Getting Things Done (David Allen)

From apppm
Jump to: navigation, search

Developed by Federica Menti

This article aims to critically present the time management method Getting the Things Done, analyzing its application on projects management and overall limitations and benefits.

Getting Things Done (GTD) is a time management method for personal productivity improvement that aims to minimize stress while maximizing productivity. GTD was first presented, in 2001, in the bestseller book “Getting Things Done” [1] by the coach and management consultant David Allen.

After giving an introduction on GTD method for personal productivity, the article will discuss its application in the field of Project Management. The paper will then conclude commenting on the benefits, the limitations and the critique surrounding the method.



To make the article content clear for all readers, some definitions will be presented hereinafter:

What are time management and time management tools?

Claessens et al. [2] refer to time management as "behaviours that aim at achieving an effective use of time while performing certain goal-directed activities". This definition points out that the use of time is not an aim in itself but it focuses on some goal-directed activity, which are carried out in a way that implies an effective usage of time. Time management behaviours comprise: time assessment behaviours, whose purpose is the awareness of past, present, future and the self-awareness of one’s time use; planning behaviours which aim at an effective use of time; monitoring behaviours which focus on observing one’s use of time while performing activities.

A time management tool is a method that aims to perform the three behaviours in the best way in order to maximize the individual’s performance. The last two decades have seen an explosion of methods for “time management”, “task management”, or “personal productivity enhancement” that try to teach efficient routines for dealing with information overload, tasks to be carried out and limited amount of time. [3]

What is a project?

According to Project Management Institute (PMI) standards in the PMBOK® Guide [4], a project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. Projects are undertaken to fulfil objectives by producing tangible or intangible deliverables. Objectives are outcome toward which work is to be directed, a strategic position to be attained, a purpose to be achieved, a result to be obtained, a product to be produced, or a service to be performed. Deliverables are any unique and verifiable product, result, or capability to perform a service that is required to be produced to complete a process, phase, or project.

Getting Things Done for managing individual productivity

Getting Things Done (GTD) is a time management method which goal is enhancing personal productivity while reducing the stress caused by information overload. Allen refers to the concept “mind like water”: the stress-free mental state that a person should reach when his/her task management system is well organized.[1]

The method is based on the acknowledgement that life has become increasingly complex and the challenge of juggling tasks from personal life, work and social duties is causing a lot of stress on individuals. The central idea of the methodology is capturing and gathering all the items that can potentially distract the method’s user in an external memory (file system) in order to help the user to focus on the present task and to work more productively. The material recorded in the file system will then be divided into smaller work items and analysed.

To successfully capture all the diverting elements, GTD provides a combination of tips and tools (i.e. calendars, to-do lists, note-taking devices). Most of these tools and tips are of common use, but what GTD adds is a method to use them systematically together. The general gist is illustrated in Figure 1, which summarizes the process of collecting and organizing incoming information into a set of action categories. It can be noticed that the focus is on doing the actions that best match the affordances and constraints of the present situation first, rather than the actions with the highest priority.[2]

Figure 1: GTD process to collect information (Inspired by [5])

Getting Things Done consists in five steps to be followed by the users:

  1. Capture: the user collects what has his/her attention using in-basket, notepad or voice recorder.
  2. Clarify: analyze the material collected in the previous step and assess whether an item is actionable, meaning that it requires the user to perform an action. If an element is not actionable, the method involves three possibilities: eliminate the item; incubate it for possible later implementation or reference it, which means that the element can be stored to be consulted in the future.
  3. Organize: create lists/categories to gather similar items and put action reminders to each of them.
  4. Reflect: review the lists frequently to update and clean them. There are two time-horizons of reviewing: a Daily review, which addresses the Calendar and Next Actions list, and the Weekly Review, that is a more in-depth review of all the actionable files. The reviewing phase is crucial to remind what still needs to be done and preserve the feeling of control and goal-directedness.
  5. Engage: Use the system to take actions.

Three models are proposed to decide which action to perform. The first is the “Four-criteria Model for Choosing Actions in the Moment”, which advises to choose the next action to execute by considering the following factors in order: Context, Time available, Energy available, Priority. (The model will be deeper explained in 3.5.1 The four-criteria model for choosing actions). The second model, "The Threefold Model for Evaluating Daily Work” proposes three different approaches to deal with work:

  • Do work as it shows up, which means the tasks are accomplished as they appear;
  • Do predefined work, which implies performing the task by following a to-do list formerly created;
  • Define your work, which suggests that before performing any tasks it should be identify what needs to be prioritize and accomplished urgently.

The third model, “Six-Level Model for Reviewing your own Work” helps to clarify the individual’s goals and values for different terms and time-spans to ensure the work performed is actually meaningful.

Getting Things Done applied to Project Management: The Five Phases of Project Planning

Even if it was originally born as a time management tool for personal productivity, GTD methodology, as affirmed by the author himself, can also be applied to Project Planning. David Allen dedicated an entire chapter (Chapter 3 – Getting Projects Creatively Underway: The Five Phases of Project Planning [1])on the topic, focusing on the challenge of transforming a large project into specific actionable tasks.

The Five Steps of Natural Planning Technique (autonomously created)

It basically breaks down to five pieces: figuring out the purpose of the project, determining what it is wanted the outcome of the project to be, brainstorming how to get there, organizing the material from the brainstorming into some sort of plan, then pulling out specific action items from that plan. [6] This subdivision is built on the Natural Planning Technique: the idea of “thinking in an informal way”, following the natural structure of how human brain plans and thinks. Even if this should be the innate way to manage a project, in most of the cases it is not the approach people follow when they consciously try to get a project under control. The main advantage of this basic model is that it allows to constantly maintain maximal levels of productivity and monitoring with minimal effort. It is simple to understand and easy to implement. The five steps that mirror the brain approach are the following ones:

  1. Defining purpose and principles
  2. Outcome visioning
  3. Brainstorming
  4. Organizing
  5. Identifying next actions

They will be discussed below.

Defining purpose and principles

The purpose provides the juice and the direction, while principles define the parameters of action and the criteria for excellence of behavior [1]. Outlining the purpose of the project is important since it is the prime directive for clarity, creative development and cooperation. As a matter of fact, having a precise scope helps to align resources, to motivate and to reach successful performance. Answering the fundamental question “Why?” is the way to define the reasons behind the project, and so to formulate good purpose statements. It is extremely important that the statement of the purposes is clear, precise and not vague. Setting principles creates the boundaries of the plan, and their violation results in unproductivity, distraction and stress. Most of the time the principles are established unconsciously, however, is a good practice to explicitly point them out. A good way to do it is by completing the following sentence: “I would give others totally free rein to do this as long as they. . .- what?"; examples can be: “As long as they stayed within rules and budget" or "As long as they satisfy the client".

Outcome visioning

To visualize an outcome is about imagining and picturing how the future desired result of the project can look like. The question to answer in order to do it is: “What will this project look like when it's done?”. An outcome can consist of simple statements or of a complete depicted future scene of the project. Creating an outcome means to constantly define (and redefine) the result that is trying to be accomplished, and to consistently reallocate resources toward getting these tasks completed as effectively and efficiently as possible.


Brainstorming is a general data gathering and creativity technique that can be used to identify risks, ideas or solutions to issues by using a group of team members or subject-matter experts [4]. The ideas brainstorming is part of the natural creative process that happens to find a way to reach the desired results defined in the previous phases. Brainstorming can be individual or collective, structured by specific techniques or completely free. However, what is most important is that it should be always conducted giving permission to capture and express any ideas, and then later on figuring out how it fits in and what to do with it. If during the brainstorming process it is noticed that sight of the project’s aim has been lost due to fuzzy thinking, it is necessary to go back to previous phases and to make sure the purpose, principles and outcome are clear.


Once collected a sufficient number of ideas, it is necessary to organize them. This means to try to identify components and subcomponents, sequences, events, and/or priorities. It can be useful to utilize structuring tools, such as informal bullet points or more sophisticated project-planning software, to outline the hierarchical structure of components and subcomponents. Also, GANTT-type charts can be beneficial to show project’s stages laid out over time, with independent and dependent parts and milestones identified in relation to the whole.

Identifying next actions

The Four-Criteria Model (autonomously created)

Specifying the next action on projects in any situation is fundamental to maintain a relaxed control. The final stage of planning concerns decisions about the allocation and reallocation of physical resources to allow the real progress and advancement of the project. The question to ask in this phase is: "What's the next action?". A decision must be taken on next actions for each of the project’s parts and on the next action in the planning process. David Allen has individuated a framework that can help in deciding the next actions: The four-criteria model for choosing actions.

The four-criteria model for choosing actions

The four-criteria model for choosing actions states that actions are decided based on four factors: Context, Time available, Energy available, Priority. Only activities that can be done in the physical context should be incorporated in the action list and, therefore, selected among the options. The question needed to be answered to point them out is: “What action could possibly be done, in this place, with the tools available?”. The second factor is time availability: in choosing the next step should be taken into account how much time is available before another pre-planned action or activity starts. This means that choosing a 3 hours long activity is not convenient if only a slot of 30 minutes is usable. Also, human resources’ energy level should be taken into consideration: action should be chosen weighting the mental effort required and the vitality level of the personnel. If the staff is in low-energy states, easy and not demanding activity should be assigned, in this way the level of productivity stays high. The last fact to consider is priority: after applying the three previous criteria, action should be selected among the remaining options, based on what it is more important and urgent to do. A project is considered sufficiently planned for implementation when every next-action step has been decided on every front that can actually be made proceeded without some other components having to be completed first. If the project has multiple components, each of them should be assessed appropriately by asking, "Is there something that anyone could be doing on this right now?". In case new elements to be planned will emerge, the next step needs to be drafting new ideas and clarifying who is responsible for the next action.


Why GTD is different from the other individual time management approaches

A lot of different methods for time or task management have been developed. However, most of them tend to remain within the optimisation paradigm: they suggest first formulating clear objectives or priorities (optimisation criteria), and then sorting the different tasks according to (a) how much they contribute to the priorities, and (b) how much time, effort or other resources they require. Subsequently, these kinds of methods recommend focusing on the tasks that contribute most to the chosen objectives and necessitates fewer resources. [5]. Differently, Allen’s approach is intended to minimize stress and anxiety while maximizing productivity but in the sense of maximizing the number of useful tasks performed, rather than of maximally achieving a given objective. In addition, unlike others time management methods, Heylighen and Vidal define GTD as an "action management" [5] method since it does not emphasize explicitly defined priorities, milestones or deadlines, such as formalized planning schemes and objectives. GTD’ flexibility takes into account the fast-evolving information society and the fact that priorities and plans constantly need to be reviewed and re-adapted. Applying GTD allows to be ready for any opportunity that arises, but without forgetting earlier commitments.

Once more in contrast with the more traditional management methods, GTD has a bottom-up approach. It starts by addressing the concrete issues people have to deal with, rather than the high-level goals and values. This choice considers the complexity of modern work and life where starting with a top-down approach which immediately focuses on abstract, idealistic goals and, only later, descends to their concrete implementation, will result in a scheme that is either unworkably ambitious or rigidly limited. GTD proposes instead to tackle the concrete issues that presently demand the individual’s attention first and only then start to consider the long-term implications of what it is being done, at progressively abstract levels. [5] Traditional task and time management methods do not deem the quantity of information to which people are exposed in the modern daily life and therefore they do not suggest any reconsideration of priorities, objectives and resources in light of the acquisition of news. On the contrary, Allen’s method changes the focus from establishing priorities to meticulously keeping track of opportunities and commitments for action. When (or even whether) these opportunities are followed up depends more on the constraints of the current situation than on any predetermined plans. [5] Another aspect worth mentioning is GTD’s usage of feedback, which keeps the user motivated. Each time the individual has performed one of the tasks, he/she can mark it off, receiving a satisfactory signal that he/she is moving forward, and being ready to define or perform a subsequent next action.


Getting Things Done is believed to be an effective time management tool, that reduces everything to clear and easy-to-accomplish next actions. This is part of what makes GTD so seductive. It provides a way to organize tasks lists to tackle each day mechanically: mindlessly cranking through next actions, assuring that not only will the little things get done, but also the big important life goals. Allen preaches "task universalism": he implies that down to concrete actions, all work is created equal. However, this is clearly not true. Moreover, creating real value requires deep work, which is a fundamentally different activity than knocking off organizational tasks. Deep work cannot be reduced to clear next actions. It is, instead, a continuous improvement’s philosophy that must be cultivated.[7]

In addition, as all the other time management tools, there is the risk that focusing too much on the methods itself can prevent the user to actually perform the tasks and undermine his/her creativity. The existing literature reveals mixed findings and lack of clarity as to whether, when, how, and why time management leads to critical outcomes such as well-being and job performance. [8]. Pursuing productivity for its own sake is counter-productive. Brad Aeon, from Concordia University in Montreal, and Herman Agurnis, from George Washington University [9] claim that this self-imposed pressure is the reason why many people get frustrated with time-management tools. Part of the problem is simply that thinking about time encourages clockwatching, which has been repeatedly shown in studies to undermine the quality of work. [10] This is connected to a broader risk that all self-improvement techniques can lead to: the desperate seeking of self-enhancement to reach the perfection. In their recent book, the two business school professors, Cederström and Spicer committed [11] to the exploration of current life-hacking wisdom in areas ranging from athletic and intellectual prowess to spirituality, creativity, wealth, and pleasure.At the end of the project, Spicer reflects that he has spent the year focusing on himself to the exclusion of everything, and everyone, else in his life. The desire to achieve and to demonstrate perfection is not simply stressful; it can also be fatal. The British journalist Will Storr [12] connects the prevalence of suicide in the United States and Britain with the failing to meet the sky-high expectations the victims set for ourselves.[13] Finally, despite the many testimonials that GTD works in practice and the fact that it has been published almost 20 years ago, no many academic papers have yet investigated this method and no studies exist proving that it increases productivity or decreases stress. Moreover, Allen's book is not referring to any research that can back up the central idea and it is nearly devoid of research citations or other source material. Most of its assertions begin with the phrase "In my experience ..." . However, Allen affirm that whoever asks such questions miss the point entirely. "Anybody who experiences this and still needs proof didn't get it." he says. [14]

Reflection on of the application of GTD to Project Management

GTD was originally created as a method to improve individual performances. Allen affirms that it can easily be applied to Project Management, however it must be admitted that it presents some limitation in this field.

The first element that needs to be taken into account is the essential difference between managing an individual and managing a group. In groups dynamic a lot of factors and disturbing elements come into the play, such as poor communication, hostile behaviour, etc [15]. For this reason, since it is addressing problems that are proper of the individuals, Getting Things Done might not be the right tool if working with a group of people, like it is common in the case of project management. GTD is a way of enhancing the productivity of individuals, but it is also intended to make individual work more dependable, by reducing the risk that commitments are neglected. In this sense, some authors [5] argue that it supports collaborative work: if all people in an organization also become more reliable in performing the tasks they have committed to, the organization as a whole will function much more efficiently, and profit from increased trust, synergy and social capital, while simultaneously being less vulnerable to confusion, friction and conflict.

Another aspect worth to be commented on is the structure of the method itself. As already mentioned, GTD is considered an ‘action management’ method, since it does not emphasize explicitly defined priorities, milestones or deadlines [5]. Even if this can be an important positive point in some daily-life contexts, it is not in Project Management where Project Managers and their teams need to deliver results within precise deadlines. Especially for large-scale and well-defined projects - such as building a factory or organizing a big event, the method seems to be too loose and not applicable at all.


As already commented, Getting Thing Done is a method that help people to improve their self-management skills while decreasing their levels of stress. GTD’s promise of making work stress-free can be justified on two grounds. First, the method minimizes the burden on memory and reasoning by systematically exploiting external memories, which (Allen argues) reduces the anxiety caused by not being sure of remembering everything that needs to be reminded. Second, the consistent application of GTD should promote a clear sense of purpose; regular feedback as to-dos are “checked off”; on-going advance towards goals; and challenges (tasks) adapted to skills (personal abilities) and environmental circumstances. This way of working is characterized by a sense of control, focus and well-being of users that is in contrast with the confusion, anxiety and procrastination that normally accompany the situation of information overload. Getting Things Done convey a sense of confidence in the individual’s skills and ability. Indeed, its philosophy empowers that users commit to a certain action on the basis of personal criteria, such as context, time, energy and priority, rather than because it is imposed on them. [5] Of course, GTD cannot guarantee the absence of work-related stress, but its systematic application could help to reduce significantly the anxiety and confusion caused by the increasing amount of information that daily bombards people in the modern society. Moreover, its flexible and opportunistic approach is intrinsically better prepared to maximize productivity.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, Penguin, 2001,
  2. 2.0 2.1 Brigitte J.C. Claessens, Wendelien van Eerde, Christel G. Rutte, Robert A. Roe, ‘’A review of the time management literature’’, Personnel Review, 2007, Vol. 36 Issue: 2, pp.255-276, https://
  3. e.g. Stephen Covey, A. Roger Merrill and Rebecca R. Merrill, ‘’First things first’’, Simon & Schuster, 1994
  4. 4.0 4.1 Project Management Institute, Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), 6th Edition, 2017
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 Francis Heylighen, Clément Vidal, Getting Things Done: The Science behind Stress-Free Productivity, Long Range Planning, Volume 41, Issue 6, 2008, Pages 585-605,
  6. Trent Hamm, Review: Getting Things Done, The Simple Dollar, 2006,
  7. Cal Newport, Getting (Unremarkable) Things Done: The Problem With David Allen’s Universalism, 2012,
  8. Brad Aeon and Herman Aguinis, It’s About Time: New Perspectives and Insights on Time Management, Academy of Management Perspectives, 2017, Vol. 31, No. 4,
  9. José Luis Peñarredonda, Why time management so often fails, BCC, 2018,]
  10. Oliver Burkeman, Why time management is ruining our lives, The Guardian, 2016,
  11. Cederstrom, C. and Spicer, A. Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement, OR Books, 2017
  12. Will Storr, Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us, Picador, 2018
  13. Alexandra Schwartz, Improving ourselves to death, The Newyorker, 2018,
  14. Paul Keegan, The master of getting things done, Business 2.0,2007,Vol.8Issue6,p72-78
  15. Gareth R. Jones, Jennifer M. George, Essentials of Contemporary Management, Chapter 11- Effective Team Management, McGraw-Hill, Seventh Edition, 2017

Annotated Bibliography

David Allen, Getting Things Done - The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, First Edition, 2001

The book presents and explains in the details the time management method Getting Things Done, which main idea is to collect all the diverting elements, break the task in small actionable activities and planned further steps for each of them.

Francis Heylighen and Clément Vidal, Getting Things Done: The Science Behind Stress-Free Productivity, Long Range Planning, 2008, Volume 41, Issue 6,

After effectively summarizing Getting Things Done method by David Allen, this paper argues that recent insights in psychology and cognitive science support and extend Allen's recommendations.

Paul Keegan, The Master of Getting Things Done, Business 2.0, 2007, Vol.8 Issue6, p72-78

The article profiles David Allen, the purveyor of the Getting Things Done (GTD) step-by-step program that will allow people to gain control of their busy lives while being freed from stress. His one-day public seminars regularly sell out and he is moving into podcasts, DVD and CD sets, and e-mail newsletters. Allen has successfully applied his GTD principles on his own life.

Project Management Institute, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), Sixth Edition, 2017

Chapter 4 - The chapter, Project Integration Management, includes the processes and activities to identify, define, combine, unify, and coordinate the various processes and project management activities within the Project Management Process Groups.

Reading suggestions to related wiki articles

Project Management Body of Knowledge [1]

Personal tools