Getting Things Done - How to Achieve Stress-Free Productivity

There is one thing we can do, and the happiest people are those who can do it to the limit of their ability. We can be completely present. We can be all here. We can… give all our attention to the opportunity before us. —Mark Van Doren

The highest-performing people are those that have installed the best tricks in their lives.

Clear your mind

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. —Shunryu Suzuki

  1. Keep everything out of your head
  2. Decide actions and outcomes when things first emerge on your radar — handle immediately, discard or create next actions
  3. Regularly review and update the complete inventory of open loops in your life and work

Anxiety is caused by a lack of control, organization, preparation, and action. —David Kekich

Every internal agreement distracts the mind from working clearly. There is no reason ever to have the same thought twice unless you like having that thought. Open loops must be trusted to a collection bucket outside the mind and reviewed regularly to prevent the mind taking it back. Managing actions is the core challenge: commitments must have next actions to progress towards fulfilment.

The Five Stages of Mastering Workflow

Define work and manage the entire inventory instead of processing the infinite stream of evident tasks:

  1. Collect things that command attention
  2. Process what they mean and what to do about them
  3. Organize the results
  4. Create options from the results
  5. Choose an option and act

The Four-Criteria Model for choosing actions in the moment

  1. Context
  2. Time available
  3. Energy available
  4. Priority

The Natural Planning Model

When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. —Will Rogers

A project is sufficiently planned for implementation when each moveable front has a next action. The habit of clarifying the next action on projects, no matter what the situation, is fundamental to staying in relaxed control.

  1. Define purpose and principles
    • It never hurts to ask why
    • To achieve a goal, it must be completely clear
    • Clarify focus “What are we really trying to accomplish here?”
    • “Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behavior.” —Dee Hock
  2. Visualize the outcome
    • You won’t see how to do it until you see yourself doing it
    • The mind needs to imagine a desired outcome to see how to get there
    • Creating clear outcomes is a powerful skill to be honed and developed
  3. Brainstorm
    • Captures original ideas externally
    • Generates many new ideas from the continuous reflection on the thoughts on paper
    • Don’t judge, challenge, evaluate or criticize (quantity not quality)
    • “The best way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas” —Linus Pauling
  4. Organize
    1. Identify significant pieces of the project
    2. Sort by components/sequences/priorities
    3. Detail pieces
  5. Identify next actions

Return to the previous natural planning stage to achieve greater clarity. Go forwards to get things moving (define next actions).


You own workspace is critical. A basic workspace contains:

  • A writing surface
  • Room for an in-basket

Most people have four file drawers for general reference and project support (paper materials). Any topic that requires more than fifty file folders should be given its own section or drawer, with its own alpha-sorted system.

Required materials

  • Automatic labeler (buy your own Brother) for folders, binder spines and much more with black letters on white tape
  • Calendar
  • File folders (manila, color-coding is not worth it) and an equal numbe rof Pendaflex-style file-folder hangers
  • Paper-holding trays (in/out/in progress/read and review)
  • Pen/pencil
  • Plain paper for capturing ad-hoc input (consider one thought per A4)
  • Post-its (3x3s), paper clips, binder clips, stapler for routing and storing paper-based materials
  • Rubber bands
  • Scotch tape
  • Wastebasket/recycle bins

Integrating existing belongings

Put everything into the in-tray or discard it. All existing lists should be treated as items to be processed. Consider whether your collectible and nostalgia items are still meaningful to you. Emails are most efficiently handled with email software or through the provider because of volume.

Write out each thought, each idea, each project or thing that has your attention on a separate sheet of paper. The Incompletion Triggers on Page 118 can unearth lurking items.

If you don’t have at least fifty next actions and waiting-fors, including all the agendas for people and meetings, I would be skeptical about whether you really had all of them.

Processing the in-tray

Processing does not mean spend time on. Follow these rules:

  1. Process the top item first
  2. Process one item at a time
  3. Never put anything back into the in-tray

Items that cannot be handled in the present can be:

  • Added to “Someday/Maybe”
  • Marked in the calendar
  • Put in the tickler file.

Deciding is instant unlike performing actions which takes time. Physical actions like gathering additional information can aid the instant decision making process. It’s okay to decide not to decide—as long as you have a decide-not-to-decide system.

In-tray processing diagram

Track delegated items closely. Record the date when the item was delegated before putting it into pending.


Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning. —Winston Churchill

A project is any outcome you’ve committed to achieving that will take more than one action step to complete. You can’t do a project, you can only do the action steps it requires. Ensure action steps are defined for all projects.

A complete and current project list is the major operational tool for moving from tree-hugging to forest management. You probably have between thirty and a hundred projects. Hold the big projects on the project list and hold the subpieces in the project support material, making sure to include subpieces in the weekly review. Existing projects can be brought into the system with the action step “Organize Project X notes”.

Projects can be activated with a day-specific calendar slot that indicates they should now be inserted into the projects list.

The middle of every successful project looks like a disaster. —Rosabeth Moss Cantor

Ad-hoc project thinking

Ad-hoc project thinking can be captured in:

  • Attached notes
  • Emails and databases
  • Paper-based files
  • Pages in notebooks – mid-sized with the project list at the front and “Project Support” towards the back to capture random thinking

The key is to consistently look for any action steps inherent in your project notes, and review the notes themselves as often as you think is necessary. “Exercise more regularly” really translates for many people into “Set up regular exercise program” (project) and “Call Sally for suggestions about personal trainers” (real action step).

The most critical tools for ensuring that nothing gets lost is your collection system—your in-basket, pad, and paper (or equivalents) at work and at home, and in a portable version (an index card) while you’re out and about. You need to hold all your ideas until you later decide what to do with them. Keep ballpoint pens at the stations where you’re likely to want to take notes (around phones).

Easels and whiteboards are very functional thinking tools. Writing can add clarity to meetings. We don’t need to save creative thinking so much as we do the structures we generate from it.

How do I know what I think, until I hear what I say? —E. M. Forster

Things to track

Important lists:

  • Projects
  • Dated Actions (calendar)
  • Next Actions
  • Waiting For
  • Someday/Maybe

You may need to access any one of your lists at any time. When the boss pops in, it is functional to have the projects list up to date and the agenda list right at hand.

Support materials:

  • Project support material
  • Reference material

Create one folder for any longer-than-two-minute e-mails that you need to act on (@ACTION, @WAITING FOR). BCC the email to yourself to file it into “Waiting For” (or add the label in Gmail). @ACTION is an extension o your “At Computer” list and should be handled in exactly the same fashion.

Keep the “Waiting For” list close at hand, in the same system as the “Next Actions” reminder list. Travel with a “Read/Review” plastic file folder, and another one labeled “Data Entry” (business cards, quotes, articles).

Dated commitments

The calendar shows the hard landscape of time-based commitments around which non-calendar actions must fit. The best way to be reminded of an action off the calendar is by the particular context required for that action (tool/location/person).

Ticker files are 3D versions of calendars that allow you to hold physical reminders of things you want to see or remember. You need forty-three folders 1—31, 1–12. Daily files are kept in front, then the next month, then the days completed from the month, then the rest of the months in the year. The current day is emptied into the in-basket and then the empty folder is placed after the folder for the next month. They are perpetual.

Action lists

  • Agendas (for people and meetings)
  • At Computer
  • At Home
  • At Office
  • Calls
  • Errands
  • Read/Review


Someday/Maybe’s are not throwaway items. They may be some of the most interesting and creative things you’ll ever get involved with. Put conscious awareness on this list consistently.

Create a list. Typical categories:

  • Creative expressions to explore
  • Clothes and accessories to buy
  • Hobbies to take up
  • Organizations to join
  • Things to get or build for your home
  • Toys (gear!) to acquire
  • Trips to take
  • Skills to learn
  • Service projects to contribute to
  • Things to see and do

Reassess current projects and consider moving them to this list.

The fact that you can’t remember an agreement you made with yourself doesn’t mean that you’re not holding yourself liable for it. Put “Clean garage” on a “Someday/Maybe” list to prevent hearing agreements internally.


Making lists ad-hoc is one of the most powerful yet subtlest and simplest procedures that you can install in your life. Create and eliminate permanent and temporary checklists as required.

A complete inventory of everything you hold important may include:

  • Career goals
  • Community
  • Creative expression
  • Family
  • Financial resources
  • Health and energy
  • Relationships
  • Service

Reminders of areas of responsibility may contain points like:

  • Communication
  • Processes
  • Staff issues
  • Team morale
  • Timelines
  • Workload

The more novel the situation at work, the more control required.

You’ll feel better collecting anything that you haven’t collected yet. You want to be adding value as you think about projects and people, not simply reminding yourself they exist. When someone nods “yes, I will” in a conversation but doesn’t write anything down, my “uh-oh” bell rings.


The daily review

In a world of hyperabundant content, point of view will become the scarcest of resources. —Paul Saffo

  1. Look at your calendar and daily tickler first
  2. Action lists for current context

The weekly review

Thinking is the very essence of, and the most difficult thing to do in, business and in life. Empire builders spend hour-after-hour on mental work… while others party. If you’re not consciously aware of putting forth the effort to exert self-guided integrated thinking… then you’re giving in to laziness and no longer control your life. —David Kekich

The weekly review encompasses capturing, reevaluation and reprocessing to regain an empty head without the distraction of everyday work. Go through the phases of workflow management until you can honestly say “I absolutely know right now everything I’m not doing but could be doing if I decided to”:

  1. Collecting
  2. Processing
  3. Organizing
  4. Reviewing outstanding involvements

Your best thoughts about work won’t happen while you’re at work.

Getting work done

We all have times when we think more effectively, and times when we should not be thinking at all. —Daniel Cohen

Ultimately and always you must trust your intuition. Make action choices based on the following four criteria in order:

  1. Context
  2. Time available
  3. Energy available
  4. Priority

There is no reason not to be highly productive, even when you’re not in top form. Always have some easy loops to close, right at hand.

Your life work

There are only two problems in life: (1) you know what you want, and you don’t know how to get it; and/or (2) you don’t: know what you want. —Steven Snyder

  1. Make it up
  2. Make it happen

There are cornerstone questions that we must answer at some point about everything:

  • What does this mean to me?
  • What do I want to have be true about it?
  • What’s the next step required to make that happen?

To ignore the unexpected (even if it were possible) would be to live without opportunity, spontaneity, and the rich moments of which “life” is made. —Stephen Covey

Embrace opportunities but skip actions that clash with your life purpose or values.

Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it. —Buddha

Everything will ultimately be driven by the priorities of the level above it, any formulation of your priorities would obviously most efficiently begin at the top. Trying to manage from the top down, when the bottom-level habits and detail are out of control, may be the least effective approach.

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one. —Mark Twain

Other people

I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened. —Mark Twain

Bright people have the capability of freaking out faster and more dramatically than anyone else. Complaining is a sign that someone will not move on a changeable situation or consider that the situation is immutable.

Most people only act when under fire (from themselves or others) and are starved of a sense of winning, control, or cooperation with the world.

Talk does not cook rice. —Chinese proverb

Defining specific projects and next actions that address real quality-of-life issues is productivity at its best. Every discussion or interaction should cease with a clear determination of whether or not some action is needed, and if it is needed what it should be and who is responsible. “What’s the next action?” automatically increases the energy, productivity, clarity and focus in a culture.

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