Getting Things Done – how to stress less

Getting Things Done – how to stress less

The book and method ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen is about efficiency without stress. It is immensely popular at the moment. I would like to pay some attention to it, for this approach is different from most others. The methodology suits well with my position that habits, triggers and chaining are the key to (long lasting) change.

David Allen has two main goals.

  1. All things that need to be done need to fit into a logical and reliable system. Preferably an external system (no mental note) to leave stress outside of your head.
  2. All new input needs to fit easily into this system. Also the system should be able to tell us what (if any) follow-up action is needed.

The idea behind these two main goals is that you should (re)act more efficient to those things that happen to you. You should react just enough (not too much or too little). Stress arises when you cannot keep a promise. With the Getting Things Done system you learn to avoid this. (Look here for research into making the best out of stress.)

Managing your intentions

The main message of the book is: Do not use your brain to remember all things you intend to do. Remembering everything (or trying to) will cloud your thought. Use an external system to keep track of what needs to be done.

To act efficiently, it is often better to think (long and hard!) before you act. Knowledge work is most of the time not about clearly defined goals; it is often about vague expectations. This can, and often will, lead to stress. To reduce stress, translate those vague expectations into clear goals. This will give productivity a boost and reduce stress. Once you decide what you want to do, make a reminder for yourself to help stick to your intention.

Sticky thoughts

Sometimes thoughts and problems just seem to get stuck in your head. We all know these annoying phenomena.

Things get stuck in your head for three reasons.

  1. You do not know what steps you should take next.
  2. You do not know what result you want.
  3. You are afraid that you will not remember the steps you have to take and the results you want to get.

Thinking about something you should do without doing it is a waste of energy. Of course, you cannot do everything immediately. But to get things out of your head, you can either do it immediately or create a reminder outside of your head.

Our brains have a limited supply of short term memory. Everything we need to remember and do not write down will be using valuable brain capacity. . The more we try to remember, the less capacity is left for other – say creative – thoughts. The more we organize outside our heads, the more energy and space is left for creative processes.

Don’t start with the bigger picture

Getting Things Done suggests a completely different approach than Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits.

Getting Things Done suggests that our main focus should be on all daily activity we have. The idea behind this is that a mind without stress will automatically find energy and creativity for higher goals.

Daily activities will be on our mind anyhow, we simply cannot do without them. That means we better pay attention to them and organize them really well. Less stress, more peace of mind.

The path to illumination: be a collector

How do you organize everything you want to do? You’ll have to be a collector.

Collect everything you think you want to do, change, or finish. And I mean everything. Whatever you need to do, it has to fit into your collector-system no matter if it is work related or private, urgent or not, big or small.

The trick to getting things done (and out of your head) is to collect everything by using a small number of methods. Think about an inbox for mail, systems for notes (both paper and electronic notes), e-mail and (voice) recorders.

How to be a good collector

  • Use a small amount of systems to collect your to do’s
  • Empty your systems regularly

The systems are meant to keep your mind clear. That means it is wise to use at least one system that is small enough to take it with you easily.

Collect….and get rid of it

Processing, organizing, reviewing and doing will help you get through the things you collected. I will get to examples, guidelines and more details the next time. For now, I want to share this workflow diagram that I find very helpful.

workflow diagram

This workflow diagram is from anabubula, but it can no longer be found there.

Looking for more info? Check Getting Things Done, or Lifehacker if you like some practical examples.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/



Innovation and Research Officer at Sugar Habits
Judith studied behavioral change (applied social psychology) and is currently finishing her masters in philosophy with special attention for philosophy of action and intentionality. She works for SugarHabits a social media platform that helps people unlock more of their potential through learning new habits.

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One Response to “Getting Things Done – how to stress less”

  1. Nathan Tax says:

    Such an inspirational blog for everyone with a busy life!

    I already have some kind of system mentioned in this post, but I’m struggling to keep track of the reliability of my system. I find I now experience less anxiety of forgetting (breaking a promise), but more anxiety of my system possibly not being perfect… which can have, again, the result of breaking promises.

    I would love to read some of your thoughts on how to test a given system in one of your next posts!