Cliff Notes for “Getting Things Done”

Doug Quattrochi gave a cliff notes version of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, a productivity system used by thousands of owners and managers to the Worcester group in June 2015.

This is part of the Worcester Rental Real Estate Networking and Training series.

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Doug: All right. Getting Things Done and Making it All Work:” Task Management for Landlords. This is the book. It’s thin. I read this and also Making It All Work. Here’s the idea. Okay, so I’ll just show you the picture of the book. We’ll send out links to these. The cheapest place I found to buy them is on Amazon. Worcester Public Library has a couple of copies. We’ll send a link afterwards if you’re interested in learning more.

Here’s the idea: it is possible to be productive and yet still be enormously stressed, and with technology, that’s becoming a real thing. This is a screenshot of an actual inbox which has 69, 938 unread messages. This is somebody who has accumulated over their life all these emails and they do read them but not all of them. You’re going to wonder what’s in there that they missed. The picture of the inbox there is not as bad, but it’s paper. You get stuff coming at you from all directions.

I’m going to read just a short passage from this book to give you a flavor of the writing. “A paradox has emerged in this new millennium. People have enhanced quality of life, but at the same time, they’re adding to their stress levels by taking on more than they have resources to handle. It’s as though their eyes were bigger than their stomachs, and most people are to some degree frustrated and perplexed about how to improve the situation.”

“A major factor in the mounting stress level is that the actual nature of our jobs has changed much more dramatically and rapidly than have our training for and our ability to deal with work. In just the last half of the twentieth century, what constituted ‘work’ in the industrialized world was transformed from assembly-line make-it and move-it kinds of activity to what we now call ‘knowledge work.’”

“In the old days, work was self-evident. Fields were to be plowed; machines tooled; boxes packed; cows milked; widgets cranked. You knew what work had to be done ‑ you could see it. It was clear when the work was finished or not finished.

“But now for many of us, there are no edges to most of our projects. Most people have at least half a dozen things they’re trying to achieve 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 I make this apartment? How nice could it be? How many quotes should I get this for this job? How many contractors should I interview or how much data should I try to find out on the tenant before I decide to rent to them?

The answer - thanks to technology, the Internet, Google - to the last question is an infinite amount of data. You could Google forever to find more things about somebody on social media, so the question is where do you stop and how do you make sure that you’re not letting technology kind of swamp you and direct you to unproductive channels?

This is the goal, right? You want inbox to be empty, no new mail. How many people have ever seen a no new mail message and got to zero emails in their inboxes? Has anybody ever done that here? I see no hands. No one has ever done it. It’s possible, and then that’s an empty inbox obviously.

All right, there are two primary aspects to this getting-things-done system and this book, which was written about it, is not written to be a book. This is the result of this guy’s lifework coaching managers and helping them to be more productive.

Here’s what he’s figured out. There are two aspects that you need to pay attention to ‑ control and perspective. Where we want to be is what he calls “captain and commander,” so we are in control and we have perspective. We’re working on everything, the right stuff, and we’re completely covering it. If you have a lot of control, you’re replying to emails and text messages and phone calls and you’re on top of all these interruptions, but you aren’t sure you’re working on the right stuff or you feel like you’re not accomplishing enough, then he calls you a “micromanager.” He talks in the book about how to go from that corner up to where you want to be ‑ captain and commander.

Similarly in the other corner, if you are always working on big ideas and really great things, but you don’t reply to emails, you don’t return calls, your inbox looks like that – 69,000 unread messages – you are a “crazy maker” as what he calls you because you’re always out there starting new stuff and pushing the frontier forward. But there are lots of little details, especially about past projects, especially about current projects that aren’t being seen to. That’s not where you want to be because those can come back to bite you.

If you’re unfortunate enough to be in the lower corner there where you aren’t replying adequately to emails and phone calls, and messages, and you aren’t working on the right stuff and you aren’t accomplishing things, he labels you a “victim” in there, in the corner.


He talks for each of these quadrants how to get up to where you want to be, captain and commander, up there.

What does it mean to be in control? It means you never forget anything. He talks about how to not forget to do anything.

Show up for your appointments on time. Most of us are punctual, right? But we know people who aren’t.

This is a big thing for me: eliminate stressful rememberings. How many people have been lying in bed for 15, 20, 30 minutes, and suddenly they wake up and they realize, “I forgot to let the dog out today,” or, “I decided I got to evict that tenant. They’re done.” That is not helpful. Lying in bed and remembering that stuff is not helpful because you’re not going to do anything about it than in there, unless it’s the dog and you really are going to get up and let him out. He talks about how to eliminate stressful rememberings. This is my favorite part of the book and I really recommend you look at it just for that reason alone.

Also to be in control means having important information at hand, so you never are to leave that piece of paper. You can lay your hand on it right away.

And to feel like you’re in charge, to feel like, “Yeah, I’m on top of everything. There’s no unread messages. I reply to all my phone calls. I’m good.”

What does it mean to have perspective? So perspective was the vertical axis. Feel like you’re working on the right stuff and feel like you’re on top of everything you should be, so know that on your way to reaching your goals and you’re doing important stuff and you’re not just mired in details and to actually work on the right stuff at the right time. He talks about examples where you are preparing for one thing that’s 2 weeks away and the thing that’s happening tomorrow is not yet done, so that’s obviously the wrong work, but we do that to ourselves all the time. He talks about having perspective.

I’m going to list out five tools for control. He devotes full chapters to each of these. I’m just going to run through them quickly and give you some examples.

The first is an action-oriented mindset. Second is one central to-do list. The third is inboxes. That’s the third tool. The fourth is calendar. The fifth tool is something called ticklers, which I happen to like a lot.

What is an action-oriented mindset? Imagine you’re in front of your desk, and it’s covered in papers and you pick up a sticky note with a phone number on it. All right, so here’s something: what do I do with this sticky note? Is it actionable? Is this phone number something I want to keep for the future or do I need to call this person about something that’s been in the back of my mind?

If it’s just reference for the future, then it’s not actionable and he says, “You must trash it or put it on a list of things to do in the future, or file it where it belongs. Phone numbers don’t live on sticky notes on your desk. They live in your phone or in your phone book.”

That’s what he says, right? If it’s actionable, if you know this person is someone you need to call because you have a complaint about their behavior. This tenant has been a problem and you wrote their number on the sticky so you have it when you’re on the road, then it’s actionable.

The question is will it take less than 2 minutes to do it? This productivity expert says if it’s going to take you less than 2 minutes and while you’re thinking about it, you’ve already spent enough time than you should just plow through this and get it done, so do it now. If you got to call that tenant and you see their number in front of you on a sticky note, call them then if it’s a 2-minute call. If it’s not a 2-minute call, you can defer it or if you have staff, you can delegate it to somebody else to put the time into it that they should.

If you’re really not sure. “Should I call this person or not? What should I do?” Then he talks about how to add it to a project list, so this is something that you’re going to figure out. You don’t have all the answers now ‑ we don’t always ‑ but you have a place for it other than your desk. Once you’re done with that sticky note, it’s gone. It’s in the trash, and eventually you keep repeating this, you get to a clean desk as your inbox. Action-oriented mindset.

All right, he talks in the book how to develop these habits and how to make them work for you.

All right, the other tool, second tool of five, is one central to-do list. If you Google for task list management, you will find an endless number of pieces of software that will help you be organized. My advice is, keep it simple. That’s what his advice is, too. You can use paper if you like paper. I like Excel or Word file because as I add things to the list, it doesn’t make me retype them.

This particular example list has project columns. You can sort like by property and tasks for things you need to do and just basic statuses. If you have a completed task, you can mark it as complete. You save it. You don’t delete it. You save it for future reference, but then you filter out the completed items. You don’t see them anymore.

One central task list he says is important because you want to see the totality of all your obligations. You have 50 task lists spread all over the place. It can get confusing.


He talks about inboxes. Again, we’re showing inbox is zero. I think he’s really good insight here is that inboxes must be emptied. We all empty our mailbox at some point, right? You go to your inbox and you pick up every piece of mail that was delivered to you, but email inboxes tend to never be emptied and paper inboxes tend to accumulate as well. If you never get to the bottom, you can never be sure that you’ve done everything that was asked of you, so it’s about stress-free productivity, right?

There might not be important stuff at the bottom, but if you’ve got to the bottom, you know you’ve seen it all. If you haven’t, it could still be in there, something big, something that you missed and you don’t want that.

Calendar – I like his perspective on calendars, too. He says, “Calendars should only list things that must happen at certain times.” Suppose tomorrow at 8:30, you plan to water the lawn and landscaping at one of your properties. Don’t put that on the calendar because tomorrow at 8:15, 15 minutes before you were going to start watering, you might get a call from the plumber that says, “Yeah, we’re just here to fix this thing and this piece came off in my hand and now you’ll replace all the cast.” So you’re going to be on that for the rest of the morning, replacing cast iron there. You don’t want to look at your calendar and be reminded that you failed to water the landscaping, which doesn’t matter compared to broken pipes.

Don’t put it on the calendar. That list is on the task list. Calendars show only what must happen at certain times: meetings with people, dinner appointments, that kind of stuff.

Finally, ticklers. All right, so this is when you remember something that you got to do and you’re not in a position to do it. He says, “What you got to do is you write it down and you got to stick that note someplace where you’re going to see it in the future at a time and place when you can actually get to it.”

This is a pretty cheesy example, but it’s personable. I like raisins in oatmeal. I put raisins in my oatmeal in the morning, and I thought about how I’m out of raisins at work, right? I can’t leave work to go to the grocery store. You write the thing on a card. You stick it where you’re going to see it at the end of the day – in this case, my wallet – so that on the way home, I see the note. I say, “Oh, yeah I need to get raisins.” I stop at the grocery store. I’m able to do it and I have them for the next morning.

This applies to so many things especially if you have a set of tools or whatever that you need to move around different properties and you know you’re going to need a hammer, you think of it, but you’re not going to go to the property to do the hammering right now. Put it where you’re going to see it on your way out the door. That’s a tickler. It’s very, very useful.

Those are tools for control. How do you stay on top of all the things that are commanded of you?

I’m just going to flip through quickly some tools for perspective. Basically, to be sure you’re working on the right stuff, he says you want to have a variety of lists. Imagine you’re in an airplane and the higher you go, the more you can see.

At varying altitudes, these lists will kind of show you what’s going on.

At the 10,000-foot level is, “What do I need to finish soon?” These are projects like I need to fill that vacancy, I need to repaint that building, I need to do this landscaping retaining wall. That’s stuff you’re going to review weekly because it’s right in front of you and you’re thinking about it.

At the higher level, you have a list, which is all the things you need to maintain. I need to maintain these separate properties and I need to fix my relationship with my brother, and I need to stay healthy. This is stuff I’m working on an ongoing basis. I want to touch base with it monthly to make sure I’m doing it but I’m not really in the day-to-day here.

Higher still at the 30,000-foot level, he says, “You should have a list of goals, things that you want to achieve.” If you want to have 10 units in a year or you want to have a part-time property manager, that’s a goal you should write down and you should check it every couple of months, quarterly he says, to make sure that you’re on track to that. If you’re not on track, you do this review at a time when you have some opportunity to think. You say what could I be doing differently to get to that point where I want to be, where I’m going to have that part-time manager, or I’m going to have those units? What should I be doing differently?

The higher levels, I don’t personally use too often, but again you’re checking this less and less frequently. At 40,000 feet is your vision. If I am wildly successful, what does my life look like? What does my business look like? What am I doing or being? Am I still in the daily grind? Am I at the Cape, relaxing? Is it something else entirely, right?

Then if you’re really lost, he advises a 50,000-foot view that you can return to as kind of your reason like what is the point of all this? Why am I working so hard? That’s if you’re totally unsure. You think about career change or business change or something, its purpose and principles. He talks about all these things and making it all work.

The second book, Perspective ‑ How do you make sure you’re working on the right thing and after all this work, you’re going to come out happy.


All right, so you can take it or leave it. You can take some or leave some. I really like the books and I like their message, which is that stress-free productivity is possible, and in an age of technology, with all these messages and phone calls and emails, it’s as important as ever to be sure that we’re using good practices to stay organized and to keep perspective.

All right. Questions about getting things done? Is this interesting? Did people like it? [laughter].

Sandra: Everything.

Doug: Yeah, okay.

Sandra: We’d like to know how to get stress-free because I don’t think there’s anybody in this room [laughter] [unintelligible 0:15:44].

Rich: Sandra is trying to insinuate that there’s stress involved in proper management [laughter].

Sandra: Sorry. I haven’t figure out from anybody else how we do what we do and not have some stress. I just want to share with you today it was one of those days where the stress was really great because I had a tenant that tried to forestall a move-out tomorrow and being done, finished. I mean that was like jump for joy. That stress was I can handle that. That’s good especially when they’re going to be a smart ass and think that they’re going to get one over on us. That kind of stress is tolerable.

It’s the other kind of stress where you’re out there in your face all the time and you have to deal with it. I don't know of anybody else, but I want to take my –

Rich: The meeting‑

Sandra: Right my through the wall at times. What?

Rich: I was just saying the meeting ends at 8:30 [laughter].

Doug: Interpersonal stress doesn’t really ever go away, and if he had said mostly stress-free productivity, he wouldn’t be selling any books or coaching. But I think for me the helpful aspect of the book says when you’re thinking about all the demands on your time, you get called a bazillion times a day, is how do you make sure that you’re responding to all that and working on the right stuff. That can be stressful in itself even if you’re not arguing with someone, just how do I know I’m not letting down my team, or myself, or my owners. I think it’s worth working on.

Rich: This is why sometimes I get out to my car and I can’t get in there because my keys are in the fridge because I put them in there with my food so I couldn’t leave without my lunch [laughter]. Yeah, all right?

Doug: That’s a great example of a tickler. Put the keys with the lunch and you can’t leave without the lunch.

Rich: Yeah, so my girlfriend thinks I’m crazy but I always have my lunch [laughter].

Doug: Yeah.

Rich: And very well preserved keys. This is exactly how I sort my mail, too. I read the book years ago and it’s awesome. It’s definitely worth. It also comes as an audio book if you don’t have the attention span to sit down and read, like me.

Doug: Yeah. Other questions or comments about this?

Sandra: So it’s on Amazon?

Doug: Yeah, I’ll send the links. You can also Google for it. It’s easy, but I think these books are like $11 each. I think it’s worth it. Yeah.

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