Updated on 07.12.10

Getting Things Done: Five Key Things

Trent Hamm

This is the final entry in a fourteen part series discussing the time management classic Getting Things Done by David Allen. New entries in this series will appear on Tuesday afternoons and Friday mornings through July 16.

gtdBefore I start digging in to what I think are the five key take-home messages from this book, I’ll link back to the thirteen previous entries, in order, for people who want to read them in order.

1. A New Practice for a New Reality
2. The Five Stages of Mastering Workflow
3. The Five Phases of Project Planning
4. Setting Up the Time, Space, and Tools
5. Corraling Your Stuff
6. Getting “In” to Empty
7. Setting Up the Right Buckets
8. Keeping Your System Functional
9. Making the Best Action Choices
10. Getting Projects Under Control
11. The Power of the Collection Habit
12. The Power of the Next-Action Decision
13. The Power of Outcome Focusing

Here are the five key messages (from my perspective, anyway) contained in Getting Things Done.

Get stuff out of your head and on paper (or in a reliable digital form).
We all daydream. We’re in the middle of doing something when a thought pops into our head – something we need to do, something we wish we were doing, etc. We think about it for a moment and suddenly, our focus on the task at hand is broken. It takes us time to get back on track on what we’re doing, plus we’re trying to remember that thing that we just thought about.

This is hugely counterproductive. It keeps us from doing the task at hand well, even if it’s just a short task or a “mindless” task. Your mind drifts when you’re writing an email and you forget an important detail, requiring additional communication and more work for you. Your mind drifts when you’re washing dishes and you cut yourself, requiring time to take care of the wound. Your mind drifts when you’re “focusing” on one task at work and you suddenly find yourself taking 50% longer to do it.

The big solution to this is to get “in the zone” with whatever task you’re doing, but that’s often hard to do. The single best way I’ve found to get myself in the zone with whatever task I’m working on is to simply get everything out of my head in advance and have it in a trusted system – and if something pops into my head mid-task, I can just jot it down quickly, knowing I’ll deal with it later. Daydreaming and mind-wandering almost disappear if you get all of that stuff out of your head and somewhere secure. Read the fifth entry in this series for more focus on corraling all of your stuff and thoughts.

When being productive, your focus should be exclusively on the next action.
We all have tons of things going on in our lives. Some of them are simple – “call the repairman about the dishwasher” or “be at the recital at 7 PM.” Others are quite complicated and nebulous – “improve my relationship with my mother” or “get a better career going.”

However, the basic principle for making all of these things happen is the same: focus on the very next action you can take to move it forward. No matter how big or how small of a project you’re looking at, it can’t move forward without you taking a single step.

That single step is the key. If there’s something you genuinely wish to accomplish, focus not on the enormity of the goal and the seeming complexities it holds (at least, not right now). Focus instead on the very next thing you need to do to achieve that goal. Nothing else matters right now. The twelfth entry riffs on this idea.

Processing the stuff that comes out of your head and into your life is a daily practice.
My inbox sits on a corner of the desk I use for almost everything. Into that inbox goes all kinds of stuff – currently, I see some mail, a poster I need to hang up in our children’s room, two magazines, a couple of receipts, and about five handwritten notes. That’s good. That means I’m collecting this stuff as soon as it appears in my mind or in front of my eyes.

There’s still a problem, though. In my rush to get things done, it can be easy to just let stuff pile up in your inbox. The problem with that is before you know it, you’re right back to where you started, with random thoughts penetrating your focus and slowing you down.

The key is to deal with the stuff you collect in its entirety every single day. Deal with it properly, too (as I discuss in the next point). Dealing with this stuff regularly means that all of your stuff – ideas, things, and so on – find their way to where they’re supposed to be – your filing cabinet, your trash can, your calendar, your to-do list, and so on. That way, when you need to know what appointments you have (for example), you only need to look at your calendar. You don’t need to rack your brain. The sixth deals with this.

Have coherent, known places to put all of your stuff.
Hand-in-hand with the processing is the idea of having rational places to put stuff.

You’ve got to have a calendar that stores all of the things you need to do at a certain time or date. You also need to have a “next action” list that tells you what stuff you need to get done. You also need a trash can and an attitude that’s not afraid to trash stuff. I think those three pieces are absolutely essential.

Beyond that, there’s some flexibility. I usually keep a master list and a series of folders for all of my larger ongoing projects. The list just lists all of the projects, and each project has a folder for specific ideas related to it. I also have a filing cabinet in which everything I think I should keep gets tossed. I don’t do anything complicated to file – I just give each folder a name and alphabetize them A-Z with the folders that start with numbers coming after them.

The seventh entry gives you all kinds of ideas and details about having the right places to put stuff.

A regular (preferably weekly) review is essential, where you reflect on things more broadly.
Each weekend, on whichever day of the two Sarah is on nap duty with the kids, I spend an hour or two reviewing my life.

Am I moving forward on all of my projects? How are they each doing? Are these projects in line with what I really want to be doing with my life? Did anything fall through the cracks this week? What does my calendar look like for the coming week? Is absolutely everything in my inbox processed?

These thoughts and tasks not only keep the day-to-day system running, but they also go a long way towards ensuring that I’m doing things that are in line with the big things I want in life and that the big things I’m shooting for are in line with what I want out of life now. That kind of reflection helps me to constantly connect the little stuff to my big dreams, which is key for keeping everything moving forward. You can read more about this in the eighth section of the discussion.

In closing, reading Getting Things Done and implementing the strategies has made a tremendous difference in my life. I would have never launched The Simple Dollar – or been able to sustain it – without the techniques in this book. If you have dreams – or simply have a hard time handling what’s on your plate right now – Getting Things Done might very well be the most useful book you’ve ever read. If you got even a glimmer of a good idea from this series, check out the full book – and don’t worry about Allen’s focus on business topics. The ideas he presents work in every context of life, from the stay-at-home parent to the self-employed to the programmer sitting in his or her cubicle.

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  1. Daniel says:

    This book series has been extraordinarily helpful. Years ago I tried reading GTD and for whatever reason it didn’t resonate with me. I just couldn’t get through it, much less could I apply the ideas to my life.

    But your specific–and deeply practical–applications of the book’s methods makes the GTD methods far more approachable. I’m now starting to apply GTD concepts and finding immediate and noticeable benefits.

    I can’t wait until you tackle the next book, and I hope your other readers feel the same way!

    Casual Kitchen

  2. Joanna says:

    Thanks for this series, Trent. I know it hasn’t gotten many comments, but, for me at least, it’s been probably the most impactful series yet.

  3. valleycat1 says:

    I have lived the past 40 years of my adult life by the precept that “if it doesn’t get written down, it probably won’t happen” – meaning that Idon’t try to just keep everything in my head. If it’s something I need to do, remember, or follow up on, I write it down. My system is quirky & ‘last century’ but it works for me. A lot of people in my life have kidded me about jotting stuff down, but on the other hand I have a long-standing reputation of being reliable & on the ball.

  4. Money Smarts says:

    Getting things written down is key for me if I want to get things done – without it things just disappear into the ether of my brain. I have found however, that writing things down on paper don’t help – i just get a cluttered desk. Instead i have a to do list and docs written down in gmail and docs that i can refer to.

  5. Patricia says:

    Thank you for doing this series. I have read and re-read each and every entry, and have implemented much of what you explained. I own the book, but your down-to-earth review of it has been helpful and inspiring. Thanks again!

  6. Alex says:

    Long-time reader, first-time poster here. I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your series on GTD. I picked the David Allen book up a couple of years ago after hearing about it on Merlin Mann’s 43folder.com site. I’ve always admired the elegance and logic of the GTD system, but have struggled to stay on the horse.

    I love how your series has cut through the clutter and demonstrated how GTD can be applied to everyday life. You’ve inspired me to re-implement my GTD system, and I’ve recommended your blog series to friends as the perfect practical introduction to staying organized. Thanks for the great writing!

  7. Ken says:

    What, no riffing?

  8. James says:

    organization and execution are key components to getting things done – thanks for the tips. i will be using these on a daily basis moving forward.

  9. Amy B. says:

    I just want to reiterate the value of this series. A+ Job.

  10. Dena Shunra says:

    Thank you, Trent, for this great series.

    Over the last few months your blog has become one of my favorites on the net, perhaps because the place your are in life and the direction you’re going align so very well with my values.

    Keep up the great work – and the great storytelling!

  11. Christy says:

    Thank you so much for this entire series of posts. I read GTD several years ago and I am one of the folks who found some useful tricks and did not implement the system. These posts have clarified places that I stumbled. Thanks again!

  12. Steve I. says:

    Trent, thank you for doing this series. I have learned so much and seen a huge improvement in my productivity! Looking forward to many more posts.

  13. Mike says:

    Having a specific place for your tools and stuff is very necessary. I have lost a lot of productivy just by locating gadgets like USB cables.

  14. This has been a tremendous help to me and especially in one very significant way. I now project myself actually doing things that need attention, I imagine myself getting them done and experiencing the feeling of accomplishment. It has helped me to manifest all of these deeds into reality. But I couldn’t have gotten to that point without these fundamental tips first. Thanks.

  15. Amy says:

    Trent, this was a fantastic series. I have been actively awaiting each new post. I tried to implement GTD a couple of years ago, and rapidly became disillusioned as I seemed to spend all my time doing lots of unimportant tasks. It is really valuable to see how someone successfully applies it. Well done! Thanks!

  16. Zina says:

    I have enjoyed the recipes you have shared so far. As soon as i try one I will let you know how it turns out! I appreciate that there are normal ingredients and not just mixes or condensed soup. We currently live in Germany and are unable to get many of those kinds of ingredients.

  17. mukundhan says:

    Great set of posts simply because it showed how GTD works through practical examples. Started setting up my Time & Space for practicing GTD.

  18. Mattias says:

    Great work on this series Trent! Enjoyed reading it a lot, it has given me a boost to try GTD a second time. Your examples has clarified and summarized the concepts really well.

  19. Tony E says:


    Great job with this series reviewing GTD.

    Having just ‘played at the edges’ of David Allen’s GTD first time round, I decided to commit to the whole method and process a couple of months ago, and it is proving really productive for me.

    Like any new habit, it needs reinforcing, to make it stick, particularly in taking time out to do the Weekly Reviews which is one of the keys to the whole system.

    Your reviews are now printed and are a companion to the Allen book. You reinforce many points, give your own experiences, and help the new convert like me to really establish my own GTD.

    Well done!

  20. Nancy says:

    I also wanted to say that this series has been extremely helpful for me. Reading the excerpts from the book that you included in the series, I believe I got more from your summary than I would from reading the book because the author’s writing style doesn’t seem easy to read. You did an excellent job of summing up the points.

  21. Mark Reutzel says:

    Mr T, a stellar, out-of-park homer for this series. I am a HUGE fan of GTD and it’s principles. I hope Mr Allen recognizes this as a JWD – ‘Job Well DONE’ All the Best!

  22. Joan says:

    I agree with Joanna that this series was very impactful. I like the way you have summariezed this book. I will be reviewing this series often. Thanks for a really great series.

  23. Deborah says:

    I want to add my THANKS for a review well done! I found it so very helpful in many ways. You made the ideas clear and easy to implement. I also want to thank you for this last entry with links to all the series.
    Bravo, Trent from another grateful reader!

  24. Serge says:

    Thank you. At almost 60 years of age I tend to get overwhelmed at times with the fast pace of life’s demands. This series helped me to look at life anew and brings order to my thoughts. You will probably never know how helpful your site is to so many people out there who are like me.
    I am inspired. Fine job.

  25. Daryl Tay says:

    I’ve been constantly tweaking my GTD style over the last two years and I have to say besides getting everything out of my head, the other thing I’ve found really useful is to use a tickler file.

    Currently I operate with a combination of a physical tickler file, Evernote with tags and task.fm for recurring reminders. I was wondering if you had any tips for using tickler files?

  26. Jon says:

    Love the series, but this post really sums it up for someone like me who doesn’t really need the complexity of the full system. I don’t need contexts, priorities, etc. Get things out of your brain, come up with action for the stuff, and put that stuff in their place. Thank you.

  27. Sally says:

    Another big thank you – I happened upon your site having just come through a four year period of feeling disorganized and not in control – partly because I stopped work to concentrate on studying and then moved halfway around the world – and back! – and was surfing for inspiration having realised that I needed to take big steps to get back to being as organized as I used to be. Your posts have inspired me as I rebuilt my own trusted system and I truly never ‘got’ how I could use next actions properly (I work to constant and repeating deadlines) til I read your version, thanks again! :-)

  28. Maria says:

    I agree with Joanna and Joan, I really like this series as well. For me, you’ve explained GTD better than the book. When I read the book a while back, I was bored and didn’t know how to apply it to my life. It just didn’t click. But when I read your summary things make more sense. I think I’ll read the book again and refer to your summaries more often. Thanks for doing this.

  29. Rebecca says:

    HI Trent,

    The idea of doing the next action is what I have found most powerful from this series. So simple but so powerful for me.



    P.S have said it before but especially found your personal examples very useful for understanding these concepts

  30. Joe Wilner says:

    Thanks for references and suggestions. These are all very helpful for getting organized and being as efficient as possible. I agree that writing things down is very helpful. In particular, I consistently use checklists and record ideas whenever they present themselves. Thanks!

  31. Peggy says:

    I don’t always post a note, but I LOVE to read your posts. I always get something from them. So Thank you!!!

  32. Lindsay says:

    Have you ever tried any of the iPod Touch apps like Action Lists that claim to be based on this system? I use my iPod extensively and always have it with me, so it seems like it might be more natural to me than a notebook if the apps are any good. At $10 a pop, though, I don’t really want to just try one out of curiosity!

  33. Michael says:

    Better than GTD is The Effective Edge. Read Christina Randle’s “Getting it Together” and check out their classes and methodology. It works along the same lines as GTD, but is easier to follow and much more practical on a day-to-day basis. Also easier for teams to adopt Effective Edge methodology.

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