 43 Folders. Retrieved 2010-03-05. 
  10. ^ Robinson, Keith (2006-03-21). "Best of GTD". Lifehacker. Retrieved 2010-03-05. 
  11. ^ "Review: Getting Things Done". The Simple Dollar. 2007-05-06. Retrieved 2010-03-05. 
  12. ^ Hammersley, Ben (2005-09-28). "Meet the man who can bring order to your universe". The Guardian (London: Guardian News and Media Limited). Retrieved 2010-03-05. 
  13. ^ "The Oracle of Organization". Time. 2007-03-12. Retrieved 2010-03-05. 
  14. ^ Wolf, Gary (2007-09-25). "Getting Things Done Guru David Allen and His Cult of Hyperefficiency". Retrieved 2010-03-05. 

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