Book Review: Getting Things Done

Many personal development sites focus heavily on productivity, and for good reason. I am, however, going to admit here that productivity has traditionally not been one of my strengths. For example, there was quite some time between purchasing Getting Things Done and actually reading it – kind of ironic really.

Well I’m glad I finally got around to reading Getting Things Done. I have not read many productivity books, but I can appreciate why it is commonly known as the “bible” of personal productivity. The following are a few of the points in the book that had the most impact on me.

The Problem

David Allen quickly grabbed my attention in the book by describing an ideal state where the mind is clear and constructive things are happening. He uses a “mind like water” simile to describe this ideal state :

“Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact.”

My mind is often far from a still pond of water, so this description of the idea state of mind sparks my curiosity.

As I continue to read, I learn that the problem that prevents people from having this mind like water is, to put it simply, “stuff”. Actually, that is probably an incorrect simplification as “stuff” is not inherently a bad thing. Rather, “stuff” becomes a problem because people do not manage is properly. I should mention here, David describes “stuff” as, “anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step”. I’m not going to argue with that.

The Big Change

The big idea in Getting Things Done which was perhaps worth the price of the book alone is this: get it all out of your head. David makes the point that there is usually an inverse proportion between how much something is on your mind and how much it’s getting done. How does David get everything out of his head? He writes, “I capture and organize 100 per cent of my ‘stuff’ in and with objective tools at hand, not my mind. That that applies to everything – little or big, personal or professional.”

GTD Tricks

Much of the book is spent detailing the GTD system, and I don’t think I would do it justice by summarizing it here. It is a detailed system, but as David points out in the book even if you don’t fully implement it, at the very least you can pick up some great productivity tricks. Personally, this has been how the book has benefited me the most. Here are just a couple of my favorite tricks:

  • The Calendar: many people, myself included, are tempted to put actions on their calendar that they would really like to do on that particular day. David suggests keeping the calendar a “sacred territory” on which only those things that absolutely have to be done on that day are listed.
  • The “Tickler File”: David describes this as a “three-dimensional version of a calendar”. In effect, it allows you to hold physical reminders of things that you want to see or remember – not now, but in the future. It is actually a fairly simple trick that, once set up, only requires the smallest amount of time each day to maintain. To fully understand how the “Tickler File” works, I suggest getting getting a copy of the book or doing a Google search.
  • Next Actions: the cornerstone of many people’s time-management system is the daily “To Do” list. David challenges the effectiveness of such list, writing that such lists “have proven inadequate to deal with the volume and variable nature of the average professional’s workload”. Instead he recommends people keep “Next Actions” lists, since they 1) do not have to be rewritten daily and 2) focus on the next physical, visible activity needed to move a project forwards.
  • Less than 2 minutes? Then do it now: David suggests that if an action will take less than 2 minutes, it should be done at the moment it is defined. This was a trick I implemented immediately and the results have been great.

My Final Thoughts

As I wrote at the start of this review, productivity has not traditionally been one of my strengths and I haven’t read many books on the subject. So Getting Things Done really was an eye opener, in that it showed me a system not only for “getting things done”, but also for living a better life. More specifically, it describes a life where I won’t have “stuff” constantly rattling around my head.

I am happy to say that in the month or so since I first read this book I have implemented many of the tricks and suggestions into my life. I feel as if I have more control over my life, and that I can focus more easily on the task at hand with feeling guilty about some other thing that needs to be done. That being said, I am still making up my mind about the system as a whole.

Two of my favorite bloggers have chosen to tweak the system to fit their own life. Firstly, Leo from Zenhabits has developed a simplified system called Zen To Done (“ZTD”). Secondly, Scott H Young recently wrote an article How to Customize GTD to Fit Your Life in which he makes the comment that he found David’s system too large to meet his needs. I agree with Scott on this one, and the past month can be described as a continual process of customizing GTD to fit my own life.

Please note: I wish to make you aware I will receive a small commission for any orders placed for Getting Things Done through Amazon. This does not increase the price of the book in any way.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Getting Things Done”

  1. Hey Peter,

    Glad you enjoyed David Allen’s work. GTD occupies a top place in my own personal development library. Also Allen’s corporate office is only a few blocks down from where my parent’s live in Ojai and I’ve followed his work for some time now. Really GTD offers relatively little new information in terms of new concepts, but Allen is a master at taking those old concepts and packaging them in a way that makes practical sense to the people in this new millennium. I find his information very practical, appealing and ready-to-use right out of the box, which is why I still consider him to be the top productivity gurus out there. Much of my own time management articles and workshops incorporate a lot of Allen’s teachings, as he’s always been like a mentor to me.

    PS: If you’re visitors are looking for step-by-step instructions on how to build a tickler file, I have one of the most comprehensive set of instructions on my website. Cheers!

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