David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”: Is It Relevant to Freelancers?


Getting Things Done for FreelancersI first read “Getting Things Done” (GTD) by David Allen in 2007. Back then, I was working full-time in UNICEF, juggling my work responsibilities with a family.

Although I didn’t implement GTD completely, it did allow me to unclutter my entire work area (not just my desk). It allowed me to tame my overflowing email inbox. It allowed me to leave my files neatly organized for my successor.

GTD was written for corporate executives and office workers. Is it relevant and useful to freelancers as well?

If it’s any indication, I still find myself using some of the strategies I learned from GTD. When I’m in the middle of something and an idea or to-do pops into my head, I immediately write it down in my Moleskine notebook. I still file my reference materials the way I learned to do it from GTD. And when I’m overwhelmed, I sit down and ask myself, “What’s the next step?”

Because freelancers’ productivity has a direct correlation with their income, it’s essential for us to constantly find tools and systems that can help us get more quality work done, in less time, and with less stress. There’s plenty we can learn from “Getting Things Done” to help us achieve all that.

Some Take-Aways for Freelancers

  • Self-management is key

David Allen asserts that we cannot manage our time, the amount of information we’re exposed to, or the priorities we have. We can only manage our actions: what we do with our time, how we handle information, and what actions we take towards our priorities.
By accepting this, we can reduce the pressure we often put on ourselves. As I’ve said in the past, “time management” is a misnomer, because no matter what we do, we only have 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Nobody else, no matter how rich or powerful or influential, gets any more or less than this.

What we can manage is ourselves. We can control our level of health and energy, so we’re at the peak of productivity when we do work. We can control whether we allow the telephone to distract us from our work. And we can control what we do, when.

  • You don’t have to be stressed out

According to Allen, stress comes from all the open loops that keep nagging at our minds. Open loops are anything unfinished or unresolves in our lives, whether relating to work or our personal lives. For example, let’s say you’re trying to get some writing done. And then you remember you have to send some documents to your bookkeeper that week. You have two open loops in your mind: the writing and the documents. Most of us would brush off one item, put it at the back of your mind, and tell ourselves mentally, “I’ll do that later.” However, that open loop is still there. Because our minds can attend to only one thing at a time, having all these open loops makes us stressed out.

Allen’s solution is to capture all our open loops in a working container. Containers can be physical, such as a box for all your snail mail or a notebook for all your ideas. It can also be digital, such as a computer or your smart phone.  In the example above, we could easily write “Send documents to bookkeeper” in our calendar, and that open loop would no longer occupy our minds. We would be free to continue writing without distraction.

  • Get rid of “stuff” by processing them

Another useful takeaway from “Getting Things Done” is Allen’s workflow for processing stuff (whatever is in your collection tools). His workflow is based on asking a series of questions about everything:

1. What is it?

2. Is it actionable?

3. What’s the next action?

Let’s try out this process with the things I have lying on my desk right now.

What is it?

A notebook with notes from conferences, meetings with business partners, etc.

Is it actionable?


If no, Allen says you either throw it, put it in a tickler file, or file it away as a reference for later. I decide to file the notebook for future reference where it will be easy for me to retrieve.

What’s the next step?

If an item is actionable, the next question to ask is whether the next action will take less than 2 minutes to do. If it does, then do it now.

If it will take more than 2 minutes, either delegate it or defer it.

By following this process, I’ve cleared away one stack of documents that have been cluttering my desk for weeks.

The Bottom Line

“Getting Things Done” has many useful, practical and effective strategies for increasing your productivity, even if you’re a home-based freelancer.

However, it is not the end-all and be-all of productivity. For me, it lacks guidance on how to set priorities. After I have captured all my next steps for various projects, how do I decide which one item to do next?

It also isn’t for everyone. As in my case, I’ve adopted some of the strategies in GTD, and they’ve become a habit. But others just didn’t stick with me. It’s a matter of personal style and preference.

If you’re looking for a way to increase your productivity, get more organized, and reduce your stress, definitely check out “Getting Things Done.” It has helped so many other people, and it just might work for you. Keep an open mind and give it a fair try.

What Do You Think?

Have you tried GTD before? If so, what did you find most helpful? And which ones were difficult for you to implement? Post a comment below and share your thoughts.