Getting Things Done – The Art of Efficiency

There are countless books and articles written, talks given and podcasts aired on best practices to ensure that we are operating at peak efficiency in order to not only satisfy, but delight our customers. We know how important it is for any business or organization to be customer-focused, by listening to the customer and delivering what they want, when they want it, with high efficiency and reliability. We also know what goes on behind the scenes in order to achieve this!

If you or a team you manage have come to the point where you need to stop stressing and start achieving your goals – whether business or personal – or you’re looking for ways to refine and streamline a productivity system you already have in place, we highly recommend best-selling author and world-acclaimed speaker David Allen’s Getting Things Done. This can help you create a simple, effective personal productivity system. For more information about his work, check out  David Allen’s website.

Here are the main ideas from Getting Things Done,  also known as “GTD”.

Getting Your Daily Life Under Control

When you’re feeling overwhelmed about how much you have to do, it’s difficult to focus on making sure your life and work is moving in the direction you want to go. It’s crucial to get control of your daily tasks before working on your larger project planning.

GTD has a “bottom-up” approach to productivity. The goal is to establish a sense of comfort and control over the work that’s on your plate right now, so you can free up your mental energy and space to address the bigger projects.

Define What “Getting Done” Looks Like

A lot of the tasks on our to-do lists are more like “amorphous clouds of undoability” – those piles of commitments without any clear view of what “getting done” looks like.

That’s an almost insurmountable challenge.  



Our brains are naturally designed to help us figure out how to do things, but only if we know what the end goal looks like.

Everything we’re working on should have a very clear end point – a point where we really know that we’re done. If we don’t know what that end point looks like, we’ll have a tough time making any progress at all.  So when you’re having trouble making progress, go back to the drawing board and clarify what getting done looks like.

The Five Phases: Capture, Clarify, Organize, Reflect, and Engage

Capture  – Collect anything and everything that’s grabbing your attention

Clarify – Define actionable things into concrete next steps and successful outcomes

Organize –  Sort information in the most streamlined way, in appropriate categories, based on how and when you need to access it

Reflect – Step back to review and update your system regularly

Engage – Make trusted choices about what to do in any given moment

Keep the phases deliberately separate, and you’ll get a lot more done.

The David Allen Mantra: Get Everything Out of Your Head

Many people try to keep track of everything they need to do in their mind, which is not only not effective, it’s a major cause for stress. Our brains are made for fast decision-making, not storage. We’re using the wrong tool for the job!

“You must use your mind to get things off your mind” – David Allen

The best way to stop mentally thrashing and start being productive is to spend a few minutes putting everything on your mind onto paper or a digital note system. You can write, type or draw – whatever works for you, as long as you can see it and save it when you’re done. Once the information is out of your head, it’s far easier to figure out what to do with it. Even 10 minutes a day of this kind of “mental externalization” can help you feel less overwhelmed about your workload. If you make it easy for yourself to capture ideas, you’ll naturally capture more of them.

Projects vs. Tasks

Projects and tasks are two different things: track them separately. A major mistake that most people make when keeping track of things to do is confusing tasks and projects. That’s a good way to feel overwhelmed fast – as too many things can’t be accomplished in one sitting. A larger project will typically have multiple tasks, or steps. So create those tasks first, with a clear timeline of end-points, and the project will be a lot less overwhelming.

“You don’t actually do a project; you can only do action steps related to it. When enough of the right action steps have been taken, some situation will have been created that matches your initial picture of the outcome closely enough that you can call it “done.” – David Allen

Focus on the Next Action

When it comes to projects, focus on the very next physical action and task you need to do to move the project forward. It may be looking up a piece of information or simply making a phone call. Whatever it is, it’ll move you closer to completing the project, so don’t worry about everything else – focus only on what you can do right now.

Build a Trusted System

Your mind keeps things in working memory if it thinks you’ll lose them if it doesn’t. That’s why building a productivity system is important – it helps your mind let go of tracking unnecessary details so you can focus on the task at hand. That’s why externalization works – when you put something on paper or save it in a digital format, where you know you’ll be able to access it later, you’re freeing mental resources that can be put to better use elsewhere.

An effective productivity system consists of the following:

A list of active tasks – next actions you’ve committed to accomplishing in the next few days.

A list of active projects – 4-20 project you’ve committed to accomplishing in the next few weeks

A calendar – commitments to meet with other people in the near future.

A someday/maybe list – ideas you’d like to explore, but not right now.

Reference files – information or documents you’ll need to refer to in the future.

A capture method – some way of capturing ideas or next actions as you think of them whether on paper or on a device

You can use any number of tools or apps for the above, as long as they cover those basic needs.

Set a Time for a Weekly Review

Life moves fast – we often have so much to do that’s it’s difficult to take a step back and examine whether or not we’re getting the results we want. That’s why it’s extremely important to schedule some time each week to do a “Weekly Review.”

Here are a few items you could include in your weekly review:

Process and organize – anything you’ve noted or collected but haven’t handled yet.

Review your active tasks – are there any to add, delegate, defer, or delete?

Review your active projects – are there any to add, delegate, defer, or delete?

Review your calendar – are there any meetings to add, delegate, defer, or delete?

Someday/Maybe – anything to add or promote to an active project?

Reference Files – anything you need soon? Anything to add or update?

Goals – are you moving in the right direction? Are you making progress? Are any changes necessary?

Don’t skip or postpone this review! This is extremely important if you want to decrease your stress levels. Many of us may find it best to schedule our review at the end of the week: Either Friday afternoon or Saturday morning. It’s a great way to wrap up the week, feel good about what you’ve accomplished, plan for the next week, and free your mind for a relaxing weekend or vacation.

“Most people feel best about their work the week before their vacation, but it’s not because of the vacation itself. What do you do the last week before you leave on a big trip? You clean up, close up, clarify, and renegotiate all your agreements with yourself and others. I just suggest that you do this weekly instead of yearly.” – David Allen

Developing an effective personal productivity system takes time and experimentation. GTD is really just a collection of work habits. These habits take time to develop. Instead of trying to master everything at once, work on improving in one of these areas until it gradually becomes effortless. Then focus on mastering the next habit. With time, you’ll master them all.

The goal of GTD and similar productivity systems is to make it easier to do work that matters. However, be careful not to get caught up in endlessly improving your system instead of actually doing productive work. You will  probably need to tweak and experiment with your system until it works best for your particular goals.  

When David Allen introduced GTD over 20 years ago, we didn’t have access to the wonderful platforms and apps that we have today, to help us navigate and digitize our to-do list. In past articles we’ve recommended Asana or Trello for keeping track of our own and our team members tasks. David Allen recommends them as well,  and has a page on his website dedicated to integrating his systems with these platforms.  It’s important to remember that the most effective systems have the same thing in common: they’re usually the simplest, most “do-able” systems.

In David’s own words: “I’m often identified by my description of a relaxed balance of perspective and control, known as ‘mind like water.’ This is not an empty mind; it’s a mind that is operating at a more productive and creative level. GTD helps you achieve and maintain that optimal condition, by using your mental energies to think about things rather than think of them”

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