Getting Things Done: A Review

Few books have more street cred within the productivity community than David Allen’s 2001 best-seller “Getting Things Done”. The book has spawned many offshoots, as well as a highly enthusiastic (and hopefully productive) fan community.Over the years I picked up various of Allen’s recommendation here and there. I tried applying his 2-minute rule, and in a previous blog post I detailed how my method of processing e-mail is modelled on the GTD approach.

That being said, I never actually got around to reading the book! In fact I sort of assumed that by reading widely on productivity, I would have assimilated most of his philosophy through osmosis.
I was wrong. I read and finished Getting Things Done a few weeks ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I recommend it to anyone who wants to think in a clear way about their task management.

What I particularly enjoyed is the principles that Allen offers, such as:
– A single productivity system for your entire life
– A reference system that you can reference and edit in 60 seconds
– “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them”
He alleges that principles as these are in fact timeless, and this is why he no longer recommends specific apps or products -just general methods.
I understand that this sounds a lot like cheap marketing talk, but I do see the logic in Allen’s proclamations. He offers general principles that can be used to keep your mind at ease and focus on the next valuable action at any given time. As long as the human mind remains as chaotic and chronically busy, it seems his advice will apply.

In the rest of this post, I’ll give my main take-aways from the book.

https://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/time_management.pngMy game plan for this Sunday.

1) Put everything in the system.

The GTD recommendation is to create a single system that contains all the projects and tasks that need work in your life; all your dreams, desires, shopping lists, areas of responsibility, and so on. The system you use to construct your next company training should not be fundamentally different from the one you plan your vacation to Aruba with.

My sense is that most of us intuitively figure this out, but we still find some criteria to not put everything in our system.
In my case, I had most of my dreams and projects there, but I made an exception for tasks around the house: cleaning drawers, shopping for utilities. Similarly, I included my active projects but not so much my wishful projects (bucket list, vacation trips), and generally didn’t record my recreational activities (movies or music that I want to see).

The GTD way is clear: you will only truly be able to focus on your work if you have a place to put everything that consumes your conscious attention. Your mind can only be calm once you fully trust that all your open loops are recorded somewhere.

2) An alphabetical reference list. 

A reference system is a place where you can store all the information you need in your life: thoughts on your projects, commands for writing code, restaurants you want to go to, medical and financial records. This pretty rapidly expands to your general information management system.

It’s common to use a set of drawers and folders of some kind to organise your materials. Personally I use Evernote, as most of my records are electronic anyway.
Simple as can be, but there is an innate drive in me to build complex systems. Thus it was natural for me to try to cluster all kinds of material into discrete categories. Where’s my list of running stretches? Probably Areas 2016/Projects/Increase stamina… Or wait, maybe Personal/Health?

Enter David Allen: “the more places you create to search, the more places where what you search won’t be”. This is another brutally simple idea, and it caused me to simply keep an alphabetical reference system with plenty of main folders. You should be able to find any information you want in one or two keywords, tops.
Where are the running stretches? In /Running. Where are my list of French blogs? In /Languages. Computer troubleshooting steps? /Computer.

https://i2.wp.com/imgs.xkcd.com/comics/home_organization.pngI also learned to avoid the dreaded “Varia” category.

3) You have more projects than you think.

Dealing with singular tasks is generally easy, but the test of any productivity method is of course how to deal with large projects -consisting of multiple components, some of it planning, others thinking, some dependent on others… Anything really worth doing.

Allen proposes another really simple system. You should have a full list of all projects, ready for constant review. And a project is: anything that needs two or more different actions to complete.
Bringing your car in for repairs is a project. You need to look up dealerships, decide on one, make an appointment, and drive there.
Writing a blog post, is a project (drafting concept, writing bulk, reviewing, posting). Doing a surprise for your girlfriend, is a project (brainstorming, planning, executing)

The power of defining projects in this broad sense, is that you get a much better sense of all your open loops. (Remember: it’s a full list, including recreation and household tasks.)
Further, you force yourself to think about what each project actually entails. If you don’t break things down, it’s easy to get stuck at ‘bringing car in for repairs’, because you sense that it’s composed of multiple things. You start seeing it as just “stuff”.

Being clear about your projects frees up a lot of mental energy, and sets yourself up for truly treating all your projects the same.

3) Planning and executing has to be seperate.

What really hit home for me was the distinction between your “task management materials” and your project reference materials. On one hand there’s all this information you need to keep and use to actually progress on your tasks: deadlines, code commands, meeting notes, articles.
On the other, there’s different thoughts and ideas that you’re thinking to execute at some point.

It’s tempting to let these two categories coalesce over time. It’s easy to write down “think about x and y” on one of your meeting notes, and trust you’ll get to it when you next work on the project.
If you’re committed to actually executing your ideas though, they have to become part of your future tasklist (even if it’s as a “someday” item).

My solution has been a radical apartheid regime for support materials and (potential) tasks. Support materials can stay in Evernote.
But whenever I’m in planning mode and deciding what to do next, it’s critical that I have a full overview of tasks, ideas and actionable thoughts.
This way your system stays nicely centered. And then when you select an action to work on, you can trust that all your project materials -and only your project materials- are waiting for you..

4) The Importance of Reviewing.

It’s an art, and it really lies at the center of the making any productivity system work. But I already wrote a post about that  🙂


Next week I’ll outline how I set up Todoist for taking advantage of this system, but in the spirit of GTD, I’ll keep principles seperate from tools. Till then, cheerio!

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