Review: Getting Things Done

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.

Getting Things DoneFrom my perspective, David Allen’s Getting Things Done is the book on modern personal productivity. It really has changed my life significantly, as I’ve written about in the past and alluded to a few times, but I’ve never really reviewed the book itself in detail.

To alleviate that, I pulled out my well-worn and repeatedly hand-annotated copy of Getting Things Done and read through it again, trying to see it again through the eyes of someone who is unfamiliar with the philosophy. What follows are my notes on this walkthrough, which hopefully will provide more than enough detail to get the general ideas in the book and also make up your mind whether or not it’s something that’s right for you.

What’s The Basic Premise?

In a nutshell, Getting Things Done really centers around one key idea: you will be more productive if you take the set of things you need to do out of your head and put them down on paper (or some other written form). After that’s done, you can then focus on the tasks at hand and not worry about forgetting stuff, enabling you to focus better, get individual tasks done faster, and then move right on to another task without skipping a beat. It seems incredibly simple, but I can attest to the fact that this core idea works like a charm.

A Stroll Through Getting Things Done

As I leaf through the book, the first thing that I notice is that the outer margin of the book is loaded with quotations from various people and bullet points straight from the text. I think this speaks to the fact that this book is highly browsable – it’s designed to be easily leafed through and browsed during spare moments as well as read in meatier sessions, which is fitting because of how modular the underlying philosophy is.

Chapter 1 – A New Practice for a New Reality
The first chapter outlines in great detail how the information age has really changed how our lives work. We’re now consistently interrupted by deluges of email, cell phone calls, and so on, and quite often because of these technologies the line between our personal and professional lives begins to blur. Even more, we’re changing jobs and careers quite often, which means that the productivity tricks that might apply specifically to one job will likely not apply nearly as well to other jobs. What’s the end result of this? You wind up with a lot on your mind all the time, and quite often these things are half-formed ideas that you haven’t been able to flesh out yet because of the deluge of things to do. The key to success is to get all of those half-formed ideas out of your head – all of them – and then start going through them and focusing only on that task, confident in the fact that you don’t need to be thinking about the other ones at the moment, because you’ll get to them soon enough.

Allen suggests a “test the water” exercise that’s worth repeating here. Take two minutes to actually try it and see if it results in at least some sort of positive outcome for you. In a very simple way, this exercise is the whole Getting Things Done philosophy in a nutshell.

I suggest that you write down the project or situation that is most on your mind at this moment. What most “bugs” you, distracts you, or interests you, or in some other way consumes a large part of your conscious attention? … Now describe in a single written sentence your intended successful outcome for this project or situation. In other words, what would need to happen for you to write this project off as “done”? … Now write down the very next physical action required to move the situation forward. If you had nothing else to do in your life but get closure on this, where would you go right now and what visible action would you take?

Chapter 2 – Getting Control of Your Life: The Five Stages of Mastering Workflow
From that exercise, Allen moves on to defining the five basic stages of the philosophy:

Collect Start writing down everything you need to do and put it in an “inbox.” This inbox can be physical – literally make a note of every task you must accomplish or piece of information you must study or review and put it in a physical inbox – or electronic. Every single idea in your head, every email that needs a specific action, every piece of mail that needs a response – collect all of them and toss them in your inbox. You can have several inboxes if you’d like, just make sure that every plan, task, or idea in your head gets recorded and put into an inbox.

Process When you’re ready to start accomplishing, process your inbox. Decide if the things in there can be done immediately (in less than two minutes) and do the immediate things. Otherwise, do something with it: either put it in a pile of specific, clear tasks that you need to get done, give the item to someone else to deal with, or put it aside to deal with later. This is the first thing you should do when you have time set aside to get work done.

Organize Now, deal with the stuff that you’ve put aside. If it’s not something that requires action from you, throw it away, put it in an ideas folder (a “tickler” folder, as Allen describes it), or file it away for reference. Otherwise, it’s either something you need to do in the future (put it in your calendar) or something highly complicated (a project). For each project, spend a moment determining the next specific action item that needs to be done and add that item to your pile of specific tasks to do, then put the project away in a place where you can regularly review it. Speaking of which…

Review Basically, this means that you should go through your projects and your idea folder and determine what specific items you need to do, then toss them onto your pile of specific tasks. You can do this once a week or so. I actually put a “review items” into my inbox about once a week and process it as a specific task to do.

Do Amazingly, those other steps don’t take very long at all – I can charge through a quite-full inbox in about five minutes and then I’ve got a pile of specific tasks to do. Then I just start going through them one at a time and I’m confident that everything I need to get done is in that pile. You might need to order the pile a bit, but often I don’t order it at all unless something is crucial and needs to be done now – I just focus on getting stuff done. It works like a charm, I tell you.

Chapter 3 – Getting Projects Creatively Underway: The Five Phases of Project Planning
Here, Allen focuses on the challenge of transforming a large project into specific actionable tasks. It basically breaks down to five pieces: figuring out the purpose of the project, determining what you want the outcome of the project to be, brainstorming how to get there, organizing the material from the brainstorming into some sort of plan, then pulling out specific action items from that plan.

Let me give you an example. My wife and I want to buy a house because we need more room for our growing family (purpose). We decided the kind of house we wanted (outcome) and then started tossing out all of the stuff we needed to do to make it happen (brainstorming). After that, we took our ideas and folded them together into a general plan (planning) and since then we’ve been pulling action items out of it and getting them done, knowing we have an overall plan in place.

Chapter 4 – Getting Started: Setting Up the Time, Space, and Tools
This chapter focuses on setting up a physical implementation of GTD, which basically at its core requires a couple paper trays, some folders, some paper, some Post-Its, and some writing utensils. Given the philosophy, it’s not too hard to see how this comes together, though this chapter is loaded with specific tips on the topic.

For me, I basically keep my GTD in my backpack (basically an inbox in motion, along with a notebook for an action items list) and an even simpler form of it in my pocket in the form of a Hipster PDA. This is really all I need to keep mine going.

Chapter 5 – Collection: Corraling Your “Stuff”
If you’re going to give the system a shot, be warned that this first step of collection is going to be a major task. Basically, what you need to do is go through every aspect of your life where you have things that need accomplishing and put them all in a gigantic pile in your inbox. I often find that if I don’t have a physical item associated with a thing to do, I just take a piece of paper and write the item really big on the top – this works well for appointments and other tasks.

The first time is the trickiest – set aside an afternoon, seriously. What you’ll wind up with is a gigantic pile of stuff of all kinds that needs to be dealt with. When I first did this, my pile was about fifteen inches high – and there were no books in it, either, all paperwork and single sheets. Once this initial collection is done, ongoing collection becomes easy: when something comes up, toss it in your inbox, then start off every period of time you have to focus on getting stuff done with a processing of your inbox.

Chapter 6 – Processing: Getting “In” to Empty
Basically, processing your inbox means looking at every item in your inbox and doing one of five things with it: trashing it, completing it (if it’s less than two minutes), delegating it, putting it into your own organization system (dealt with in the next chapter), or identifying it as a project that needs to be specially dealt with. Processing an individual item shouldn’t take more than a few seconds unless it’s one of those items that you can do in two minutes or less, so going through even a mountain of stuff shouldn’t take too long.

Here’s an example of my own inbox processing I did just now. There were three items in my inbox: a cellular phone bill, an issue of The New Yorker, and a sheet of paper that had a list of small household chores. Paying the cell phone bill would take a bit, so I put it aside into my “actionable items” pile; I then quickly processed my New Yorker issue by pulling out the drop cards and marking with a Post-It note the three articles that looked interesting, then I put that in my “readings” pile (I maintain a pile of stuff to be read). Since most of the items on the list of household chores take two minutes or less, I just went through that list immediately. Now, I start going through my actionable items…

Chapter 7 – Organizing: Setting Up the Right Buckets
This chapter focuses on the most self-defined part of the process: how will you organize all of your stuff? The chapter gives a ton of food for thought on various criteria for deciding what sorts of groupings to have and reading through it a time or two will really help clarify what groupings are really important to you.

As for me, aside from my calendar I have five “piles” that I put the stuff that I process into:
Actionable items are straightforward tasks that I can just simply do and not worry about too much.
Readings are items that I want to read. This is usually a pile of magazines and printed-out articles.
Storage are items that I need to somehow store, either electronically or somewhere else.
Projects are simply folders that describe large, ongoing projects. I keep all of the paper for these projects right inside and I go through them once a week to make sure there isn’t anything I specifically need to be doing.
Ideas are things to think about or to research. These are usually ideas for writing or things that might be far in the future.

These five piles pretty much take care of what I need to do in my life. Most of my time is spent going through the “actionable items” pile – I’m usually really happy when that pile is empty, because that means some pure free time.

Chapter 8 – Reviewing: Keeping Your System Functional
Naturally, like any system, if you don’t do some occasional review, it starts to fall apart. The premise here is that at least once a week you should be reviewing all of your organization piles and figuring out what to do with everything in them, something I wholeheartedly agree with and which often defines my Sunday afternoons while my son is napping.

My normal review process, as I alluded to above, is to go through my “actionable items” pile whenever I have free time. When that’s done, then I usually move through the others as desired. Once a week, though, I spend an hour or so going through the other piles to make sure nothing has slipped through the cracks, especially the projects folders, which usually ends up with a bunch more “actionable items.”

Chapter 9 – Doing: Making the Best Action Choices
This is another area where you can “plug in” your own philosophy: how do you decide which of your “action items” to do first? Allen introduces three different philosophies for organizing these actions, but what it really comes down to here is what works best for you in terms of deciding which of the specific actions really need to come first and which ones can wait.

For me, it’s pretty easy: I put the “must do” ones on top, then I just deal with the rest as they fall. I might occasionally skip ahead if something seems pretty unimportant, but this is actually pretty rare for me.

Chapter 10 – Getting Projects Under Control
This brief chapter just reiterates the importance of being diligent on ongoing projects, particularly in terms of figuring out what comes next. If you’re stuck, just spend some time and go back through the brainstorming process and see what happens – the point is to never let a project start to collect cobwebs unless it truly is a low priority for you; instead, focus solely on the project and try to break the logjam.

Chapter 11 – The Power of the Collection Habit
The final three chapters, of which this is the first, are mostly just full of examples of how the process helps your overall life, often in subtle ways that you don’t expect. For example, the collection habit ensures that things stop falling through the cracks and often results in people trusting you more implicitly than before. Even better, it washes away a lot of negative feelings – almost everyone has felt terrible because they’ve forgotten something important. The idea of collection ensures that such forgetfulness need not happen.

Chapter 12 – The Power of the Next-Action Decision
Similar to the previous chapter, this chapter reveals some of the hidden benefits of determining what the next specific action is for a project – and doing it over and over again. For starters, you begin to truly appear like a leader to others because you seem to have a grasp on the project. You also inherently become more productive because you’re continually moving forward on a project rather than letting it sit there and stew.

Chapter 13 – The Power of Outcome Focusing
The final chapter looks at a part of project review that I briefly mentioned above: outcome focusing. In the past, I derided The Secret for selling outcome focusing as a magical solution, but the truth is that it has a role within a larger structure of accomplishing things: it’s the carrot that can lead you to accomplish tasks and really see where these tasks lead. For me, outcome focusing is key when I consider things like spending time with my son. I like to imagine that my son will turn out to be a wonderful, level-headed child; by visualizing that, it’s quite easy for me to comprehend why I want to do things with him that will develop his mind and body and soul, like reading a book with him or taking him to the park or holding him close to me as he drifts off to sleep.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

This may be a first in the history of The Simple Dollar, but I have to say that Getting Things Done gets a buy recommendation for everyone. It is simply the best personal productivity book I’ve ever read, and there’s material in this book that can apply to anyone‘s life, whether you’re a manager or a writer or a professional or a stay-at-home parent. You can get it for less than nine bucks – for me, it was perhaps the best nine dollars I’ve ever spent. At first, it seems like a whirlwind, but most of the stuff describes above takes seconds to do and then you can get down to doing stuff with a very clear mind and you’ll suddenly find yourself getting an incredible amount of stuff done.

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