Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

It’s possible for a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control.

This is not a full outline. It's what works for me. Some parts were too deep in the weeds of professional work, so I recommend you read the book yourself, if you're curious.

Part 1 - Getting Things Done

Chapter 1 - A New Practice for a New Reality

"You already know how to do everything necessary to achieve this healthy, high-performance state. If you're like most people, however, you need to apply these skills in a more timely, complete, and systematic way so you can get on top of it all instead of feeling buried."

The Problem: New Demands, Insufficient Resources

Work no longer has clear boundaries. Used to be self-evident - till the fields, move the crates. Now we have an infinite amount of data and choice. Our jobs (and lives) keep changing - professional goals, career changes, cultural swings. The old models and habits are insufficient - distraction and tools to fight distraction are everywhere

Upping the quality of our thinking and commitments does not diminish the quantity of potentially relevant and important stuff to manage.

The Promise: The "Ready State" of the Martial Artist

"You can experience what the martial artists call a "mind like water" and top athletes refer to as the "zone," within the complex world in which you're engaged."

The Principle: Dealing Effectively with Internal Commitments

"Even those who are not consciously 'stressed out' will invariably experience greater relaxation, better focus, and increased productive energy when they learn more effectively to control the 'open loops' of their lives."

"You've probably made many more agreements with yourself than you realize, and every single one of them - big or little - is being tracked by a less-than-conscious part of you."

3 basic requirements for managing commitments:

  1. Capture it in a trusted system or collection tool - "If it's on your mind, your mind isn't clear."

  2. Clarify exactly what your commitment is and decide what you have to do

  3. Keep reminders of them organized in a system you review regularly

Thinking in a concentrated manner to define desired outcomes and requisite next actions is something few people feel they have to do (until they have to). But in truth, it is the most effective means available for making wishes a reality.

The Process: Managing Action

You can train yourself to be better at this and dealing with your limited resources. But you need to get everything out of your head, it's a terrible system to keep anything there.

At least a portion of your mind is really kind of stupid, in an interesting way. If it had any innate intelligence and logic, it would remind you of the things you needed to do only when you could do something about them.

Chapter 2 - Getting Control of your Life: The Five Steps of Mastering Workflow

We (1) capture what has our attention; (2) clarify what each item means and what to do about it; (3) organize the results, which presents the options we (4) reflect on, which we then choose to (5) engage with.

This is not arbitrary, it's what we all do. An example is cooking dinner. First, you identify all the stuff that doesn't belong where it is (capture), determine what to keep and what to chuck (clarify), put things where they need to go (organize), check your recipe book (reflect), and get started cooking (engage).


Things are already being collected for you - email, dresser drawers, etc.

You need an in-tray to collect everything. It can be any version that works for you - physical in-tray, paper-based note-taking, digital/audio note-taking, or email.

Every open loop must be in your capture system and out of your head.

You must have as few capturing buckets as you can get by with.

You must empty them regularly.

The sense of trust that nothing possibly useful will get lost will give you the freedom to have many more good ideas.


Asking yourself what this stuff is all about. The core question is "Is it actionable?"

If no, it is either trash, saved in an incubation, or stored in reference

If yes, does it take two minutes to complete? If yes, do it. If no, delegate or defer it.


Project - any desired result that can be completed in less than a year and requires more than one action step. Examples: Publish book, plant garden, take August holiday, etc.

Split actionable items into Next Actions list or Waiting For list

Next Action lists are at the heart of daily action management. These can skyrocket in total.

Incubation tools are either the Someday/Maybe list or the tickler system

Someday/Maybe is a parking lot for future projects. It helps to make a reminder to review these regularly. Or they could include time-specific projects, like books to read or movies to see.

Tickler system is a parking lot for projects some designated time in the future. Essentially, it is mailing yourself a reminder in the future.


Your life is more complex than any single system can describe or coordinate, but the GTD methodology creates a coherent model for place-holding key elements, which still require attention, being kept current, and being reviewed in a coordinated way. After checking your calendar for the hard structure of the day, you can move on to reflect on the Next Action list for wherever you are.

The Weekly Review is a critical success factor. All of your Projects, Next Action lists, Waiting For lists, and even Someday/Maybe lists should be reviewed weekly.

Weekly review is the time to:

* gather and process all your stuff

* review your system

* update your lists

* get clean, clear, current and complete

Because this is a review of everything you've included in the system, it should feel complete. Most people don't have a complete, trusted system capturing and clarifying everything, so a weekly review still has holes.


How do you decide what to do from all these mega lists?

1. The four Criteria Model for Choosing Actions in the Moment - context, time available, energy available, priority.

2. The threefold model for identifying daily work - predetermined work, work as it comes, and defining your work

3. Six-level model for reviewing your own work

1. Horizon 5: Purpose and principles

2. Horizon 4: Visions

3. Horizon 3: Goals

4. horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountabilities

5. Horizon 1: Current projects

6. Ground: Current actions

Chapter 3 - Getting Projects Creatively Under Way: The Five Phases of Project Planning

Enhancing Vertical Focus

Horizontal focus is clearly defined outcomes and steps to move toward closure, as well as reminders placed in a trusted system to be reviewed regularly.

Vertical focus is greater focus and rigor to get a particular project done

The Natural Planning Model - you're already doing this with whatever you accomplish, down to getting dressed and going out to eat:

  • Defining purpose and principles

  • Outcome visioning

  • Brainstorming

  • Organizing

  • Identifying next actions

Example: Going out to eat requires the intention of going out (purpose) and the standards of restaurant you like (principles). Imagining the options available to you (outcome visioning) is followed by questions about how to accomplish this vision (brainstorming), such as "Is there gas in the car?" or "Are they open?". You then organize those thoughts and take the next action - go get food.

The Unnatural Planning Model - when you go out of order, like asking if anyone has any ideas to share in a meeting before the purpose of the meeting is determined. Some good might come out of it but not as much if you went naturally.

Natural Planning Techniques: The Five Phases

* Purpose - Ask "why?" Duh. It defines success as an outcome, motivates, aligns resources, expands options, and creates decision-making criteria

* Principles - standards and values you hold, often subconscious but they're there

Vision/Outcome - You need a clear picture in your mind of what success will look, sound, and feel like.

See: May 1957 issue of Scientific American outlining the Reticular Activating System - keeps you asleep when music is playing, but wakes you if a little baby cries in another room. It is the focus you have for when someone says your name in a loud, crowded hall. Or if you're told to focus on the color red and your brain can instantly scan a scene.

"Suffice it to say that something automatic and extraordinary happens in your mind when you create and focus on a clear picture of what you want.

Clarifying and re-clarifying is important because we often make an outcome without any real way of knowing it can exist.

* Brainstorm - "The best way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas" said Linus Pauling

* Mind-mapping - core idea in the middle of a piece of paper and branch out components to their basics

* Don't judge, challenge, evaluate, or criticize

* Go for quantity, not quality

* Put analysis and organization in the background

Organize - identify significant pieces and sort them by the correct parts, then go into detail

Next actions

Part 2 -Practicing Stress-Free Productivity

Chapter 4 - Getting Started: Setting Up the Time, Space and Tools

"...let me assure you that much of the value people get from this material is good tricks [...] Tricks are for the not-so-smart, not-so-conscious part of us. To a great degree, the highest-performing people I know are those who have installed the best tricks in their lives. I know that's true of me."

Example: Put It In Front of the Door - If you don't want to forget something when heading out to work, put it in front of the door to remind you.

Setting Aside Time

Allen recommends two full days to set aside and implement this system. You can do whatever.

Setting Up the Space

The basics of the workspace are just a writing surface and room for an in-tray, and probably (for most people_ s[ace for core digital tools as well.

A functional workspace is critical. If you don't already have a dedicated workspace and in-tray, get them now.

Getting the Tools You'll Need

Allen outlines all the possible supplies and materials you might need. Keep them together - pens, post-its, paper, etc.

Chapter 5 - Capturing: Corralling Your "Stuff"

The first step to getting a "mind like water" is collecting everything in one spot - your in-tray. Why? It's helpful to have a sense of volume. It shows you the "light at the end of the tunnel". Also, when going through other steps in the workflow, you don't want to be thinking you missed something elsewhere in your life. It delivers enhanced focus and control.

Be careful to not shift into clarifying and purging mode while collecting. These are two distinct actions and you should stick to one (capturing) before the others. No need to context switch just yet.

Walk around all your life spaces to get ideas of things that need to get done. Examine furniture, filing systems, etc.

Chapter 6 - Clarifying: Getting "In" to Empty

Once everything is collected, the mission is to get to the bottom of "in".

Start with the basic rules:

  • Process the top item first.

  • Process one item at a time.

  • Never put anything back into "in".

Most people get to their in-tray or their email and look for the most urgent, most fun, or most interesting stuff to deal with first. [...] But that's not processing your in-tray; it's emergency scanning. [...] Many people live in this emergency-scanning mode, always distracted by what's coming into "in," and not feeling comfortable if they're not constantly skimming the contents on their computer or mobile devices.

The Key Processing Question: "What's the Next Action?"

If it requires no action, trash it, incubate it, or store it as reference material.

Incubation can be handled by adding it to the Someday/Maybe list or placing it on the calendar. They're trusted reminders to check up on the item but not keep it in "in".

If it requires an action, you need to clearly define the next physical step. The task of cleaning the garage could really mean the next action step is getting a quote from a cleaning service.

Once you decide the next action, you can do one of three things:

  • Do it - if it can be done in two minutes, do it. It is the efficiency cut-off.

  • Delegate it - if it wont' be done in two minutes, ask "Am I the best person for the job?" If not, hand it off.

  • Defer it - If it will take longer than two minutes and you need to do it, defer it to the Pending pile to be organized later.

Chapter 7 - Organizing: Setting Up the Right Buckets

Being organized means nothing more or less than where something is matches what it means to you.

The Basic Categories - it is important to keep these hard edges distinct:

  • A Projects list

  • Project support material

  • Calendar actions and information

  • Next Actions list

  • A Waiting For list

  • Reference material

  • A Someday/Maybe list

Organizing Action Reminders

Actions can be organized by the calendar or by doing them ASAP. Keep the calendar sacred and make lists to group Pending tasks together by how they can get done, i.e At Computer or Errands lists. This choice helps you focus on the context. Some others include At Office/Home, Anywhere, Read/Review, and Calls.

Organize the "Waiting For" list so that you can check it as often as you need to, such as when you need to light a fire under someone's ass to get you some information or decision.

Make sure you're not dispersing your reminders for action. You want to be able to trust the system, not go searching to find it.

Organizing Project Reminders

The Projects list is not meant to hold action steps, you can't do a project. But keeping them in eyesight will help organize. You want to ensure you're moving forward with actions toward the project.

A project is more than one action needed to achieve a desired result, so making a Projects list helps alleviate subtle tension, focus your weekly review, and facilitate relationship management.

You could always sub-sort projects by personal versus professional, or maybe by delegation.

Organizing Non-actionable Data

Reference material is a personal judgement call for the information you need to keep handy for your next actions. You decide how best to file and organize your reference material, so it's not in the same buckets as your next actions or lists.

The Someday/Maybe list is non-actionable, at least for now. Big dreams included, like learn Spanish or travel to Tokyo. Or recipes to make, books to read, movies to see. Review it as regularly as need be to make sure it is or is not time to take action.

Chapter 8 - Reflecting: Keeping it all Fresh and Functional

What to Look at, when

Calendar first - provides the hard landscape of what's required and scheduled for the day or coming days

Then Action lists - depending on where you are, or how you organize your Pending lists, get to work

If you're like me and most other people, no matter how good your intentions may be, you're going to have the world come at you faster than you can keep up." This is what makes the Weekly Review invaluable. "The Weekly Review is whatever you need to do to get your head empty again and get oriented for the next couple of weeks. It's going through the steps of workflow management - capturing, clarifying, organizing, and reviewing all your outstanding commitments, intentions, and inclinations - until you can honestly, say, "I absolutely know right now everything I'm not doing but could be doing if I decided to."

Chapter 9 - Engaging: Making the best action choices

“When it comes to your real-time, plow-through, get-it-done workday, how do you decide what to do at any given point? As I've said, my simple answer is, trust your heart. Or your spirit. Or, if you're allergic to those kinds of words, try these: your gut, the seat of your pants, your liver, your intuition - whatever works for you as a reference point that has you tep back and access whatever you consider the source of your inner wisdom.”

The Four-Criteria Model for Choosing Actions in the Moment

  • Context - Where are you? What tools and access do you have?

  • Time available

  • Energy available - Allen recommends keeping a low-energy list

  • Priority

The Threefold Model for Evaluating Daily Work

  • Doing predefined work

  • Doing work as it shows up

  • Defining your work

The Six-Level Model for Reviewing Your Own Work

  • Horizon 5: Life

  • Horizon 4: Long-term visions

  • Horizon 3: One- to two-year goals

  • Horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountability - current job responsibilities, what hats do you wear?

  • Horizon 1: Current projects - Finalize your Projects list

Ground: Current actions - make sure your action lists are complete

Work from the bottom up.

Digital Minimalism

The key to thriving in our high-tech world, [digital minimalists] learned, is to spend much less time using technology.


A Lopsided Arms Race

Facebook began as a novelty and the iPhone began as an iPod to make calls. We didn't sign up for what came next.

Techno-apologists miss the target by pointing out the feel-good utility of new tech. The problem is not the lack of value, but the loss of autonomy/control. 

"Social media is a slot machine", according to Tristan Harris, ex-Google engineer, current director and co-founder of The Center for Humane Technology

Adam Alter began studying social media after an addictive run playing a game non-stop on a cross-country flight. Alter's 2017 book Irresistible shows two reasons why social media is so addictive:

  • Intermediate positive reinforcement - what a Facebook engineer called "bright dings of pseudo-pleasure", much more pleasurable to the brain than consistent, expected positivity

  • Drive for social approval - The "Like" button fundamentally changed Facebook to the point that Leah Pearlman, FB product manager for the tool, now employs someone else to use it in her new business

Increasingly, they dictate how we behave and how we feel, and somehow coerce us to use them more than we think is healthy, often at the expense of other activities we find more valuable. What’s making us uncomfortable, in other words, is this feeling of losing control - a feeling that instantiates itself in a dozen different ways each day, such as when we tune out with our phone during our child’s bath time, or lose our ability to enjoy a nice moment without a frantic urge to document it for a virtual audience.

Digital Minimalism

Articles about detox or small, temporary changes miss the point. We need a strong strategy and philosophy to fight back.

Digital Minimalism - A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.

  • cost-benefit analysis

  • work backwards from values vs. maximalism, add any potential value

  • As argued, our current unease with new technologies is not really about whether or not they're useful. It's instead about autonomy. We signed up for these services and bought these devices for minor reasons - to look up friends' relationship statuses or eliminate the need to carry a separate iPod and phone - and then found ourselves, years later, increasingly dominated by their influence, allowing them to control more and more of how we spend our time, how we feel, and how we behave.

Some anecdotal experiments:

  • Tyler started using his newfound free time to start volunteering, reading, exercising 

  • Adam traded for a flip phone to be a better role model to his kids

  • Charles was a Twitter addict turned reader of curated online magazines


  • Clutter is costly - overall negative cost swamps small benefits

  • Optimization is important

  • Intentionality is satisfying

Argument #1: Thoreau’s New Economics

  • the forgotten portion of Walden where he was recording every cent he needed to survive and support his life in the woods. 

  • We now focus on benefit without considering the life offered to get it

Argument #2: The Return Curve - consider the economic law of diminishing returns, instead of sporadically reading from sites every day or you could organize through Instapaper and then batch read once per week

Argument #3: The Lessons of the Amish hacker - they are “demonstrations of a different form of modernity”. They don’t reject all new technology; they only accept what they believe will strengthen their community and values. For them, "intention trumps convenience."

Thoreau was able to satisfy all of his basic needs quite comfortably with the equivalent of one day of work per week. What these farmers are actually gaining from all the life they sacrifice is slightly nicer stuff: venetian blinds, a better quality copper pot, perhaps a fancy wagon for traveling back and forth to town efficiently.

When analyzed through Thoreau’s new economics, this exchange can come across as ill conceived. Who could justify trading a lifetime of stress and backbreaking labor for better blinds?

The Digital Declutter 

Newport prescribes a 30 day break from all optional tech. During this time, explore satisfying activities, and re-introduce optional tech by determining and evaluating your true values

  1. Define your tech rules - what’s optional for you? Tech is considered optional unless it temporarily removes harm from your life, don’t confuse convenient with critical. Keep your work email because you need it, cut out your own email.

  2. Take a 30 day break. Discomfort fades fast, spend your free time considering what’s important 

  3. Re-introduce tech. Only setting a detox is a mistake. Ask yourself, does this tech directly support something I deeply value? Have a way to constrain operating procedure - when and how will I use this tech?


Spend time alone

Newport visits Armed Forces Retirement Home in DC, where Lincoln often went for solitude. Why? During his presidency, Lincoln had no silence in the White House. Everyone was grabbing for him, asking for favors or jobs.

Kethledge and Erwin wrote the 2017 Lead Yourself First and they define solitude as your mind free from input from other minds. We are deprived of this solitude today.

Our obsession with connection is overestimated.

Walden was about the balance of solitude and connection.

Practice: Leave your phone at home
Practice: Take long walks
Practice: Write letters to yourself / journal

Writing in the 1980s, Anthony Storr complained that “contemporary Western culture makes the peace of solitude difficult to attain.” He pointed to Muzak and the recent invention of the “car telephone” as the latest evidence of this encroachment of noise into all parts of our lives.

Don’t Click "Like"

Opens with rock paper scissor championship and the social cues and psychological tricks involved in the game's strategy

1997 Washington University published papers that observed brain activity and found the default network. They eventually realized we are built to turn the default network on during any free time, we default to think about our place in the social environment.

Loss of social connection can feel the same as physical pain

The more you’re on social media, the less time you’re off-line, which is harmful to well-being. If off-line is better why don’t we do it? Because online it’s easier and quick

Connection is low-bandwidth interactions that define online social lives vs. Conversation which is richer high-bandwidth communication that defines real world encounters between humans

You can’t converse with everyone. You will lose some people.

Practice: Don’t click "Like" - replace it with conversations
Practice: Hold conversation office hours - make yourself available for calls or daily walks
Practice: Consolidate texting - do not disturb, use text like emails (check sporadically)

To replace this rich flow with a single bit is the ultimate insult to our social processing machinery.

Reclaim Leisure 

Newport outlines the financially independent (FI) community

Pete Adeney, or Mr. Money Mustache, does not own a TV or Netflix, works on projects outside

Liz, of the Frugalwoods website, moved to homestead, works collecting wood on our land

These two have virtues of the strenuous life or "virtuous hobbies".

Arnold Bennett, author How to Live in 24 Hours a Day, prescribed strained effort versus light leisure - our time and effort doesn’t tire like a muscle

Bennett principle - get value from effort

Leisure lesson #1 - Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption
"craft" - activity where you apply skill, use your hands versus your screen 

Leisure lesson #2 - Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world, super-charged socializing interaction with higher intensity levels than polite, common society, like CrossFit or boardgames

Leisure lesson #3 -  Seek activities that require real-world structured social interactions

Practice: Fix or build something every week
Practice: Schedule your low-quality leisure
Practice: Join something

How much time would you really need to spend in the typical week to keep up with your list of important Facebook activities? For most people, the answer is surprisingly small; somewhere around twenty to thirty minutes.

Join the Attention Resistance

In 1830, newspaper publisher Benjamin Day launched New York Sun and effectively fought for attention with mass interest stories, sparked tabloid wars. Fast forward to Google and Facebook juggernauts.

They are trying to be fundamental technologies, they want you to think of their service as binary but you can redefine "use" 

Practice: Delete social media from your phone 
Practice: Turn your devices into single-purpose computers, Freedom app
Practice: Use social media like a professional, do not use for entertainment, log on sporadically
Practice: Embrace slow media, requires full concentration
Practice: Dumb down your smart phone, use it for running then put it away, or investigate the Light Phone