Getting Things Done – A Book Review

In Book Reviews, Management by James4 Comments

One of the primary reasons I started this website was accountability. If I declared to myself and the people in my life that “I Want to Farm” and dedicated a website to keeping track of my process and nothing happened then it would become very clear that it wasn’t the right choice and the people in my life who cared about me could have some evidence to point to as well. It’s now been over a year and a half since I began the journey, so what does the evidence say? It’s all recorded here for the most part minus some farming experiences I did not write posts about. The evidence shows I’ve written 34 articles that were either book reviews or posts about farming experiences. To get specific 23 of those posts were book reviews. The others were about my farming experiences in Korea and a five-week internship in Australia where I learned about Holistic Planned Grazing – I made and published a 20 minute video about that experience and am working on video number two now and will publish it in the coming weeks. When I looked back on all of this I felt pretty good initially. However after coming off my Australia trip and publishing the video my productivity started to stagnate. I knew there was an endless amount of things to do and new projects to start but I wasn’t starting or finishing any of them. The momentum had nearly come to a halt. I felt restless but I could not act. Then something happened. Getting Things Done happened. My good friend Gabe who I should note was the original inspiration behind this website mentioned the book to me. I had come across it a few years back, listened to a bit of the audio version and decided my life was not that complicated, and not understanding the principles of the book put it out of my mind – or at least I thought I did. Gabe was excited about the book, he told me he had read it and was implementing it into his life and suggested I look into it. I was familiar with it enough to know many people valued it – people I valued – and considering the non-productivity funk I was now in I decided to go for it and read it giving it the chance it deserved and hopefully getting me out of my current productivity paralysis. So I did. After completing the second close read of the book yesterday and having begun implementing the Getting Things Done methodology into my life for the past month I can say with out a shred of doubt not only was this exactly what I needed, but it’s exactly what most people need. It is a complete game changer. It is the ultimate organization and productivity manual. Yes, I said manual. But it’s not just a how-to manual, it’s the principles and philosophy behind the methodology that gives it life and transforms it from a functional book to an inspirational book. I’ll try my best in this review to give the nuts and bolts overview, and hopefully a little inspiration.

What’s in the Book?  

The book is 260 pages and segmented into three sections:

Part 1: The Art of Getting Things Done

                 Chapter 1 – A New Practice for a New Reality

                Chapter 2 – Getting Control of Your Life: The 5 Stages of Mastering Workflow

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

Part 2: Practicing Stress-Free Productivity 

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

                Chapter 5 – Collection: Corralling Your “Stuff”

                Chapter 6 – Processing: Getting “In” to Empty

                Chapter 7 – Organizing: Setting Up the Right Buckets

                Chapter 8 – Reviewing: Keeping Your System Functional

                Chapter 9 – Doing: Making the Best Action Choices

                Chapter 10 – Getting Projects Under Control

Part 3: The Power of the Key Principles 

                Chapter 11 – The Power of the Collection Habit

               Chapter 12 – The Power of the Next-Action Decision

               Chapter 13 – The Power of Outcome Focusing


The Genius of the Book: Part One 

What sold me on Getting Things Done was the main idea behind the system. Or what the system is designed to manage. From the book: “The short-term-memory part of your mind-the part that tends to hold all of the incomplete, undecided, and unorganized “stuff” – functions much like RAM on a personal computer. Your conscious mind, like the computer screen, is a focusing tool, not a storage place. And as with RAM, there’s limited capacity; there’s only so much “stuff” you can store in there and still have that part of your brain function at a high level. Most people walk around with their RAM bursting at the seams. They’re constantly distracted, their focus disturbed by their own internal mental overload… The big problem is that your mind keeps reminding you of things when you can’t do anything about them. It has no sense of past or future. That means that as soon as you tell yourself that you need to do something, and store it in your RAM, there’s a part of you that thinks you should be doing that something all the time. Everything you’ve told yourself you ought to do, it thinks you should be doing right now. Frankly, as soon as you have two things to do stored in your RAM, you’ve generated personal failure, because you can’t do them both at the same time. This produces an all-pervasive stress factor whose source can’t be pin-pointed.” 

Nietzsche said give a man the why and he can bear almost any how. David Allen has given us the “why.” The “why” to our stress and our lack of productivity. Consciously processing what this means was a game changer for me. I knew I had stuff to do and wanted to do but it was all in my head filling up my mental RAM. None of it or very little was getting appropriately processed and the effect was stagnation and paralysis. This was why I was in my funk. David Allen defines “stuff” as: “anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step.” So it’s not only your mental world that clogs the pipes but your physical as well.

The Genius of this Book: Part Two – or Why this Methodology Works Compared to Everything Else 

Mind Like Water: Close the Open Loops 

Having identified why we are not productive which of course the book goes into with greater scope than I will the second thing this book does so well is give a method for productivity that does something all the other organization books and methodologies don’t. David Allen points out: “the reason most organizing systems haven’t worked for most people is that they haven’t yet transformed all the “stuff” they’re trying to organize. As long as it’s still “stuff,” it’s not controllable.”

 Most people who consider themselves to be organized and productive will tell you they use a calendar and various lists. They certainly are better than most if they’re doing this but they are far from being optimal. Making lists and using your calendar is not enough because until you decide on a specific next action and then file it into its appropriate place it’s going to function as an incomplete and it will continue to spin in your mental RAM – perhaps not as fast, but it will be there. The goal is to get everything off your mind so you can open up the door for more creativity, less stress, more productivity, and live in the optimal mental state.

There are 3 primary reasons why things are on your mind:

          1. You haven’t clarified exactly what the intended outcome is 

          2. You haven’t decided what the very next physical action step is

          3. You haven’t put reminders of the outcome and the action required in a system you trust  

The GTD methodology addresses all three of these with a simple system. It’s 5 steps:

          1. Capture: Collect what has your attention.

          2. Clarify: Process what it means.

          3. Organize: Put it where it belongs.

          4. Reflect: Review frequently.

          5. Engage: Simply do.  

Click on the Picture Below to see the  Flow Chart of the GTD System in Practice:


The first habit you’re going to have to get used to is capturing any ideas, wants, or needs and writing them down. Remember the idea is to keep your mental RAM empty so it can give you all the cool stuff it’s capable of giving you when it’s running optimally. So whenever you think of an idea or something you want or may want to do some day or anything that is worth coming back to WRITE IT DOWN and put it into your in-basket (physical and/or digital). This takes only a few seconds and saves you much more time in the long run. Once it’s in your in-basket you’re done – for now. You don’t need to process everything immediately, in fact you should not – it’s something I had to resist when I first implemented the system –  the main thing is just to capture it and put it into a trusted place you know you’re going to get to soon. That’s step one. Step two is processing your in-basket. I do this at least once a day and if I’m not too busy I’ll do it multiple times throughout the day. Processing only takes a few seconds longer than capturing. Processing is looking at the item and asking yourself “Is this actionable?” which is asking – can you do any physical next action with it? If the answer is “No” then you can either throw it away if you’ve decided you’re done with the thought, or you can file it away in a “someday/maybe” file if it’s something you might want to do in the future – Learn to fly a small plane was on my “someday/maybe” list – or you’ll put it in your reference files if it’s something you want to save – like instruction manuals, articles, important documents, etc. If the item in your in-basket is an actionable item then you have two options. If you can do it in two minutes or less then do it now. For instance if the note says “Hang Picture” and you know you can hang the picture in under two minutes then get up and go do it. If the item will take longer than two minutes to complete and will take more than one physical action to complete it becomes a project which you will either delegate (if it’s for somebody else to complete) or file it into your projects folder. If it’s something that needs to be done on a specific date and time you will also add it to your calendar (The Calendar should only be used for time specific actions – not for lists or things you would like to get done on certain dates).

What is the Next Action? 

Identifying the next physical action for everything in your project folder or list is paramount for productivity. In the book David Allen talks about the origins of this question which is the backbone of the entire system. He says the idea came from a longtime friend and management consulting mentor of his, Dean Acheson. He writes: “Dean had spent many prior years consulting with executives and researching what was required to free the psychic logjams of many of them about projects and situations they were involved in. One day he just started picking up each individual piece of paper on an executive’s desk and forcing him to decide what the very next thing was that he had to do to move it forward. The results were so immediate and so profound for the executive that Dean continued for years to perfect a methodology using that same question to process the in-basket…It never fails to greatly improve both the productivity and the peace of mind of the user to determine what the next physical action is that will move something forward.” 

In addition to your Project Folder you should keep a Next Actions Folder or list. Remember this is the next physical action required. For example if your coffee maker stops working and you want to either fix it or replace it what would you write on your Next Action list? “Coffee Maker” is not an action, it could be the title for the note, but the next physical action would likely be “go online and search for “coffee repairs” and or search for replacements.” It may seem like a small and unnecessary step to write that down but remember if you don’t write that down then it becomes an open loop in your mind because when you write down “Coffee Maker” your mind asks you what that means, you subconsciously answer it, and it’s added to your mental RAM without you even being aware and starts spinning. WRITE IT DOWN, keep your RAM empty, and when it’s time to act on “Coffee Maker” you’re going to be able to DO what you need to do without any extra mental effort in the moment, which is often the thing that keeps people from beginning at all.

The Tools: What Will You Need To Get Things Done?  

To start getting things done you’re not going to need very much. You’re going to need a physical and a digital system. The physical system consists of: 3 paper holding trays, a stack of plain letter-sized paper, a pen/pencil, Post-its, Paper clips, A stapler and staples, Scotch tape, Rubber bands, An automatic labeler, File folders, and a calendar. That’s it. As for the digital system there are a lot of options out there, and after researching for a couple of weeks I decided on a program called Evernote. It’s highly recommended and has a perfect design for the GTD system – I believe it was designed with the GTD system in mind. It’s a free program you can download  for your computer and it has an app for your phone or smart device. The app easily syncs to your computer so you can stay current at home and on the run. I’ve been using Evernote for the past few weeks and I can’t imagine being without it – well I can imagine it, I just don’t want to go back to that place now that I know what this is like. I’ve fully integrated the GTD system with Evernote and it’s my go to system for 90% of what I do, however you still must have your physical system setup for hard documents and other physical objects.

You can download Evernote for free from their website here: Evernote

Once you’ve read Getting Things Done and want to integrate it with Evernote watch this to see how to do it. This is how I do it and it works beautifully: How to integrate GTD with Evernote

Final Thoughts 

A while back I made a commitment to try to keep my book reviews and articles to around 1,000 words. This one is going to push 3,000. Without a doubt out of all the books I’ve read about farming and all the experiences I’ve had with farming this book and the knowledge gained is equally if not more valuable than those other things. I’ve only been fully operating with the GTD system for a little over two weeks now and every day I feel its effects more and more. The effects are incremental. It takes time to read the book and start implementing the system, but even after the initial first step which is to empty your mind – get all the “stuff” in your mind out onto paper – I felt a sense of relief. Try it: Grab some paper and a pen and write down everything you need to do, want to do, or wish you could do. This will take some time and when you’re done you’ll probably have a few pages full, and you’ll probably keep thinking of more stuff as you free up mental space, but once you’ve completed this exercise you will feel a sense of calm and you’ll have completed the first step to getting closer to mind like water and getting things done. I’ve noticed significant change in my stress levels – basically I feel more calm and in control, and I’ve been much more productive. My apartment has undergone a transformation: One of the first things you’ll do is purge – clean and organize your physical environment – sorry hoarders. My projects and Next Actions list continue to grow every day but I don’t feel anxiety because everything goes in a specific place and I know I’m not going to forget about it because I will revisit it with my weekly review or more often if I want to. The biggest thing I’ve noticed is developing trust in the system is what brings it to life. The more you dedicate yourself to the methodology the more you trust it and the more you can relax and let your brain do the awesome work its capable of doing. This is a system for everyone – not just wannabe farmers. The principles apply to everyone no matter how simple or complex their lives. You don’t have to run your own business or be an executive at a fortune 500 company for this to be applicable to you. If you know what you want in life or are searching for what you want this system will help you no matter how big or small your dreams are. What I’m saying is it’s scalable. We all have things we want to do but are not getting any closer towards accomplishing. The source of our guilt and negative feelings is not because we have too much to do or because we are failures in some abstract sense of the word. Negative feelings come from breaking agreements you’ve made with yourself. If you tell yourself you’re going to lose weight and you don’t lose weight, then you feel terrible. Right? Well you don’t feel terrible because you didn’t lose the weight, you feel bad because you broke an agreement you made to yourself. This point was illustrated in the book and was a profound moment for myself when I realized what this means. It’s the same feeling you get when somebody breaks a promise they’ve made to you. Well it also happens when you break a promise to yourself. If you do everything possible to meet the agreements you make to yourself, 99% of the time you’re going to succeed. To avoid negative feelings you have three options: 1. Don’t make the agreement. 2. Complete the agreement 3. Renegotiate the agreement. The GTD system is a way to not only be highly organized and productive, but it’s a way to stay honest with yourself. Those of us who are lucky will have people in our lives to hold us accountable.  It’s been said and I believe it’s true, that you can only go as far in realizing your dreams as the people you allow in your life want you to. If you have big dreams and there are people in your life who don’t want you to achieve your dream you will not. I’m thankful to have people like Gabe in my life who hold me accountable and ask me what actions I have taken lately to realize my dreams. If you have people in your life like that hold onto them like gold they’re hard to come by. But even if you’re surrounded by great people, you’re still going to need a way to hold yourself accountable, get organized, and be productive – the Getting Things Done methodology will surely fill that hole. It’s time to stop telling people with dreams “good luck” and start asking them “what’s the next action?” That’s what people who want you to succeed do. What’s your next action for realizing your dreams?

Buy the book via Amazon by clicking HERE (It’s an affiliate link so I get a little kickback if you buy. Thanks!)


Author David Allen giving his Ted Talk 


  1. Gabe

    Besides the fact that I got a mention… awesome review. Next time I’m recommending GTD to someone, I’ll send them here first to get a grip on what GTD entails.

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