Getting Things Done by David Allen

This book review is going to be a little different. I’ve read GTD a number of times over the years and come back to it as a resource on multiple occassions. But I haven’t read it in over a year. I’m going to review the book and techniques contained within straight from memory. Let’s see how well I’ve internalized its lessons.

To put things in perspective David Allen is a productivity coach and the foremost recognized expert at time management. His GTD methodology has been widely adopted and his company teaches its techniques around the world.

The point of GTD is to get everything out in the open; to recognize all of the task you need to finish. I call these “open loops”. The trouble with open loops is that they sap your concentration and even your will power. Having an unfinished task creates a anxiety and doesn’t allow you to focus completely on what you are currently working on, because now a part of your concentration goes towards keeping that task in the back of your mind, or thinking on how to solve it. If you have too many of these open loops hanging over you, your attention can become so fragmented that it is difficult to start working on anything due to the feeling of being overwhelmed.

David Allen’s solution to this? Start with a Master List.

The Master List

I’ve always referred to this as a brain dump. The idea is to get everything out of your head and onto paper.

David explains this concept very well by using the analogy of your brain being like a computer. Studies have shown that humans can only remember approximately seven things at once. So if you have a shopping list with seven items on it, then are focusing on other things that you need to do, chances are that when you arrive at the grocery store you probably wont get everything on your list. David compares this with computer RAM – Random Access Memory. This is the memory in your computer that does all of the number crunching on the surface. By focusing on too many things at once you lose the full breadth of your brain computing potential.

A better way is to commit all of those items to ROM – Read Only Memory. This is your hard drive, your long term storage. Your piece of paper.

Write everything down that is on your mind. Every task or project that pops up; both those you are working on and ones that you’d like to do in the future. Have you been thinking about learning to play guitar for a few years? Write it down.

This first list will be long. It’s supposed to be. You can’t make decisions on things if you don’t first acknowledge them, so put absolutely everything on here, from short term items like call Bob. to long term items like buy Mom a birthday present for December.


Now that you have a full page of tasks in front of you it is time to sort them out. This stage will help close the open loops you’ve been carrying and will allow you to fully focus on the items of your choosing.  Each task will be assigned a Next Action; the next thing that can be done on that task to help move it towards completion.  They are they transferred to one of the following locations:

  • To Do List – Tasks with a single Next Action
  • Projects – Tasks with more than one Next Action required to complete.
  • Someday / Maybe – For tasks that are not Urgent or Important – this acknowledges the idea and gets it out of your head to be saved for a more appropriate time.
  • Reference – When there is no next action the item can be saved for future reference.
  • Calendar – Time bound tasks go into your calendar where they will be triggered at the appropriate time.
  • The Trash – If the situation has changed and the task is no longer required then trash it!

Finally, if a task will take less than two minutes to complete – do it right now!  This really helps keep knock down the size of your list and will start building momentum in the right direction.

Take a look at my article The Four D’s of Completion if you need help organizing your items into the appropriate list.


This system requires daily checking of your tasks as well as a periodic review, so you need a single place where you enter everything.  I personally use a combination of the techniques from  and my Oulook calendar.  For quick reminders I’ll use the Sticky Notes program on my computer.

What you use will be highly personal and you need to be comfortable with using it daily.  I like using the BuJo as it allows me to capture everything in one place; from my various task lists, to logging workouts and tracking habits, to meeting notes, to doodles and drawings when I’m in the mood.  It also lends itself very well to tracking Projects as defined in GTD, so I recommend checking it out at the link provided above.

David Allen utilizes a ‘tickler file’, which is a technique utilizing a folder for every day of the month, and a folder for every month of the year.  This is explained in detail at, which also includes an explanation of the Hipster PDA; another method for logging things down.  I personally find the folders idea cumbersome and impossible to implement being that I spend so much time on the road.  But it might be just the thing if you work from home, or go into the same office everyday.

The key to the system is that you check the system daily.  Follow that with a weekly and monthly review to make sure you are hitting each of your important points and making progress on your important projects.

Rinse and Repeat

Freedom comes from regular use.  As you work with the system and review everything periodically you’ll start to find that you can focus more on the tasks you are doing, rather than the tasks you have yet to do.  When you find yourself getting overwhelmed with things to do  it is a sure sign that you need to do a thorough review of your system and get things back on track.

There is much more to this system than is written here and I highly recommend that you read the book to get the full picture.  David has also spoken at TED on a few occasions and the videos are worth watching.

We often hear “If only I had more time I could…”.  But we have enough time.  We’ve got the same number of hours in the day as Leonardo DaVinci did, the same as Nicolas Tesla, Ben Franklin, or Elon Musk.

It’s how it is managed that is the key.


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