Getting Things Done in Project Management: The Five Phases of Project Planning

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Developed by Federica Menti


Getting Things Done (GTD) is, originally, 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” by the coach and management consultant David Allen.

GTD methodology, as affirmed by the author himself, can also be applied to Project Planning. In this case, the approach follows five steps: Defining purpose and principles, Outcome visioning, Brainstorming, Organizing and Identifying next actions.

After giving a brief introduction regarding GTD methodology for personal productivity, the article will focus on its application in a Project Management context.



The definition of project provided by Project Management Institute (PMI) will be hereinafter presented in order to make the article content clear for all readers.

Definition of a project

According to Project Management Institute (PMI) standards in the PMBOK® Guide [1], a project is a temporary endeavour 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

The central idea of the “Getting Things Done” is capture and gather all that 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 analyzed.

The GTD method consists in five steps to be followed by the users: [2]

  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 it requires the user to perform an action. Erase the items that are not actionable and decide the next action required for the ones that are actionable.
  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.
  5. Engage: Use the system to take actions. Three models are proposed to decide which action to perform.

GTD applied to Project Management: Natural Planning Technique

The Five Steps of Natural Planning Technique

The main idea behind GTD’s approach to Project Management is to “think in an informal way” following the natural structure 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 how people plan 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 control, 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 behaviour. [3] 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, have 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.

Principles create the boundaries of the plan and their violation results in unproductivity, distraction and stress. Most of the time the principles are set 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 to imagine and picture 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 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. [1] 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 always should be 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 relationship to the whole

Identifying next actions

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

The four-criteria model for choosing actions states that actions are decided based on four factors: Context, Time available, Energy available, Priority.

Only actions 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 action should be taken into account how much time is available before another pre-planned action or activity starts. This means that is not convenient choosing a 3 hours long activity 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 considerate 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 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 component's 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.

Possible problems

Issues can be faced during the process; some examples and corrective actions are reported hereinafter. If a lack of clear direction is experienced, it is needed to pull out the actual plan or create one. If at the planning level there is not enough clearness, it is probably necessary to go back to the brainstorming phase to generate a sufficient inventory of ideas to create trust in the plan. If at some point it noticed that the outcome is unclear, then it is essential to return to analyze why the project exists in the first place (purpose).


The method in its simplicity gives the ability to successfully manage projects focusing on driving results, brainstorm, organizing ideas, and selecting action for the next steps. Getting Things Done is a road map to achieve the positive, relaxed focus that characterizes your most productive state. [3]

Some of its elements and basic ideas can be also found in the processes defined by the Project Management Institute. For instance, regarding the Develop Project Charter and the Develop Project Management Plan [1], brainstorming, along with experts’ judgements, interpersonal skills and meeting, is presented as a creation tool. In addition, in the section of the book Guide to Project Management [1] dedicated to Scope Management, the Project Management Institute agrees with Allen on the importance of stating a clear purpose of the project. It affirms that defining a precise project scope helps avoid the challenges that a project might face and implement control mechanisms to address factors that may result in changes during the project lifecycle.

Also AXELOS stresses the importance of understanding and defines the objects of the projects in the Starting Up phase of PRINCE2 method. [4]


Annotated Bibliography

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

Chapter 1 – This chapter, A New Practice for a New Reality, presents the problems related to the job environment of the 21st millennium. E.g. amount of daily information, fast-changing job’s activities, no clear boundaries between work and private life.

Chapter 2 – Getting Control of your life: The Five Phases of Mastering Workflow introduces and describes the five steps method: capture, clarify, organize, reflect, engage.

Chapter 3 – The chapter, Getting Projects Creatively Under Way: The Five Phases of Project Planning, introduce the natural planning technique and its steps.

Note: Also the other chapters of the books were objects of the analysis but the more attention was paid on the first three ones.

Getting Things Done: The Science Behind Stress-Free Productivity, 2008

This paper argues that recent insights in psychology and cognitive science support and extend GTD's recommendations.

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

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.

Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2, AXELOS, Sixth Edition

The book is a guide to PRINCE2, the world’s most practiced method for project management. PRINCE2 counts four elements: principles,themes, processes and project environment.

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Project Management Institute, Inc.. (2017). Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (6th Edition). Project Management Institute, Inc. (PMI). Retrieved from
  3. 3.0 3.1 David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, Penguin, 2001, p66
  4. AXELOS, Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2, 2017 Edition, The Stationery Office Ltd, 2017, Print

Reading suggestions to related wiki articles

Project Management Body of Knowledge [1]

PRINCE2, A Project Management Methodology[2]

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