Skip to content →

Getting Things Done

I just want to mention a great book I just finished reading: "Getting Things Done" written by David Allen. Check it out at Normally I do not like "self-help books". But this book had so many great reviews on Amazon I decided to give it a shoot. The catalyst for reading this book came from reading another book: "Pragmatic Programming and learning: Refactor Your Wetware" book by Andrew Hunt. One of the first tips in that book where: "Everything is connected". For example: Home and work are not two separate things, i.e., if you have problems at home it will affect your work. And vice versa. I had the feeling that I could get more focused at work if I knew that all of my non-work commitments and to-do items where of my mind. I kept thinking that I had so much I needed to do, instead of allocating all the thinking on the problem I was working on. That lead me to the book I am writing about know.

The book is about getting things done. Surprise. We all have a lot of things we need to keep track of. Sometimes when the pressure of all those things become too much we force ourselves to sit down and make a list of all the things we actually have to do. And we feel better. According to David Allen this works every time, and should not be preserved to crisis situations. David Allen goes to great lengths to explain why that is. But in short: Our mind is great for solving problems and making decisions, not for handling commitments and to do items. The idea is to keep all of them out of our head in a trusted external system that will not only handle it for you but also remind you of them at appropriate times. Once it is captured there can one make intuitive decisions on what to do and how to make progress and get things done. To get a clear head and reach the GTD nirvana state of mind where you don´t think about commitments, or worry about forgetting one, one need to go through a 5 stage process with all of your stuff. Stuff here means all that comes into your inbox of life: email, and idea, things you need to buy, the solution to a problem at work, something you need to check etc. The 5 step process is:

  1. Collect
  2. Process
  3. Organize
  4. Review
  5. Do
Lets briefly explain the different steps and finish of with an example.


One needs to collect all the stuff that command your attention. I like to see the source for the collection process coming from two different places: your head and all the physical things lying around. I, conveniently, started with the GTD when I was moving. So all the stuff I had lying around needed to be collected in the first place. I keep everything in boxes and am now in the process of going through them in step 2 as I am unpacking. Other places are: our office desk, mail, books, bills, movie tickets and so on. everything that is lying around bearing potential commitments.

The other source is the stuff that needs to be collected that resides in your head. Get it all out. I write every stuff as tasks in my GTD app on the iPhone (2Do). David Allen uses paper notes for each item. Whatever works for you. The point is to externalize all of your stuff that resides inside our head so that you can see them in front of you and renegotiate what to do with them. Get every commitment and thing you think about out of our head. The process can take everything from 2 hours to 2 days. Just keep going.

Examples of tasks are: search on the internet for new training center, find a gift for a friend, clean the kitchen, order movie tickets, arrange a party etc. Once all of your stuff is collected we can move to step 2 to process the stuff. So imagine that you have a big inbox with a pile of notes, one for each "stuff item", in front of you as we move to the processing phase.

2. Process

The second step is for each item, you have collected, decide what it mean to you and what you should do about it. This is where the GTD model comes into play. The process part of the model consists of all the items in the illustrations besides the outer yellow boxes and star. You pick up an item and say first: is this actionable? If it is not. Lets say it is an email from the HR department at work with a link to the new policy that they went through on last meeting. Then you have 3 choices for where to store the material which we will cover in the 3. step namely: reference material, someday/maybe list and trash. However if it is actionable it becomes a bit more interesting. Then you must ask: what´s the next action. If you find out that the item you are processing really is an entire project we store it in the project list. If it is not actionable and the task associated with the item takes less than 2 minutes: do it. It will take a longer time to continue processing than to just do it. If it is not doable in less than 2 minutes and its not a project one must decide whether or not you are the person to do it. If you are not: delegate it. If you are and it must be must be done on a specific day or time store it in your calendar with a reminder. If not then put it on the appropriate next action list. What the appropriate "next action list" is will be covered in the next phase, namely organise.

Getting Things Done Workflow
Getting Things Done Workflow

3. Organise

Now lets take a look at all the items in the figure that are the outer "buckets", i.e., the yellow boxes and star. For non actionable items we have 3 choices:

  1. trash
  2. Someday/Maybe list
  3. Reference Material
If it is trash then just throw it away. Simple as that. If it is an item that you maybe would like to do or just not now, add it to the someday/maybe list. The last part is just a placeholder for any reference material.
Personally I have a growing list of projects, ideas and to do items on my someday/maybe list. I was really surprised how well this list works. It is like you say to your brain: I have a way of storing the ideas and projects now so just keep them coming. Before when I got an idea I was afraid of forgetting it and it blocked the other ideas from coming.
For reference material like receipts, tickets, contracts, letters etc I keep them in Often I take a picture of the item and make a new note in Evernote and store the note in the reference material "notebook". David Allen explains in the book a physical filling system which consist of folders labeled A-Z where you store your documents. Evernote is way superior to this. However there are documents that you don´t want to have as a picture of in Evernote. An example is the original Diploma from the University.
Projects are defined by David Allen as any desired results that requires two or more steps to accomplish. So all projects have a series of actionable items associated with it. As soon as all of those items are finished the project is finished. We keep the projects in front of us as reminders of the finish lines we want to cross.
For all the items that are not projects that you are not to do yourself: put them on our waiting list. I typically mark the item with the current date and write a little note on it explaining what and who I am waiting for.
The rest of the items that do not fit in any of the above, which is most of them in my case, either goes in to the calendar or a list. There are many lists the item can possible go to. The lists are named after context. So some of my lists are: "work", "home", "calls", "everywhere", "parents". This way you quickly can find a task to do after the current context you are in.
4. Review
One must be able to review the actionable items and projects. The first thing that one will check is the calendar. It defines the "hard landscapes" of things that must be done and when. Next one would check the next action lists depending on the context one is in. If I am waiting for the buss for example, I will check my "call list" or "everywhere" list and do some tasks. At the grocery store store I will check my "store" list. On the run I will check my "errands" list etc.
David Allen stresses the importance of doing a weekly review. Once a week should one sit down for 1-2 hours and go over the lists and projects to see that everything is up to date. With all the things thrown at you during the week it is easy to develop an increasingly large backlog of unprocessed stuff. This is also the time to see over the different projects to see if they are progressing as necessary.
5. Do
The whole purpose of the system is to actually do tasks and know that it is the right one to do given the context, energy available and the importance of it.
By organising the tasks in the lists by context one dramatically decreases the number of tasks to choose from. Next I look at the tasks and pick one depending on the energy available. If there is a tasks that I immediately see is of great importance I choose that one.
Lets say we have 4 items in the inbox that one have collected during the day:
  1. Phone bill
  2. An idea for a picture
  3. Test driven Javascript development book
  4. Buy milk
Phone bill takes less than 2 minutes to complete by just paying the bill online. An idea for a picture is a project that I want to do, but not now so I move it to the "someday/maybe" list. Test Driven Javascript development book is a book I want to read so I add it to the "to read" list. Buy milk is something I need to be reminded of when I am at the store so I add it to the "@store" list.
Derek Neighbors of Gangplank walks through the Getting Things Done (GTD) process and how it can transform your 'to-do list' in this video
The system works great and I highly recommend the book.

Published in programming

Notify of

1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
11 years ago

For implementing GTD you can use this application:

You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, and a calendar.
Syncs with Evernote and Google Calendar, and also comes with mobile version, and Android and iPhone apps.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x