Book Review: Getting Things Done

book review david allen getting things done

Getting Things Done is a book about an organizational system that has swept the productivity and business worlds (so I’m way behind the curve, as usual, but maybe you are too). It is fairly complex, but not because it requires special equiptment or organizational tools. All you need is a stack of paper, a pen, and file folders, but you can implement the system with electronic tools as well (which is what I ended up doing).

I won’t get into the details of the system. Suffice it to say that Allen explains the basic requirements of an organizational system that works for you, instead of enslaving you to it, with the ultimate purpose of freeing your mind to be creative and courageous, confident that nothing is slipping through the cracks.

In a word, GTD explains how to create a brain extension, or at least a memory extension, with the express purpose of getting nagging to-dos out of your subconscious and on to a piece of paper or PDA. Allen’s theory (which I think he backed up with experiential, if not scientific, evidence) is that freeing your short-term memory from the mundane task of reminding you lets it go to work solving problems and developing inspiration.

 Implementing the System

I read the book at a time when I was feeling totally swamped by all the things I had to do. I think I actually had a panic attack or two worrying about all the blog articles piling up and the classwork that needed grading.

Luckily, GTD helped me get a handle on everything by getting it out of my head. Really, all that meant was that instead of thinking of everything I had to do at once, I was able to look at my list and see just one thing to do, NOW. In GTD-speak, this is called the “Next Action” (it’s a big deal, apparently: the holy grail of GTD culture). Once everything had its place, I was able to start getting the ball rolling on a lot of stuff.

Of course, the method isn’t so important as the purpose behind it. Allen’s book succeeds because it is unique in that it focuses on the possibilities enabled by getting things done, rather than the doing itself. While the book does not go into setting life dreams and goals, Allen states from teh beginning that the big picture is why we have to master the details.

 My Experience

Personally, I think the system is pretty amazing, but it is starting to grate on me. It freed me up to deal with stuff, but it is not a simple system, and I still feel the burden of the lists themselves, looming over me. A part of me wants to just let everything go and use a minimalist form of productivity, as espoused by Zen Habits. Also, I’ve been using my iPhone and the internet to manage my to-dos, but something inside of me cries out for a pad of paper and a nice dark pen…there’s nothing like crossing out something when you’ve done it.

Nevertheless, GTD was an invaluable read. It taught me:

  1. I do need an organizational system, with rules and procedures, whatever those happen to be
  2. Being fastidious is not a block to creativity, but instead can enable it
  3. The habit of checking reminders is more important than the form those reminders take, or even how tidy they are, as long as they pop out easily
  4. The importance of planning. Plan sufficiently ahead of time and the task itself becomes a breeze.

I haven’t been this productive and organized since high school, and I have a lot more on my plate now than I ever did. I kind of wish I’d found it in college.

I recommend this book to anyone who has a lot to do. If you have one project in your life, then you probably don’t need it. Even if you’re usually on top of things, this book will teach you some tricks and ideas that will help you streamline your organizational process and save you even more time to focus on the doing, rather than the preparation. I plan to review it soon, even if I end up adopting a more personalized organizational system.

Latest Update

Since the original draft of this article, I've updated my system and personalized it a bit. I finally heeded the call to create something of my own, instead of relying on GTD tools created by others, and I constructed a (rather complex) booklet to act as my life organizer. It includes a GTD-esque task manager. The important part for me is that I got everything off the electronic medium into something that reflects the way I like to interact with the world. I find myself checking it all the time, largely because I'm so amazed that I created it, and its quite artsy as well. This means all my reminders are constantly in front of me.

The principles of GTD are still in place. I've just adapted them to my personal approach.