Updated on 09.19.14

Hidden Lessons from “Getting Things Done”

Trent Hamm

gtdA few years ago, I first read David Allen’s seminal book on time management, Getting Things Done (here’s the skinny on what it’s all about). To put it bluntly, it was an epiphany for me.

Let me make it as clear as possible: without the insights from Getting Things Done, I would have never found the time to launch The Simple Dollar, nor would I have been as involved in my children’s life as I am today.

Since reading it the first time, I sit down about once a year and re-read Getting Things Done, hoping to add some new insights to my repertoire. On my first few readings, I mostly found value in reiterating the big points. Lately, though, I’ve found that the book contains a lot of hidden lessons that aren’t directly placed front and center.

Here are seven more subtle aspects of the book I’ve found useful in my life recently.

Seven Hidden Lessons I’ve Learned from “Getting Things Done”

1. The best way to get things done is to “pre-work”

The single biggest thing that constantly derails one’s effort to get to an empty inbox (i.e., to whack everything off of one’s to-do list) are deadlines. You have to get this item done by 4 PM today, so you toss aside all of the other stuff you might be working on – some of which is likely more useful than the task you’re doing – and get to work. At the end of the day, you have a full inbox/to-do list and you realize that this isn’t working too well.

Thus, one of the hidden goals of GTD is to pre-work – put in effort so that there are fewer and fewer of those urgent tasks that interrupt your work. The best way to do that is to “pre-work.” I do this by writing articles in advance. At my previous job, I used to fill out forms as early as I could, often filling them the rest of the way out with estimates, so that I wouldn’t be tied to the clock later on filling out that form. I’d write lots of “library” code that will likely have use in the future so that when the time came, I could quickly prototype things that were pretty nifty instead of burning the midnight oil.

“Pre-work” helps keep your schedule free of at least some interruptions and makes it much easier to bear down and focus on the more important tasks at hand, like the large projects that you’ve always wanted to accomplish.

2. Keep an active “someday” list – because “someday” arrives sooner than you think

I take special effort to write down every project idea that crosses my head. Once a week or so, I’ll go through them and toss out a few of the truly frivolous ones, but for the most part, I keep that list. It’s usually between 50 and 100 projects long at any given time – and I may or may not ever do any of them.

So what’s the point? The reason is that “someday” arrives more often than you think. If I’ve managed to work through my inbox and have an empty afternoon ahead of me, the first place I turn is my “someday” list – and there’s always something worthwhile to do on there. My “someday” list produced this and this and this, among many other things.

3. The more you delete, the better

I used to use services like Tumblr and Delicious to store piles upon piles of bookmarks for future reference. What I found, though, is that I rarely looked at them – and when I did think of trying to find something, it was like finding a needle in a haystack. It was far faster to just Google for it.

The same thing is true for paper documents. When I read a magazine, I toss it. I’ve stopped actively updating a recipe box since virtually any recipe I want is out there in the cloud. I don’t keep many books – I can just use PaperBackSwap to get any book I want again pretty quickly. Why store mountains of music when I can just use Pandora from pretty much anywhere? Sure, I keep a few of each type of thing – but why keep so much stuff when it’s easy to retrieve it again from the cloud when you want it.

Thus, I keep only the minimum amount of stuff – and it’s made my life far, far easier. Very little time is spent filing or organizing the stuff – and is instead spent getting stuff done. Erin’s right – clutter is the enemy of success.

4. Post-It notes as task reminders are useless

Whenever I see a person with Post-It notes all over the place with task reminders written on it, I usually expect to find that person is good-hearted but surprisingly disorganized. Why? Because Post-It notes wind up all over the place. There’s no consistent place to go to find the next task that needs to be done.

The fewer places you have to look for the next thing to be done, the more successful you’re going to be. Spreading your to-do list across a bunch of websites, notebooks, sticky notes, and other things does nothing more than ensure things will slip through the cracks and also that you’ll spend a lot of time just figuring out what to do next – both are enemies of getting things done.

A single system, even if it’s nowhere near the best system, is better than three or four great systems.

5. Hands-free collection of ideas and to-dos is a winner

I go back and forth between using a voice recorder and using a small microphone attached to my iPod Touch, but in either case, I find that having the ability to record thoughts while my hands are otherwise engaged (or at least one hand is) is absolutely amazing for productivity.

The key, though, is to make sure these thoughts are actually saved and processed somewhere. I listen to my voice recordings every day and jot them down in their appropriate place so that they don’t get lost in the shuffle.

What’s the benefit? Many of my best ideas come up out here:

The play equipment in our yard

I’m pushing one of my kids on the swing and an idea pops into my head. If I try to hold it there, I tend to forget it. If I stop pushing my kid to write it down, the moment is often broken and the child runs away to do something else. Instead, I just pull out that voice recorder with one hand, speak my thought, and keep going in the moment.

6. If you feel negative about something, address it immediately

Sometimes, I get the sense I’m forgetting something important. When that feeling comes up, I pay attention to it, because it’s usually right. I almost always stop, check my calendar and my inbox, and almost always, I find that there was something that needs to be taken care of.

Trust your instincts, particularly when you’re going through daily routines that are familiar to you. If something sets off your radar and gives you a feeling that something’s not right, listen to it. Address it now rather than later.

This is actually a great principle for life in general. If you feel like something’s wrong in a relationship, address it sooner rather than later. If you feel like something’s wrong with a larger project, spend some time evaluating the project as a whole now before a bunch of work goes to waste.

7. The mechanics of the system itself are not all-powerful

Every time I’ve run into problems with keeping track of the things I need to do, it’s because I’ve made things too complicated. For me, it’s simple. I jot down things I need to do wherever I’m at. When I’m at a computer, I record them all in one central place (I use Evernote). I keep an “inbox,” a calendar, a project list, and a “someday” list. And that’s it.

For some people, this is overkill. For others, this is not nearly enough. Everyone has a different level of organization that works. The point is if you find yourself fighting your system, then your system isn’t working. It’s either too simple or too complex – and I usually bet on too complex.

No system is all-powerful. No system is perfect for everyone. Instead, mix and match elements until you find what works for you.

Good luck!

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. Jamie says:

    What kind of voice recorder do you have? would you recommend the one you have, or a different one?

  2. Kevin says:

    Thanks for this post, Trent. I have a copy of GTD but haven’t gotten around to reading it… ;-) JK. This makes me want to re-read it.

  3. Hi Trent,

    I would have have taken “pre-work” slightly differently than you, but I haven’t read the book yet :)

    I was thinking of “pre-work” as the pre-planning required to set a clear intention and direction for the week. What I mean by the is creating a list of activities that I know are the most important, mission-critical activities I want to complete. I list them out every Sunday as part of my pre-planning.

    I decide what I need to do and it’s my priority for the week. Sometimes I get derailed, but at the very least this planning helps me stay focused and set an intention for the week.


  4. B Simple says:

    Great tips. I am currently listen to the audiobook GTD and really enjoying it. We must all figure out a way to simplify our lives. A tip for #5 is to use JOTT.

  5. Spending It says:

    I feel the same way about Getting Things Done. I am an attorney and the amount of work that comes across my desk is amazing.

    Getting Things Done has changed my life forever. Like you, I re-read it every year. I highly recommend that you buy the audiobook and listen to it on long drives. This is a great way to refresh yourself on its principles.

  6. Chris says:

    Just picked up this book yesterday and I’m already done – quick read. I’m also checking out Evernote and it seems to be enough to get the job done.

    Seems amazing how much more relaxed you are when you aren’t trying to remember hundreds of little things that need to get done.

  7. kristine says:

    regarding delicious.com….why in the world would anytone publish (and that’s what it is) their favoorite sites? Why not just hand out your most personal information to every marketing company out there? Web bugs are insidious. But delicious is not innocuous, it is a warehouse of personal data.

  8. Baker @ ManVsDebt says:

    To be honest, I read this book but really didn’t connect with it. I ended up selling it and moving on without really drawing much inspiration (which is rare for me with a great book).

    Hearing to talk so passionately about how it has affected you, though, makes me wonder if maybe I just wasn’t in the right mindset to absorb the principles. Maybe, I’ll give it another shot.

  9. ckstevenson says:

    Do you find the First Things First portion of GTD to be useful, and how much do you incoporate that (and the book FTF itself) into your routine and planning?

  10. I really connect with the idea of deleting as much as possible. Like you, I used to keep stuff all over the place, thinking I would use it later. Now though, I only keep the links I really need in my sidebar, and anything that I only need temporarily I stock in the ‘read it later’ firefox add-on. It has a search feature, and it’s easy to store links for a little while and then delete them from your life. Kind of a compromise between delicious/tumblr and searching on Google.

  11. These are very helpful. I am guilty of the Post-it note comment. First of all, they are not big enough and I keep trying to fit everything on one and get frustrated if I have to use more than one (always). Then, if I’m on another floor (I work at home), I start another one. So, you’re right, stuff gets through the cracks. Duh! I also liked what you said about tackling the “negative” things. I also try to tackle my least favorite projects first so I don’t have to stew over them all day. Great info. Thanks!

  12. Ellen Delap says:

    You have made the big leap into action! Using Getting Things Done for productivity required acknoledging what was not working and finding the solution in specific ways. In addition you are incoporporation simplying! Great review and great ways to make this your own! Happy organizing!

  13. Fianna says:

    I would love a more detailed post about how you use GTD. What do you do on a daily/weekly basis from the GTD principals? What web-based apps do you use to help implement?

  14. a conscience life says:

    @ Baker

    Dude, I would trust yourself. If a book did not speak to you, it is probably for a reason. We are different out here. There is no reason to expect that the same principles for ‘getting things done’ will apply the same for everyone.

  15. Sharon` says:


    I very much agree with your comment on the Post-It note syndrome.

    Post-Its are great tools, but they are NOT great organizers.

    Good uses I have found for Post-Its.

    As a way to take notes in a book that I cannot write in. I color code the notes to the sources, and write the page number on the note, leaving it to stick up like a book mark. I can pull the post-its and stick them on a page to scan when the book goes back to its owner, or I can simple go through the book as I write to do my documentation as I write. I find it a time saver over traditional notecard use (does anybody do that anymore) and they don’t fall out of the books.

    Second, a sticky note is a great tool for leaving a quick message on a colleague’s door at eye level, i.e., “Missed you. Call me about the Nielsen file.” It lets them know you actually got up to physically see them, unlike an email. I find they respond pretty promptly.

  16. Goos stuff – and very insightful.

    I’ve renamed @someday as @nevergoingtohappen.

  17. Marc says:

    Here I’ve seen over time the link between organization in one’s life and financial stability emerge. There are of course plenty of other benefits too.

    People will usually seek help with symptoms in mind (financial difficulty) rather than causes – most of us living paycheck to paycheck probably don’t immediately see the link between a cluttered life and money/debt problems. It’s not always the problem, but often it’s at least part of it.

  18. mike says:

    do you use the standard or the premium version of evernote. I am switching to an iphone and am so happy they have an app!

  19. AG says:

    Nice points to ponder over there!

  20. Cheri says:

    I have an account with “delicious” and like you Trent, do not reference it very often for my ‘saved favorite websites’. It takes waay too much time to do it and is much easier to just to a “Google” search and be done with it! Also, I keep a small notebook in which I write down websites of interest that I know I am going to goto again. I used to bookmark them in “My Favorites” but again, it is too time consuming to use that so hence, my notebook of websites of interest..I love your blog and keep up the great articles!

  21. Melody says:

    I echo the ‘didn’t jive with me’ comment, even though I agree with just about everything you mentioned in your post! My biggest problem is many ‘systems’ want to hide everything. I have ADD and if I don’t see my actual files on a daily basis, they don’t exist. I had a friend come over who is organized and she help me setup a whole system based on that book (I believe) and it never took off. I built myself a 4-cubby wire storage rack from parts I already owned, bought 4 patterned cardboard file boxes and now I see and use them constantly!

  22. Andrea says:

    Another excellent article!!

    There are some places where pruning is problematic, however. The main obstacle, for me, of discarding books and CDs is that often the items I have *cannot* be gotten again if I want them. Case in point: my copy of Puccini’s *La Rondine*, with a very precise cast–Moffo, Sciutti, De Palma, Bergonzi, Sereni, with Mollinari-Pradelli conducting. I bought it well before copying to computer was practical, and just as I was transferring my collection to computer backup, one disc disappeared into the ether. It has not appeared since. I have searched for this cast online; it never appears on swaps, and the price? in some places well over $200. The same is going to be true of the Cluytens Hansel und Gretel, the 1947 original cast of Menotti’s “The Medium,” “The Ballad of Baby Doe” with Beverly Sills, and the like. THe moral? Grab ’em when you can and hang on. Similarly, Paperback Swap is pretty light on most of the academic books I have bought, my university library runs to modern theology, not medieval, and the nearest uni library has draconian policies for non-member use (including no reciprocal use for faculty at other institutions.) And unless the author is *very* popular (in which case the library will have copies out the wazoo), fiction goes out of print. So go ahead and sell your Philip Pullmann and your Stephen King. Keep the early Charles de LInt chapbooks and that set of Dorothy Dunnett.

    Within that, I do try to prune. If I truly have not come back to a book for years, out it goes. CDs that do not get played and aren’t beloved rarities … ditto.

  23. Andy Gray says:

    Regarding: “…get to an empty inbox (i.e., to whack everything off of one’s to-do list)…”

    To me, one of the biggest lessons from GTD is to separate the inbox from the to-do list. It’s easy to have your inbox pile up with stuff that you need to do, and then you start going numb to it.

    Instead, it’s pretty powerful to separate processing (determining what you’re going to do about some input in your life) from actual doing. Having an empty inbox doesn’t mean that your to-do list is empty, just that you’ve made a decision about the next action for the things that have come into your life.

    With that, I’m off to transform my piled-up inbox into a set of next actions…

  24. moneyblogga says:

    The voice recorder is a good suggestion. I just bought a cheapo one last month by Olympus. It does everything I need it to do with the exception of incremental rewinding. In other words, if I hit rewind, the entire voice message plays back from the beginning which is a pain if the message is longer than 5 minutes. I just have to remember to record in short increments. For 20 bucks, I can remember to do that. The VR helps tremendously with writing projects as you say.

  25. Tami says:

    Will I lose a lot of GTD’s usefulness if I listen to the audiobook only?

  26. Ollie Hicks says:

    I keep my to do list sellotaped to my puter desk and correct it as I go. No losing that sucker, plus it’s always annoyingly in view. Can’t get away with ‘forgetting’ anything on it.

  27. Ann McD says:

    I just bought Getting Things Done and Your Money or Your Life. In two days, I’m about half way through GTD and already have trash bags at hand to clear out my file cabinet. Wish me luck!

  28. Kaizan says:

    Hi Trent,

    I love the point you make about addressing something early if you feel negative about it.

    I think the point with any system is the habit of checking and reviewing it every day. You can have the best system in the world but if you don’t check it regularly, it will fail.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *