Getting Things Done

I recently read “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” after hearing Merlin Mann speak about Inbox Zero at a corporate event. The philosophy presented by David Allen in his GTD book has transformed my work process.

The basis of The Art of Stress-Free Productivity is the notion that there are 5 categories of things that we do:

  1. Collect
  2. Process
  3. Organize
  4. Do
  5. Review

I’d like to explain these in my own words. The instructions I give below are not the author’s words, but rather inspired by. I suggest that you read this article, read David Allen’s Getting Things Done book, then make changes to your own system. I must admit, before I read this book, I thought I had a pretty good system for workplace efficiency. I was reluctant to read it, but after a few recommendations from co-workers, and finally hearing Merlin Mann refer to it, I had to give it a shot. I got a lot out of it. After reading it, last weekend, I immediately made significant changes to my working system. I’ve only had the changes in place for one week, so hard to say this is perfect. But, read on to see how much I got out of it so fast!

The biggest thing I got out of the book was the categorization of actions into the 5 categories. Now I am conscious of which of the 5 I am doing at all times. Before reading the book, it all blended together in my mind.

Here’s my interpretation of the 5 things:


This is your INBOX, and you have many. Phone calls, face to face, meetings, email, instant messaging programs, snail mail, and maybe more. You should identify your collection methods, and simplify them. You want as few as you can get away with. When collecting, make sure you collect everything into one place, so you can process the entire stack in one sitting.


This is the act of going through your INBOXes and getting the information into your system. David Allen suggests a physical file cabinet(s), a calendar, and various lists. I am using Microsoft OneNote, instead of a physical file cabinet. I also use OneNote to create my action list. I use a web-based calendar system that I like a lot. When I process my INBOX, for each item I look at, if it can be done in 2 minutes or less, I do it. If it will take longer, I file the information into OneNote, and update my action list. I have a OneNote section for every project I have. I keep the sections in alphabetical order. When I say project, I mean anything that requires me to take action. Could be anything from updating W-2 forms to hand into HR, to forming an IPv6 taskforce, to designing a new product. I think of what the next actions are that I need to take for the project, and add/update that on my action list. If the next action item must occur at a specific date/time, such as a meeting, I put that into my calendar. If I just logged something for the far off future, a tickler, something I want to think about in a month or two, I put that in my calendar also, so I get the reminder to look. I have an Archive OneNote notebook that I move my projects into after they’re closed/completed.


After I’ve processed my INBOXes, they are empty. Now its time to organize. Think of all of your projects on a horizontal line. As you go from left to right across the line, each of your projects exist. Scanning the horizontal line is scanning your list of projects. Remember, projects are anything that require something from you, not just what you traditionally think of as projects. Vertical thinking is stopping at a project and thinking about it, going through the items within the project, and thinking through your action plan for the project. I put the very next action I need to take on my action list. If the next item is attend a meeting, I list it like this, “W/F: meeting on 6/2”, and I put the meeting in my calendar. W/F is my shorthand for “Waiting For”. Think of organizing as zooming in on a project, thinking about it for a few minutes, or hours depending on the complexity, updating the action plan for that project, then zooming out, moving to the next project, zoom in, think, update, zoom out, shift to the next project, etc. When you’re done, you should have a nice, broad, 50,000 foot level view of your work load, and nice action list that contains a list of your projects with the next action item for each. It’s important that the action list contain a list of all your projects, with only 1 action item for each, the next action. Now you can look at this action list and decide what you want to do. This is so much better than a traditional TODO list. Have you ever tried to make an electronic todo list work, such as the one in Microsoft Outlook? I have, it doesn’t work. The Organize process, resulting in an action list, that I just described does work, for me.


You should review the whole system once a week. Make a calendar meeting with yourself, its important that you do this. You should frequently review your system and make adjustments, as necessary. Your system will never be perfect. Rather than waiting months or a year to review and adjust, do this once a week. You’ll benefit greatly from this.


This is the act of doing the work in your projects. All the stuff above is all about maximizing your efficiency in the Do stage. By mastering the other 4, you can achieve Mind Like Water, in the Do stage. This is what athletes call “The Zone”. You are able to clear your mind of everything else, and perform in a relaxed, stress free, productive zone.

The key element of the system you develop for yourself is trust. By trusting your system, you can put things out of your mind, once they’re in your system. When you are in the Do stage, you are sure that you’ve processed all of your INBOX, you’ve organized, and picked the thing that you think you should be doing at that moment. This gives you peace of mind.

The author of the book uses the term Mind Like Water several times. The term is derived from a stone thrown into a calm body of water. What does it do? The water displaces perfectly for the mass of the stone, then returns to calm. Throw a larger stone, the water displaces more violently, but again, the perfect amount for the size of the stone, then returns to calm. Another analogy is a swing. When you pump in a swing, you use gravity on the down swing. You put in just the right amount of force, then relax and let gravity do the rest. If you try to pump too hard, it doesn’t work. The perfect motion produces the maximum effect. Martial artists use this philosophy to block a punch, or to counter an attack. We should use this philosophy to react to our work requests. By doing this, you achieve Mind Like Water, meaning you’re calm and collected. As things are thrown at you, you react by trusting your system; collect, process, organize, do.

Anyway, this is the basis of the book. Have you read it? What did you get from it?

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