📚 Book Notes: Getting Things Done - The Art of Stress-free Productivity

Swapnil Agarwal
7 min readJan 1, 2020


Here are my notes from Getting Things Done - The Art of Stress-free Productivity:

  1. In the old days, work was self-evident. Fields were to be plowed, machines tooled, boxes packed, cows milked, crates moved. You knew what work had to be done — you could see it. It was clear when the work was finished, or not finished. Increasing your productivity was all about making the work process more efficient, or simply working harder or longer.
    Now, for many of us, there are no edges to most of our projects. Most people I know have at least half a dozen things they’re trying to achieve or situations they’d like to improve right now, and even if they had the rest of their lives to try, they wouldn’t be able to finish these to perfection. You’re probably faced with the same dilemma. How good could that conference be? How effective could the training program be, or the structure of your executives’ compensation package? How well could you manage your kids’ education? How close to perfect is the blog you’re writing? How motivating is the staff meeting you’re setting up? How healthy could you be? How functional is your department’s reorganization? And a last question: How much available data could be relevant to doing those projects “better”? The answer is: an infinite amount, easily accessible, or at least potentially so, through the Internet.
  2. In training and coaching many thousands of people, I have found that lack of time is not the major issue for them (though they may think it is); the real problem is a lack of clarity and definition about what a project really is, and what associated next-action steps are required. Clarifying things on the front end, when they first appear on the radar, rather than on the back end, after trouble has developed, allows people to reap the benefits of managing action.
    Getting things done requires two basic components: defining (1) what “done” means (outcome) and (2) what “doing” looks like (action). And these are far from self-evident for most people about most things that have their attention.
  3. There is no reason to ever have the same thought twice, unless you like having that thought.
  4. We (1) capture what has our attention; (2) clarify what each item means and what to do about it; (3) organize the results, which presents the options we (4) reflect on, which we then choose to (5) engage with. This constitutes the management of the horizontal aspect of our lives, incorporating everything that we need to consider at any time, as we move forward moment to moment.
  5. People have a constant nagging sense that they’re not working on what they should be, that they “don’t have time” for potentially critical activities, and that they’re missing out on the timeless sense of meaningful doing that is the essence of stress-free productivity.
  6. Teaching them the item-by-item thinking required to get their collection containers empty is perhaps the most critical improvement I have made for virtually all the people I’ve worked with.
  7. It does not take much strength to do things, but it requires a great deal of strength to decide what to do.
  8. The key ingredients of relaxed control are (1) clearly defined outcomes (projects) and the next actions required to move them toward closure, and (2) reminders placed in a trusted system that is reviewed regularly.
  9. More to Plan? What if there’s still more planning to be done before you can feel comfortable with what’s next? There’s still an action step — it is just a process action. What’s the next step in the continuation of planning? Drafting more ideas. E-mailing Ana Maria and Sean to get their input. Telling your assistant to set up a planning meeting with the product team.
    The habit of clarifying the next action on projects, no matter what the situation, is fundamental to you staying in relaxed control.
  10. What many want to do, however, based on perhaps old habits of writing daily to-do lists, is put actions on the calendar that they think they’d really like to get done next Monday, say, but that actually might not, and that might then have to be moved to following days. Resist this impulse. You need to trust your calendar as sacred territory, reflecting the exact hard edges of your day’s commitments, which should be noticeable at a glance while you’re on the run. That’ll be much easier if the only things in there are those that you absolutely have to get done, or know about, on that day. When the calendar is relegated to its proper role in organizing, the majority of the actions that you need to do are left in the category of “as soon as possible, against all the other things I have to do.”
  11. Life is full of weird little windows when it could be used.
  12. In order to hang out with friends or take a long, aimless walk and truly have nothing on your mind, you’ve got to know where all your actionable items are located, what they are, and that they will wait. And you need to be able to do that in a few seconds, not days.
  13. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.
  14. The purpose of this whole method of workflow management is not to let your brain become lax, but rather to enable it to be free to experience more elegant, productive, and creative activity. In order to earn that freedom, however, your brain must engage on some consistent basis with all your commitments and activities. You must be assured that you’re doing what you need to be doing, and that it’s OK to be not doing what you’re not doing. That facilitates the condition of being present, which is always the optimal state from which to operate. Reviewing your system on a regular basis, reflecting on the contents, and keeping it current and functional are prerequisites for that kind of clarity and stability.
  15. The ultimate point and challenge of all this personal capturing, clarifying, organizing, and reflecting methodology: It’s 9:22 a.m. Wednesday morning — what do you do?
  16. Make your action choices based on the following four criteria, in order:
    A) Context
    B) Time available
    C) Energy available
    D) Priority
  17. During the course of the workday, at any point in time, you’ll be engaged in one of three types of activities:
    A) Doing predefined work
    B) Doing work as it shows up
    C) Defining your work
  18. Another reason people consider unexpected demands or requests negative is because they don’t trust their own system and behaviors to be able to put a “bookmark” on any resulting action that needs to be taken, or on the work they’re doing at the moment. They know they need do something about the new work that just showed up, but they don’t trust that a simple note in their own in-tray will ensure it is handled with proper timing. So they stop their previous work and immediately go do what was just requested or required of them, complaining about the interruption that just disturbed their life. There are no interruptions, really — there are simply mismanaged occurrences.
  19. The six levels of work may be thought of in terms of altitude, as in the floors of a building:
    Horizon 5: Life
    Horizon 4: Long-term visions
    Horizon 3: One-to two-year goals
    Horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountability
    Horizon 1: Current projects
    Ground: Current actions
  20. Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win.
  21. You need to set up systems and tricks that get you to think about your projects and situations more frequently, more easily, and more in depth.
  22. One of the greatest blocks to organizational (and family) productivity is the lack of decision by someone about the need for a meeting, and with whom, to move something forward.
  23. Where do the not-so-good feelings come from? Too much to do? No, there’s always too much to do. If you felt bad simply because there was more to do than you could do, you’d never get rid of that feeling. Having too much to do is not the source of the negative feeling. It comes from a different place.
    How have you felt when someone broke an agreement with you, told you they would meet you Thursday at four p.m. and never showed or called? How did that feel? Frustrating, I imagine. The price people pay when they break an agreement in the world is the disintegration of trust in the relationship — an automatic negative consequence.
    But what are all those things in your in-tray? Agreements you’ve made or at least implicitly accepted with yourself — things you somehow have told yourself you should deal with in some way. Your negative feelings are simply the result of breaking those agreements — they’re the symptoms of disintegrated self-trust. If you tell yourself to draft a strategic plan, when you don’t do it, you feel bad. Tell yourself to get organized, and if you fail to, welcome to guilt and frustration. Resolve to spend more time with your kids and then don’t — voila! anxious and overwhelmed.
  24. Is there too much complaining in your culture? The next time someone moans about something, try asking, “So what’s the next action?” People will complain only about something that they assume could be better than it currently is. The action question forces the issue. If it can be changed, there’s some action that will change it. If it can’t, it must be considered part of the landscape to be incorporated in strategy and tactics. Complaining is a sign that someone isn’t willing to risk moving on a changeable situation, or won’t consider the immutable circumstance in his or her plans. This is a temporary and hollow form of self-validation.
  25. As cognitive scientists have validated, your mind is terrible at recalling things out of the blue, but it is fantastic at doing creative thinking about what it has directly in front of it to evaluate.

If you liked the above content, I’d definitely recommend reading the whole book. 💯

A little email digest to share what I’m reading, listening to, and find interesting. 💌



Swapnil Agarwal

Software Developer at Day | Aspiring Writer at Night