Getting Things Done by David Allen: The Power of Mastering the Mundane

Have you ever worked with someone who, in a meeting, fires away genius ideas, perfect solutions, spot-on suggestions, but never seems to do anything? I have. They are those whose eyesight fixed at the horizon kilometers away, too visionary to notice what stands 5 inches from their noses, thus their horizon never becomes a finish-line.

Have you ever spent hours looking for the most professional-looking app or software which promised you that you would never miss a deadline again? One week after, neck-deep in chaos, did you realize that it was a lie? I did. If you did, don’t worry, you are like the rest of the world.


Let’s face the cold fact: calendars, to-do lists, task management software don’t make our lives easier. They can’t. We make our lives easier. And the only way to do it is

  1. to be aware of the reality that we are in
  2. to understand that life doesn’t have to be chaos – even though everybody else seems to live like that
  3. to change our mindsets towards productivity
  4. to practice new ways of getting things done

This is what Getting Things Done by David Allen is all about. In this book he points out a concerning fact: while there is a bizarre number of methodologies to Think Big, there is a complete lack of good methods to Do Small. This is unfortunate because we can think about a company, but we can’t do a company. We can think about a project, but we can’t do a project. The only thing we can do is your actions.

Let’s give an example: My goal is to make Life Written the place that challenges perspectives, expands understanding, and inspires actions in young people. This is something I can think about, not something I can do. What I can do is to glue my buttock to my chair at 8AM to write a good article. If I cannot face the blank page every morning, forget about the horizon.

In short, if we don’t know how to manage our actions, we can never make a difference. Getting Things Done is about managing actions.

Let us be clear that managing actions is wildly different from having a to-do list. (Allen actually encourages throwing daily to-do list in the garbage.) Managing actions is already difficult. Managing actions to the level of stress-free is an art that worth spending a lifetime to master.

The book contains many eye-opening principles and useful practices. Nevertheless, in my opinion, the most important thing to understand – the paradigm shift that need to occur in your head – is  David Allen’s bottom-up philosophy towards productivity.

We all have been told to “worship the goals, think big, focus on values, manage priorities, manage information overload,” etc. Allen brings to the table an entire new perspective.

He tells us that though goals, values, priorities are important, spending too much time on the top won’t get us any where. The secret to stress-free productivity lies somewhere else. Allen argues:

Intellectually, the most appropriate way ought to be to work from the top down, first uncovering personal and corporate missions, then defining critical objectives, and finally focusing on the details of implementation. The trouble is, however, that most people are so embroiled in commitments on a day-to-day level that their ability to focus successfully on the larger horizon is seriously impaired.

Allen had experienced, through decades of coaching business executives, that we must improve our productivity from the bottom: “starting with the most mundane, ground-floor level of current activity and commitments

Why? He asserts that mastering the mundane “will provide the best means of broadening your horizons. A creative, buoyant energy will be unleashed that will better support your focus on new heights, and your confidence will increase to handle what that creativity produces. An immediate sense of freedom, release, and inspiration naturally comes…”


I read Getting Things Done in December 2013 when I could no longer manage my workload in the AIESEC headquarter. This book did not fail me. It helped me then, it still helps me now. David Allen’s bottom-up philosophy – the power of mastering the mundane – is timeless, and the practices suggested stay with me till these days: how I define and clarify actions, use Google calendar, multiple inboxes, manage my system. I’m not an expert but I have been known as someone who doesn’t only think but also do. The article you are reading right now is the proof.

Anything worth learning  in our short precious life is also worth spending a lifetime to master. Managing actions is one of these things.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, those that are too bad at managing actions normally decide not to invest time to be better at it. And so they continue their desperate run on the hamster wheel. Because you’ve already read until here, I believe you are not one of them.

In Getting Things Done, Allen quotes Vaclav Havel:

Vision is not enough; it must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps; we must step up the stairs.

Happy New Year, my reader

May you always step up the stairs.

This article belongs to Top 3 Work-Smart Books. Work Smarter with: 7 Habits by Stephen Covey and How to Read it Right or Essentialism by Greg McKeown and the Disciplined Pursuit of Less